A Tale of Two Mountains (Hebrews 12:18-29)


Big Idea: Never try to approach God by trying to be good enough. It will destroy you. Through Jesus, receive his unshakable kingdom, and then respond in thankfulness and worship.

Why should God accept you? That is a question that should concern all of us.

When you get to the end of your life and stand before God, why should he look at you and say that you are acceptable? How can we pass the ultimate final exam, the only exam that truly matters, as our lives come under the scrutiny of God? How can we face that day with confidence, knowing that he will give us a passing grade?

There are only two possible answers, and they’re really answers represented by two different mountains. We’re all headed to one of these two mountains, but only one will give us what we’re looking for, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

We’re near the end of a series through the book of Hebrews. The writer is encouraging us to keep following Jesus because he is so much better than anyone or anything else. This chapter is meant to change our lives. The writer of Hebrews wants us to run the race with endurance: to strip off everything that hinders us, to avoid losing what matters most for temporary pleasure, and to keep running the race despite suffering and hardship in our lives. His big goal is to help us cling to Christ and to keep following him to the end.

In this section, he gives us two options for how we can get to the end and know that we’re okay with God. He gives us two mountains. We’re either going to one or the other, so choose carefully. Everything is at stake depending on which mountain you choose.

Mountain One: Sinai (12:18-21)

The writer takes us all the way to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt to the events that took place in Exodus 19 to 20. Israel stayed at Sinai for a total of 11 months, and one of the most important events in the entire Old Testament took place. Moses went up the mountain to be with God. Sinai was covered with a thick cloud, and God himself came to meet with Moses. Think about it: God had rescued them from Egypt, and now he came to meet with them and make them his people.

But meeting with God is no small thing. Because God is so holy, they had to take precautions. God himself was hidden in clouds because his glory would be too great for them to see with their naked eyes. They had to wash their clothes and consecrate themselves in three days of preparation and examination. And even then, they couldn’t get anywhere near Mount Sinai because God is so holy and glorious. We read in Exodus:

And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ (Exodus 19:12-13)

It was terrifying. We read what happened after the three days of preparation:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. (Exodus 19:16-20)

Even then, after Moses went up, God told Moses to go down and warn the people again not to come anywhere near the mountain because it was so dangerous to come close to a holy God.

Friends, this is what it’s like to come into God’s presence. It’s dangerous. Astronomers have discovered a sun that they describe as the brightest star ever found in the universe. Not even a welder's helmet would help you face the light from this giant. The brightness of this star is some 10 million times greater than the light coming from our sun!

Think about that: The star, currently named R136a1, is not twice as bright as our sun, which would be overwhelming in itself if it were the sun that our earth orbited. It is not just 10 times brighter, which is a light so bright we can hardly imagine it. It is not a hundred times brighter or a thousand times brighter than our sun. It is not a million times brighter! This newly identified star is ten million times brighter than our sun! How can anything be that bright?
Thinking about this star gives us a sense of what the glorious presence of God is like, for Scripture says that God is a being who "lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see." (Craig Brian Larson)

You and I cannot come into God’s presence because he is too glorious, too holy. It would kill us. He is “a God who is transcendent, majestic, infinite in righteousness … who blazes with a fiery, passionate love for Himself above all things. He is Creator, Sustainer, Beginning and End. He is robed in a splendor and eternal purity that is blinding. He rules, He reigns, He rages and roars….” (The God Who Smokes).

That’s what the first mountain is like. If you want, you can approach God on that mountain, but you won’t survive. That’s what verses 18 to 21 describe:

…a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”

What’s he talking about? He’s talking about approaching God on the basis of the old covenant, of trying to cleanse yourself and purify yourself for days, and still not be pure enough to approach the mountain. Here’s the problem: no matter what we do, approaching God on the basis of keeping his commands will lead to instant death. Nobody is good enough.

Here’s the problem with approaching God under the terms of the old covenant. It would kill you. Only the high priest could approach God once a year, and only then after careful preparation and only after offering sacrifices.

I don’t recommend approaching God hoping that you’re good enough, because it will destroy you. If you approach God on the basis of any other approach than the second mountain that we’re about to look at, you will perish.

That’s the one way to approach God. You can approach God through Mount Sinai, but it will destroy you. So what’s the alternative?

Mountain Two: Zion (12:22-24)

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (12:22-24)

Here’s the only other way to approach God: to go to Sinai instead of to Zion. Notice the contrast:

  • Instead of the terrifying noise of a whirlwind, trumpet blast, and people carrying out in fear, you have the joyful praise of angels in festal gathering.
  • Instead of a trembling congregation, scared out of their minds, you have an assembly of people whose names are permanently recorded in heaven’s archives.

It “communicates exultation, warmth, openness, acceptance, and relationship, set off in bold relief against the dismal portrait of the Sinai assembly” (George Guthrie).

Don’t climb Sinai. You have a much better mountain to climb.

What exactly is this mountain? It’s what God has given us not under the old covenant of the law, but under the new covenant of his grace. This is our new reality on the basis of the cross.

What he’s saying is that Jesus has made a way for us to enter into God’s presence in a completely different way. Zion symbolizes a God who can be approached on the basis of the saving work of Jesus Christ, not on our own works. Zion represents the new way that God is relating to sinful people — not on the basis of their goodness but the goodness of Jesus. It represents grace, atonement, forgiveness. Don’t go to Sinai, he argues. It will kill you. Go to Zion, where you will find grace upon grace.

“You can’t crawl up Sinai to get to God, but believe me, you can crawl up Zion” (John MacArthur). Going to Sinai with your own good works will kill you, but coming to God on the basis of Jesus’ death on your behalf will lead you into the joyful presence of God and his people.

So What? (12:25-29)

What’s the point of all this? Hebrews gives us two applications in verses 25 to 29:

First: “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking” (12:25).

Here’s what he’s saying.

God has revealed himself in Jesus, who is the pinnacle of God’s revelation. If the stakes were high back in Moses’ day, they’re even higher now. One day God will shake not only a place in the Egyptian wilderness but all earth and heaven in judgment, so it’s even more important that we pay attention to Jesus.

When God shakes heaven and earth, there’s only one place that will not be shaken according to verse 27. That place is Mount Zion. If you come to God on the basis of the work of Jesus, you will stand in the only secure place in the universe on the day of judgment. You will not be shaken. Only see to it that you don’t refuse him who is speaking.

Every week, we aim to point to the grace of Jesus as our only hope. Our only hope as sinners is to place all our trust in what Jesus has done to save us and to follow him. That’s the only way to stand on that day. That message does not come from us but from Jesus himself. See to it that you don’t refuse him who is speaking. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Put all your trust in Jesus today, so you can stand on that day of judgment.

But there’s one other application.

Second, be thankful and worship (12-28-29).

Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

What is the only appropriate way to respond to the good news that we can come to Mount Zion by the grace of Jesus and receive an unshakable kingdom? Thanksgiving and worship. What a God!

When we see what God has done, draw near to our holy God who welcomes you through the finished work of Jesus, and then spend the rest of your life — the rest of eternity — thanking God and worshiping him for such a great salvation.

Never try to approach God by trying to be good enough. It will destroy you. Through Jesus, receive his unshakable kingdom, and then respond in thankfulness and worship.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada