An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Inferiority of Judaism
(Hebrews 12:18, 19)
As there are certain parts of a country which offer less attraction than others unto tourists and sight-seers, so there are some portions of Scripture which are of less interest to most readers and writers. As there are some scenes in Nature which can be taken in at a glance while others invite a repeated survey, so there are verses in each Epistle which afford less scope than others unto the teacher. That is why almost every preacher has a sermon on certain favorite texts, whereas other verses are neglected by nearly all pulpits. But the expositor has not the same freedom to follow his inclinations as the textual sermonizer: unless he shirks his duty, he must go through a passage verse by verse, and clause by clause. Still more so is this the case with one who essays to write a commentary upon a whole book of the Bible: he is not free to pick and choose, nor yield to his personal preferences, but must give the same attention and enlargement to one part as to another.
The above reflections have occurred to the editor as he has pondered the verses which next claim our consideration in Hebrews 12. Their contents are not likely to make much appeal unto the ordinary reader, for there seems little in them which would be relished either by those who have an appetite for "strong meat" or by those preferring the "milk" of babes. Our passage neither sets forth any of the "doctrine of grace" nor presents any practical exhortation for the Christian life. Instead, it alludes to an historical incident which was chiefly of interest to the Jews, and multiplies details from the same which would be tedious unto the average churchgoer of this untoward generation. Nevertheless, it is a part of Godâ€™s Word, and as it lies in our immediate path through this Epistle we shall not ignore or turn from it. As the Lord enables, we shall endeavor to give it the same attention and space as what has preceded it.
The passage upon which we are about to enter (which reaches from Hebrews 12:18 to the end of the chapter) has been variously interpreted by different commentators. One class of more recent writers have, it seems to us, been far more anxious to read into it their own pet theory regarding the future, than to interpret these verses in accord with the theme of the Epistle in which they are found. It would indeed be strange for the apostle to introduce here a reference to some future "millennium:" the more so in view of the fact that he has studiously avoided the use of the future tenseâ€”note the emphatic "ye are come" (verse 22) and "but now" (verse 26). If due attention be paid unto the main line of the apostleâ€™s argument in this treatise, then there should be no difficulty in arriving at a correct understandingâ€”of the substance of it, at leastâ€”of this portion of it.
As we pointed out so frequently in the earlier articles of this series, the immediate and principal design of the apostle in this Epistle, was to prevail with the Hebrews in persuading them unto a perseverance in their profession of the Gospel, for therein they appear at that time to have been greatly shaken. Therefore does he warn them, again and again, of the various causes and occasions of backsliding. Principal among these were, first, an evil heart of unbelief, the sin which did so easily beset them. Second, an undue valuation of the excellency of Judaism and the Mosaical church-state. Third, wavering under the afflictions and persecutions which fidelity to the Gospel entailed. Fourth, prevalent lusts, such as profaneness and fornication. Each of these we have considered in the preceding sections.
The principal argument which the apostle had urged unto their constancy in Christianity, was the superlative excellency, glory, and benefit of the Gospel-state into which the Hebrews had been called. This he has accomplished and proved by setting forth the person and office of its Author, His priesthood and sacrifice, with all the spiritual worship and privileges belonging thereto. Each of these he compared and contrasted with the things that corresponded unto the same during the O.T. dispensation. Thereby he set over against each other the type and the antitype, the shadow and the substance, and by so doing made it unmistakably evident that the new economy was immeasurably superior to the old, that all the ordinances and institutions of the law were but prefigurations of those spiritual realities which are now revealed by the Gospel.
Having insisted so largely and so particularly on these things in the preceding chapters and brought his arguments from them to a plain issue, he now recapitulates them as a whole. In the passage which is now to engage our attention the apostle presents a brief scheme of the two states or economies (designated as "testaments" or "covenants"), balancing them one against another, and thereby demonstrating the conclusive force of his central argument and the exhortations which he had based upon it, unto constancy and perseverance in the faith of the Gospel. It is no new argument which he here proceeds with, nor is it a special amplification of the warning pointed by the example of Esau; still less is it a departure from his great theme by a sudden excursus into the realm of eschatology. Instead, it is a forcible summary, under a new dress, of all he had previously advanced.
The central design, then, of our passage as a whole, was to present one more and final antithesis of Judaism and Christianity. The contrast here drawn is virtually parallel with the one instituted in Galatians 4 between Hagar and Sarah, the figure of two "mounts" being used instead of the two women. The great honor and chief privilege of the Judaical Church-state whereon all particular advantages did depend, was their coming to and station in mount Sinai at the giving of the Law. It was there that Jehovah revealed Himself with all the insignia of His awe-inspiring majesty. It was there that they were taken into covenant with the Lord (Ex. 24), to be His peculiar people above all the world. It was there that Israel was formed into a national Church (Acts 7:38). It was there that they had committed unto them all the privileges of Divine worship. It is that very glory which the Jews boast of to this day, and whereon they rest in their rejection of the Gospel.
It was necessary, then, for the apostle to make direct reference unto that upon which the unbelieving Hebrews based all their hopes, and to which they were appealing in their efforts to get their believing brethren to apostatize from Christ. His argument had neither been complete nor conclusive unless he could undermine their confidence in the foundational glory of Judaism, take off their hearts from unduly admiring, and show that it had been succeeded by that which "excelleth." He therefore directs attention to those features in connection with the giving of the Law, which so far from being calculated to win the affections, inspired with dread and terror. He points out a number of items which by their very nature intimated that the Divine communications vouchsafed at Sinai were not the full and final unveiling of the Divine character, such as the souls of awakening sinners longed for.
Our introduction has been a somewhat lengthy one, though briefer than that of J. Owen, which we have closely followed in the last paragraphs; yet we deemed it necessary. The details of our present passage cannot be viewed in their true perspective until they are rightly focused in the light of our Epistle as a whole. The scope of the passage must first be determined, before we are ready to examine its several members. This calls for time and real study, yet only as this preliminary work is properly executed will we be preserved from those errors which are inevitably fallen into when a passage is treated hurriedly and superficially. This is only another way of saying that, the foundation must be well and securely laid, if it is to bear successfully the superstructure which is raised upon it. Alas that such foundation-labor is so little appreciated today.
"For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire" (v. 18). The apostle here returns to his central theme by an easy and natural transition. He had just been dehorting from back-sliding, pointed out by the solemn case of Esau. Now he urges unto constancy by appealing to the privileges they enjoyed. As Calvin well put it, "The higher the excellency of Christâ€™s kingdom than the dispensation of Moses, and the more glorious our calling than that of the ancient people, the more disgraceful and the less excusable is our ingratitude, unless we embrace in a becoming manner the great favor offered to us, and humbly adore the majesty of Christ which is here made evident. And then, as God does not present Himself to us clothed in terrors as He did formerly to the Jews, but lovingly and kindly invites us to Himself, so the sin of ingratitude will be thus doubled, except we willingly and in earnest respond to His gracious invitation."
"For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched." The principal design which the apostle here had in hand was to set forth, in its most attractive form (see verses 22-24), that evangelical state where-unto the Hebrews had been called and into which they had entered. This he first does negatively, by describing the Church-state under the O.T., from which they had been delivered. Thus, before the "Ye are come" of verse 22, he introduces this "For ye are not come." Two things were thereby noted: that order or system to which their fathers belonged, but from which they had been freed by their responding to the Gospel call. They were no more concerned in all that dread and terror, and their consideration of that fact supplied a powerful motive to their perseverance in the Christian faith.
Freely granting that a great privilege was conferred on their fathers at Sinai, the apostle observes "that it was done in such a way of dread and terror, as that sundry things are manifest therein: as, 1. That there was no evidence in all that was done of Godâ€™s being reconciled to them, in and by those things. The whole representation of Him was of an absolute Sovereign and a severe Judge. Nothing declared Him as a Father, gracious and merciful. 2. There was no intimation of any condescension from the exact severity of what was required in the law or of any relief or pardon in case of transgression. 3. There was no promise of grace in a way of aid or assistance for the performance of what was required. Thunders, voices, earthquakes and fire gave no signification of these things. 4. The whole was hereby nothing but a glorious ministration of death and condemnation (as the apostle speaks: 2 Corinthians 3:7) whence the conscience of sinners were forced to subscribe to their own condemnation, as just and equal.
"5. God was here represented in all outward demonstrations of infinite holiness, justice, severity and terrible majesty on the one hand; and on the other, men in their lowest condition of sin, misery, guilt and death. If there be not therefore something else to interpose between God and men, somewhat to fill up the space between infinite severity and inexpressible guilt, all this glorious preparation was nothing but a theater set up for the pronouncing of judgment and the sentence of eternal condemnation against sinners. And on this consideration depends the force of the apostleâ€™s argument; and the due apprehension and declaration of, is a better explanation of vv. 18-21 than the opening of the particular expressions will amount to; yet they also must be explained.
"It is hence evident, that the Israelites in the station of Sinai, did bear the persons of convicted sinners under the sentence of the law. There might be many of them justified in their own persons by faith in the promise; but as they stood and heard and received the law, they represented sinners under the sentence of it, not yet relieved by the Gospel. And this we may have respect to in our exposition, as that which is that final intention of the apostle to declare, as is manifest from the description which he gives of the Gospel-state, and of those that are interested therein" (John Owen).
"For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched." It is both pathetic and amusing to read the various shifts made by some of the commentators to "harmonize" the opening words of our text with what is said in Exodus 19:12, "Thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall surely be put to death." Some have pleaded that the little "not be touched" was inadvertantly dropped by a copyist of the Greek manuscript. Others insist our verse should be rendered, "Ye are come to a mount not to be touched." But the only "discrepancy" here is in the understanding of the expositors. The apostle was not making a quotation from Exodus. but rather describing, negatively, that order of things unto which the Gospel had brought the believing Hebrews. In so doing, he shows the striking contrast between it and the order of things connected with the giving of the Law.
"For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched." The simple and evident meaning of this is: The Gospel has not brought you unto that which is material and visible, palpable and touchable by the physical senses, but only what is spiritual and can only be apprehended by faith. A "mount" is a thing of the earth; whereas the glory of Christianity is entirely celestial. The passage which most clearly interprets this clause is found in our Lordâ€™s discourse with the woman at the well: "Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe Me, the hour cometh, when you shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father... But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth" (John 4:21, 23). Judaism was the Churchâ€™s kindergarten, in which its infantile members were instructed, mainly, through their bodily senses. Christianity has introduced a far superior order of things.
"For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched," then, is a figurative way of saying that Christ has opened a way into something infinitely superior to a system which, as such, had nothing better than "a worldly sanctuary" and "carnal ordinances" (Heb. 9:1, 10). The Greek word for "come" in our text is that technical or religious term which had been used repeatedly by the apostle in this Epistle to express a sacred access or coming to God in His worship: see Hebrews 4:16, 7:25, 10:1â€”last clause "comers thereunto." Mount Sinai was a material thing, exposed to the outward senses, and was an emblem of the entire order of things connected with Judaism. As such, it was in complete contrast from that order of things brought in by Christ, which is wholly spiritually, invisible, and celestial. The one was addressed to the bodily senses; the other to the higher faculties of the soul. Spiritually speaking, Romanists and all other Ritualists are occupied with "the mount that might be touched"!
"And that burned with fire." In their most literal sense those words allude to what transpired at Sinai. In Exodus 19:18 we read, "And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire." But it is with their figurative purport we are more concerned. In Scripture "fire" is the symbol of Divine wrath and judgment. As we are told in Deuteronomy 4:24, "The Lord thy God is a consuming fire, a jealous God," and the "jealousy" of God is, His holy severity against sin, not to leave it unpunished. With respect unto the law which He there gaveâ€”for Deuteronomy 33:2 declares "from His right hand went a fiery law"â€”it signified its inexorable sternness and efficacy to destroy its transgressors. Thus, the "fire" denoted the awful majesty of God as an inflexible Judge, and the terror which His law strikes into the minds of its violators with expectations of fiery indignation.
This was the first thing which the people beheld when they came to Sinai: God as a "consuming fire" presented to their view! Thus it is in the experience of those whom God saves. For many years, it may be, they lived in a state of unconcern: they had no heart-affecting views of the majesty and authority of God, and no pride-withering apprehensions of the fearfulness of their guilt. But when the Spirit awakens them from the sleep of death, gives them to realize Who it is with whom they have to do, and whose anger burns against sin; when the Law is applied to their conscience, convicting them of their innumerable offenses, their hearts are filled with dread and misery as they perceive their undone condition. There the law leaves them, and thence they must be consumed, unless they obtain deliverance by Jesus Christ.
And that was exactly what, by Divine grace, these believing Hebrews had obtained. The Redeemer had "delivered them from the wrath to come" (1 Thess. 1:10). They were now as secure in Him as Noah was in the ark. The fire of Godâ€™s wrath had spent itself on the person of their Substitute. God was now reconciled to them, and henceforth they had an inalienable standing before Himâ€”not as trembling criminals, but as accepted sons. To them the word was "For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father" (Rom. 8:15). No, as Christians, we have nothing more to do with the mount "that burned with fire," but only with "the Throne of Grace." Hallelujah! Alas that so many Christians are being robbed of their birthright. If Romanists and Ritualists are guilty of being occupied with "the mount that might be touched," then those who are constantly presenting God before His people in His dread majestyâ€”instead of as a loving Fatherâ€”are taking them back to the mount "that burned with fire."
"Nor unto blackness and darkness." Here again the literal allusion is unto the awe-inspiring phenomena which attended the giving of the law. There was "a thick cloud upon the mount, . . . mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke" (Ex. 19:16, 18). Different commentators have resorted to various conjectures in their efforts to "harmonize" the "blackness and darkness" with the "fire:" some suggesting the one was followed by the other after an interval of time, others supposing the "darkness" was over the camp and the "fire" at the summit of the mount. But such theorizings are worthless in the face of Deuteronomy 5:22-23, "The Lord spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness . . . ye heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, for the mountain did burn with fire." The fact is this "fire" was supernatural: as that of Babylonâ€™s furnace burned not while the three Hebrews were in it (Dan. 3), this glowed notâ€”increasing the terror of its beholders because it emitted no light!
If the above explanation be deemed "far fetched," we would appeal to the corroborating correspondency in the experience of those who have been saved. Was it not a fact that when we were shut up under guilt and terrified by the representation of Godâ€™s severity against sin, we looked in vain for anything in the Law which could yield relief? When the glory of Godâ€™s holiness shined into your conscience and His law was applied in convicting and condemning power, did you perceive His merciful design in the same? No, indeed; at that time, His gracious purpose was covered with "blackness," and "darkness" filled your soul. You perceived not that the law was His instrument for flaying your self-righteous hopes (Rom. 7:10) and "a schoolmaster unto Christ" (Gal. 3:24). Your case appeared hopeless; and despite the fiery power of the law, you knew not how to "order your speech (before God) by reason of darkness" (Job 37:19).
"And tempest:" under this term the apostle comprises the thundering, lightnings, the earthquake which were on and in mount Sinai (Ex. 19:16, 18) all of which symbolized the disquieting character of so much that marked the Mosaic economyâ€”in contrast from the peace and assurance which the Gospel imparts to those who believingly appropriate it. The order here agrees with the experience of those whom God saves. First, there is an application of the "fiery law," which burns and terrifies the conscience. Second, there is the blackness and darkness of despair which follows the discovery of our lost condition. Third, there is the agitation of mind and turmoil of heart in seeking help by self-efforts and finding none. The soul has no light and knows not what to do. The mind is in a tumult, for no escape from the lawâ€™s just course seems possible. Not yet has Christ appeared to the distressed one.
"And the sound of a trumpet." This too, we believe, was a supernatural one, emitting ear-splitting tones, shrill and loud, designed to inspire both awe and fear. It signified the near approach of God. It was to summon the people before Him as their lawgiver and Judge (Ex. 19:17). It was the outward sign of the promulgation of the Law, for immediately upon the sound of it, God spoke unto them. It was a pledge of the final judgment, when all flesh shall be summoned before God to answer the terms of His law. Experimentally, it is the imperative summons of the Word for the soul to answer to Godâ€™s call. Those who neglect it, will have to answer for the whole when they receive the final summons at the last day. Those who answer it now, are brought into Godâ€™s presence in fear and trembling, who then reveals to them Christ as an all-sufficient Savior.
"And the voice of words." This is the seventh and final detail which the apostle here noticed. The "voice of words" was articulate and intelligible, in contrast from the dull roar of the thunder and the shrill tones of the trumpet. Those "words" were the ten commandments, written afterward on the two tables of stone: see Deuteronomy 5:22 and the preceding verses. Those "words" were uttered by the voice of the Lord God Almighty (Ex. 20:1), concerning which we are told, "The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty; the voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars" (Ps. 29:4,5) etc. It was God declaring unto His Church the eternal establishment of His Law, that no alteration should be made in its commands or penalties, but that all must be fulfilled.
"Which voice they that heard entreated that the words should not be spoken to them any more." This reveals the terror-stricken state of those who were encamped before Sinai. There was that on every side which inspired awe and dread: Nature itself convulsed and supernatural phenomena attending the same. This was intended to show the people that God had ascended His awful tribunal as a strict Judge. But that which filled them with intolerable consternation was the voice of God Himself speaking immediately to them. It was not that they refused to hear Him, but that they desired Him to speak to them through Moses, the typical Mediator. Experimentally, the sinner is overwhelmed when the voice of God in the law comes in power to his conscience.