Commentary on Hebrews 12:18-29
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.
- 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.