As we near the end of Hebrews, we come to the final warning passage in the book in this text.


Hebrews 12:18-29

Hebrews 9-13 (WBC)William Lane

Hebrews: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, Thomas Schreiner

Hebrews, John Owen

Sermon Transcript

I got a call a few months back from someone who said they were with the credit card company we use for our church credit cards. They let me know that a purchase made on my card had been flagged as potentially fraudulent, and asked me to confirm whether I’d made a purchase at I want to say a Target in Atlanta. I confirmed that I hadn’t, and they said they’d shut down my card immediately, and they needed to email me a link to get a replacement, so they asked for my email address. And I asked them, “Wait, shouldn’t you have my email address?” And then the guy said, “Well yes but my system is going slow. Can you just give it to me?” So I did, but I started getting a bit nervous. Then I looked at the email while on the line, and it was a link to reset my password. The guy asked me to reset it to a password he would give me, and at that point I’m getting really nervous. So I start googling in the background and sure enough, on our corporate card’s website, there is a warning that says if anyone ever does this sort of thing, hang up immediately, and I did. Crisis averted.


What did I do there? Though I had started by listening to this one who was speaking to me and even believing him, eventually I refused the one who was speaking, and I’m glad I did. In this case, that was the right approach, because this man was lying to me. But you can imagine the danger of doing so if he had been telling the truth. We’re nearing the end of our series through this book of the Bible called Hebrews, a book addressed to a church in the first century after Jesus Christ came. They became a church because they heard a message, the message God himself had spoken through his Son Jesus Christ, which was then attested to them by those who heard it. Our author recounts that back at the beginning of chapter 2 if you want to read about it there. But now some time had passed, and in the time that had passed, the Hebrews had a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes they were publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, other times they were associated with those so treated, some were imprisoned, and others had their property plundered. So what temptation did they face? They faced the temptation to refuse the God who was speaking to them, like I refused the man speaking to me on the phone. In what ways do you face that temptation today? If you don’t feel it today, you almost certainly will at some point in your Christian life. But see that you do not refuse the God who is speaking, and this text gives us three reasons: You have come to him, you will not escape if you reject him, and only his kingdom will not be shaken.


You have come to him


Our passage begins in verse 18 with a description of what Christians have not come to. You have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. Here our author is alluding to the scene at Mt. Sinai in Arabia, the scene in which God established the Old Covenant, the covenant through Moses, the leader of God’s people at the time when God brought them out of slavery in Egypt. There God gave them his law, especially summarized in the Ten Commandments. But with God’s appearance there were these visible signs: Blazing fire, darkness, gloom, tempest, the blast of a trumpet, and a voice that was the kind of voice that made you say, “Could you stop talking to us?” On the one hand, such miraculous and magnificent signs testify to the glory and power of the God meeting with Moses on that day. They all communicate, “Something significant is happening here. Pay attention.” If you saw a blazing fire, a dark cloud, and a storm on top of a mountain, if you heard the sound of a trumpet and a thundering voice, how could you possibly look away? The signs all said, “Pay attention.”


And yet, at the same time, the signs said, “Keep your distance.” Who could look away from a blazing fire, dark cloud, storm, and trumpeting voice? But who would go near it? Years ago my wife and I had opportunity to hike a 14,000-foot-high mountain in Colorado. In the week leading up to doing so, when we’d tell people we planned to do it, they’d tell us we’d better start very early in the morning, because in the afternoon, daily thunderstorms rolled in. Someone even added the comforting story that a week earlier, 4 people died because they were struck by lightning hiking a mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. So we got up while it was still dark, began our hike, reached the summit around 10 am, and started our descent. Sure enough, on the way down, we saw dark clouds rolling in. It was a majestic sight, but suffice it to say we did not set up camp and take it all in. Instead, we ran down the mountain and got to our car as fast as we could, and thankfully we did live to tell about it. A big thunderstorm, dark clouds, blazing fire; it’s majestic stuff, but you’d have to be crazy to go near it.


In fact, verse 20 shows us that God said as much. He went so far as to say that if even a beast, an animal that is, touches the mountain, it shall be stoned. Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses himself said, “I tremble with fear.” In a sense, this image here is emblematic of the whole Old Covenant. Under the Old Covenant, the God of Israel revealed that he was not just another tribal deity, a figment of the peoples’ imagination, or a nice story they told themselves to comfort themselves through the hardships of life, like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Under the Old Covenant God parted a sea, rained down bread from heaven, brought water out of a rock, made the sun stand still, turned the swords of Israel’s enemies against themselves, and many more miraculous signs and wonders that demonstrated that he was the only creator and ruler over all the earth. And yet he also did things like send fire to consume Nadab and Abihu when they tried to draw near to him on their own terms (Lev 10). He opened the earth and swallowed Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and 250 more who sided with them when they tried to do something similar (Num 16). The author of Hebrews even pointed out earlier that God set up a tent in which to meet with his people, but only one guy in all Israel was able to go into the innermost section of it, and even he was only allowed to go once per year, and even when he went he had to take with him the blood of a sacrifice! Under the Old Covenant, God shows that was glorious, God showed that he was in authority, but there was a separation between God and the people.


Now, for how many of you here today does that describe the way you relate to God presently? I know he’s glorious, I know he’s great, and I know he has certain things he wants me to do, and certain things he wants me not to do…and that’s where it ends. You know about God, but you don’t know God. He’s still distant to you. Maybe you question at times whether he exists at all. In a sense, that’s the default for every human, whether you could articulate it that way or not. We all have a natural sense of God’s existence, his eternal power, divine nature, moral will, and even a sense that those who violate his moral will ought to be punished for it (Rom 1). Many of us were also taught those things growing up, like Israel was taught the law God gave at Sinai. We all know deep down that God is holy and we are guilty; so what do we do? We keep our distance from him. And what much of religion does, rather than actually bringing us close to God, is it operates on this natural knowledge of God and his will and says, “Hey; like, you really ought to do better at it. I mean I get it that you want to have fun, but you’ve got to also be at least somewhat religious. You don’t want to be some kind of really wicked, evil person, do you? Here’s some teaching and some rituals that will help you do better.” And, unfortunately, many assume that’s basically what Christianity is about. Many, myself included, were raised in “Christian” churches in which that was the message, and now they think, “I’ve tried Christianity; I know what all that’s about. It didn’t work for me.” Maybe you think that today.


But what I want you to see here is the author the letter to the Hebrews, writing to Christians, specifically says that’s not what they have come to. Verse 18 says, “You have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and tempest, etc.” In other words, you have not come to a mountain that can be touched that reveals the glory of God but then tells you to keep your distance from him. Instead, look what verse 22 says you have come to if you have been personally converted to faith in Christ: You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, 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.


Mount Zion was a mountain in Jerusalem, on which the temple was built when God settled his people in the land he’d promised to give them. At that time, the tent of meeting became the temple. That was the place God promised to meet with his people, but again, remember that under the Old Covenant, only one man could really come to the innermost part of it, and he but once a year, and he not without taking blood. Yet here we read not only that Christians can come to it, but Christians have come to it, and not the earthly version of it, but the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, as verse 22 goes on to define it. Christians don’t merely get to go to heaven when they die; there is a very real sense in which Christians are those who have come to heaven already! While our bodies remain on earth, we have a spiritual communion with God who dwells in the heavenly Jerusalem. It is not a mountain that can be touched, like Mt. Sinai of old, but it is real.


When you cross state lines, typically you will read a sign saying, “Welcome to Pennsylvania” or “Welcome to New Jersey” or whatever state you are entering. What are those signs saying? They’re saying, “You have come to Pennsylvania.” Well here our author is saying that when you turn from your sins and your efforts to improve yourself to Jesus Christ, you have come to heaven, though your body remains on earth. Not only that, but you have come to a new assembly. Verse 22 says it includes innumerable angels in festal gathering. In this assembly we don’t read of a blazing fire and a tempest and a dark cloud and threats for those who come near. Here the angels are assembled and rejoicing! It’s a happy gathering! And it’s not just angels. It includes, verse 23, the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, or as the verse goes on to call them: The spirits of the righteous made perfect.


While the bodies of the Hebrews were still alive, and while our bodies are still alive today, there were some who had become righteous through faith in Christ whose bodies had died. When the righteous die, though, their spirits live on in that heavenly assembly. Notice in your ESV footnote there in verse 23 that this word the ESV translated “assembly” could also be translated “church”. This is one verse from which we get the idea of an invisible church, the heavenly assembly made up of the angels who did not rebel against God and the spirits of all those who were righteous by faith in this life, and who is right there in the middle of the assembly in verse 23? God, the judge of all. Where before they came to a mountain that could be touched, but had to keep their distance from God, now you have come to a mountain that cannot be touched, and to God himself!


And how is that possible for us when it was impossible for them? Is it because we are now better people than those sinners who came to Mt. Sinai? No! It is because God has provided a mediator, Jesus Christ, whose sprinkled blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Abel was the first man whose blood was shed in the Bible; his brother, Cain, murdered him, and when Cain tried to hide it, God said to him, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10). The word Abel’s blood spoke was: “Guilty! Guilty!” but the word the sprinkled blood of Christ speaks is: “Forgiven! Forgiven!” because on the cross, Jesus’ blood was shed on our behalf, taking the penalty upon himself that our sins deserve, and now risen from the dead, his blood sprinkles our hearts clean from the record of our sins in God’s sight. Here’s how Charles Wesley described it in one of his hymns: “Five bleeding wounds he bears, received on Calvary, they pour effectual prayers, they strongly plead for me. Forgive him, oh, forgive they cry, forgive him, oh, forgive, they cry, nor let that ransomed sinner die.”


And so, through him, you have come to God. And the temptation the Hebrews were facing was instead to turn back to the mountain that could be touched. They were tempted to turn back to the law and the sacrifices of the Old Covenant. And our author is reminding them: “Look at what you’ve come to! Sure, the Old Covenant revealed the glory of God, but it didn’t bring you to him. In fact, it kept you away from him! Now you’ve come to him, and to the assembly of saints and angels gathered around him!” Brothers and sisters, today, to what are you tempted to turn back? It is certainly tempting, as long as our bodies are on this earth, to turn back to something that can be touched. That was the one seeming advantage in this contrast, wasn’t it? At least that mountain could be touched. The blazing fire could be seen. And there are so many things in this life that can be touched through which our affections can be drawn away from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. That’s especially the case if you are wealthy, as many of us in the room today are, and can therefore afford many things that can be touched, but even the poor can set their hearts on what they do not have, as though if they got it, then they’d be truly satisfied.


But you weren’t made for those things. You were made for God, and you will not be truly satisfied until you come to him and stay with him forever. The devil will tempt you to think, “Don’t waste your life on this thing that can’t be touched. just return to what can be.” No! You have come to God himself, the judge of all. Don’t lose heart. That’s the first reason this passage gives to not refuse him who is speaking. The next is that you will not escape if you reject him.


You will not escape if you reject him


So verse 25 gives the command: See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. Did you catch earlier in the passage when it said that you have come to the city of God, it didn’t just say the city of God, but the city of the living God? The true God is living, and still speaking. At the very beginning of Hebrews the author said that a long time ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. And we see here that he is still speaking to us by his Son, by that blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. In other words, the message God is still speaking today from heaven is first and foremost the gospel message, the message concerning the shed blood of Christ on behalf of sinners, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into the heavenly temple so that all who come to God through him are saved and brought into that heavenly church with him.


But, our bodies aren’t there yet. There is a time between when we first come to that heavenly city and the day when it is appointed for us to die once, and after that to face judgment. Therefore, we must see to it that we do not begin to refuse him who is speaking. The gospel is not proclaimed by God once, we believe it once, and then from there we go into cruise control until we reach our heavenly home. Rather, God continues speaking the gospel, and we must continue hearing it with faith. So one thing that tempts us to turn from Christ is that he has brought us into a heavenly city that cannot be touched, while other things on earth can be. We talked about that. Another is that he does not keep giving us a new message, while the world always has a new message for us. There’s no new blood being shed for our sins. It’s still the blood of Christ speaking a better word than the blood of Abel. Every day the world has new advertisements for new products or experiences that this time will really make your life sing, while God has the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).


Of course, the reason that’s the case is because there simply is no better word! The world has to keep giving you new stuff because the old stuff wasn’t that great; God needs to give you no new word because the word spoken by the blood of Christ is the best word that can ever be spoken! The gospel is that good of news! And, therefore, the cost of refusing it is that big of a deal. That’s where the author goes next in verse 25: For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.


In the Old Covenant, God spoke on earth through Moses and warned the people in warnings like the one we already saw: “If even a beast touches the mountain, it will be stoned.” In the giving of the Ten Commandments on Sinai, when God said you shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth, and you shall not bow down to them or serve them, he then said the reason is because he is a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me. He warned them! And then, in Exodus 32, when the people made a golden calf, bowed down to it, and served it, God sent a plague on them, and about three thousand of them died. They did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth.


Now, one understandable but mistaken way of applying that today would go like this: “Ok, yes, God killed people under the Old Covenant. But this is the New Covenant. We don’t have to worry about that anymore.” And there is something very true about that: We who are in Christ have now happily approached God with the happy angels and saints in heaven, and been accepted. And yet, if we were to leave Christ, if we were to refuse what God is saying by Christ, if we were to profane the blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel, how much less will we escape punishment, verse 25 says. So the logic is, “If they had a lesser mountain with a lesser word from God who warned them on earth, and even they did not escape when they refused it, how much less will we who have come to God himself, who hear God speaking even now through his Son from heaven the best news possible, escape if we now reject him?”


Some of you here today are not Christians, but you are here today, and some of you have been here multiple Sundays now. You have heard him who speaks from heaven in the reading and preaching of his word, insofar as that preaching has rightly explained and applied what is written in scripture. God himself speaks from heaven in these things. And I want to be very clear with you about what this is saying, not to be mean to you, but to warn you: You cannot go on forever remaining undecided about Jesus. To not believe in him is to refuse him. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. It is appointed for all of us to die once, and after that comes judgment. In this life, do not go on rejecting him who is speaking.


And my Christian brothers and sisters, don’t miss the significance of continuing to listen to the word of God. It’s noteworthy that God is described in verse 25 as “him who is speaking”, not “him who is guiding” or “him who is felt deep down” or “him who is drawing”. God does guide his people, God does draw sinners to himself, and we should hunger and thirst after a deep, personal, experience of communion with God himself! But when those things are divorced from the objective revelation of his word, written down for us in scripture, through which he is still speaking, the spiritual experience easily becomes a projection of our own desires, or worse, an experience with spiritual beings other than God (cf. Gal 4:8). Keep listening to him who is speaking. Often the first step toward refusing what he’s saying is letting yourself get bored with it. Come to church gatherings, those earthly assemblies in which the heavenly assembly becomes visible, and listen to the reading and preaching of his word with diligence and humility, not looking for a new word from God, but looking to be built up and taken deeper into the word he has spoken and continues to speak in his Son. See that you do not refuse the God who is speaking because you will not escape if you do. And finally, see that you do not refuse the God who is speaking because only his kingdom will not be shaken.


Only his kingdom will not be shaken


This whole idea that we won’t escape if we reject him who is speaking only makes sense if there is a judgment coming. Without that, there is nothing to escape. So our author goes on in verse 26 to explain that though at that time, at Sinai, his voice shook the earth, he has promised that once more he will shake not only the earth, but also the heavens. Both the seen realm and unseen realm will be shaken, both the temporal realm and the eternal realm will be shaken. This is not merely the voice of him who warns on earth, but him who warns from heaven. The consequences of refusing him are not merely on earth, like those who got the plague and died on earth, but in heaven, being consigned to eternity apart from the favorable presence of God. Our author even goes ahead and explain it for us in verse 27: He says what this statement from God means is the removal of all that can be shaken, that is, all that was created, in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. In the beginning, in Genesis 1:1, we read that God created the heavens and the earth. And God has now predicted a day when that whole thing will be shaken, and that whole first creation will be removed.


And yet, something will remain. There are things that cannot be shaken. What are they? Verse 28 summarizes them under this heading: A kingdom that cannot be shaken. That heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God, the innumerable angels in festal gathering, the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, the spirits of the righteous made perfect, God himself, the judge of all…these things cannot be shaken, while everything else not only can be shaken; it will be. God says, “I will shake not only the earth, but the heavens”. We often get anxious about the possible shaking of such things, don’t we? Our bank account, our house, our family, our particular church, our school, our own lives. We wonder, will this be shaken, will this last, and the thought that they might be makes us anxious. How do you deal with that? One surprisingly helpful way to deal with it is to face the reality that one day, they all will be shaken. Some of those things may last as long as you live; who knows? But you will not live forever, and in the end, all of that will be shaken. So why waste your life anxious about preventing it? Why refuse him who is speaking and give your life to those things?


Here’s a better option, verse 28: Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. When you’re feeling anxious, how would it change things if you stopped and rejoiced that the kingdom we are receiving is one that nothing can shake? Remember in chapter 10 how the Hebrews were able to joyfully accept the plundering of their property? “You knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Heb 10:34). How can you rejoice, how can you sing joyfully to God, when so much in your life can be shaken? How can you rejoice, how can you sing joyfully to God, when things in your life, perhaps even people in your life, who you dearly love, have already been shaken? You can give thanks that we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.


And how do you express that thanks to God? You offer to him acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. That word translated worship there can refer to three things: Public, gathered worship, like we are engaged in now; private, scattered worship, like when you devote time to private prayer; and our whole lives insofar as everything we do, we are to do unto the Lord, in service to him. We learn from this verse that not all such worship is acceptable to God. Many Christians today say things like, “It doesn’t matter how you worship. God cares about the heart,” but that’s a false dichotomy that we’d never really believe if we recognized the reality of God. Any time you are relating to a real being, how you relate to them matters. A husband should never say, “It doesn’t really matter how I express love to my wife; the important thing is that I love her.” No; if you love her, you will want to find out how she receives love and express it to her in that way. And so if we truly love God, if we are truly thankful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, we will not only want to offer to him worship, but acceptable worship.


The feature of acceptable worship that is highlighted here is the spirit in which it is done: With reverence and awe. That’s interesting, isn’t it? Of all the attitudes with which we could worship God, the one highlighted here is reverence and awe. My daughter’s first birthday is coming up and I anticipate in conjunction with it that at some point we will sing happy birthday to her. I look forward to that and trust I will enjoy it, but I don’t expect to sing it with reverence and awe. I expect to sing it with cheer and familiarity, but not with reverence and awe. I love my daughter, and I love God, so why the difference? Well, our passage ends with this statement that “Our God is a consuming fire.” That’s the reason it gives for why we offer him acceptable worship with reverence and awe. Remember in the first verse of our passage today it said that we have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire. Why was that fire there on Mt. Sinai? It revealed something true about God, that is still true of him today: He is a consuming fire. I don’t sing to my daughter with reverence and awe because she is not a consuming fire! She’s cute and lovable, and many people today kind of think of God that way, but that is not the God who exists. The God who exists is a consuming fire, the same God who did kill Nadab and Abihu for drawing near to him on their own terms, the same God who sent a plague on the idolatrous Israelites, the same God who opened the earth and swallowed false worshipers, and so on. So we draw near to him now in our gathered worship, our private worship, and in our whole lives with confidence, with joy, and…with reverence and awe.


Space tourism is now a thing, where for somewhere in the range of $250-500k you can pay for a trip to outer space. It costs that much because it’s pretty hard to get to outer space, and it’s pretty dangerous. Experts suggest that a human would survive for maybe a minute or two in outer space without a spacesuit. You might think, “Well I can hold my breath longer than that,” but if you fill your lungs with oxygen before going into space without a suit, the pressure differential between your lungs and outer space would cause that oxygen to start expanding and rupturing your lungs. Space is dangerous for humans, and yet, space is awesome; that’s why some would actually pay $250-500k to go. If you knew you could draw near to the moon, the sun, Jupiter, a black hole, or distant galaxies, and be safe, wouldn’t you do it? And yet, as you did it, though perfectly safe, wouldn’t you still do it with reverence and awe? That’s the idea here. The blood of Christ is like a spacesuit for us, so that while covered in it, we have come to the most awesome being there is: God, the judge of all. But we must not take off our suit by refusing the better word that blood speaks. And even while covered in that blood, precisely because we are covered in it, precisely because we have confidence in it, we draw near with reverence and awe, amazed that we sinful humans have the privilege of getting so close to God, the judge of all, and can join in that happy assembly of the angels and the spirits of the righteous made perfect. Don’t ever leave it.