Technically a covenant (or testament) is not a book; it is an agreement in a relationship. And relationships change due more to people than events. This in no way denigrates the event of the cross, which signaled the change of covenant (Hebrews 9:16). But is the cross the key to the covenant shift or is the Christ of the cross as mediator the key to the covenant shift?
Our lesson text begins and ends with imperatives for Christian living. But inside of those commands are several verses filled with rich biblical symbolism and typology. A “type” is an Old Testament person, thing, or event that foreshadows a fulfillment in the New Testament. The metaphor that embodies much of that symbolism is a mountain. And the fulfillment of the type (antitype) will exist on a whole different level as the original type.
Hebrews 12:14, 15, 28, 29
Most often application follows exposition. But occasionally that order can be reversed. Imperatives bracket the teaching of Jesus as mediator of the new covenant. There are four imperatives for Christian living in these verses. The first two are in verses 14, 15. (1) Believers are to live in (hunt down) peace and holiness. Notice that holiness has an addendum to it, without holiness no one will see the Lord. (2) Believers are to ensure (oversee) that no one lacks grace or has bitterness grow in their lives. If this command is not embraced moral defilement occurs—as was the case with Esau (mentioned in verses 16, 17).
The second two imperatives are mentioned in verses 28, 29. (3) Believers are to be grateful (filled with grace). (4) Believers are to be worshipful. The word for worship is where we get our English word liturgy. It can also mean serve. So Christians serve God with reverence and awe. These four commands can be overwhelming to obey given the fallen creation. But the mediator of the new covenant makes them possible.
Two mountains are contrasted in these verses. The first is Mount Sinai (18-21; Cf. Galatians 4:21-31). The Hebrew writer recalls the events of Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 5. As God came down on Mount Sinai to give the Ten Commandments to Moses, all Heaven broke loose. The classic signs of a theophany (God encounter) were present—fire, darkness, gloom, storm, trumpet blast, and a voice. It was, in the truest sense, awesome. These special manifestations of God’s presence were the precursor to the Mosaic covenant. The result of such an incredible moment was fear. The people were afraid and, in a sense, the animals were afraid (killed if they happened to touch the mountain), and Moses was scared to death (literally, “fearing out and trembling”).
But the Hebrew writer teaches about another mountain—even more awesome than Mount Sinai. It was Mount Zion (22, 23), the antitype of Mount Sinai. The new covenant exists on a whole different level than the old covenant. Much of the language sounds futuristic and heavenly (heavenly Jerusalem, angels in joyful assembly, whose names are written in heaven). But certain phrases identify that the Hebrew writer is actually speaking about the church (city of the living God, church of the firstborn, spirits of the righteous made perfect). All of biblical eschatology comes to bear on this text. The church is the visible expression of the kingdom of Heaven on earth and a microcosm of the restoration that the whole universe will experience one day (Romans 8:18-25). The church is the “now,” and the new heaven and new earth are the “not yet.” Worship in the very presence of God, and worship in the corporate assembly of the church, is only separated by a thin veil.
How can sinful people come into the presence of God? The answer is Jesus! Our great mediator (one who intervenes between conflicting parties) makes this possible. His blood is more effectual (since it was from an innocent and willing sacrifice) than Abel’s blood (since it was from a selfish murder by Cain).
But we should not presume on that mediator and his sacrifice. Jesus is not a patsy. We cannot refuse him and get away with it (see Hebrews 2:1-3). The Hebrew writer quotes Haggai 2:6 to support his eschatology. The post-exilic minor prophet predicted a time when God would shake the earth again. In Jesus and the new covenant that shaking has begun. So do not mess with the mediator. He knows something about fire.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2013, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.