From Sinai to Zion, Pt. 1: The Unapproachable Holiness of Sinai
Hebrews 12:18–24 18 For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, 19 and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them. 20 For they could not bear the command, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it will be stoned.” 21 And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, “I am full of fear and trembling.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church 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, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.
The author returns to the central concern of the letter, the contrast between old and new covenants. Many have pointed out how this is the ‘climax’ of the letter. The focus however is not simply in comparing the two covenants or examining the two but to set the New Covenant apart from the old as the superior covenant administration to which the people of God now belong. The arrival of the New Covenant has ushered the Church into contact with realities that are not typical but antitypical; not promise but fulfilment. The people of God have not simply returned to the generation of the desert which is, above all in the epistle, characterized by disobedience and wrath. The character of the wilderness generation is captured by the author’s use of Ps. 95:
Hebrews 3:7–11 7 Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, “Today if you hear His voice, 8 Do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, As in the day of trial in the wilderness, 9 Where your fathers tried Me by testing Me, And saw My works for forty years. 10 “Therefore I was angry with this generation, And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, And they did not know My ways’; 11 As I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ ”
Encountering God at the foot of the mount was a reminder that God is holy and man is sinful. At the foot of Zion however, God’s people come to encounter the grace and mercy of God through Jesus Christ (cf. John 1.17). This however does not in any way mean that God’s wrath has been averted for any and all disobedience. God’s wrath will no doubt double for the one who follows in the same pattern of OT disobedience and tests the Lord through sinful heart of unbelief:
Hebrews 2:1–4 1 For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
However, the author’s point here is to elicit faith and endurance in light of the eschatological developments of the New Covenant. He does this by emphasizing the unapproachability of God under the Old Covenant, the focal point of which is Sinai (12.18-21), and the glorious unspeakable access provided to the people of God who now find themselves at the ‘foot’ of the eternal Zion (12.22-24).
The Unapproachable Holiness Of Sinai
Because God’s law is holy and right (Rom. 7.12), and God’s presence at Sinai was the demonstration of His glory, we should not make the mistake that the picture of God on the mountain is somehow to be taken in the negative. God is holy, and His holiness is unrelenting and uncompromising. However, we know that God’s people were sinful and in need of perfection; something not even the Law could give them (cf. 7.11, 18-19; 10.4, 11). Still, Sinai reminds us of several very important truths about God and us. These truths deal with the symbolic, the sacred and the salvific or redemptive.
Sinai Reminds Us Of The Typological Character Of Redemptive History
Hebrews gives a graphic picture of what transpired at Sinai focusing on the absolute holiness and transcendence of God who cannot be approached by sinful human beings (cf. 1 Tim. 6.15). Sinai is portrayed as the throne of God, His wrathful storm-chariot where Yahweh appears in “blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind” (κεκαυμένῳ πυρὶ καὶ γνόφῳ καὶ ζόφῳ καὶ θυέλλῃ). What makes God’s presence so fearful is His judgment voice which is often accompanied by “the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words” (σάλπιγγος ἤχῳ καὶ φωνῇ ῥημάτων) which elicit “fear and trembling.” It is when God speaks that the terror of the Lord is truly manifested (cf. Dt. 4.33; Ps. 29.3-9). But the singular question we should be asking is what did all that imagery signify and what can we learn from it? First, we should understand the symbolic or typological nature of Sinai. That Sinai was only a shadow of things to come is obvious from the fact that we are moving from the tangible, temporal and terrestrial mountain to the invisible, eternal and heavenly Zion. The earthly Sinai was symbolic of the heavenly realms in the same way that the earthly tabernacle was symbolic and typological of the heavenly tabernacle erected by the Lord himself:
Hebrews 8:1–2 1 Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, 2 a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man.
Sinai is thus consistent with the heaven/earth dualism that we find throughout the letter (e.g. 12.26). There is also a connection between the later temple and Mount Sinai. Sinai we could say functioned as a temple structure of the Lord. This is why God’s temple presence is often associated with God’s holy mountain (Ex. 3.1; 18.5; 24.13; cf. Is. 2.2–3; Mic. 4.2), where priests are found ministering and communing with God as they do in His sanctuary (Ex. 24.9-11), and where Moses functions as something of a high priest who intercedes for God’s people (e.g. Ex. 32.32). Just like the temple, Sinai was divided into three sections “with increasing sanctity” (see G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology. 608):
“… the majority of the Israelites were to remain at the foot of Sinai (Exod. 19:12, 23), the priests and seventy elders (the latter functioning probably as priests) were allowed to come some distance up the mountain (Exod. 19:22; 24:1), but only Moses could ascend to the top and directly experience the presence of God (Exod. 24:2). (G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology. 608).
Sinai is also prophetic of a time when God’s covenant people would not only receive the Law but love the Law and internalize the Law in the heart. Thus, the Old Covenant, centered upon Sinai, pointed forward to another covenantal day, namely Pentecost when God gave His people the power of His Spirit not the practice of a new institution or instructions for constructing a new building! The people were the building, the tabernacle of God was now with man through a the New Covenant work of Jesus on the cross.
Sinai Reminds Us Of The Absolute Holiness Of God
Not only are we reminded of the symbolic nature of Sinai, but second, this symbolism conveys to us the absolute holiness of God. The symbolism leads us to the sacred character of Sinai. This is what made God so unapproachable; God is holy and man is not. Hebrews is reminding us that because of God’s holiness He revealed himself through cloud and fire as an expression of His glory and power. In God’s epiphanic cloud manifestation we may think that God was concealing His glory from the people simply so that He would not be seen, but as true as that is, the reality is that the glory cloud of “darkness and gloom” also served the purpose of keeping God’s presence from consuming the people (Ex. 40.34-35). The sight at Sinai was more for their sake than God’s. The Lord told Moses He would come to him in a “thick cloud” (Ex. 19.9) so that Israel would believe but also so that Israel would be protected from the effulgence of His glorious holiness so as not to be consumed by God’s presence. God’s presence was a reminder that where His presence resides is hollowed ground so that, “even if a beast touches the mount, it will be stoned” (Κἂν θηρίον θίγῃ τοῦ ὄρους, λιθοβοληθήσεται). God’s presence ‘holified’ everything around Him so that Sinai became so sacred it called for exhaustive consecration and judgment for violating God’s holy boundaries. Exodus gives the details:
Exodus 19:10–17 10 The Lord also said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; 11 and let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 “You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, ‘Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. 13 ‘No hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot through; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” 14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people, and they washed their garments. 15 He said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.” 16 So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.
That same reverential fear of God should carry over today in our own worship and service to the Lord. Through Sinai, the Old Covenant, God prepares His people for His holy Law, at Zion, God prepares His people for His holy Son. Zion does not minimize the holiness of God but only grants us glorious access to it and graciously spares us from being consumed by it but our reverence should be maintained:
Hebrews 12:28–29 28 Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
Sinai Reminds Us Of Man’s Need Of Redemption Through Jesus Christ
Finally, as with the temple, Sinai’s typology means that it was a shadow of heavenly things, namely Zion and man’s need of redemption. This starts with the need for a greater mediator. As faithful as Moses was in his house (3.5); the absolute holiness and glory of Sinai and later tabernacle and temple presence of God rendered Moses and all other mediators incapable of entering with boldness into God’s presence (cf. Ex. 40.35). As Ryken pointed out, “The end of Exodus has been moving toward this climactic moment, when the tabernacle would be finished and the people would be able to meet with their God. But when the moment finally came, the tabernacle was filled with such great glory that the mediator couldn’t get in!” (Philip G. Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL. Crossway, 2005) 1160).
This is because the typology of Sinai reaches its goal in the work of Jesus Christ who brings us to God’s presence so that we may ascend into the hill of the Lord. He alone is the true Mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2.5). Without His righteousness and moral purity credited to our account, we cannot stand in God’s holy place:
Psalm 24:1–6 1 The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, The world, and those who dwell in it. 2 For He has founded it upon the seas And established it upon the rivers. 3 Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood And has not sworn deceitfully. 5 He shall receive a blessing from the Lord And righteousness from the God of his salvation. 6 This is the generation of those who seek Him, Who seek Your face—even Jacob.
Only through Jesus who is the prototypical consecrated one; and by virtue of His intercession (7.25); can we obtain the righteousness of God. Sometimes it is difficult for people to weed through the language of Hebrews because it doesn’t sound like Romans or Galatians. But Hebrews often preaches the same gospel realities that Paul does however not so much as from a forensic angle as much as from a covenantal and ceremonial one. The net result however is the same. Christ’s Mediatorial role in Hebrews grants us the same righteousness of God which Paul speaks of in his letters:
Philippians 3:9 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith,
The unapproachable holiness of Sinai thus reminds us that the typology is functioning in a redemptive fashion pointing us to the safety and security of Jesus Christ who on the basis of His blood, has made it possible for the unapproachable holiness of God to be approached. This is the very essence of the New Covenant message of Hebrews:
Hebrews 10:19–22 19 Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
The New Covenant has made it possible to say, in effect, the opposite of what Moses said; not that we are “full of fear” full of “trembling”, rather, we are full of joy and full of boldness to approach “Zion.” The redemptive component reminds us that what we are looking at with Sinai and Zion is the supremacy of the New Covenant over what Paul called, “the ministry of death.” The ministry of death gives way to the ministry of righteousness. Again the Apostle Paul is immensely helpful here:
2 Corinthians 3:7–11 7 But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, 8 how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? 9 For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. 10 For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory because of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory.
That is what we are seeing here in Hebrews, the ministry of death, the Old Covenant whose typological center was Sinai, is fading away and the emerging glory of the New Covenant orients us towards Zion because unlike Sinai, Zion’s glory is eternal in the heavens and that glory is found supremely in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3.18; 4.6). Sinai reminds us that the old testament is full of redemptive historical typology, that our God is the holy God of Israel before whose presence no one could stand, and that our hope is rooted in the work of a superior Mediator who makes the transcendent God the center of our joy, comfort and strength.