For you have not come to what may be touched,
-a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 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, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, ‘Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. Hebrews 12:18-29
God is also the “judge of all men.”
Our author has already said that we all have an appointment to die, and after that to be judged by God (9:27). As Christians we are not going to be judged whether or not we will spend eternity with God in heaven, but whether our works for the Kingdom can be compared to wood, hay, and stubble, or silver, gold, and precious stones (1 Corinthians 3:11-15). We preach in our churches that God is a God of love and compassion, and rightly so. But we do a great disservice to our congregations if we neglect the fact that God will also judge our works for what He knows them to be. God’s glory and majesty are seen in this passage, but not to the elimination of the awe and reverence that is due Him.
For this reason the author reminds people that if ‘they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven” (v. 25). If people thought it was tough for those who ignored the teachings of a mere man such as Moses, how much tougher will it be for those of us who refuse to obey the teachings of God’s Son? This is pretty much at odds with most ‘Christian” thinkers in the church today. Most may believe there is LESS danger in bearing Christ’s name than in not doing so, His being a God of grace and mercy. But in His grace, His requirements for holiness and justice have not been removed. Those who refuse to live according to the New Testament will encounter a greater wrath of God than those who rejected the word of Moses.
The same Jesus who initiated this new covenant also made our relationship with God possible.
Jesus, the perfect priest and the perfect sacrifice, made approaching the unapproachable possible, and He did so using His own perfect blood, doing so only once, so that whoever desires to may now enter boldly into God’s presence. But the author at this point explains this using a very curious comparison: the blood of Abel and the blood of Jesus. This points to the basic difference between the blood spilled in the Old Testament and the blood sacrificed in the New Testament. The blood of Abel cried out for vengeance and cursing upon the man who spilled the blood; but when Jesus was killed, His blood cried out to open up the way for reconciliation between God and man. Before Christ, people lived in terror of the Law and the God behind that Law; but since Jesus, we now have access to God—who no longer terrorizes men high upon a mountain enshrouded in clouds and smoke and thunder, but kneels down like a friend and bids all the children to come to Him, to sit upon His knee, to hug His neck, to call Him friend.
But there remains the fact that “once more” God will shake the earth, indicating that He did it once at Mt. Sinai, and He will do it again at the end of the age.
But this time not only will the earth shake, but also the heavens, for God is going to stir everything up and the only things that will remain will be those things that are eternal. All physical creation can be shaken: countries, financial institutions, political parties, houses, earth, planets, solar systems, and even the universe. Everything that is created will be shaken and sifted, leaving only things that cannot be shaken: God, His Word, and those who have an eternal relationship with Him.
I was born and raised in Southern California and have been through numerous earthquakes. Some rumble and roll slowly, others hit with a fast jolt, and many times you can actually feel the direction that the quake is coming from, because the waves move across the land from the point of origin. The most you can usually do during an earthquake is hang on and wait it out. If an earthquake occurred while we were in a building or a home, we were taught to go to a doorway and stand between the jambs, or dive under a table, because these were the safest places to be if things started crashing down. Besides riding in a plane during an earthquake, being outside and away from any man-made structures was really the best place to be. When things are shaking so badly you can hardly walk across the floor, the only thing you have on your mind is the safety of yourself and those you love. Everything you possess comes a distant second to saving your own life and the lives of your family.
In a recent earthquake, a friend of mine lost 40 years’ worth of antique dishes he and his wife had collected. His response was remarkable. “Do not let the joy and foundation of your marriage hinge upon things that can be destroyed in 30 seconds.” This wonderful insight applies not only to our relationship with our family, but also with our Lord. He gives us the whole world to enjoy and make fruitful, but He never intended us to make the world our home and the land our personal kingdoms. God is going to shake the earth and the heavens, and the question we must all answer is simple: Where is our treasure buried? Is it in banks and a career and a nice home, or is it in an eternal relationship with God Almighty? It is tragic to see that many of us in the church are choosing our relationship with our things over our relationship with the people God died for.
For instance, when a person in the church needs a place to stay, do we put them up in a hotel or do we offer them our spare bedroom? Do we let them drive our extra car or do we give them bus money? Do we feed them ourselves or do we organize a potluck so that the “blessing may be shared?” When we choose to minister at arm’s length to people who need our presence, we are declaring that we’re more concerned about our relationship with our stuff than we are about our relationship with God and His people. Jesus touched the people around Him, invited them to be His followers, embraced them, and when He finally stretched out His arms, it was not to keep us at a distance, but to invite us into His kingdom
It will all show up in the end, you know. In this passage God is seen as a consuming fire, and it is not the first time He has been compared with fire. Moses told the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan, “Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:23-24). There is a danger in forgetting the word of the Lord, and Moses warned the people of this. Our author does the same thing when he repeats throughout the letter the warnings not to forget, nor refuse, nor drift away. He reminds us to fix our thoughts on Jesus, to hold on and hold firmly to the words of God, to draw near to God and not to fall short of our calling. Why? Because God is still a consuming fire when it comes to sin.
God’s first choice regarding man is that none should perish.
He told Ezekiel, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the LORD God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (18:23). Eugene Peterson translates John 3:16-18 this way. “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. Any why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him” (The Message). But you will notice also that those who choose to ignore God’s gift have condemned themselves.
God is still a “consuming fire.”
Isaiah said, ‘The light of Israel will become a fire, and his Holy One a flame” (10:17). ‘The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: ‘Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?’” (Isaiah 33:14). The fire of God is both as a judgment and as a refining, cleansing agent. Zechariah 13:9 points to the refining part of God’s fire. John the Baptist said that Jesus will baptize us ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11). Jesus said, ‘I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:) The fire of God’s judgment is reserved for everyone on earth, the righteous and the unrighteous. Those who have turned their backs on God will find that the fire will consume their whole being for the rest of eternity, separating them from the peace and love of God’s presence. But for those who have turned to God and applied the forgiving blood of Jesus to their lives, the fire that comes from God’s hand is one that cleanses, separating the good from the bad. The Holy Spirit in the believer’s life not only empowers them to be God’s witnesses, but burns away all that is not pleasing to God, who finishes the refining of His children as they stand before the judgment seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:12-15), where ‘it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.” It is this fire of God that will keep us from thinking that our gold here on earth is anything more than pavement in heaven.
The Word is adamant that all earthly kingdoms, no matter how grand they appear, are doomed to fall. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Spain, Great Britain, Russia, Germany, Japan, the United States have all fallen from their previous glory or will one day do so. God’s kingdom will be the only one to survive. It was the first kingdom in the history of time, and it will be the last, while every other kingdom established at the hands of men was doomed to fade at the end of the age. The kingdom of God is the ‘eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:11). Nothing from within that Kingdom can rot it away, and no outside force can overthrow it, for God himself makes sure it will not be removed. The author does not tell us that God’s kingdom will not be shaken, but that it cannot be shaken, because it has a quality that is found nowhere on earth. It is also a kingdom we receive like a gift, and is not a wage or something we can earn.
Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, our author tells us, ‘Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28). The word used for ‘worship” in this passage is also translated elsewhere in the New Testament as ‘minister” and ‘service.” It is an indication that our lives to God, if they are to be lived with ‘acceptable worship with reverence and awe,” must be lived with thankfulness in all aspects of our lives, not just when we are at church. It also means that we may be living a lives that are unacceptable to God, where our worship and service is a performance that is not meant to please an awesome God, but to please ourselves, fool our neighbors, and clear our guilty consciences without our really having to repent. It is actually possible to know who God is, carry on conversations with Him, be from a God-fearing family and be raised on godly stories, and still bring to God sacrifices, service, worship and ministries that are unacceptable in His sight. All we have to do is remember Cain and his sacrifice, and we are reminded that all sacrifices brought to God in disobedience, selfishness, and hypocrisy will be found unacceptable in His sight.
There remains in the Church an extraordinary lack of teaching regarding God’s tremendous glory and our necessary response to Him.
In light of this the author reminds us that we must approach God with “reverence and awe” (v. 28). Reverence (aidos—modesty, used in 1 Timothy 2:9 regarding the demeanor of women in the church) is the modesty that is rooted in our character as we relate to others in our lives. It is the quality that restrains good people from unworthy acts. Awe is fear mingled with reverence and wonder, a state inspired by something that is terrible or even sublime. God is both loving and punishing, compassionate and judging. We err when we come into His presence and expect to see only one side of His character. Many times our attitude toward the worship of God is flippant, cheap, irreverent, and impious. We rarely enter into the presence of God “with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4). And when we do, we often forget that “in the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him” (Psalm 89:7, NIV). Too often we are in the habit of approaching God and listening to the teaching of His Word with far less decorum and courtesy than we would if the governor or a senator or the president spoke at our assemblies, or for that matter, even a celebrity. Isaiah tells us that the seraphs that surround the throne have two wings that cover their faces. If the angels in heaven find it necessary to show proper etiquette in the holy presence of God, perhaps we should too.
Our author balances his statement about God being a consuming fire by also reminding us that He is ‘our God.” We, the children of God, are all together in a covenant relationship with the Almighty Creator of the universe, who is also a ‘consuming fire.” Knowing that He is our Father and that we may approach Him as His children helps to prevent us from despair as we consider His ineffable holiness and inflexible justice. We can approach God with thankfulness, for He is bringing us into a kingdom that cannot be shaken, cannot be removed, and nothing can remove us from His love for us through His Son (see Romans 8:38-39). In view of God’s wrath we must all dread displeasing Him; in view of His majestic holiness our hearts need to approach Him in humility; and in view of His love, we may now seek to honor, please and adore Him in all that we say and do. ‘But the LORD of hosts, him you shall regard as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary” (Isaiah 8:13-14).