The basic argument and admonition of the book of Hebrews is that the Old Testament dispensation of the grace of God has passed away by the coming of the Son of God in the flesh in these last days. God has fulfilled His promises, made to the fathers, in Christ’s death and glorification. The church of the Hebrew Christians must not return to the Old Testament shadows and types, but must boldly enter into the holy place in the heavens, where Christ the forerunner has entered. He is our great High Priest after the order of Melchisedek, according to God’s word of oath.
Verse 18 begins with the conjunction. “for.” This indicates that in these verses the author is assigning the reason for something which he stated in the former part of this letter. The writer may have in mind the immediate context, where he spoke to the church not to be weak, not to have feeble hands and shaky knees. They must take a very strong, militant stance in this matter; and they must keep a very watchful eye over themselves and over one another. They must not allow a breach in their ranks; a bitter root must not be allowed to grow in their midst, so that many be defiled with the error of unbelief in the Son of God. If the writer refers to this context, then what he says here in these verses makes good sense and is stringent proof for his admonitions. We may also view this as referring to the entire book of Hebrews, and then, to the basic argument of the book. The keynote of this is given in the very first four verses of Chapter 1, in that majestically beautiful passage which reads: “God, who at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.” This is the theme of the Epistle. Again and again this theme is treated from various aspects and considerations from the Old Testament Scriptures, the types and the shadows. Beautiful contrasts are drawn, and the implications are clearly pointed out in these contrasts between the Old and the New Testament. To fall back from the New Testament to the Old Testament is a refusal to enter into the rest, into the finished work of God. Such die in their unbelief and disobedience to the Son of God. It is the sin for which the Lord reveals Himself as being a flaming fire. Now to underscore this reality of the New Testament being better than the Old Testament dispensational grace, the writer here contrasts the coming of Israel to Mt. Sinai in their journey from Egypt to Canaan with our coming to the real and heavenly country, the heavenly land of promise, particularly the heavenly Jerusalem. If connected with the entire argument of the Hebrews, we have here the final and conclusive argument for our running the race with patience. Our covenant status is that of the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem.
To our mind the writer is here underscoring the basic argument of the Hebrews as this basic argument was repeatedly brought into sharp focus in this letter in the many arguments which the writer forwards. When this argument has been thus reinforced by this contrast of Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion, the writer can conclusively write: “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, (we do have grace?), whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and Godly fear,” (Hebrews 12:28). The chief and last argument of the book of Hebrews ends here, then, in Hebrews 12. What we read in Chapters 13 are various admonitions which flow from our new relationship to Christ in the world, in our practical life of thankfulness.
THE TERRIFYING SIGHT AT MT. SINAI IN ARABIA (vss. 18-21; Ex. 19:12, 18, 19)
We should not neglect to remember that when God appeared to Israel at Mt. Sinai, He appeared to His covenant people, whom He had very recently delivered out of Egypt in remembrance of His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These promises had been given to Abraham some 430 years before, (Gal. 3:17, Ex. 12:40, 41). And these promises God is fulfilling in bringing Israel from Egypt to Canaan, even when He brings them first to the nether part of Mt. Sinai to receive the words of the Covenant. These words of the covenant spoken from out of the darkness, storm, and fire, do not annul the promises. They are added that God’s people may be kept unto the time appointed of the Lord for the redemption in Christ Jesus. Israel is not viewed here as mankind in general; but they are addressed as those who will “be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine,” (Ex. 19:5). This means that they shall be the people to whom the oracles of God are entrusted (Rom. 3:1, 2); and they are the people from whom Messiah will be born, as the salvation of the Lord, which He has prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel, God’s people. Salvation is out of the Jews. (John 4:21-24; Luke 21:29-32; Isaiah 40:5; Isaiah 52:10; Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6.) Israel is the servant of the Lord, a new creation of God as they are brought forth out of Egypt! Such is the exalted and liberated people here at Sinai. The shout of the King is in their midst; they are God’s firstborn people. (Num. 23:21)
This is a viewpoint of Israel which we may not lose sight of. They are standing in the grace of God—be it, then, typically seeing it from afar when “faith would come.” (Gal. 3:22) Was not this the Israel of God who had been baptized into Moses and the sea? And have they not recently, at Rephidim, drunk from the miraculous waters of the Rock, which symbolized the Christ? And again, had they not eaten manna, which was really angels’ food? (Ps. 78:24) And would they not eat of this bread until they would eat the bread new in the land of Promise for a period of well nigh forty years? (Josh. 5:12) “Blessed art thou, O Israel: who is like unto thee, O people saved by the Lord, the shield of thy help, and who is the sword of thy excellency!” (Deut. 33:29) This is the Israel of God which gathers at the nether part of Mt. Sinai. They are unto the Lord a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. To be sure, it is not all Israel that is of Israel, as Moses would learn when he received the two tables of the law on stone. God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy, the remnant according to the election of grace. (Ex. 33:19; Rom. 9:14, 15; Rom. 11:1-6) But Israel is here the church of God in the wilderness (Acts 7:38)
Keeping the foregoing in mind, we then notice that Israel and the entire church of the Old Testament dispensation really never came any farther than Mt. Sinai. They ever needed to worship from afar. They could not draw near to the Lord. The law perfected nothing. (Heb. 7:19) And if Israel of the New Testament will attempt to deny that the “bringing in of a better hope” did perfect all things, all they have left is the thunder, lightning, and the terrifying sound of the trumpet which not a living soul could endure.
That is why it is stated so very strongly that we “have not come” to the mountain that can be touched. Such is not our covenantally-dated relationship to the LORD. Concerning that awesome sight the writer tells us, as in an ever rising crescendo, the terrifying experience of Israel at the mount of God. It was really only an earthly mountain; a far cry from Mt. Sion, the heavenly. Yet, even so it was not friendly, welcoming. It was forbidding! It was burning with fire, declaring that God is a consuming fire to transgressors of His law. It was blackness, darkness, and tempest. There was here no manifestation of the glorious light of God’s countenance of grace and mercy. All was symbolic of righteousness, wrath, and judgment upon all who broke the words of God’s covenant, denying the Lord Who redeemed them. We have not come to that mountain in Arabia which speaks of bondage and death. All that we have there is the “sound of the trumpet” calling for men to come and worship. It was very really the “trump of God.” It was so terrifying a sight to sinful man that even Moses, who might speak with God in the holy mount, uttered the words “that he exceedingly feared and trembled.” True, he uttered those words after he had been for forty days on the mountain, to receive the lively oracles of God from the hands of angels. (Deut. 9:19; Gal. 3:19, 20) But they are a true commentary of how Moses experienced the law-giving at Sinai. Would not even a beast be killed if it touched the mountain?
Now who desires to go back to this promise of God as it is given in the package of the law? The law, which came 430 years later, was added for the sake of the offense! Let the Hebrews take notice that we have not come to that mountain, we who have been born in these latter days, in the end of the ages, when Christ died once for all! (Heb. 9:24-26)
Really, Israel never came beyond Sinai’s awful sight in all her Old Testament history. This was true even when Solomon’s temple was built. When the Lord came to dwell in that temple, it was exactly as when He came in His glory to fill the Tabernacle at Sinai. The book of Exodus ends on this note of the distance which the Old Testament dispensation of grace demands. It was the testimony of the Holy Spirit that the way into the most holy place was not yet opened. (Heb. 9:8) Wherefore the book of Exodus must needs end by telling us that even Moses could not enter into the tent of the Lord, the tent of the congregation, when “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” Literally we read: “And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle,” (Ex. 40:34, 35).
When Solomon dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem, the typical place of the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, the priests, too, could not minister in the temple. We read in II Chron. 7:1-3, “Now when Solomon had made an end of praying, the fire came down from heaven, and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the LORD filled the house. And the priests could not enter into the house of the LORD, because the glory of the LORD had filled the LORD’S house.” Israel of Solomon’s day had come to Mt. Sinai. They had not yet come to the heavenly city, to the true and living temple of the living God. This must wait till the time of reformation. (Heb. 9:10) That time of reformation has come when Christ by a greater and more perfect tabernacle will purge our consciences from dead works to serve the living God. (Heb. 9:11-14)