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Hebrews 12:18–21

“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” (vv. 18–19).

Drawing comparisons between the new covenant and the old covenant constitutes one of the foundational strategies that the author of Hebrews employs to convince us to hold on to Christ. For instance, he argues that Jesus is superior to key old covenant figures and institutions such as Moses, the priesthood, and the sacrifices (Heb. 3:1–5; 9–10). Our situation is not entirely different from that of the old covenant saints. For instance, as we wait for Jesus to consummate His kingdom, we are in a position similar to that of the wilderness generation on the edge of Canaan (3:6–4:13). Nevertheless, we occupy a better place in the history of redemption, making it all the more necessary for us to persevere in faith.

Hebrews 12:1–17 featured strong exhortations for us to run the race of faith, keeping our eyes on Jesus. In today’s passage, the author returns to his strategy of comparing the old and new covenants. Verses 18–21 take us back to the opening scene of the inauguration of the old covenant, which took place at Mount Sinai. Exodus 19–24 records the momentous event when the Israelites gathered at the base of the mountain and God came down in fire and thick darkness. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, this was a distinctly earthly gathering, taking place at a physical mountain that people could feel with their hands (Heb. 12:18). Yet, ironically, the mountain could not actually be touched, for the presence of the holy God sanctified the mountain, bringing the threat of death to anything unholy that touched it (v. 20). This illustrates the paradox of the old covenant. On the one hand, the institutions of the old covenant provided a way for the holy God to dwell among unholy people in the tabernacle and temple. These things gave sinners a way of approach to the Lord. But this way was effectively closed, for only the high priest could enter into the presence of God in the Most Holy Place, and then only briefly once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). No other member of the old covenant enjoyed that privilege.

John Calvin comments that at Sinai, “God had ascended his tribunal and manifested himself as a strict judge.” Therefore, the people were terrified (Heb. 12:21; see Ex. 20:18–21). God remains the Judge under the new covenant, but we are in a better position because His nature as Redeemer is more clearly displayed to us.

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

Let us never forget that God is the most holy and perfect Judge of all. We cannot ever take Him lightly. At the same time, the full revelation of His grace in Christ means we need not have the same kind of terror as the people did in Exodus 19. We must reverently fear the Lord. At the same time, we must remember that He has opened up a way to Himself directly through Jesus, and we must not be afraid to go to Jesus when we have sinned.


For Further Study
  • Exodus 3:6
  • Leviticus 10:1–3
  • Deuteronomy 4:9–14
  • Hebrews 10:19–22

Esau’s Negative Example

The Heavenly Reality

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From the August 2020 Issue
Aug 2020 Issue