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.” 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. – Hebrews 12:18-24 ESV
The author of Hebrews compares the Christian life to that of a long and arduous journey. Because of his Hebrew audience, he most likely had in mind the more than 40-year journey the people of Israel took to get to the land promised by God to their forefather, Abraham.
That trek had ended up being an ultra-marathon, covering thousands of miles and four decades, and it required incredible endurance and a constant awareness that there truly was a goal in mind. They were headed somewhere. The seemingly endless journey had an actual destination. Even on those days when it all felt pointless and mind-numbingly repetitious, they had to keep walking and trusting that God knew what He was doing and that Moses knew where he was going. At times, they had their doubts and felt free to make them known.
In these verses, the author contrasts Mount Sinai with Mount Zion. The first mountain was from their past. It was the place, early on in the Exodus story, where God had met with Moses and given him the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant. That fateful day, when Moses prepared to ascend Mount Sinai had been a terrifying and life-changing moment for the people of God.
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. – Exodus 19:16-19 ESV
The physical manifestations that accompanied the presence of God on the pinnacle of the mountain had left the people in a state of fear and anxiety. The Exodus account goes on to say, “when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die’” (Exodus 20:18-19 ESV).
The dramatic pyrotechnic display they witnessed that day left them terrified. None of them missed the significance or symbolism of it all. Their God was powerful, holy, transcendent, and not to be trifled with. The dramatic display on the top of Mount Sinai was intended to reinforce in their minds the holiness of God. It was also a reminder of their own sinfulness. That fact would be reinforced by God’s giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses.
But as the book of Exodus recounts, the first time Moses returned from the top of the mountain with the tablets in his hands, he found the people worshiping the golden calf. Just days after the dramatic and frightening display of God’s presence on the mountain that had left them trembling in fear, they had determined to make their own god. Moses had been gone for 40 days and the people began to doubt that he would ever return. So, in his absence, they convinced Aaron, Moses’ older brother, to fashion a false god out of their trinkets of gold.
When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 32:1 NLT
Angered by the actions of His rebellious people, God informed Moses of His intentions to destroy them.
“I have seen how stubborn and rebellious these people are. Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation.” – Exodus 32:9-10 NLT
But Moses interceded on behalf of the people, pleading with God to remember the covenant He had made with Abraham.
“Change your mind about this terrible disaster you have threatened against your people! Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You bound yourself with an oath to them, saying, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven. And I will give them all of this land that I have promised to your descendants, and they will possess it forever.’” – Exodus 32:12-13 NLT
But their sinful actions produced painful consequences. That very day, God used the Levites to execute 3,000 individuals who had instigated the rebellion. So, from that day forward, the remaining Israelites would always view Mount Sinai as a symbol of God’s holiness and their own unrighteousness, and the Law God gave them would prove to be a constant reminder of their own sinfulness and incapacity to live obediently.
But for the believer, Mount Zion is a radically different mountain that represents an altogether different encounter with God. Mount Sinai was physical in nature and could be seen and touched, albeit on pain of death. Yet Mount Zion is a spiritual mountain. There is no smoke, fire, thunder, lightning, or ban against drawing near. Mount Zion is not only approachable, it is preferable. It is our final destination. It represents “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12:22 ESV).
During the reigns of David and Solomon, Jerusalem was a powerful city, the capital of the Jewish empire. It was in Jerusalem that Solomon built the temple. It was there that the people came each year on the Day of Atonement to make sacrifices to God. As the people journeyed from the surrounding areas up to Jerusalem, they would sing the Songs of Ascent found in the Psalms. One of them says, “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 125:1-2 ESV).
Jerusalem, the royal city, sat on the top of Mount Zion, where it represented the presence of God. It was there that God dwelt in the Holy of Holies of the temple. It was to Zion that the people walked in order to celebrate the various feasts and festivals. It was to Mount Zion they ascended to receive forgiveness of sin and to have their relationship with God restored.
For those who have placed their faith in Jesus, Mount Zion is the final destination on their spiritual journey. It represents the believer’s heavenly home – “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” Christ-followers are on a journey to a place where they will encounter God, but rather than experiencing fear and trembling, they will enjoy peace, acceptance, joy, and freedom from sin and sorrow. There will be no condemnation. There will be no need for the law to remind us of God’s holy expectations. We will be holy.
There will be no conviction of sin or any need for the law to expose our sin anymore because we will be sinless. In a sense, the Christian life is a journey from one mountain to another. It is a long, sometimes difficult trip away from the mountain where man’s relationship with God was marked by law, rule-keeping, disobedience, fear, and failure. It is a daily walk toward another mountain where we will find complete forgiveness, the redemption of our bodies, and our final glorification.
Paul reminds us, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21 ESV).
We are on our way to Mount Zion. That is our final destination. It is our home. And while the journey there may seem long and at times difficult, we must keep our eye on the prize. We must never turn back to Mount Sinai, marked by rules and a constant reminder of our guilt and sin. Mount Zion is our home, where we will be with all those who have gone before us and enjoy unbroken fellowship with God and “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:24 ESV).
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.