The writer of Hebrews concludes his book by using a common metaphor for Israel’s relationship with God – they are in the wilderness and coming to Mt. Sinai. It is clear that the writer has Sinai in mind in verses 18-21, but he draws a strong contrast between the “mountain which could be touched” (Sinai) and Zion, a mountain which cannot be touched. In order to describe this contrast between the two covenants, he contrasts the two mountains where the covenants were enacted. He combines texts from Exodus and Deuteronomy which describe the theophany at Mt. Sinai as fearsome and then compares them to our heavenly destination, Mount Zion.
The writer begins saying that salvation in the present age is not at all like the Old Covenant. Sinai was a physical place, which can be touched, but it is a place burning with fire. There may be a bit more referred to here than just the mountain itself. The word for “touched” is to “make an effort, despite difficulties, to come to know something, when the chances of success in such an enterprise are not particularly great – ‘to feel around for, to grope for, to try to find.’” (Louw/Nida) It is used of a “groping about like a blind man” (LS)
When you read the passage from Exodus it is clear that there was a tangible “feeling” of the presence of God, but the people were not comforted by it at all, they were terrified. The image is of a person robbed of sight, feeling around for something that cannot really grasp.
The story of the terror of Mt. Sinai is, for the writer, a summary of the Old Covenant, it could not bring a relationship with God, it could only bring fear and judgement. The New Covenant, however, does not bring its participants to Mt Sinai, but rather to Mt. Zion.
In contrast to this terror, the New Covenant is associated with Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God. While the physical Zion was the original name of the fortress captured by David in Jerusalem in 2 Samuel, Zion replaces Sinai as the focal point of Israel’s relationship with God in the prophets. Isaiah 25, for example, describes Israel and all the nations gathering at Zion to eat the feast which the Lord has prepared there, rather than at Sinai. Because the Lord “dwelt” in Zion, the place became a metaphor for heaven itself, the real dwelling place of God. Here in Hebrews the City of God is called Zion, the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Instead of terror, our entry to Mount Zion is described as a joyful celebration. There are thousands of angels in a joyful festival. This “festival” (πανήγυρις). The word is used only here in the New Testament and only four times in the LXX (Ez 46:11; Hos 2:13; 9:5; Am 5:21, all religious feasts). So too in classical Greek the word refers to a festal assembly in honor of some god.
But this is not only a “party,” the writer says that we are coming to God, the Judge of all men. The entrance into heaven is to come into the presence of God. God is described here as a Judge. The word judge always has a negative connotation in our minds, though some take this word as meaning “vindicator” or “avenger.” The entrance into God’s holy city is the ultimate vindication for our lives of suffering here on earth.
Salvation in the New Covenant therefore results in the glory of Heaven. Instead of marching in the wilderness, we are Marching to Zion.
10 thoughts on “Hebrews 12:18-29 – Marching to Zion”
Very nice post here Philip! Something we all need to bite our teeth into! Oh “Mount Zion”! Sweet!
This post made a lot of things make sense as to why a Mormon keeps telling me to “remember Zion”. Who knew?
I find it very interesting the contrast between Mt. Sinai, and Mt. Zion. It puts a whole new perspective and outlook on the intended purpose of marching to Zion. Hebrews 12:1 makes mention to the cloud of witness, and to see the parallel structure of Mt. Zion to reading the Bible and Jobes validates this post. On the other side of spectrum, I haven’t done enough research to know why Sinai is such a terrible place. In reading the paragraph on the horrors of the place, one can conclude the real reason as to why it was horrible; which was because of the separation between God and his people and causing great fear and judgment. One, also, might wonder if that picture depicted on Mt. Sinai will be the one when Jesus comes back to judge those who still have yet to believe? In the story of Revelation about the Lake a Fire, my imagination sees parallels to fear and judgement and eternal separation. There is going to definitely be great fear and judgement when those who are not in the book of life or accepted get thrown into the Lake of Fire. Interesting post and connection blog.
I found it rather difficult to find some of the contrasts between the old covenant and the new, but this section really helped me personally put into perspective what the difference between the two different covenants are. The metaphor between the two mountains, one being a haunting and irredeemable path, and the other being a path of promise and new beginnings. Verse 28 gives the direct of application as well, that because of this gift, we need to worship God and to live that kind of lifestyle. The new covenant gives us that opportunity, and gives us the redemption for us when Jesus died on the cross.
I would agree with a lot of what Trent said. Its very interesting to think how differently Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion are described. My interpretation of why Mt. Sinai was so bad is that we know “God did what the law weakened by the flesh could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin. (Romans 8:3). God knew the law would fail and he knew our sinful nature couldn’t be redeemed by the law but instead God becoming flesh. Marching towards Mt. Zion represents to the ultimate sacrifice and ultimate gift that God gives us. However there will be a judgment day and there will be a return of Jesus. The book of Revelation describes a lake of fire for all who don’t accept God’s free gift of eternal life. I would be interested in looking more into the connection of Mt. Zion and Mt.Sinai
As the previous commenters above, I, too am interested in the connection between Mt. Sinai and revelation, the last days, and the lake of fire. This is something that I never knew about Sinai. However I have heard a lot of things about Zion. I have heard Zion referred to as a type of promise land. Or the daughter of Zion referring to the church. Are these analogies correct? or are the loose interpretations of what the meaning of Zion actually is.
I never truly made the connection of Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion before reading this. I believe that Mt. Sinai was so terrifying to the people of Israel because even Moses to whom was compared to Jesus, was afraid and trembled with fear. (Hebrews 12:21). I believe the connection between the two mountains is made by the writer of Hebrews to show its readers where they have not been able to reach. Mt. Sinai was a place where the law was given and where fear or the Lord was present. No one could even touch the mountain. Not even animals. (Exodus 19:12). Mt. Sinai was the representation of the old covenant of fear. Mt. Sinai was a symbol of the old covenant and Mt. Zion a symbol of the new covenant. Hebrews 11:8 refers to it as the heavenly homeland. A much more welcoming scene is set before the people of Israel in regard to Mt. Zion. I like how you stated that the old covenant did not bring a relationship with God but only fear. God’s new covenant is in other words, “edited” from the old covenant. It allows believers to establish a meaningful relationship with God and worship Him. God transforms his covenant so that humanity can be saved through salvation. God sending His one and only Son establishes and secure the new and restored covenant.
This blog post was very informative to me as a Bible student. Obviously, the discussion of the new covenant is incredibly important in the book of Hebrews. That being said, I would not have made this connection of parallels between the old covenant and Mount Sinai, and the new covenant and Mount Zion. The new covenant is centered around the idea that Christ’s death on the cross ratified a new covenant with Christians that allows for them to experience eternal life with God (Jobes, 2011, p. 45). Therefore, the fact that the Lord “dwelt” in Mount Zion, this connection or image works seamlessly. It works seamlessly because the Lord dwells in heaven, which is the end goal and possible end destination of the new covenant.
The initial blog post does an excellent job of describing Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. Mount Sinai had a terrifying, supernatural aspect that was not necessarily welcoming. Mount Zion is described as much more welcoming to the people of the Bible times. One could say that Mount Zion is better than Mount Sinai. This directly correlates with Jobes’ (2011) idea that the new covenant is superior to the old covenant (p. 45). Mount Sinai has a connection to wilderness, where Mount Zion has a direct connection to eternal life in heaven with God.
The final paragraph of the blog post is very interesting and noteworthy for people and Christians to read and understand. The final paragraph indicates that the coming to God is not simply a party, for we will be met by God as the Judge of all people. Typically, people associate coming to God as all good. That is definitely the goal and the intention. That being said, the party does not necessarily begin until one is accepted or let into the kingdom of God. This is a concept that I believe Christians sometimes put to the side because they are not ready to come to grips with this idea. Don’t get me wrong, this idea can be nerve-wracking. That being said, it is a reality. One must live a life for the Lord and accept the Lord as their Saviour in order to be welcomed into the “party” of heaven.
Mount Sinai is a place that could be touched on Earth. Mount Zion could not be touched. Similarly, the old covenant could be experienced through religious acts and religious doings. The new covenant and heaven cannot be touched or experienced on Earth. One must be patient and live a life for the Lord in order to receive that blessing of the new covenant. The fact that God could be sensed at Mount Sinai is also an indication that the old covenant is not a bad thing. The old covenant is sometimes looked down upon because of the superiority of the new covenant. People should understand that the new covenant is superior to the old covenant, but the old covenant is not all bad.
Jobes, K. H. (2011). The Letters to the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Two words: powerful imagery. When reading and studying this passage, the part that struck me most was the image of a ‘gazillion’ angels gathered in the city of Zion and entering into the presence of God along with the saints. As striking an image this is to me, it must have been even more powerful to the original audience. This is especially true of God as he appears as the judge (or as you say “vindicator”). To the original reader, the entrance of the faithful into Zion culminated with justice for the persecution they endured because of the faith.