Hebrews 12:18–29. Our God Is a Consuming Fire.
Key Notes: Sinai vs. the New Jerusalem. Seven unsuccessful ways to holiness. Seek holiness.
In this passage, the writer contrasts Israel's experience at Mount Sinai under Law with our privileges under God's grace. The contrast is like night and day, and yet the same God speaks in both settings and must be heard.
Mount Sinai was tangible; a fire; darkness and gloom; a windstorm; a trumpet blast; disturbing words; a threat of death. The new Jerusalem is not tangible, but it is the city of the Living God; angels dressed for celebration; the firstborn enrolled in Heaven; God, the Judge of all; Jesus, Mediator of the new covenant; His sprinkled blood speaking grace. Who could not be attracted to the New? But we are reminded that God is still a consuming fire. We have before us a carrot and a stick.
Heb.12:21 Israel, and even Moses was petrified by the appearance of God in His Holiness."Now when all the people perceived the thunderings and the lightnings and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled; and they stood afar off, and said to Moses, 'You speak to us and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.'" (Ex.20:18–19)
Ex.19:10–25. God instructed Moses to consecrate the people, setting them apart for experiencing the presence of God. That was an act of spiritual purification. The people were to wash their clothes (physical purification) and abstain from sexual intercourse (emotional purification). No one was to come near or touch the mountain because the mountain was also consecrated. God would descend upon the mountain and if the people broke through the barricade and gazed on the presence of the Lord, they would be destroyed.
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, a thick cloud over the mountain, a loud trumpet blast, louder and louder. There was an earthquake of the mountain. And Moses went up into that! And he lived to tell the story. He came down with the Law and a shining face.
Forty years later, Moses would remind them that they said,
"Behold, the Lord our God has shown us His glory and greatness, and we have heard His voice out of the midst of the fire; we have this day seen God speak with man and man still live. Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more we shall die.... Go near, and hear all that the Lord our God will say; and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it." (Deut.5:24–27).
Many years later Isaiah would report,
"The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless. Who among us can dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?" (Isa.33:14)
Israel seven hundred years later was still as much afraid and alienated from God as ever.
Heb.12:22–24. The contrast with the heavenly Jerusalem could hardly be greater. Unnumbered angels dressed for the party; the assembly of those enrolled in heaven; the spirits of the just, now perfect; God the Judge, Jesus the Mediator, with His blood speaking forgiveness. It is a scene of joy and peace of forgiveness and security. And it is a Kingdom that cannot be shaken.
12:25–29. But His voice then shook the earth and He warns that the next time the whole universe will be shaken."...I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all nations....(Hag.2:6–7). IIPet.3:10 and Rev.21:1 confirm the message. But the Kingdom endures forever.
The message is "Strive for peace with all men and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." (Heb.12:14). Holiness is the sine qua non--the without-which-nothing of the Christian life. It is the indispensable ingredient.
How are we to pursue holiness? The Church has tried at least seven different methods.
1. Ascetics pursue holiness by abandoning the world, and conquering the body (mortifying the flesh) with fasting, sexual abstinence, and prayer vigils.
2. Mystics seek to rise above the world by freeing the self from the bondage to materialism and seeking absorption in God. They use meditation and illumination.
3. Sacramentalists receive holiness by participation in rituals. Holiness is temporary because the ritual has to be repeated. The Orthodox, Roman Catholics and High Church Protestants use this method.
4. Holiness by obedience to the Law of God is the path chosen by 7th Day Adventists and some Fundamentalists. It is moralistic and legalistic.
5. Communal life, cultivation of the Inner Light and social reform to move people toward holiness is the approach of some Quakers.
6. Perfectionists seeks a second work of grace to free themselves from all conscious and deliberate sin. Nazarenes, the Salvation Army and Pentecostals teach this doctrine.
7. Antinomians resist the Law and glorify our freedom and Christ's grace which assures holiness. They neglect obedience, and therefore neglect personal holiness. It permits a distinction between Christ as Savior and Christ as Lord. In this mind-set, we are not under the Law, and therefore have little sense of God’s will.
Evangelicalism has sadly chosen the last method, antinomianism (#7), with disastrous consequences. It rightly reacted against the legalism of fundamentalists (4.) of the '40's and '50's but in the process lost its moral voice. The Church has not been effective against the post-WWII glut of sexual indulgence, greed, and pride. It has shown little authority to speak on premarital sex, divorce, gambling, pornography, or corporate crime. It addresses only issues of limited concern to the larger society, such as abortion, homosexuality and stem cell research. It has sometimes offered psychological healing instead of salvation. It has said too little about the persecuted church, now being championed by a Jewish leader!
The churches are full of broken, hurting people, victims of their own folly, but without guidance in how to overcome their sinful ways. The Mainline Churches now deplore pedophilia but approve homosexuality. They also appear to have lost awareness of the holiness of God.
The holiness of God is most dramatically demonstrated by His consuming fire. So let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe. This is not a trivial matter. Our souls are at stake. Without holiness we cannot see God.
How shall we seek holiness? Confess sin and ask forgiveness through Jesus' sacrifice. Turn away from the pollution of the culture. Ask God for holiness. Ask to be like Jesus, our Example of holy living.