Bold we approach?
by Jack Wald | November 26th, 2000

Hebrews 12: 14-29

When reading any of the epistles, letters written to specific churches at a specific point in time, always keep in mind the circumstances that caused the letter to be written. Never read the Epistles in a vacuum. Many misunderstandings have come from reading these letters out of context.

Hebrews is written to Jewish Christians living in Rome who were facing increasing pressure. They had lived through the persecution under the Roman emperor Claudius and were increasingly facing discrimination and hardships under Nero. To ease the pressure, these Jewish Christians were wavering in their faith, considering reverting to their Judaism where they could still worship God but not face the pressure being put on Christians.

As we have seen, the letter to the Hebrews urges, threatens, coaxes, uses sarcasm, uses every trick in the book to encourage these Christians to persevere in their faith. Throughout, the supremacy of Jesus is proclaimed. There has never been one like Jesus and there never will be another like Jesus. He stands above all other religious leaders in the history of the world and comparing him to any of these other religious leaders is like comparing a human being to a rock. I hope this message has penetrated over the course of the sermons from Hebrews.

The text this morning has long been one of my favorites in Scripture. This comparison of Sinai and Zion is a summary for the writer of Hebrews of all that he has been trying to say throughout this letter. The writer of Hebrews compares a time in history when Israel encountered God at Mt. Sinai with the approach of believers to a metaphorical Zion in these latter days. He contrasts the fear with which Israel approached God at Mt. Sinai when Moses received the law from God and the joy with which we approach God in these last days of the world.

I want, this morning,  to take a quick look at the comparison of Sinai and Zion, point out what made the difference between our approach to God then and now and then examine how it is that we are to approach God.

Let’s look first at Mt. Sinai.

Hebrews 12
18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm;  19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them,  20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.”  21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”

The writer of Hebrews is recalling the time in Israel’s history when they escaped from Egypt and three months later found themselves on the plains in front of Mt. Sinai. For those of you with geographic curiosity, this is the mountain at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, east of the Suez Canal and part of modern day Egypt.

After being rescued from slavery in Egypt, they now encamped and awaited instructions from Moses who awaited instructions from God. This account is found in Exodus 19. I’ll read selected excerpts from this account to point out the terror and fear that God inspired in the people of Israel. Try to picture the scene and think about how you might have reacted if you had been there.

9 The LORD said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.”
10 And the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes  11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.  12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.  13 He shall surely be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on him. Whether man or animal, he shall not be permitted to live.’
[The implication here is that if you touch, even with a sword or spear, the person or animal that touched the mountain, you would also then have to die.]

16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled.  17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently,  19 and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.

[Then come the ten commandments which were just read.]

18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance  19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
21 The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

This is a terrifying picture. Is it any wonder the people remained at a distance? Is it any wonder that the people trembled with fear? Let’s imagine for a moment that the altar of this church was a ball of fire with smoke and thunder. The pew you are sitting on is shaking violently because the whole church is shaking violently and you hear a great voice coming out of the fire. What would you do? How would you feel? My guess is that if we were to go to the altar to present our offerings we not only would refuse to go forward, we would run out of here as fast as we could go.

Israel could not argue that God was not powerful, that he was not mighty. But he was not very approachable.

The writer of Hebrews contrasts this terrifying picture of God with the god of Mt, Zion.

22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly,  23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect,  24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Zion is one of the hills upon which Jerusalem sits. The writer of Hebrews uses Zion to talk about the Church of God, the site of the new Jerusalem. The picture here of God is not a terrifying one. People are not afraid to enter, there is no fire and smoke and trembling. People do not keep their distance. Thousands upon thousands of angels populate the city and the picture is not of them trembling and in fear but they are described as being in joyful assembly.

This is the home of all the firstborn of God. It has been said that God has no grandchildren. Having parents who are or were Christians does not put us into relationship with God. God has only children and his children, the firstborn of God, come to this new home, Zion, the new Jerusalem, where they celebrate along with thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.

This is what was prophesied by Isaiah in Isaiah 35 that we read as our call to worship.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and the ransomed of the LORD will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Imagine this morning that the altar of RPF was an opening into a world of celebrating angels in joyful assembly. If this is what we saw this morning at the altar of RPF, if that was what awaited us, we might still be a bit timid, but  we would be drawn to this joyful assembly, not terrified and running away from it.

So we have two different pictures of God. One in which he is a source of terror and people tremble in his presence and people keep their distance,  and one in which people stream into the city of God and rejoice and celebrate.

What’s the story? Are there two gods? One to be feared and one to be approached? Is the god of the Old Testament different from the god of the New Testament?

No! There is one God, but the difference, as I mentioned in the children’s message, is Jesus. It is the work Jesus did on our behalf that has transformed the picture. God has not changed. God is still a god of power and might, a consuming fire. But Jesus allows us to exist in the presence of God’s intense holiness and live. Jesus allows us to exist in God’s presence and to rejoice in God’s presence. Jesus has transformed our circumstance so we can approach God with confidence.

So why on earth would anyone want to give up Jesus who makes this difference for anyone or anything else?

The writer of Hebrews is asking these Jewish Christians who are thinking of reverting to their Judaism, “Are you out of your minds? Give up Jesus? Jesus who makes the difference between Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion? What are you, mashugana?”

So we have God displayed in all his glory and power at Mt. Sinai but without the work of Jesus that allows us access to God and we have Zion, the home we long for, even though we have not yet seen it. Jesus is the difference.

We don’t have to tremble and fear approaching God, but how do we approach God?

Let’s look at some of the encounters humans had with heavenly beings.

In Genesis there is an account of angels visiting Lot, Abraham’s nephew, who lived in Sodom of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot invites these visitors into his home and the men of Sodom came to his house.
4 Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house.  5 They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

The approach of those whose hearts are hardened against God is to spit in his face, to reject the only one capable of saving them from destruction. This is incomprehensible to me but it happens. Sodom was about to be destroyed and all these men of Sodom could think about was satisfying their own desires. They spit in the face of the ones who came to Sodom to save the righteous.

My aunt died a couple years ago. She was an intelligent, capable woman but to the end of her life, she adamantly refused to consider the place of Jesus in her life. Several people in my family talked with her and she simply did not want to have anything to do with God. She defiantly resisted any mention of God. Even in the last days of her life when I tried gently to talk with her, she snapped at me and said she didn’t want to hear anything about God. As far as I can tell, she went kicking and screaming into hell. She wanted no mention of the only person capable of saving her.

There are those who have so hardened their hearts that they cannot see God and can only see this material world and their own hurt, disappointments, pain, lusts and desires. That is one approach.

Eight days after Peter’s bold confession that Jesus was the Christ of God, the Messiah, Jesus took Peter, John and James up onto a mountain to pray.
29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.  30 Two men, Moses and Elijah,  31 appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.  32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.  33 As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)
[Mark’s Gospel adds this detail: (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)]
34 While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.  35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”  36 When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves, and told no one at that time what they had seen.

There is a proverb that says, “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.” Peter was one who was unable not to lead. He tried to take charge in any and every situation. In this case, he would have been much better off if he had kept quiet.

Sometimes I think we are too quick to talk and too slow to listen. If, when you pray, it is all you talking and you leave no time for silence to hear God speak to you, you are missing out on growing closer to the one who came to save you.

When you approach God, leave time for him to speak to you.

In the 6th Chapter of Isaiah, Isaiah has a vision of God in all his glory — cherubim and seraphim, an incredible vision. And Isaiah’s reaction to this vision?

5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.  7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

Let me read another account, with a similar response. Jesus had just begun his public ministry and was speaking to a crowd.

One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God,  2 he saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets.  3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
5 Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
6 When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.  7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”  9 For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken,  10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.”  11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

The response of Isaiah and Peter model for us what should be our approach. When God gives us a picture of his holiness, the appropriate response from us and the inevitable response if we are seeking him, is to see in the light of his glory and holiness, our sinfulness. Isaiah’s  “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” and Peter’s  “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” are the responses of men whose hearts were open to God.

Notice too the second part of their response. They were open to God and so saw their sinfulness in the light of God’s glory but they also were then filled with God’s love and able to respond to his call for them to serve him.

8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.”  11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

The response of Isaiah and of Peter models for us what should be our approach to God and this is what the writer of Hebrews tells us.

28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe,  29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”

We worship God with reverence and awe for our God is, in a quote from Deuteronomy 4, a consuming fire. We do not take God for granted. We do not use God for our own purposes. That would be like, if you’ll pardon the pun, playing with fire.

In the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians Paul speaks of our approach to God.
7 Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was,  8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?  9 If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!  10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory.  11 And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!
12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold.  13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away.  14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.  15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.  16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.  17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  18 And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

“Therefore,” Paul says, “since we have such a hope, we are very bold.” There is no need to veil ourselves before God. With Christ as our savior, we can go directly to God without fear of being consumed by the purity of his holiness.

Our next hymn is #203, And Can It Be, a wonderful hymn written by Charles Wesley. Pay attention to the words. These verses speak of what Christ has done for us. Let the power of these words build in us as we sing verses 1, 2 and 3. Let our hearts be filled with awe and wonder at all Christ has done for us, his love for us and then in verse 4 let us burst forth with the conviction of what is now true for us.

No condemnation now I dread: Jesus, and all in him , is mine! Alive in him, my living head, and clothed in righteousness divine,

Now when you get to this point, when we sing this hymn, I want you to put special emphasis on this next word.

BOLD I approach th’eternal throne, and claim the crown, thru Christ my own.

Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me.