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Hebrews 12:18-29

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.” – Hebrews 11:28

All Shook Up

Elvis Presley topped the music charts in 1957 with a song called “All Shook Up,” and rockabilly artist Jerry Lee Lewis reigned with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in 1963. The two songs were popular, not just because of their frenetic, driving beats, but because we all know what it is like to be shaken by surprising news, by grief, by fear, or by heartache. Even so, none of our experiences could hold a candle to the shaking that goes on in today’s text, where the author of Hebrews recalls past prophecy and speaks of a coming day when both the earth and the heavens will be “all shook up.”

The earthly Sinai(vv. 18-21)

Following his reflection on past heroes of the faith (ch. 11) and an exhortation for believers to remain faithful and guard against apostasy (12:1-17), the author of Hebrews reinforces his appeal with a tale of two mountains and a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

The first mountain is clearly Sinai, though the writer does not name it. He recalls Israel’s frightening encounter with a fearsome God through seven descriptive words or phrases. Mount Sinai was “something that can be touched,” though no one was allowed to at the time, for it was marked by “a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest (or whirlwind), and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them” (vv. 18-19).

The vivid, hair-raising description is drawn from accounts in Exodus (19:16-22, 20:18-21) and Deuteronomy (4:11-12, 5:22-27), in which God descended on the mountain in fire, accompanied by thick black smoke, thunder and lightning, and the blast of a trumpet growing louder and louder. While the mountain shook, God called Moses to come up, speaking in thunder while the panicky people shrank back.

As if the menacing theophany was not enough to keep people away from the mountain, any who dared to touch the holy site were promised death by stoning (v. 21). In the Exodus account, Moses appeared confident and encouraged the people not to be afraid (Exod. 20:20), but the author wanted to draw a picture of wholesale alarm, so he quoted loosely from a different occasion when Moses expressed fear (Deut. 9:19), adding the word “trembling” to suggest that Moses was as terrified as the people.

Israel had come to a touchable mountain that they weren’t allowed to touch in order to meet a God who was present but inaccessible. The dread of God’s palpable but menacing presence led the people to draw back rather than come forward. But that was the old covenant, which the author intentionally painted in such stark terms so he could contrast it with the new covenant in Christ.

The heavenly Zion(vv. 22-24)

“You have not come to something that can be touched,” the writer said (v. 18a), “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (v. 22a). The part of Jerusalem called Mount Zion, generally thought of as the location of the temple, was a tangible place, but the writer transposed it to a place that could not yet be perceived, a heavenly Jerusalem as the “city of the living God.”

The seven descriptive terms for Mount Sinai are matched by seven depictions of what believers would find in the heavenly Mount Zion. After introducing Mount Zion as the “city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” the writer adds six further features: “and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (vv. 22b-24).

The “innumerable angels in festal gathering” offers an inviting contrast to the dark clouds of Sinai, where angels were also thought to be present (Deut. 33:2). Here the angels are not threatening but joyful, perhaps extolling the victory of Christ. Believers are invited to join angels clad in party clothes for a heavenly celebration.

With the angels are “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,” an apparent description of all the saints through all the ages. The word translated as “assembly” is ’ekklesía, the same word that can be translated as “church,” but here it has a broader meaning. While people and angels were separated at Mount Sinai, on the heavenly Mount Zion they worship happily together.

The fourth encounter for believers is with “God the judge of all,” the one who has exonerated the “assembly of the firstborn” as well as “the spirits of the righteous made perfect,” who are mentioned next. That these are “spirits” who have been “perfected” suggests that the author has in mind faithful persons who have already died and been judged righteous, made perfect through the saving work of Christ (compare 10:14). While the “firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” could comprise saints past, present, and future, “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” probably refers only to those who had already died and been judged righteous.

The sixth meeting is with “Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant,” whose saving work has instigated the heavenly celebration. The author intentionally uses the name “Jesus” to stress Christ’s humanity, which made God more approachable than at Sinai. This reflects his earlier declaration: “but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings” (2:9-10).

The believers’ final encounter is with “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Why bring up Abel? In the writer’s earlier paean to heroes of the faith, Abel was the first person on the list (11:4). Abel offered a more acceptable sacrifice than his brother Cain, who responded with violence. Though Abel died, the author said, “through his faith he still speaks.”

The testimony of Abel’s faith was powerful, but paled in comparison to the blood of Christ. Moses had sealed the covenant between God and Israel by taking sacrificial blood from the altar and sprinkling it over the people (Exod. 24:8). The author now applies that metaphor to Christ, whose “sprinkled blood” was far more effective than any animal sacrifice at mediating between God and people (see 9:13-15).

The unshakeable kingdom(vv. 25-29)

Having contrasted the earthly Mount Sinai of the old covenant and the spiritual Mount Zion of the new covenant, the author concludes by urging readers to “See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking” (v. 25a), by which he means one who is speaking from heaven. If those who ignored God’s warning from Sinai did not escape judgment, he asks, “how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven?” (v. 25b, compare 2:2-3a).

The image of heavenly speaking comes from the closing words of v. 24, which referred to “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” It isn’t just the blood of Jesus that speaks, however, but God the creator and judge who is at the heart of the passage.

Verse 26 takes the reader from Sinai to the present and on to eternity. “At that time” (back at Sinai) God’s “voice shook the earth.” Now, however, readers hear a present promise of a future event. “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven” is a reworked quotation of the postexilic prophet Haggai’s promise that, despite the diminished state of the rebuilt temple, God would shake the earth, the heavens, and the nations in order to fill the temple with riches and splendor (Hag. 2:6-7).

The shaking to come would remove all that is transitory, leaving only the eternal kingdom of God and its inhabitants (v. 27). The kingdom has present and future aspects: the continuing sense of “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (v. 28a) suggests that we enter the kingdom when we trust in Christ and are called to live as kingdom people, spreading Christ’s love wherever we go. At the same time, we look forward to the full revelation of the kingdom at the end of the age, when we need no longer fear, but will see God face to face.

In the meantime, we are called to be thankful while offering to God “an acceptable worship of reverence and awe,” holding firm to our faith and avoiding apostasy as we remember that “indeed our God is a consuming fire.”

Where do you find yourself in the author’s challenge? Are you fearful, concerned about whether you might be slipping away from God – or confidently growing in your faith? Either could lead you closer to God: the author believed the greater danger was apathy: God has spoken, and we are called to take God’s challenge seriously. NFJ

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Adult Teaching Resources

Download the PDF for August 21, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.

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Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Hebrews 12:14-29



Parent Prep

News feeds are filled with events that shake us to the core. We shudder as we hear of the latest shooting and bombing. We hold our loved ones close and worry for them when they are away. We can be controlled by the fear that is trying to be incited by these acts of terror, or we can live our faith out with abandonment knowing that we are loved by a God who is with us. So remember to calm the fears of your children when their world is shaken, but don’t allow them to live in fear. Remind them that they are loved by a God who frees them with the love of Christ.

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Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.

Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.

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Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Hebrews 12:14-29