Hebrews 12:18-24 Forgiveness and the fear of God
The author now creates an urgency to respond to God using imageries of the two covenants. The old covenant was ratified at Mount Sinai whilst the new covenant was ratified at Mount Zion. The two imageries through which God revealed Himself were very different. The terrifying atmosphere that characterized God’s self-revelation at Sinai contrasts with the festive joy of Zion. The foundational experiences of the new covenant believers were very different from those of Israel at Sinai. Today’s passage shows us why Christians must hold onto holiness in the fear of God and to forgive those who have wronged us.
18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”
In the old covenant, God made the covenant with Israel at Sinai where the scene left an indelible impression of the majestic presence of the God who was unapproachable. There were seven elements: a blazing fire, darkness, gloom, a tempest (whirlwind), sound of a trumpet (an earth shattering blast) and finally a sound of words (the commands). At Sinai, the Israelites had no clear vision of God, but only the violent effects of His presence. The sound of words which detailed the covenantal commands evoked fear and the Israelites were incapable of enduring it. The holiness of God would most certainly cause the annihilation of one that approached it. A limit was placed around the mountain beyond which even an animal would face certain death: If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned. Moses, the mediator of the old covenant at Sinai reassured the people, “Do not be afraid” (Exodus 20:20) but was himself trembling in terror. At Sinai, the words that carried the commands were uttered in an atmosphere of terror by the God who was unapproachable.
22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 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, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
In sharp contrast with the scene at Sinai, every aspect of this scene at Zion gives encouragement to come boldly into God’s presence. The atmosphere at Mount Zion is festive and welcoming. At Sinai, God was transcendent, unapproachable and untouchable. At Zion, the frightening visual imagery of blazing fire, darkness and gloom fades into the joyful praise of angels in festal gathering. At Zion, God is in the midst of His people: city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, which depicts His temple, the universal church of Christ – to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven. The firstborn refers explicitly to Jesus and the assembly of the firstborn refers to those who acknowledge Christ as Lord and Savior.
What is the ground and reason for this festal gathering on Mount Zion? The mediator for the old covenant at Sinai was Moses. But the mediator of the new and better covenant at Zion is Jesus. A comparison was made between the blood of Abel and the blood of Jesus. “Cain attacked his brother and killed him” (Genesis 4:8) and Abel’s blood cries out to God for justice and revenge (Genesis 4:10-12). Hence, Abel’s blood symbolically placed a curse on everyone who (like Cain) violated the law. Jesus’ blood on the contrary does not impose a curse on those who violate the law. Jesus’ blood secures a new covenant of grace and forgiveness rather than vengeance for those who repent of their sins. Jesus’ blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel for it provides an entrance into the city for those who acknowledge Christ as Lord and those who pursue holiness.
A person must first fear God before he can enjoy the perfect love of Jesus. It follows that a person must acknowledge God as Lord, before he can experience Jesus’ grace and salvation. If a person has no respect for God or for any authority, it is impossible for him to experience Jesus’ love and grace. The revelation of God at Sinai is a necessary phase; it is the foundation that imbues the fear of God in the people. In other words, the old covenant is necessary in order to build the foundation of the fear of God through His majestic presence. Without the fear of God, the people will never recognize Christ as their Savior and they will not be ready for the new covenant at Zion. Therefore, after making the old covenant at Sinai, God took another 1400 years to build the foundation of the fear of God into the Israelites before the incarnation of Jesus. Many claimed they could not experience God’s love and presence, and hence became skeptical of Him. This is because such people did not respect God nor fear Him in the first place. God in the age of the new covenant is no longer unapproachable nor untouchable as He revealed Himself through Jesus who came in the flesh. Jesus said to the Jews who did not receive Him,
“You know neither Me nor My Father; if you knew Me, you would know My Father also.” John 8:19
The Jews could not recognize Jesus as the Messiah because they did not know God nor did they revere Him. Therefore, the more we fear God and obey His commands, the more we will experience the manifold grace of Christ. We fear God by actively seeking His ways and obeying His commandments.
In the new covenant, we no longer seek vengeance but forgiveness. The manifestation of a new covenant mentality is freedom from vengeance and the burden of injustice. Jesus broke the bondage of vengeance and the burden of injustice because His blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Jesus while being tormented on the cross sought God’s forgiveness on behalf of His tormentors. And God raised Him to life because of His fear of God and His forgiveness of sinful men. Many people suffer under the bondage of unforgiveness causing them sleepless nights and depriving them the peace of the Spirit. In the old covenant, peace was restored when the perpetrator was apprehended and punished. In the new covenant, peace is restored by the Spirit when the perpetrator is forgiven. The bondage of unforgiveness fundamentally comes from the darkness that still resides within. The apostle John said, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.” 1 John 2:9. The evidence of light is not found in religious practices, but in the willingness to forgive his brother of his sins. Whoever says that his brother’s sins are unforgivable is implying that his own sins are just as unforgivable.
- Are you accustomed to living as you please without seeking God’s direction on a daily basis? Perhaps, you feel His love has given you the freedom to live life independently of Him. However, Jesus being God did not live life as He pleased but did exactly what God told Him to do. Make it a point to seek God daily and give Him the prerogative to direct your path.
- Are you still harboring thoughts of injustice and delighting in the misfortunes of those who hurt you? Take a moment to ponder over the attitude of Jesus. If He had decided not to forgive His tormentors, we would still be in our sins and condemned to hell.
Dear Lord, I thank you for revealing your love towards me. Cause me to fear you and do exactly what you tell me to do. I have decided to forgive those who have wronged me. Help me to overcome my emotions of injustice and vengeance. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.