The voice of grace

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 12:14-29

Beautiful words

I'm a "words" person. I love the sound of words, and the way they sound when they are strung together rhythmically. Beautiful words can penetrate the soul. If you've ever heard Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, it's hard to forget. God uses words. He speaks words of grace - words such as "forgiveness" and "acceptance" and "love," and he strings them together in a rhythm that resonates with the deepest longing of our hearts. He speaks these words from his throne in his city - a city that he wants us to enjoy. God's words of grace invite us to enjoy his city.
Hebrews 12:14-29 features God's voice, which is referred to in one way or another eight times. It also features God's city, the heavenly Jerusalem. The passage is marked off by the word translated "grace" in verse 15 and "gratitude" in verse 28 (charis).

In Hebrews 12:1-13, the writer of Hebrews encouraged us to run the race of faith. The passage before us today is linked to those verses by the word "for," which begins verse 18, and by the words "peace" and "sanctification," which appear in verse 18 but also appear in different forms in verses 10 and 11 to convey the results of God's training. Hebrews 12:14-29, then, can be seen as giving more details as to what's involved in running the race.

Refusal of grace (12:14-17)

Hebrews 12:14-17:

(14) Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. (15) See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled; (16) that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. (17) For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.

Peace, or wholeness, and sanctification, or holiness, are the result of the Lord's training (12:10-11). We are now instructed to "pursue" wholeness, particularly in relationships, and to pursue holiness. At least part of that pursuit, then, involves submitting to the Lord's training, which includes difficult circumstances in life. Accepting suffering, and allowing it to break us and bring us to the Lord, creates a tenderness that is more inclined toward wholeness and holiness.
This kind of pursuit distinguishes a man or woman as someone who will "see the Lord." The pursuit doesn't earn a look at the Lord; the pursuit is evidence that one will see the Lord. If wholeness in relationships and holiness of character are of no concern to someone, if such pursuits are considered forever unworthy, then that person will not see the Lord; he doesn't belong to the Lord and will not spend eternity with him.

Also involved in the pursuit of wholeness in relationships and holiness of character are three items of exhortation introduced generally by the word translated "see to it" and specifically by the word "that": "See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble ... ; that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau ... " In each case, we are encouraged to take care so that some development does not take place.

Verses 14 through 17 can be summed up by the exhortation to not come short of, or miss, the grace of God. God's discipline - which results in wholeness and holiness, and the pursuit thereof - is an expression of God's grace. If God's grace is embraced, bitterness will be cut off at the root, and individuals won't be like Esau.

God's grace, his disposition to shower the undeserving with gifts, is most evident in the gift of his Son. Yet it's "missable." Esau missed it, and the root of bitterness that sprung up toward Jacob and others caused all sorts of trouble. If not missing the grace of God can be seen as the theme of this section, Esau can be seen as an example of missing it.

The writer calls Esau "immoral" and "godless," strong words that may seem uncalled for in light of his offense. The story of the birthright is recorded in Genesis 25:27-34. Esau, being the firstborn, had the birthright, which included a double portion of the inheritance. Because the inheritance was generated from the promises made by God to Abraham and Isaac, the birthright was connected with those promises. Esau, famished after returning from the field, came to his brother Jacob and asked for some of the stew that he was cooking. Jacob offered Esau some stew in exchange for his birthright. Esau said, "Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?" Esau made the deal, "and he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright."

Although we might sympathize with Esau in his hunger, even though his contention that he was about to die was overstated, his nonchalant attitude toward the birthright after he gave it away is instructive. He simply ate, drank and "went on his way," none the lesser, in his own mind, for having forfeited the birthright. If there be any doubt regarding his disposition, the writer of Genesis clears it up, telling us that Esau "despised" his birthright.

The writer of Hebrews also shows Esau's disdain for the birthright, saying that he gave it up for the sake of "a single meal." All it took for Esau to let go of God's promises was one meal. That's all he thought God's promises were worth.

The writer also recalls another episode from Esau's life, recorded in Genesis 27, that took place "afterwards." Isaac, thinking himself near death, wanted to give his blessing to Esau, his firstborn. The blessing for the firstborn, just like the birthright, was tied up in the promises of God. Jacob, though, posed as Esau, and the nearly blind Isaac blessed Jacob, thinking that he was blessing Esau. When Esau discovered what Jacob had done, he sought a blessing from Isaac, lifting his voice and weeping. Isaac did not revoke his blessing to Jacob, probably trusting God to work things out and possibly by now recognizing Jacob as God's choice in view of Jacob's superior appreciation for the promises. He then issued Esau a lesser blessing.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that Esau, in seeking the blessing of the firstborn, was "rejected," by Isaac and ultimately by God, finding "no place for repentance." Although Jacob connived to steal the blessing, Esau demonstrated long ago that he didn't value it highly. The implication is that if he really wanted it, he could have had it. He had begun making choices at an early age to disrespect the promises of God and make his own promises. At this point in his life, he has hardened himself to the point that he is beyond repentance. It is impossible to bring him to repentance (Hebrews 6:6). If this is the case, what, then, are all the tears about? He regretted his loss, not his immorality or godlessness. To some degree he sees value in the blessing, but not the God of the blessing. He's sorry that he got caught, not for what he did. His is not sorrow that "produces a repentance without regret" but the sorrow of the world that "produces death" (2 Corinthians 7:10). He was rejected, and he could not repent, because his decisions to be immoral and godless conditioned himself against true repentance, true change of heart.

Having spurned the grace of God, a root of bitterness sprung up in Esau: "So Esau bore a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, 'The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob'" (Genesis 27:41).

Esau missed the grace of God. The grace of God comes to us as well in the form of his promise of eternal inheritance. Is it a promise we value? How much is it worth to us? For Esau, it was worth one meal. There are lots of "meals" out there, so to speak, advertising themselves as superior to God's promises. If we make enough choices like Esau, we could end up in the place he did - the place where one can't find repentance. If we get tired of waiting on God and say, "What's really important is this meal, this earth, this man, this woman," we could end up like Esau. We make our own promises. We make our own blessings. We find our own grace. We write our own story.

Brent Curtis and John Eldredge write in "The Sacred Romance": "Through baseball and politics and music and sex and even church, we are searching desperately for a larger story in which to live and find our role. All of these smaller stories offer a taste of meaning, adventure, or conectedness. But none of them offers the real thing; they aren't large enough. Our loss of confidence in a larger story is the reason we demand immediate gratification. We need a sense of being alive now, for now is all we have. Without a past that was planned for us and a future that waits for us, we are trapped in the present. There's not enough room for our souls in the present."
The refusal of God's grace is tragic, because God's offer features a great city.

Revelation of grace (12:18-24)

Hebrews 12:18-24:

(18) For you have not come to a mountain that may 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 should 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 first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men 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 writer now contrasts the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. The Jewish readers of Hebrews were likely being pressured to return to the old, safer, more comfortable forms of worship. To yield to the pressure would be to miss the grace of God and to make a choice similar to that of Esau; that's why the section begins with the word "for," tying it together with the previous section. The writer contrasts the two covenants by contrasting two mountains: the physical Mount Sinai and the spiritual Mount Zion. He says that "you have not come to" the physical Sinai but that "you have come to" the spiritual Zion. He leaves no doubt which place is preferable.

The scene recalled in verses 18 through 21 is described in Exodus 19-20. After the Lord delivered them from Egypt, the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai to enter into a covenant relationship with him. The Lord expressed himself in audible and visual ways. Unlike the spiritual Mount Zion, the physical Mount Sinai could be "touched," but if one touched it, he would be stoned.

The manifestations of fire, darkness, gloom, a whirlwind and a trumpet blast, and the words of the Lord, caused the people to tremble with fear (Exodus 20:18). They were so afraid that they didn't want to hear any more words from the Lord and asked for Moses only to talk with the Lord. Even an animal, if it moved up the mountain toward the presence of the Lord, would be stoned. The people could not "bear" the command. Such was the fearsome nature of the manifestation and the warning that even remaining at the foot of the mountain, considerably distant from the presence of the Lord, was a terrifying proposition. Even the mediator of the covenant, Moses, was "full of fear and trembling," as he reported in Deuteronomy 9:19.

A significantly different scene is described in verses 22 through 24. Mount Sinai is in the wilderness; Mount Zion is in the promised land. The spiritual Mount Zion is in the heavenly promised land - an even better place. The city of Jerusalem was built on Mount Zion. This spiritual Zion is a place to settle down and live life in community with others, unlike Mount Sinai, which was a temporary outpost in the wilderness. Jerusalem was called the city of God (Psalm 48:1), and so is this Jerusalem, which is called "heavenly," as opposed to Mount Sinai, which is earthly.

Myriads of angels are here, serving the Lord, worshiping him and ministering to us. Israel gathered at Mount Sinai as the Lord's firstborn son (Exodus 4:22), the people of his blessing. Now the "church" (ekklesia - the same word often used for the assembly of Israel in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament), followers of Jesus Christ from all nations, constitute, literally, God's "firstborns." Each of us is God's firstborn, a child of blessing. What's more, we have been "enrolled in heaven," where we are citizens (Philippians 3:20). We've come to God, as opposed to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, who remained distant from God. We've come to God "the judge of all," which could be a terrifying proposition, as it was for the Israelites, if it weren't that those gathered are "the spirits of righteous men made perfect." Righteous people have no need to fear judgment, and they are righteous because the have been made perfect, and they have been made perfect because they have come "to Jesus."

Moses, the mediator of the Old Covenant, was "full of fear and trembling" because of the presence of the Lord, but such is not the case for Jesus, the mediator of the New Covenant. When the Old Covenant was made, Moses sprinkled the blood of animals on the people (Exodus 24:8). Under the New Covenant we are sprinkled with the blood of Jesus, which is quite obviously a better kind of blood. Specifically, it "speaks better than the blood of Abel." The voice of the blood of Abel, after he was killed by his brother Cain, cried out to God (Genesis 4:10). God responded by cursing Cain from the ground - by judging him for his actions. While the voice of Cain's blood cried out for judgment, the voice of Jesus' blood cries out for forgiveness. The Old Covenant called for curses if it was rejected, culminating in removal from the promised land. There is no such provision in the New Covenant, for the blood of Christ deals decisively and completely with sins.

Why are the two covenants so different? On Mount Sinai, the Lord was expressing his holiness, and such expression sent a clear message to the Israelites that mediation was needed and that rejection of the covenant would result in judgment. In the New Covenant, God hasn't changed; he just reveals himself more fully. Throughout history, God is in the process of revealing himself, so it's a progressive revelation. The change is not in God but in what he reveals of himself. He has always been a God of grace, but how could his grace be completely revealed until the revelation of his Son?

Although God's grace has been revealed in Christ, how many of us are working off a Mount Sinai picture of God? It's easy for us to think of God as unapproachable, eager to judge, the speaker of unbearable words. Because of Jesus, we have a fuller picture of God, and we don't have to relate to him the way the Israelites did. God, reigning as king in this city atop the heavenly mountain, is approachable. We are not down at the foot of the mountain, trembling in fear. We're at the top of the mountain, in the presence of the king, intimate with him, dwelling in the a city bustling with the life of people with joy in their spirits for being cleansed by the better blood, joined by worshiping angels.

The writer says that "you have come to Mount Zion." There is a sense in which we are "seeking the city which is to come" (Hebrews 13:14), but there is another sense, the Hebrews 12 sense, in which we have already come to it. Now that we are here, dwelling in this Zion, what do we do but enjoy it? What do we do but enjoy each other and serve each other? What do we do but enjoy the Lord and serve him? What do we do but listen to his voice? There are words from God in both covenants. On Mount Sinai, they couldn't bear any more words. But here, in the Mount Zion of heaven, God speaks words of grace through the blood of Jesus. He says, "I forgive you. I accept you. I love you." He speaks words that invite us to enjoy the heavenly Zion.

Beautiful words can change everything. In the movie "The Shawshank Redemption," prisoner Andy Dufrene pulls one over on the guards and manages to play a recording of a duet from "The Marriage of Figaro" over the loudspeaker. Every prisoner immediately stopped what he was doing and listened intently. The words were in Italian, but for prisoners who hear no music at all, they were beautiful. Andy's buddy Red, another prisoner, said, "It was like a beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free." God's words of grace have that kind of effect. They can change everything.

Response to grace (12:25-29)

Hebrews 12:25-29:

(25) See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven. (26) And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven." (27) And this expression, "Yet once more," denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, in order that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. (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.

If God speaks such words of grace through the blood of Christ, who would want to "refuse him who is speaking." Yet, there are those who choose to do so. There are those, like Esau, who reject the Lord and choose another city. For all of God's grace revealed in Jesus Christ, he has not changed. Those who reject him today are judged, just as those who rejected him then, and there is no escape. In fact, it looks as if the refusal of greater revelation results in greater judgment, for "much less shall we escape who turn away from him who warns from heaven."

At Mount Sinai, the Lord's voice shook the earth, a manifestation of his holiness that promised judgment for rejection of the covenant. The Lord is not through with the shaking. The writer of Hebrews recalls the prophet Haggai, whom the Lord used to promise to once more "shake not only the earth but also the heaven" (Haggai 2:6). The shaking of both the earth and the heaven is imagery that conveys complete and final judgment.

This shaking of the cosmos will result in the removal of "created things" and the survival of "things which cannot be shaken." That means that this creation will pass away and that there will be a new creation. The shaking of heaven and earth leaves only heaven. What survives is this "kingdom which cannot be shaken." It's the people of the kingdom of God who survive the judgment. The people outside the kingdom don't survive it.

What is the kingdom? It's what the writer described in verses 22 through 24. It's Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, with God on the throne. This is what we "receive." "Therefore," because we receive this awesome kingdom, we should show gratitude, or, literally, "have gratitude." What other response can there be to the grace of God, once we understand it? Through gratitude, and not through compulsion or guilt, do we serve, or worship, God in an acceptable manner. God doesn't want what we have to do but what we want to do. Such gratitude means our worship will be "with reverence and awe." This means we will "pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord." It means we won't miss the grace of God. It means we will value God's blessing and, more importantly, God himself.

If this world seems somewhat shaky, it is. God himself will shake it into oblivion. The things of this world cannot be trusted, and they will not last. If we were citizens of this world, we have reason to feel shaky about life. But we have come to a different world, a different city - one that can't be shaken.

Another reason for being grateful is that "our God is a consuming fire." This brings to mind Moses' words after he warned Israel against forgetting the covenant and worshiping other Gods: "For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God" (Deuteronomy 4:24). The imagery, then, means that the Lord is jealous, that he wants us to worship him and him only. Why should we be grateful for this? Who wants a lover who isn't jealous? If a wife leaves a husband and the husband doesn't care, he was never the kind of husband a woman would want in the first place. He wasn't the kind of husband who wanted his wife. We worship a God who wants us, who is consumed with us, who burns with passion for us. That is something to be thankful for.

Enjoy the city

Hebrews 12 represents the fulfillment of Isaiah 35. The prophet Isaiah said that Jerusalem would be conquered by Babylon and that Israel would go into exile. His prophecy was fulfilled in 586 B.C. But he also said that the Lord in his grace would bring Israel back to Jerusalem and restore it to himself. That prophecy too was fulfilled - in part. Although the Israelites returned, they never returned to anything approaching Isaiah's expectations - until the arrival of Christ, that is. Isaiah 35, in rich symbolic language, lays out the return from exile. Because of this great future, Isaiah says, "Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble" (Isaiah 35:3), words echoed by the writer of Hebrews: "Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble ... " (Hebrews 12:12). Isaiah 35 ends with these words: "And the ransomed of the Lord will return, and come with joyful shouting to Zion, with everlasting joy upon their heads. They will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away" (Isaiah 35:10). Isaiah predicts that the ransomed of the Lord, those redeemed by him, will "come ... to Zion." The writer of Hebrews says that "you have come to Mount Zion." That which is predicted in Isaiah is seen as fulfilled in Hebrews.

Here's what Isaiah envisioned as characterizing this arrival at Zion: joyful shouting; everlasting joy; gladness; and, again, joy. Sorrow and sighing flee away. Because in some sense we are still seeking the city to come, sorrow and sighing haven't completely fled away. But here and now, there is joy - substantial joy. That's what the writer of Hebrews indicates by his description of the Zion to which we have come.

Where is this mountain? It's a spiritual mountain, which means it's here. We're living on it right now. We're living in the city right now. It's here with us this morning, in the Mitchell Park Community Center. It's the city of God, the people of God. So, what do we do in this city? We enjoy it! We enjoy the Lord! We enjoy each other! After all, it's a city of joy. This afternoon, go to lunch together and share a meal and your lives with each other. Play football this afternoon or basketball next Saturday morning with Walter and the gang. Play on one of our volleyball or softball teams with "Coach" Dalan. See Kathy about helping with the Harvest Festival at the church next Saturday. Join in the group that Mo is taking to the opera next month. Help flood victims repair their homes, as we did a few weeks ago. Talk to Wayne about joining the hospitality team and make Mount Zion an even better place to live. Gather in your small groups and study and pray and share your hearts with each other. If you're not in a small group, find out from Lydia or Sandy how to get involved in one. Come Wednesday nights to the Community Bible Study at Mo's house to dig into the word of God yourself with others who want to hear from the Lord. Enjoy the city!

And don't forget to listen to the voice of grace as God speaks forgiveness and acceptance and love to you from his throne. You just might want to listen to it forever.

- SCG, 10-25-98