Hebrews 12:18-29 – Marching to Zion

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.

Romans 8:1-13 – The Power for Sanctification

According to Romans 8:1, “There is no condemnation for the believer in Christ Jesus” because God himself has met the righteous requirements of the law through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  Paul has already used the noun κατάκριμα (katakrima, an intensification of the more common noun κρίμα) in 5:18, the trespass on one man led to the “condemnation” of all men, but now “in Christ” there is “no condemnation.”  The word has the sense being under a judgment for breaking the Law and is often translated “justice.”  To “do justice” is to treat people fairly with respect to the law, usually the word has a negative connotation.  To “bring someone to justice” means make them face the penalty for breaking the Law.

But for those who are in Christ, there the Law no longer condemns because the “Law of the Spirit of life” sets the believer free from the “Law of sin and death.”  I think Paul is intentionally using language which evokes the coming New Age of the Spirit anticipated by the prophets.  The Old Covenant was broken by God’s people, so in the coming age God will make a New Covenant and enable his people to keep the New Covenant through the Holy Spirit.  Texts like Jeremiah 33:31-33 indicate that the messianic age would be an age of the Holy Spirit.  By combining “no condemnation” and the “Law of the Spirit,” Paul is claiming that the future, messianic age in some ways began with the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The Spirit of God is at work in the ones who are “in Christ” so that we are the beginnings of the eschatological age.  I do not think this exhausts those prophecies, rather, we live in the “already” and look forward to the “not yet” of the consummation of God’s plan (Eph 1:20-22).

In fact, the requirements of the law are met in us (8:4).   This is done through the death of Jesus Christ, who was the perfect God-Man.  His voluntary death on the cross fulfills the requirements of the law.  In the present age, Paul says, we participate in a state of “no condemnation.”  This is a foretaste of what God was planning from the very beginning when condemnation first came upon the human race.  “Paul deliberately recalls the once-for-allness of the eschatological indicative, the opening of the new epoch effected by Christ.” (Dunn, Romans, 1:415.)

How one lives by the Spirit is the subject of the rest of Chapter 8.   There are therefore two “mind-sets” possible, the believer ought to have the mind-set of the Spirit (8:5-8).   The mind of the sinful nature is set on what that sinful nature desires; it cannot submit to God’s law, it is hostile to God, it cannot please God.  The result of this mind set is death.  On the other hand, those that walk by the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires, and by implication they are able to submit to God and they are able to please him.  The result of this mind set is life and peace.