- Hebrews 12:18-29
- Philippians 3:12-21
Dear friends in the Lord,
Our family loved picnics. Any quiet spot where there was shade and firewood would do us. Our first visit to a real public park included a swimming pool.
While dad unpacked the picnic gear (I always wondered what was so special about having a cup of tea before anything else!), us children made it to the swimming area. It was my first exposure to such a big pool. My siblings soon disappeared in the crowd. After mustering enough courage that I tackled the cold water. I ran, jumped and landed some distance from the edge; what I was not aware of was that I actually chose the deep end. No one told me there was a shallow and a deep end! With my head disappearing under the water, my legs were going a hundred miles and hour as I furiously tried to get my nose above water level. I panicked and was pretty sure I had come to my last day!
As I became exhausted, I discovered something marvellous: when I stopped battling to stay afloat, I drifted! In the end, I just calmly turned onto my back, paddled with my hands and feet—and breathed. It was a wonderful feeling.
Later in life, actually quite long after I got to know Christ as my Lord and Saviour, this episode came back to me. See, there was a time that, although I understood God’s grace in Christ, I still had this idea that I needed to do whatever I could to stay afloat. Then one day, as I was working my way through Romans, God opened my eyes for the free gift of righteousness in Christ. That’s when I spiritually began to stay with my nose in the life-giving air coming from the completed work of Christ.
Paul, in Philippians 3, struggled to gain his own righteousness, until he met Christ; his righteousness then became worth nothing as he clung to God’s provided righteousness. He came to this conclusion:
It is wrong to think that one can live in the right relationship with God while he thinks that he can achieve it by keeping the Law. What is necessary to live in the right relationship with God, was Christ, who achieved what we could not. One needs to commit oneself by faith to Him only, and God grants what is necessary to live in relationship with Him.
Faith says on my own I’m drowning, but by committing to Christ I’m swimming.
Paul says this about his past. He then comes to this conclusion about the future:
I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14, NIV)
We will today focus on what the future holds if we have our life anchored on the foundation of righteousness of Christ. We now move on Philippians 3:20-21
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3:20–21, NIV)
The experience of the Christians to whom the letter of Hebrews was addressed was that those who held fast to Jewish traditions, impressed on those who put their hope in the righteousness of Christ to return to the old understanding of works-based righteousness. As Kent Hughes put it:
… they were hearing discordant voices: You are on the wrong path. You are headed away from Sinai and Jerusalem. You have left your heritage in Abraham and Moses. You have forsaken your nation that has had the great blessings of God. You will never make it! (Hughes, R. K. (1993). Hebrews: an anchor for the soul (Vol. 2, p. 188). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.)
Let’s pay close attention to what the author of Hebrews says:
But you have come to Mount Zion… (Hebrews 12:22, NIV)
Mount Zion is different from Mount Sinai. The vision of Sinai is extraordinary: a mountaintop blazing with “fire to the very heavens”; a blanket of a deep darkness; bolts of lightning firing golden flashes from the clouds; heavenly rams’ horns filling the thundering skies with sombre blasts; the ground was shaking at God’s voice as He reveals the Ten Commandments.
God is transcendentally “other,” perfectly good and holy. He radiates wrath and judgment against sin. God of Sinai cannot be approached. Flaming Mount Sinai reveals God to us! (Kent Hughes, ibid)
What is similar between Sinai and Zion is God, his splendour and holiness: of both we read, “God is a consuming fire.” The way God reveals Himself on both mountains is meant to shape our pilgrimage. God is the same, yesterday, today and into all eternity. God is both holy and loving. Both mountains teach us about the consuming holiness of God and the consuming love of God. What is different between Sin and Zion is the way God provided to approach Him.
But let’s consider this first: our righteousness does not come by the Law of Sinai; it comes by the grace of Zion. As the members of the church at Galatia and those to whom the letter of Hebrews are addressed were distracted by a self-help, DIY righteousness, we must keep our eyes on Christ who is our righteousness.
The heavenly Jerusalem
Paul writes in Philippians 3:
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, (Philippians 3:20)
This is another way to say what Hebrews 12 says:
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, (Hebrews 12:22)
The background for Hebrews is the journey of the people of God through the desert. God freed them from Egyptian slavery, and miraculously rescued them from the Pharaoh’s army, leading them through the Red Sea. On the way He cared and provided for them. Then they arrived at Sinai where God revealed Himself to them from the smoking mountain where He gave them the Ten Commandments. For them the Promised Land was still ahead of them.
The author of Hebrews encourages his readers by having them look forward to the eternal Promised Land—heaven where their citizenship is.
What we need to see in these verses is reality of eternity. It is not a pie in the sky when one dies. “You have come”—perfect past tense; by faith eternity is done deal. In Christ the journey is completed. Just like all those in the “cloud of witnesses” of Chapter 11 who looked forward to the city not built by hands, we who are on our journey to that heavenly destination have in our pockets a passport, stamped and sealed in the blood of Christ.
We need to keep our eyes on our heavenly address. The moment this world becomes more real to us than heaven, we tend to think of heaven as something “on the other side”, something still to come; something which does not really impact on our living and disicions we make today. The readers of the letter had their faith focussed not as much on what they one day will receive, but on what they already had. Paul writes:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. (Colossians 3:1–2, NIV)
We need to live, every day—as Dr R.C. Sproul made the phrase his life goal, coram Deo—in the presence of God. In this city, the heavenly Jerusalem, our Father is the living God!
Myriads of Angels
Some people don’t believe in angels (unless it is something like the tooth fairy or a gnome), but angels were not unknown to the writer of Hebrews. He refers to their ministry in no less than 13 verses in his letter. He links Mount Sinai and Mount Zion by referring to angels. Deuteronomy 33:2 speaks of “thousands of holy ones”, and Stephen and Paul speaks about the Law being effected by angels (Acts 7:53, Galatians 3:19, and also Hebrews 2:2). In these cases the main point was that Christ came to be the Mediator and fulfilment of the Law.
What do angels do? They worship Christ (Hebrews 1:6); they are God’s messengers (1:7); they are just lower than Christ, in his service; they also to serve those who will inherit salvation (1:14).
When the readers of this letter read these words they were most probably overcome by the glory and grace of God: they understood they have an eternal home with God; they have to their disposal myriads of singing and praising angels, joyfully doing the bidding of Christ for their good—effecting His fulfilment of the Law of Sinai—by the power and ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The Church of the Firstborn
Like them we have to have bright eyes fixed on the reality of eternity, which has already burst open over us. We are one with those who have already departed in Christ, now praising Him with the angels. Here we are still part of the battle; there they celebrate the victory. Here we still struggle with imperfection—yes, we need forgiveness everyday—there the spirits of the righteous ones are perfect. “Made perfect”? Even Paul confesses:
Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12, HCSB)
But this the good news of the Gospel: when we received Christ and put our trust in Him, God declared us righteous. At that point we are fit to receive eternal life—purely because our salvation rests upon Christ, and Him alone. We, through sanctification, “make every effort to take hold of it because we have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus.” But when the moment of our death arrives we stand as righteous, perfect people before God, who will judge us by our faith in Christ Jesus.
Together with those who have finished the race we are members of the Church of the Firstborn, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Together with them our names are already written in heaven.
God, the Judge of all men
It is not so of those who trampled underfoot the blood of Christ. Then the godless and rebellious will understand the “our God is a consuming fire.” How terrible!
All people who have lived and will live on earth will one day stand before the judgement throne of God.
Jesus, the Mediator of the New Covenant
Once again we need to go back a few chapters. Speaking of Christ’s ministry the author writes:
Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the Devil — and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14–15, HCSB)
We don’t have time to explore all passages referring to the excellence of Christ as Mediator, but one thing we know: his sprinkled blood does not speak of revenge like the blood of Able, but is speaks of forgiveness and freedom.
As we walk in the righteousness of Christ, or keep in step with his righteousness, we:
“eagerly wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject everything to Himself. (Philippians 3:20–21, HCSB)
All because by faith we have come to “Mount Zion”, the “city of the living God”, “to myriads of angels”, “to the assembly of the firstborn”, “to God who is the Judge”, “to the spirits of righteous people, “to Jesus”, and “to the sprinkled blood.” (Hebrews 12:22–24)
That’s our future—and its already here. Have you arrived at your future? Are you at Mount Zion? Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 14 January 2018