|Why Even Think of Turning Back? (Hebrews 12:14-29)
Why Even Think of Turning Back?
Minister’s Summary: For those who are disheartened, there is a negative prospect to consider for anyone who turns back from the journey. The stakes are too high. We must not turn back.
I think Hebrews 13 is an epistolary addendum. In other words, Hebrews 12:14-29 is the conclusion of the sermon proper, but Hebrews 13 is the preacher’s additions as it is sent off as a letter. He adds some epistolary features as he sends the sermon to his audience.
Consequently, I believe Hebrews 12:14-29 is the conclusion of the sermon. It is the final word; the final appeal. It is the preacher’s final attempt to persuade his people that they should not turn back from the path they have chosen. They should continue in faith and persevere in the race. They should follow Jesus to the end.
There is joy at the end. There is joy in the present. Consequently, his final appeal contains a grand picture of that “eschatological joy.” Eschatological is one of those big words theologians like to use. But it is very useful. The term eschaton refers to the time when Jesus returns and gathers his people home. It refers to the goal. God is at work to redeem a people for himself and gather them home with him so he might dwell with them forever. This is “eschatological joy.” It is the joy of dwelling with God—being in God’s presence forever.
The preacher uses this joy to persuade his people to hang on. They have not come to Sinai, but to the eschatological assembly of God’s people in the presence of God. They have come to eschatological joy. They have come to the city of God. Even now, as they assemble together, they experience the joy of God’s eschatological presence. They experience the future in the present by faith. Therefore, worship God and be grateful!
This section divides nicely as a theological exposition (Hebrews 12:18-24) sandwiched between two strong exhortations with warnings of judgment (Hebrews 12:14-17 and 12:25-29). The warnings are the preacher’s last attempt to stave off apostasy in the community. His exposition is his last major attempt to encourage perseverance in faith by pointing the church to the reality that Christ has won for them.
1. Exhortation (Hebrews 12:14-17).
Though the community will experience persecution, the preacher appeals to them to live in peace with everyone as much as they can. This is not simply peace within the community of believers, but also to seek peace with the hostile environment in which they live. Peace is the way of holiness, and the church must seek holiness, as it is the way it shares God’s life that is holy.
But more specifically, the preacher is concerned that some will turn away and apostatize. They will trade their inheritance for the comfort of “peace” with their neighbors. We are always in danger of trading our future with God for the comfort of the present (whether it is the comfort of materialism, or the comfort of “getting along” with those who oppose our values). The people of God have a tendency to compromise their values for the sake of comfort. We don’t want to seek peace with those around us in the wrong way—in a way the compromises our values or that creates bitterness within the community of God. Seek peace, but don’t compromise holiness. Seek peace, but don’t give up your eternal inheritance for temporary comforts here.
Esau is the preacher’s example of this thing. He compromised his birthright for the comfort of some food. He traded something of great value for something that was essentially nothing. He traded the eternal for the temporary. In the aftermath—with the recognition that there was no changing what he had done—he sought the blessing with tears. I don’t think this is a reference to someone who wants to repent but cannot. Rather, it is an eternal perspective, an eschatological perspective. That is, the preacher appeals to his hearers not to reject their inheritance because when the blessing is bestowed and the inheritance is received, we will repent of our rejection and seek it with tears. But it will be too late, just as it was too late for Esau.
2. Exposition of the Spiritual Reality (Hebrews 12:18-24)
The exhortation is rooted in the nature of Christian experience—Christians experience the reality of God’s presence. They experience the future in the present. Hebrews 12:18-24 is a contrast between the experience of God’s presence at Sinai and the experience of God’s presence now. The description is “eschatological” in character, that is, it describes the experience of the saints through the eyes of the end. It is the presence of the future. Christians experience God as gathered in his throne room, and this foretaste of the future is experienced in the communal gathering of God’s people.
The description of the Sinaitic experience recalls Exodus 19 (which is quoted in Hebrews 12:20, citing Exodus 19:12-13). Deuteronomy 9:19 is quoted in Exodus 19:21 in relation to Moses’ experience of God on the mountain. It was a terrifying, holy and transcendent experience. God’s holiness excluded sin and sent fearful trembling throughout Israel—so much so that they did not want God to speak directly to them.
This was the “day of assembly” in Israel when the people gathered in the presence of God at the foot of Sinai (Deuteronomy 10:4; 18:16). It is an assembly context. The presence of God is reflected in the thundering, shakings and lightning of the mountain. It is a holy mountain because God’s holy presence is there. But that holiness distances people from the mountain. They have limited access to the mountain. They could not touch the mountain.
A key word in the text is “approach” or “draw near” or “come to” (Hebrews 12:18, 22). It is the same term used in Hebrews 4:16; 7:25; 10:1, 22; 11:6. It is “worship” term; a liturgical term. It means to enter God’s presence. Israel entered God’s presence in a terrifying way at Sinai, but now the church has come to God with eschatological joy, a joy that experiences the fullness of God’s redemptive presence, that is, we experience the future of God’s promise to us in his presence. We come, as an assembly and in the assembly, to God, that is, we enter his presence with boldness and joy.
The new covenant through Jesus brings us to the God himself. We enter the Most Holy Place, God’s own sanctuary. We come to where God lives (Mt. Zion or heavenly Jerusalem). This dwelling-place of God is described by its surroundings.
· Thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly—angels surround the throne of God and live in his holy city. They worship God and the Son as they celebrate the redemption God has accomplished through Jesus. Angels in the assembly surround us.
· To the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven—to the assembly of God’s people that is the company of the redeemed. They have their names written in the book of life. This language is used in OT and Jewish literature for God’s redeemed people. I think this refers to those saints who still live upon the earth. Literally, it reads: “assembly of the firstborn ones.” They are God’s firstborn, the elect ones of God. This is God’s people who are still running the race but are part of God’s election.
· To the spirits of righteous men made perfect—to saints who have received the perfection. They have been perfected by the blood of Jesus and through the suffering of life. The “spirits of righteous persons” was a well-known idiom for dead saints in Jewish intertestamental literature (cf. Jubilees 23:30-31; 1 Enoch 22:9; 102:4; 103:3-4; 2 Apoc. Baruch 30:2). They are righteous in the sense of having received divine approval and by faith (Hebrews 11:4, 7). They are “perfected” in their heavenly glory.
This describes the reality of heavenly glory, and the text affirms that believers on the earth are participants in that reality. We come (approach, draw near) and participate in the assembly of God’s people in his presence. We come to God by the blood of Jesus and we experience the fellowship of angels, dead saints and the church throughout the world.
3. Exhortation (Hebrews 12:25-29).
God has spoken! He spoken at Sinai (Hebrews 12:19), but he also spoke through his Son (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2). God has spoken through the blood of Christ (Hebrews 12:24). If we refuse this divine speaking, there is nothing but judgment left. If Israel refused the Sinaitic divine speaking and did not escape judgment, how much less will the church escape God’s judgment if we refuse his speaking through his Son?
The preacher quotes Haggai 2:6 as a warning about judgment. God shook the earth, which is a metaphor for divine wrath and judgment. The preacher heightens the judgment by God’s promise to shake the heavens. Just as God brought the fullness of redemption through Christ, so also he will bring the fullness of judgment to those who reject Christ. He will shake everything—all of created reality, and by that shaking reveal what is unshakeable. The unshakeable reality is the kingdom of God—the redeemed community in the presence of God that Christ has established through his blood.
The recognition that God is a “consuming fire” is a reflection of the reality of God’s righteous judgment. The preacher quotes Deuteronomy 4:24. We approach God with boldness, but with respect and awe. We approach him in full recognition of his holiness and in full recognition that if we reject him judgment awaits us. Nevertheless, we approach him in worship with boldness and gratitude. We do not fear his presence, but rejoice in it. Consequently, we experience his kingdom presence with the confidence that God receives us graciously through the work of Christ.
The exhortations are fundamentally calls to perseverance. Don’t give up; don’t miss the grace of God; don’t refuse God’s gracious offer. When the offer is rejected, there is nothing else left but judgment. God is a consuming fire and when we lose our inheritance rights, we will experience God’s fire.
At Cordova Community Church, we had a refrain that we used on occasion in our corporate assemblies: “We are not here; we are there.” The point was that as we assembled to worship together we envisioned our entrance into the throne room of God. We were no longer here (on the earth, in this assembly room), but we were now there (in the heavenly throne room).
This is the reality that the preacher of Hebrews calls us to picture. He projects us into the throne room of God. We are in the Most Holy Place. We come—in our daily lives, but also in our assemblies—to Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. We come to God who is surrounded by his angels and the saints who previously died and now enjoy God’s presence (as in Revelation 7:9-17). Furthermore, as we gather in God’s presence, all the saints around the world are present there as well. We are not alone! We gather with thousands of angels, millions of saints—both on earth and in heaven.
This is what God has accomplished for us through Jesus Christ. He has invited into his presence and given us access to the Most Holy Place. Even now we enjoy his eschatological presence with eschatological joy while we wait for Jesus to appear a second time. This encourages us to persevere. We don’t give up because we enjoy the presence of God even now.
I wish I had known this perspective when I was working with a struggling, small church in Northeast Philadelphia. Sometimes we felt so alone. We felt so small. We felt so useless at times. Perhaps that is how Roman Christians felt and they had the added prospective persecution in the near future that would make martyrs out of many of them! But we are not alone, and neither are we small. Moreover, we are not useless—we are God’s witnesses. We bear witness to the faith, hope and love in a fallen world. We worship and we serve. We gather with saints, both dead and alive, in God’s presence and in the presence of his angels. We, even in the midst of this great contest and struggle, experience the future through faith. We know eschatological joy through faith.
Have you ever seen “Places in the Heart” which stars Danny Glover and Sally Fields? During the movie several of the stars died, but at the end of the movie they reappear. They reappear in the final scene of the movie that is a communion service. In that final scene the camera pans the rows as each participant partakes and some of those who have already died are again on those pews drinking the communion cup. The scene portrays the eschatological reality that we now experience. As we eat and drink in the presence of God, we eat and drink with saints who have gone on before us. We eat and drink together in the throne room of God with all of God’s saints. As we gather around the table, the Spirit of God lifts up into the throne room of God and we experience a foretaste of eschatological fellowship at the messianic table in the kingdom of God.
Given this vision of eschatological joy in festive assembly, the preacher exhorts his people to continue in their faith because they already possess the goal, that is, they already experience eschatological joy through faith. That is our hope and that is why we continue the journey. And because God has given us this gift through Jesus, that is why we praise him. So, “let us worship and be grateful.”
The exhortations are further elaborations of previous exhortations and warnings. The heart of this section is the portrayal of the eschatological experience of divine presence through faith. Consequently, I would concentrate my teaching on the center section (the exposition) and use the exhortation sections as the context for that exposition.
I would suggest showing the final scene out of the film in “Places in the Heart” as a concrete illustration of the meaning of this text. You could use it as an opening or a closing for the class.
Call attention to the contrast between Sinai and Mt. Zion. We should play Mt. Sinai as a negative experience, but a holy experience. It was a real experience. It was a testimony to the presence of a holy God. However, that experience has been transformed and fulfilled in the experience of Christians who assemble on Mt. Zion. We still approach a holy God (that is why we cannot simply reject him with impunity), but we approach him with boldness and joy as we enter into His Most Holy Place. We can touch the presence of God whereas at Sinai they could not touch the mountain.
Call attention to the theology of worship that is here. When we assemble, we come into God’s presence. His angels surround us. We gather with saints across the world and with those who are now in God’s throne room. We experience joy. Worship can engender perseverance if we understand its fullness. Worship gives strength for the journey. It can transform lament into joy. We must permit people to bring their lament into the presence of God, and when we bring it into his presence by faith, he can transform it into an enjoyment of his presence.
One caution, however, is that sometimes we need repeated experiences of worship for that lament to be transformed by God’s presence. It is not an easy fix or a one-time experience. Rather, it is a process of faith, a journey of faith. But faith will eventually discover the eschatological joy in the assembly of God’s people as God is present among them.
Ultimately, this is the only joy that will transform lament. There is no joy in the present that will transform the hurt of a lost child into comfort because the present is always absent the child. But eschatological joy involves the presence of the child and transforms our lament in the present into hope for the future and the experience of anticipated and even present joy.
Draw the class into a discussion of how this eschatological joy and the picture of this eschatological assembly can give strength for the journey. There we will find the faith to go on and faith will persevere because of what God has done for us and because God works in us.