Lectionary Commentaries for August 21, 2022
Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 13:10-17

Carolyn J. Sharp

The Gospel of Luke opens with dramatic appearances of the archangel Gabriel, who announces to Zechariah the prophetic ministry of his future son John (1:13–17) and tells Mary that her child, the Son of the Most High, will reign forever (1:31–33). The jubilant prophetic responses of Mary (1:46–55) and Zechariah (1:68–79), with prophetic confirmation from the holy Simeon (2:28–35), set the tone for Luke’s unfolding narrative. The theme of divine mercy is featured prominently in Mary’s and Zechariah’s songs. For Luke, mercy (eleos) is at the heart of what God is doing in Jesus (1:50, 54, 58, 72, 78). 

Simeon emphasizes the “light for revelation” the discerning will see in Jesus: this illumination is “glory” for believers but will also spur opposition (2:32, 34). For Luke, following Jesus requires that believers emulate the ways in which divine mercy is enacted through Jesus’ ministry, persevering even in the face of hostility. As a youth, Jesus had studied with scribes (2:41–52; only in Luke). Jesus has grown in wisdom and now offers revelatory insight through his teachings on the Sabbath, starting with his inaugural proclamation from Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue as defining for his mission (4:14–21). Jesus grants healing and liberation to those struggling with economic precarity, incarceration, and other conditions of diminishment. In Lukan theology, Jesus, the deliverer of Israel (1:54–55, 69–75, 77–79), is a Spirit-filled teacher whose words and deeds are prophetic and emancipatory.

In 13:10–17 preachers find a powerful story, unique to Luke, in which Jesus heals a woman who has suffered for eighteen years from severe forward flexion of her spine, as occurs with orthopedic conditions such as ankylosing spondylitis. Preachers might describe the challenges to wellbeing that could result from her debilitating condition: neck and back pain, fatigue, difficulty breathing, heart problems related to inflammation of the aorta, and, potentially, feelings of frustration, vulnerability, or isolation. Exploring what this woman has endured over years of what Jesus terms Satanic bondage (verse 16), preachers should take care that their words show no insensitivity to hearers living with inflammatory bone disease or mobility challenges.1

Jesus speaks an emancipatory word before he puts his healing touch on the suffering woman. The word Jesus speaks is mighty to heal, as Luke demonstrates again and again (4:39; 5:24–25; 6:10; 8:28–33; 9:42; 17:12–14; 18:40–43). Jesus’ word can even raise the dead (7:14–15; 8:52–55). Here, preachers might point to the exemplary request of a centurion, “Only speak the word, and let my servant be healed,” a petition taken to demonstrate superlative faith (7:2–10). In Luke 13, Jesus says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” and immediately her spine is straightened. The praise offered by this “daughter of Abraham” serves as a paradigmatic faithful response to the God who has shown unfailing mercy to Israel’s ancestors (1:54–55, 72–75) and now works life-restoring miracles through Jesus.

The synagogue leader, in his role as teacher of Torah, objects to Jesus having performed a healing on the Sabbath. The commandment forbidding work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10; 31:14–15; Leviticus 23:3; Deuteronomy 5:14) leaves “work” undefined, allowing for various interpretations from ancient times to today. A list in Mishnah Shabbat 7:2 of thirty-nine kinds of labor forbidden on the Sabbath includes such tasks as sowing, baking, hunting, writing, building, and leading from one domain to another, that last category featured in Jesus’ riposte when he observes pointedly that his opponents lead livestock to the watering trough on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15). 

The list of types of forbidden labor does not discuss healing. Rabbinic authorities agreed that lifesaving intervention was permitted on the Sabbath, but were divided on whether healings of non-life-threatening conditions, such as a withered hand (Mark 3:1–5; parallels in Matthew 12:9–13; Luke 6:6–10) or the orthopedic disease that had afflicted the woman for years in our Luke 13 passage, should be healed on the Sabbath. Some interpreters would aver that miracle-working ought not be forbidden, even theoretically, in regulations designed to shape faithful life in the covenant community, since stipulations regarding what is permitted and what is forbidden were intended to honor the Holy One whose divine power would be performing any authentic miracle that occurred. 

A pivotal moment comes in 13:15 when the Lukan narrator identifies Jesus as the “Lord” (kyrios) during the dispute: on this matter, Jesus’ authority is elevated over that of the Temple leader. Jesus frames the woman’s release from suffering as a matter of cosmological significance: in setting the woman free from her condition, Jesus has defeated Satan on this holy day, honoring God and pointing to liberation as a fundamental characteristic of God’s realm.

This passage challenges all who have settled into narrow interpretations of Scripture or ungenerous theological positions. In what ways might ecclesial authorities or seasoned believers interpret Christian theological traditions or liturgical praxes in ways that accord with long-established norms but may miss the heart of what it means to be a “new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17)? Preachers can explore in contextually resonant ways the linkage of this story of emancipation with the theme of liberation in the Sabbath rationale given in Deuteronomy 5:15: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” Preachers can urge hearers to encounter Jesus, in his healings and teachings, as the embodiment of radical good news for the poor, release for the captives, and emancipation for the oppressed (4:18).


  1.  Instructive for preachers is John T. Carroll, “Disability and Dis-ease: Body, Restoration, and Ethics of Reading in Luke’s Gospel,” in Anatomies of the Gospels and Beyond: Essays in Honor of R. Alan Culpepper, ed. Mikeal C. Parsons, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, and Paul N. Anderson; Biblical Interpretation 164 (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 211–225.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 58:9b-14

Brennan Breed

Isaiah 56-66 addresses the community returning from the Babylonian exile to the dysfunctional and disappointing Persian-ruled territory of Yehud (Judah) in the years following 539 BCE.

Jerusalem remained mostly a pile of rubble until the time of Nehemiah (circa 445 BCE), a hundred years after the return. Stark social, economic, and religious divisions characterized the hardscrabble community surrounding the still-ruined capital. The soaring promises of Isaiah 40-55 (see 54:9-17), directed to the exilic community on the cusp of return to the land, have met with the difficult realities of rebuilding a shattered society.

Among the many problems in Yehud were widespread economic predation and enslavement of the vulnerable by the wealthy elite (see Nehemiah 5:1-7), a deep-seated fear of foreigners and cultural change that fueled an obsession with ethnic and linguistic purity (see also Nehemiah 13:23-29), and conflicts over religious observances such as the Sabbath (see 13:15-22). The priestly elite at the temple embezzled tithes set aside to feed Levites (13:10-14), and the religious and political elite stole considerable funds given by Emperor Cyrus intended for the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s temple, using them to sustain a lavish lifestyle (see Haggai 1:1-4).

Meanwhile, the elites blamed foreign meddling for the delay in rebuilding the temple, even though those “foreigners” were devoted worshippers of YHWH who had lived in Israel for generations and were eager to help (Ezra 4:1-5). Those who had returned from the Babylonian exile considered themselves the only true Jews, whereas the agriculturalist “people of the land” were an impure group reminiscent of the Canaanites (Ezra 10:1-44). While the return to the land of Judah had seemed like an amazing opportunity to renew life in the land, it quickly returned to the old corrupt, hierarchical order.

In Isaiah 56-66 (often called “Third Isaiah”), an anonymous prophet steeped in the tradition of Isaiah of Jerusalem offers a series of sharp rebukes to proponents of cultural, ethnic, and economic exclusion and generates an alternative vision of the beloved community. Third Isaiah opens with divine exhortations to pursue justice and righteousness (Isaiah 56:1; see 5:7), to infuse spirituality and religious observance with community-minded ethics (56:2; see also 5:18-19), and to include within the community of YHWH both foreigners and persons whose sex or gender does not fit the binary categories of male and female (56:3-8; see also 2:2-4). This anonymous prophet also references the ancient law of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) in a call to liberate all those oppressed and begin the work of rebuilding a new, just society (Isaiah 61:1-4).

The concerns of Isaiah 56-66 respond to the specific problems of Yehud in the early Persian period (circa 530-450 BCE). The anonymous prophet of Isaiah 56-66 would have conflicted with the nationalistic, hierarchical, and ethnocentric messages of the elite.

Isaiah 58 is a series of linked oracles that challenge the social sins of Yehud. Though the people are attentive to religious matters (58:1-2), they expect that their acts of public contrition will yield predictable material benefits from YHWH. As a result, they become frustrated when YHWH appears unimpressed with their elaborate rituals (verse 3). God responds by pointing out that fasting is meaningless if it is accompanied by economic and social oppression (verses 4-5). Yet God asserts that the enactment of radical political, economic, and social liberation for all people would reap tremendous material and spiritual blessings, and God would dwell in the midst of the community (58:6-9a). The prophet does not seem to reject ritual in general, but merely the instrumental use of rituals to manipulate God, as if with a bribe (see Micah 6:1-8). Likewise, the prophet addresses the religious practice of Sabbath (Isaiah 58:13-14), which was intended to provide rest to the vulnerable (Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:27) but has been used for people’s “own interests” and their “own affairs” (see Amos 8:4-6).

In verses 9b-14, the prophet presents a series of conditional (if-then) statements that map out how the people of Yehud might recover their spiritual and communal wholeness—for the two are inextricably linked. Feeding the hungry and tending to the needs of those oppressed is a non-negotiable starting point for communal healing (see Isaiah 61:1-4; Matthew 25:31-46). In verse 9b, the prophet demands that the people “remove the yoke,” which refers to the common ancient Near Eastern symbol for economic and political burdens imposed by overlords (see 14:25; Jeremiah 28).

One striking example of pointing fingers and speaking evil in the service of oppression (Isaiah 58:9b) can be found in 1 Kings 21, in which the elite conspire to defraud an innocent commoner of his prime piece of land. The elites of Israel often find it frustrating that YHWH has divided the agricultural land equally so that all people may have access to life-sustaining economic productivity in perpetuity (see Leviticus 25:13; Joshua 13:7). They continually seek to impose “the yoke” and so enrich themselves (Micah 2:1-2)—yet this is precisely why God toppled the Pharaonic power structure and freed the Hebrew slaves (Leviticus 26:13), and why God toppled the Judahite power structure in 587 BCE (Jeremiah 7:1-15). God wants the pious elite of Yehud to take note and break the yoke themselves this time (Isaiah 58:6, 9).

If they do break the yoke, God promises communal healing and blessing that will feel like bright sunshine breaking through gloom (verse 10) and cool water quenching brutal thirst (verse 11). The prophet here describes the measurable, provable cause-and-effect relationship that exists between communal liberation and communal healing. So long as some members of the community are oppressed, everyone is living in an unhealthy and soul-harming environment –even the elite. As the Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus wrote, famously quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Communal transformation creates the potential for true blessing for all to emerge. The prophet envisions this communal renewal as a physical reconstruction of the ancient city of Jerusalem, which will be built as a place that the people together might truly “live in” (Isaiah 58:12). Perhaps it is no coincidence that, as he is in the midst of his rebuilding project, Nehemiah discovers the need to liberate his neighbors who have fallen prey to rapacious economic practices of the elite (Nehemiah 5).

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus inaugurates his own ministry with a reading from Isaiah 61 (Luke 4:16-21). Jesus faced a situation quite similar to the anonymous prophet of Isaiah 56-66: a foreign power structure imposed a yoke of hierarchical economic and social exploitation that leveraged the cravenness of certain local religious and political elites who were callous enough to sell out their own people. Extreme inequality and socio-political alienation are often conjoined forces, and today is no exception. The vulnerable are crying out for help (Exodus 22:21-23), even in the midst of the wealthiest and most powerful society that has ever existed — and a particularly religious one, as well. Perhaps we need prophets who are bold enough to envision a world of communal renewal that births spiritual and social blessing that knows no bounds (Isaiah 58:11; 2:1-4; Genesis 12:1-3).


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 25, 2019.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10

Michael L. Ruffin

As we prepare to preach on Jeremiah 1:4-10, we need to decide from which perspective we are going to interpret and apply the text. The introductory verses (1:1-3) that lead into our text suggest a couple of options.

First, we could try to hear the passage as the prophet Jeremiah’s original audience would have heard it. The fact that Jeremiah 1:2-3 provides the historical context of Jeremiah’s ministry commends this approach. If we choose to preach the text from this perspective, we will think about how its message would have spoken to the prophet’s original hearers, what commonalities our listeners share with them, and how we can apply the message of the text to people in our contemporary context. 

Second, we could try to hear the passage as the book of Jeremiah’s original audience would have heard it. The introduction to the book says that the prophet’s career lasted until the eleventh and final year of the reign of king Zedekiah (587 BCE), which was when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and sent many people from Judah into exile in Babylon. We know from the book of Jeremiah that the prophet’s ministry continued for several years after those events, including for some time in Egypt (see chapters 42–44). Moreover, we know from Jeremiah 52, most of which is taken from 2 Kings 24–25, that the book of Jeremiah was still being edited well into the Babylonian exile (see especially Jeremiah 52:31-34, which report the release from prison of the exiled king Jehoiachin in 560 BCE). If we choose to preach the text from the perspective of the exilic audience of the book of Jeremiah, we will seek commonalities between that audience and our congregation.

I would like to suggest another option for our approach to Jeremiah 1:4-10. It derives from the first two options, but it goes beyond them in offering a direct connection between the message of the words of the prophet Jeremiah in their historical context and the words of the book of Jeremiah in its canonical context on one hand and our preaching context on the other.

I suggest that we focus on the church’s mission of proclaiming the word of God. This approach takes seriously the fact that the word of God that Jeremiah proclaimed in his historical context and that the exiles heard in theirs is the same word of God that the church proclaims in our context. It treats Jeremiah’s experience of receiving, experiencing, and delivering the word of God as a paradigm for the church’s experience. Such an approach can open us up to some possibilities of contemporary relevance for Jeremiah 1:4-10.

Jeremiah’s purpose/the Church’s purpose (verses 4-5)

We can reasonably assume that our passage intends to report Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet. Jeremiah 1:2 says that the word of the Lord first came to Jeremiah in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign, which was 627 BCE. We are not told how the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. As we will see, there are visionary aspects to Jeremiah’s experience of the word—Jeremiah will later say that the Lord touches his mouth (verse 9). Perhaps we can also think of Jeremiah receiving strong impressions and even auditory revelations of the word of the Lord. The point is that the word of the Lord in fact came to the prophet. 

The word of the Lord has also come to the church. The word has come to us—and continues to come to us—in Jesus Christ, who is the Word made flesh (John 1:14). Jesus is the primary and ultimate revelation of the word of God to us. The word also comes to us in and through the Holy Spirit, through the events of life, and through other people. 

God tells Jeremiah that God knew, appointed, and set him apart as a prophet even before he was born. This means that God had a special purpose in mind for Jeremiah’s life. That purpose was for Jeremiah to serve as God’s prophet. This means that he was to serve as God’s spokesperson, which in turn means that he was to proclaim God’s word to the nations. 

God has also set the Church apart to serve as proclaimers of God’s word to the nations. The Great Commission summarizes our commission (Matthew 28:19-20), and the entire New Testament and the history of the Church (acknowledging the problematic aspects of that history) bear witness to it. God’s intentional purpose was for Jeremiah to proclaim God’s word. That is also God’s intentional purpose for the Church. 

Jeremiah’s hesitation/the Church’s hesitation (verses 6-8)

Jeremiah does not immediately embrace the claim that God has made on his life. He protests, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” The Hebrew word translated “boy” can also mean a youth. Jeremiah may simply be saying that he is too young and inexperienced to do what God has called him to do. He may also be making the related claim that he lacks the necessary training to speak for God. The opening verse of the book says that Jeremiah was a member of a priestly family in Anathoth, but most interpreters of the book see no evidence that he functioned as a priest. But they do see evidence that he knew and used major traditions in his preaching. Still, we can’t know what Jeremiah knew at this point in his life. We can surely assume that he learned more as he lived, served, and matured. 

Jeremiah’s hesitation has basis in fact—he is young, inexperienced, and untrained. The negative side to such hesitation is that it could be grounded in a desire to evade the responsibility that God is placing on him. The positive side to such hesitation is that it could demonstrate humility. Surely it would be arrogant to assume that one has the native ability or the skill set to be God’s spokesperson.

The church should accept with appropriate humility our responsibility to proclaim the word of the Lord. We should recognize and acknowledge our limitations. But we should not seek to evade the call that God has placed on our lives. 

God told Jeremiah that he should not focus on his youth or inability. He should focus rather on obedience and on dependence. That is, he should do what God tells him to do, and he should do so with trust that God will accompany him in his mission and deliver him from his opponents. 

The church is also to carry out our ministry of the word with obedience and with trust. How can we encourage our congregations to do so?

Jeremiah’s empowerment/the Church’s empowerment (verses 9-10)

God has told Jeremiah what God’s purpose for Jeremiah’s life is. Jeremiah has expressed hesitation about accepting his assignment. God has told him to obey God and to trust God. Now, God undertakes action to make it clear that God empowers Jeremiah to undertake and fulfill his commission. In a visionary and symbolic action, the Lord touches Jeremiah’s mouth and puts the Lord’s words in his mouth. God also says that God’s words working through Jeremiah will contribute to the fall and rise of nations. God uses four negative words and two positive ones to name how God’s words will work through Jeremiah’s ministry to accomplish God’s will in the world. Given the nature of Jeremiah’s prophecies, it is probably no accident that the Lord uses twice as many negative as positive words, nor that the list ends with positive words. 

God also puts God’s word in the church’s mouth. We proclaim that word, which we know most fully and experience most personally in Jesus Christ, with our words, with our perspectives, with our attitudes, with our relationships, and with our actions. We can’t know how God will work through God’s word as it flows through us to the world, but we can know that it will accomplish God’s purpose. We can trust that God is empowering us to effectively proclaim God’s word.


Commentary on Psalm 103:1-8

Vanessa Lovelace

Verse one of Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name” has inspired musical arrangements for generations.1

Psalm 103 is an individual song or hymn of praise. Specifically, the object of the praise is the Lord and the individual rather than the community adjures her or himself to praise the Lord. Support of this classification includes the use of the imperative singular form of the Hebrew verb barak, “bless” four times by the psalmist in verses 1-2 and 20-22.

The imperative form evokes intense feelings of immediacy and importance. It is a command to do or say something. Another characteristic of the song of praise is a description of the reasons why the Lord should be praised. One doesn’t need a reason to praise the Lord, but the psalmist nonetheless includes such justifications as the Lord’s majesty, steadfast love, mercy, and justice, on one hand, and rescue, deliverance, and healing on the other hand.

Psalm 103 has the superscription “Of David.” This psalm is one among 73 psalms attributed to David in the Old Testament hymn book. There is a tradition of ascribing the authorship of most psalms to David. However, most scholars agree that the superscriptions are later redactions. This view should not be regarded as dismissive of David’s role in the composition of the psaltery. Rather, it is more helpful to consider the importance for the ancient community of associating David and the monarchy with the divine-human relationship expressed in the psalms.

Still, the presence of the feminine voice in Psalm 103 should not be disregarded either. Despite the use of masculine pronouns by many commentators to refer to the psalmist, perhaps due to the Davidic attribution, Hebrew nouns and verbs are gendered, and the psalmist speaks in the feminine voice when exhorting oneself to barak the Lord.

I will bless the Lord with my whole being

The closely related Hebrew noun berek for “kneel” suggests that to bless the Lord involves kneeling before or lying prostrate before the Lord. It is not then enough in Psalm 103:1 for the song writer to just bless the Lord but to also do so with his or her soul. The Hebrew noun nephesh translated in English as “soul” also means “life,” “being,” or “inmost being.” The psalmist expresses the same sentiment in different words in the next line: “all that is within me.” We are offered a glimpse into the mindset of the psalmist who understands that to bless the Lord is to utter a full-throated, bodily response in recollection of the Lord’s benefits (Psalm 103:2).

Speaking in the second person the psalmist reckons all of the benefits that God has bestowed on him or her in verses 3-5. God forgives your sins (Psalm 103:3). There is a semantic range of meanings for the term of “sin” in the Hebrew Bible lexicon. The Hebrew noun for “sin” in verse three is ’aon, which means “guilt,” “iniquity,” “a mistake,” or “unjust” act.

The psalmist can be confident that God does not cause her or him to suffer the guilt or consequences of their iniquities because God forgives. God heals your diseases. God is the divine healer who makes the psalmist whole. God redeems your life (Psalm 103:4). To redeem (ga’al) is a legal term in Hebrew, which refers to one person buying back another person or possession from the bondage of debt. Here it is God who has rescued the psalmist from the snare of the Pit or trap, an expression meaning to rescue from the grave. Not only has God saved the psalmist from life threatening illness and injury, but God also bestows good things upon the psalmist. God crowns you with steadfast love (hesed) and mercy (Psalm 103:4). Both terms have the covenantal relationship between God and Israel in the background. Finally, God satisfies you. The psalmist is supplied with a lifetime of good things, which in turn rejuvenate the psalmist as in his or her youth (Psalm 103:5).

God is on the side of the oppressed

The hymn shifts in verse 6 from the individual to the communal in singing of the Lord’s righteousness (“vindication”) and justice on behalf of those who are oppressed. James H. Cone, regarded as the father of Black liberation theology, wrote God of the Oppressed to grapple with the socio-historical situation of blacks in the U.S. and the response found within the gospel of Jesus Christ. Fundamental to Cone’s theological construct was that God was on the side of the poor and oppressed. For Cone and the psalmist, the oppressed are the politically or socially downtrodden.

In Psalm 103:6 the inference is that the oppressed are the people of Israel, who God sided with. As evidence, the psalmist points to God’s self-revelation to Moses through God’s salvific acts towards the people of Israel in the wilderness (Psalm 103:7). It was to Moses in Exodus 34:6 that God showed an abundance of restraint after the golden calf incident, declaring that the Lord is a God who is “merciful and gracious,” “slow to anger,” and “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” The psalmist finds that these words bear repeating in verse 8, although faithfulness is omitted here. The Lord’s steadfast love (hesed) for Israel is mentioned for the second time in this passage (see also Psalm 103:11), underscoring its significance for the relationship between God and Israel. In the context of the Babylonian exile, Psalm 103 offers hope that despite Israel’s iniquities, God’s loyalty to the covenant is expressed as God’s forgiveness.

Just as important as it is to bless God, we should also not forget the psalmist’s message that since God is quick to forget our iniquities, we should be swift to recount the benefits that God has bestowed on us. In the words of gospel singer and songwriter Andre Crouch, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. He has done great things. Bless his holy name.”


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 25, 2019.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 12:18-29

Christopher T. Holmes

This week’s lectionary text from Hebrews, the third of four during this lectionary cycle, depends on the ancient rhetorical device known as synkrisis. In these ten verses, the author makes several comparisons: between a tangible Mount Sinai and the intangible Mount Zion (12:18–24), between a group of listeners at the first mountain and the group at the second (12:19, 12:25), between the earthly and heavenly location of divine warning (12:25), between the shaking of things on earth and the shaking of things in heaven (12:26), and between that which is shakeable and that which is unshakeable (12:27–28). 

The reference to Esau in 12:16 provides an important framework for the passage. The author describes him as both a fornicator and an unclean person. It is the author’s depiction of Esau as fundamentally faithless that proves most important for interpreting Hebrews 12:18–29. Esau, the author reminds the audience, “sold his own rights as a firstborn” for a single meal. This choice, made during a time of great physical need, proved disastrous and irreversible (12:17). 

Why include this warning about becoming like Esau, just phrases before contrasting two mountains? One connection is the author’s contrast between the tangible (psēlaphaō), the first word used to describe the mountain in 12:18, and the intangible. Esau traded something intangible—his birthright—for something tangible—a single meal. He couldn’t see past his present hunger to appreciate the true gift of his intangible birthright. This same basic contrast between tangible and intangible controls the comparison of two mountains in 12:18–24. 

The author’s description of the first mountain combines elements from the description of God’s descent to the mountain in both Deuteronomy 4–5 and Exodus 19. While the language of verses 18–19 evokes descriptions of theophanies generally, the reference to the command about stoning animals that touch the mountain (12:20; see also Exodus 19:12–13) and the mention of Moses make the connection with Mount Sinai more apparent, however. 

The author compares the first mountain with the second mountain, described in verses 22–24. This mountain is named Mount Zion, the site of the city of the living God and the heavenly Jerusalem. This mountain is filled with life: innumerable angels in festal gathering, an assembly of the firstborn who have enrolled in heaven, God, and Jesus. 

The references to “festal gathering,” the “assembly,” and enrollment in heaven all carry political implications.1 Each of these Greek words convey the same basic idea: the audience members have come to or approached an alternative body politic; they’ve drawn near to those enrolled in and actively engaged in the civic life of the city of the Living God. 

The city of the Living God is also the site of important religious realities. First, we see God, portrayed as the “judge of all,” a typical image of God in both prophetic and apocalyptic traditions. Next, we see Jesus, who is named the “mediator of a new covenant,” a designation that recalls the identification of Jesus as the “mediator of a better covenant” (Hebrews 8:6) and his fulfillment of the promise of a new covenant in Jeremiah 33 (see Hebrews 8:8–12). Finally, the author notes the “sprinkled blood” recalls the author’s argument about the effectiveness of Jesus’s blood, which inaugurated the new covenant (see 9:11–22). 

What, then, is the nature of the comparison between the two mountains? Several answers can be offered. The author may be comparing the earthly origins of the first covenant and the heavenly origins of the second. Other suggestions are more theological in nature. The first mountain signifies God’s wrath; the second signifies God’s grace. The first denotes God’s inaccessibility; the second denotes God’s approachability. The first is characterized by fear; the second by joy. 

The preacher will have to weigh these and other options. But she or he should be aware of at least two factors. First, it is inadequate to limit the reality of fear to the first mountain alone. After all, the second mountain includes an innumerable group of angels. Throughout the Bible, the human reaction to angels is always fear, not joy. More significantly, though, fear (or awe) is upheld as the prerequisite for approaching God, even for those under the “new covenant” (see 12:28). 

Second, the preacher must be careful not to draw too strong a wedge between the first mountain and the second mountain, at least in theological terms. While one may accuse the author of Hebrews of supersessionist theology or even of nascent Marcionism in other places, this is not the case here. 

After comparing the two mountains, the author contrasts the hearers gathered at each (12:25). The hearers at the first mountain are characteristically unresponsive to God’s speech. They beg for God’s silence; they refuse to accept God’s warning. Instead, they turn away from God’s speech and craft a god of their own devices. Those who hear God from the second mountain are warned against responding in the same way. The author worries that the audience too will turn away from God’s speech, that they will stop listening or refuse to accept God’s warning. 

What can prevent the inadequate response to God’s word? The author offers up thanksgiving as the preventive measure and the key ingredient to “acceptable worship” conducted with both reverence and awe. The author encourages the audience to express gratitude because they have received “an unshakeable kingdom” (12:28). 

In all, the author essentially transposes the story of Esau with the story of the community. Like Esau, they find themselves in great physical and emotional need (see 10:19–39). While Esau found temporary relief in the tangible benefits of bread, we can imagine similarly tangible relief that may appeal to the audience: withdrawal from the Christian community, accommodation to the religious and political demands of the surrounding world, protection of their lives, possessions, and livelihoods. 

By saying that the audience has come to the second mountain, the author is saying they have come to something intangible but infinitely more valuable. They draw near to benefits that cannot be touched but ones that are worthy of their trust. And, paradoxically, they come to something very tangible: the gathering of others who have put their trust in the God who raised Jesus; they draw near to the very same community that people had begun to fall away from. It is surely within this context that the audience members demonstrate thanksgiving and offer acceptable worship. It is the place where they hear God speak.

In imaginative and theologically rich language, the author invites the audience, and us, to see the tangible gathering of those who worship through thanksgiving as the means of accessing intangible realities and promises. By continuing to gather together, Christians find themselves incorporated into the city of the Living God, joined with a myriad of angels in praise, and reconstituted as members of God’s covenant sealed in Christ’s blood.


  1. A festal gathering (panēgyris) originally referred to a general or national assembly, often in honor of a national god (see LSJ). Similarly, before the use of ekklēsia as a term for Christian communities, the word referred to a regularly summoned legislative body (BDAG). And the verb apographō referred originally to official registration in tax lists.