The God of the Two Mountains
Holiness, Character of God, Grace
It is strange to see someone in a different context than you are used to seeing them. I get this a lot—people who only see me on Sunday mornings are shocked to see me out at the store in jeans, and people who are used to seeing me in jeans are shocked when they come to church and see me in a suit. Similarly, people sometimes act differently in different situations, not because they are inconsistent, but because different situations require different aspects of their personality. One situation might allow you to be laid back and fun, while another might require that you carefully enforce the rules.
Regardless of the situation, you are the same person. Different contexts may require you to act and deal with people differently, but your character doesn’t change. This morning we are going to see that the same is true with God. God’s character is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but every aspect of His character is not revealed in every situation. This concept is at the heart of what the writer of Hebrews says to us in our text this morning.
This can be a confusing passage, but let me give you the basic premise; the two mountains mentioned in this passage represent two different times when God dealt with His people. The two mountains show two different aspects of God’s character. Understanding how God dealt with His people on these two mountains will help us to see how He will deal with us. It will also give us a fuller understanding of who God is, which will drive us to worship Him more fervently.
We read about the first mountain in verses 18-21,
18 You have not come to a physical mountain, to a place of flaming fire, darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai. 19 For they heard an awesome trumpet blast and a voice so terrible that they begged God to stop speaking. 20 They staggered back under God’s command: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21 Moses himself was so frightened at the sight that he said, “I am terrified and trembling.” (NLT)
The author is setting up a contrast between the first mountain and the second mountain, and he points us first to Mt. Sinai. Mt. Sinai is the place where God gave Moses the 10 Commandments and other laws for the people of Israel. The account of what happened on that day is found in Exodus 19. Listen to what this experience was like for the people.
16 On the morning of the third day, thunder roared and lightning flashed, and a dense cloud came down on the mountain. There was a long, loud blast from a ram’s horn, and all the people trembled. 17 Moses led them out from the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. 19 As the blast of the ram’s horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God thundered his reply. 20 The Lord came down on the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses climbed the mountain. (Exodus 19:16-20, NLT)
Earlier in the chapter God had told Moses to prepare the people for this day by marking off a boundary around the mountain, warning the people that no one, not even an animal, could touch the mountain, because they would die. The reason they would die is that God is so holy that a sinful creature could not survive being in His presence. And since God came upon that mountain, the mountain itself became so holy that no one could survive touching it. So even before the day when God came to Mt. Sinai, the people understood it was serious business.
When the day finally came, the picture of what happened is amazing. When the Israelites woke up that morning, they saw an incredible display of thunder and lightning on the mountain above them. In time, the entire mountain was covered in a dark cloud, but the people could still hear the thunder and may have still been able to see flashes of lightning. In the midst of this, there was a long, loud trumpet blast. In case there was any doubt, this made it clear that this wasn’t just a big storm, but that God was present on the mountain. The response of the people was utterly appropriate—they trembled before the power of God. As Moses led them to the mountain, the whole mountain began to shake violently, like a massive earthquake. The closer they got, the louder the trumpet blasts became. In the midst of this, Moses called out to God, and God responded, commanding Moses to come up to meet with Him.
Imagine the impact this experience would have had on the people. Think about what this experience would have taught them about the character of God. They could not possibly see God as some distant and imaginary deity—they saw Him as He was and is, the One who is all powerful, and who is unapproachably holy. In this moment, the people became utterly aware that they did not belong in the presence of God. Standing before God, they became acutely aware of their own sin.
The character of God we see on Mt. Sinai reminds us that God is perfect, and we are not. There is no confusion about whether we are good enough to stand before Him—we are not. What we see of God at Mt. Sinai is scary—as it should be! Mt. Sinai shows us God’s holiness and His uncompromising nature when it comes to sin.
The writer of Hebrews, however, tells us that as Christians, we do not approach God at Mt. Sinai, where the law was given; instead we approach God on Mt. Zion, where we see a completely different side of His character.
22 No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. 23 You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. 24 You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24, NLT)
Mt. Zion has several different meanings throughout the Bible. Mt. Zion is the place on which Jerusalem (and the temple) was built. It was also known as Mt. Moriah, which is the place where Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac. But Mt. Zion can also refer to Heaven—specifically the Heavenly city described in the book of Revelation. This is the Mt. Zion the writer has in mind in this passage.
We know this because the writer tells us that this Mt. Zion is not a physical mountain like Mt. Sinai is, and because he describes it as the heavenly Jerusalem, filled with angels celebrating, Christians who have gone before us, and God Himself! The Mt. Zion described here is quite a contrast to the experience the Israelites had at Mt. Sinai.
Mt. Sinai was a place of fear, with thunder, lightning, earthquakes, and a dark cloud to shield the people from God’s glory. Mt. Zion is a place of celebration, a place where the angels and Christians who have gone before are celebrating and praising God. Instead of God being hidden from our sight because we would die in His presence, we now are able to see Him face to face. Instead of being people who are condemned by our sin, we have been made perfect and stand before the Lord as His children. Mt. Sinai reveals God’s power and holiness, Mt. Zion reveals God’s love and grace.
How Both Mountains Fit Together
So, which mountain reveals God’s character? Is God to be feared or celebrated? Is God powerful and holy or is He loving and merciful? The answer is both! Most false teaching comes from a failure to keep both concepts of God in balance. Too heavy an emphasis on Mt. Sinai leads to a paralyzing fear of God, or a desire to work extra hard in an effort to somehow appease Him. Too heavy an emphasis on Mt. Zion leads people to feel as though they can abuse God’s grace—it leads to people believing that they can indulge their sinful desires without consequence, because God will forgive us no matter what we do.
A correct view of God includes both mountains. We should recognize that our God is all powerful and absolutely holy. He must punish sin and cannot simply overlook it. Those who set themselves up as enemies to God will soon regret it. But we also need to see that God loves us enough to send Jesus to be a payment for our sin. He does not merely overlook our sin, but He has made it possible for us to be forgiven.
The reason we see two different sides of God’s character on these two mountains is because each mountain represents a different situation, so a different side of God’s character is revealed. It is no different than seeing a person who is dressed up and very serious at the office, and in comfortable clothes having fun at home.
Mt. Sinai represents how God deals with sinful people—we see that God cannot compromise with sin, and sinful people must be punished. Mt. Zion represents how God deals with those who have trusted in Jesus Christ. Our sins have been erased, and we have a restored and joyful relationship with the Lord. Understanding this, the writer of Hebrews reaches the conclusion of his argument.
25 Be careful that you do not refuse to listen to the One who is speaking. For if the people of Israel did not escape when they refused to listen to Moses, the earthly messenger, we will certainly not escape if we reject the One who speaks to us from heaven! 26 When God spoke from Mount Sinai his voice shook the earth, but now he makes another promise: “Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.” 27 This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain.
28 Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe. 29 For our God is a devouring fire.
His point is that God’s character is consistent, and there are consequences for turning away from Him. When the people disobeyed God at Mt. Sinai, they were told they would not get to enter the Promised Land, and every one of them who had disobeyed died in the desert. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that if we turn away from God now, the consequences will be even greater. Those who refuse to trust in Jesus Christ will be banished from His presence forever.
This is not a popular message. People like to create in their minds a god who simply overlooks sin, who gives us suggestions rather than commands, who exists to make us happy, and who is basically like us. But that is not the God of the Bible (and of reality). God is good, so He cannot simply overlook sin, because to do so would be unjust. He also created us and knows how we were designed to live. When we refuse to follow His instructions, there are consequences. And He is not like us. We are created in His image, not the other way around. While we reflect some elements of God’s character (such as a desire for justice, genuine love, creativity, etc.), we are an imperfect reflection. We are inconsistent, God is perfectly consistent. We would like God to be harsh with those we don’t like and to be gracious to us. But God doesn’t play favorites. He is not like us.
What the Bible clearly teaches us is that God will punish sin, but because of His great love for us, He has also provided a way to deal with our sin—by punishing Jesus Christ on our behalf. If we will trust in and follow Jesus, then we can approach God with joy, gladness, and celebration. We can come before Him boldly, not as people deserving of condemnation, but as dearly loved children. Christians can come to God on Mt. Zion.
So, how should we respond to this truth? If God is holy, just, and uncompromising against sin, but also loving and gracious to those who have trusted in Christ, what implications are there for the way we live our lives?
The writer of Hebrews gives us several applications to these principles. First, we should obey God. This seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? Yet, we all struggle to do this because we would rather go our own way than submit to the Lord. This passage reminds us that we ignore God’s commands at our own peril. It says that just as there was punishment for disobeying the commands God gave through Moses, there will also be punishment for disobeying the commands given through Jesus. What commands did Jesus give? He told us to repent of our sin, to trust in His forgiveness, and to follow Him.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that if we mess up we lose our salvation. Just because we trust in Jesus, it doesn’t mean we are perfect. When we fall, when we mess up, God’s grace picks us back up. But there are many people who presume upon the grace of God, saying, “It doesn’t matter what I do, because I know God will forgive me.” That concept is foolish and misunderstands the character of God. For the true follower of Jesus Christ, there is forgiveness when we fall, but there is a difference between a person who messes up while trying to follow God and a person who uses God’s grace as an excuse to indulge in sin. One person is a follower of God, the other is playing a game. For those who follow Jesus, there is grace; for those who refuse to do so, there is only the punishment that we all deserve.
The second response we should have to this truth is thankfulness. It is impossible to understand how great a gift it is to relate to God on Mt. Zion until we understand what it was like to relate to God on Mt. Sinai. The term “gospel” means good news, but until we understand the bad news, the good news doesn’t seem that great. The bad news is this: we do not deserve to be near the Lord at all. Our sin keeps us from being able to be anywhere near a holy God. We deserve to be separated from God for all of eternity. The worst news of all is that there is nothing we can do to erase our sin. We cannot do enough good things to outweigh the bad things we have done. We have been permanently stained by sin and if nothing changes, we must be separated from God.
Here’s the good news—though we cannot fix things ourselves, God has made it possible for us to be forgiven. He sent Jesus to do what we cannot. He says that if we will stop trying to be good enough and instead trust in what Jesus has done, we will be forgiven. If we will follow Jesus, we will have direct access to the Lord. That’s the good news of the gospel. Seeing God on Mt. Sinai should not cause us to draw back in horror from God, but it should remind us of just how great His grace is to us. We realize what a gift Mt. Zion is because we realize just how much we don’t deserve it.
The third response we should have is one of reverent worship. This concept naturally flows out of a proper understanding of God. If we recognize God’s power, His holiness, and our sin while also seeing the grace He has extended to us, the only appropriate response is one of worship. We should find ourselves constantly reflecting on what a wonderful gift He has given us and praising Him for doing so.
So what does reverent worship look like? It can take on many forms. Let’s start with the obvious, what does it look like in a worship service? Reverent worship means that we should take our time of coming before the Lord very seriously. I don’t think it means that we can’t laugh and joke during our worship services, but I do think it means that we ought to approach prayer, singing praise, the reading of Scripture, the giving of offerings, and the preaching of the Word with great seriousness.
Reverent worship is not so much about our actions as it is about the attitude of our hearts. Reverent worship involves not only listening to a scripture reading or a sermon, but engaging with it, and seeking to applying it to our lives. It means when we pray we should remember that we are talking to the King of the universe. It means when we sing songs of praise, we should be singing to the Lord, not singing to impress the people around us. It means that when we come into a worship service, our hearts should be focused on honoring the Lord who has made it possible for us to come to Mt. Zion.
But worship doesn’t end when we leave these doors. Worship is not something we are merely supposed to do for an hour or so each week. Worship is supposed to be something that is part of every day of our lives. We worship the Lord with reverence and awe when we:
- Take time to examine the Scriptures for ourselves and to apply them to our lives.
- Go before the Lord in prayer and ask Him not only to give us the things we want, but also to show us the areas where we need to change and to help us make those changes.
- Seek to do the things He has commanded us to do (e.g. loving others, showing forgiveness, being generous with what we have).
- Tell others about the glory of our God by helping them to see who He really is.
This is what worship looks like in the life of someone who truly understands the character of God. It’s what our lives should look like if we recognize the gift we have been given through Jesus Christ.
So, how do we get to this point? How do we begin to live lives of worship for our Lord? It starts by seeing God clearly and recognizing His character. The point the writer of Hebrews is making to us is that we need to understand the God whom we serve. He is not a creampuff; He is a consuming fire! God is going to destroy sin once and for all. That can (and should) be an incredibly scary truth, but it is also a truth that should help us to understand how great of a gift grace is.
God’s character did not change between Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion. He is the same on both mountains. The difference between Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion is us. At Mt. Sinai, we come to the Lord on our own (woefully inadequate) merits. At Mt. Zion, we come to the Lord through the blood of Jesus Christ. How we come to Him makes all the difference. If we understand that our God is a consuming fire, it should drive us to embrace and cling to Jesus Christ wholeheartedly in every area of our lives, and it should drive us to worship our God with reverence and awe, not just in church on Sunday, but every day of our lives.