An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Superiority of Christianity
"But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly; the Church of the firstborn, which are written in Heaven; and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel" (Heb. 12:22-24). In these verses the apostle completes the last great contrast which he draws between Judaism and Christianity, in which he displays the immeasurable superiority of the latter over the former. Though there may not be in them much of personal interest to some of our readers, yet we feel it incumbent upon us to give the same careful attention to this passage as we have to the previous sections of this epistle.
The central design of the apostle in verses 18-24 was to convince the believing Hebrews of the pre-eminence of the new covenant above the old, that is, of the Gospel-economy over the Legal. To this end he first directed attention to the awful phenomena which attended the institution of Judaism, and now he sets before them the attractive features which characterizes Christianity. Everything connected with the giving of the Law was fearful and terrifying, but all that marks the Evangelical system is blessed and winsome. The manifestation of the Divine presence at Sinai though vivid and truly magnificent, was awe-inspiring, but the revelation of His love and grace in the Gospel prompts to peace and joy. Those pertained to things of the earth, these concern Heaven itself; those were addressed to the senses of the body, these call into exercise the higher faculties of the soul.
When going over verses 18-21 we sought to make clear the figurative meaning of their contents. Though there be in them an allusion to historical facts, yet it should be obvious that it is not with their literal signification the apostle was chiefly concerned. As this may not be fully apparent to some of our readers, we must labor the point a little—rendered the more necessary by the gross and carnal ideas entertained by some Bible students. Surely it is quite plain to any unbiased mind that when he said, "For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire" (verse 18) the apostle had reference to something else than a mountain in Arabia. There would be neither force nor even sense in telling Christians "Ye are not come to mount Sinai"—why even of the Hebrew believers it is improbable that any of them had ever seen it.
If, then, the words "For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched" refer not to any material mount, then they must intimate that order of things which was formally inaugurated at Sinai, the moral features of which were suitably symbolized and strikingly adumbrated by the physical phenomena which attended the giving of the Law. This we sought to show in the course of the two preceding articles. Now the same principle of interpretation holds good and must be applied to the terms of the passage upon which we are now entering. "But ye are come unto mount Sion" no more has reference to a natural mountain than "We have an altar" (Heb. 13:10) means that Christians have a tangible and visible altar. Whatever future the earthly Sion may yet have, it is the antitypical, the spiritual, the Heavenly Sion, which is here in view.
One of the hardest tasks which sometimes confronts the careful and honest expositor of Holy Writ is to determine when its language is to be understood literally and when it is to be regarded as figurative. Nor is this always to be settled so easily as many suppose: the controversy upon the meaning of our Lord’s words at the institution of the holy "Supper," "This is My body" shows otherwise. It had been a simple matter for Him to say "This (bread) represents My body," but He did not—why, is best known to Himself. Nor does this example stand by any means alone: much of Christ’s language was of a figurative character, and more than once His own apostles failed to understand His purport—see Matthew 16:5-7; Mark 7:14-18; John 4:31-34 and John 21:22, 23.
No, it is by no means always an easy matter to determine when the language of Scripture is to be regarded literally, and when it is to be understood figuratively. In previous generations perhaps there was a tendency to "spiritualize" too much: whether that be so or no, certainly the pendulum has now swung to the opposite extreme. How very often do we hear it said, "The language of Scripture means just what it says, and says just what it means". Many believe that such a declaration is very honoring to God’s Word, and suppose that anything to the contrary savors strongly of "Modernism." But, surely, a little reflection will soon indicate that such a statement needs qualifying, for there is not a little of the language of Scripture which must be understood other than literally.
To say nothing about many poetic expressions in the Psalms (such as "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures"), and symbolic language in the Prophets (like "then will I sprinkle clean water upon you... I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh"), take such a saying of our Lord’s as this: "There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children or lands, for My sake and the Gospel’s, but he shall receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children and lands, with persecutions" (Mark 10:29, 30)—the impossibility of literalizing such a promise appears, for example, in a man’s receiving or having a hundred mothers. Now if that statement is not to be interpreted literally, why should an outcry be raised if the writer presents good reasons for interpreting other verses figuratively?
After reading the above, some may be inclined to say, "All of this is very bewildering and confusing." Our reply is, Then you must have sat under very superficial preaching. Any well-instructed scribe would have taught you that there is great variety used in the language of Holy Writ, and often much care and pains are required in order to ascertain its precise character. That is one reason why God has graciously provided "teachers" (Eph. 4:11) for His people. True, the path of duty is so plainly defined for us that the wayfaring man (though a fool) need not err therein; but that does not alter the fact that in order to ascertain the exact significance of many particular expressions of Scripture, much prayer, and comparing passage with passage, is called for. The Bible is not a lazy man’s book, and the Holy Spirit has designedly put not a little therein to stain the pride of men.
Now much help is obtained upon this difficulty by recognizing that many of the things which pertain to the new covenant are expressed in language taken from the old, the antitype being presented under the phraseology of the type. For instance, when Christ announced the free intercourse between Heaven and earth which was to result from His mediation, He described it to Nathanael in the words of Jacob’s vision: "Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man" (John 1:51)—not that the Lord Jesus was ever to present the appearance of a ladder for that purpose, such as the patriarch saw in his dream, but that spiritually there would be a like medium of communication established and the agency of a like intercourse maintained. In a similar manner, the death of Christ is frequently spoken of under the terms of the Levitical sacrifices, while the application of His atonement to the soul is called the "sprinkling of His blood on the conscience."
Not until we clearly perceive that most of that which pertains to the new economy is exhibited to us under the images of the old, are we in the position to understand much of the language found in the Prophets, and many of the expressions employed by our Lord and His apostles. Thus, Christ is spoken of as "our Passover" (1 Cor. 5:7) and as Priest "after the order of Melchizedek" (Heb. 6:20). Paradise is described as "Abraham’s bosom" (Luke 16:22). The N.T. saints are referred to as "the children of Abraham" (Gal. 3:7) as "the Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16), as "the Circumcision" (Phil. 3:3), as "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people" (1 Pet. 2:9), and that "Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all" (Gal. 4:26). Such terminology as this should amply prepare us for "ye are come unto mount Sion," and should remove all uncertainty as to what is denoted thereby.
"But ye are come unto Mount Sion." In these words the apostle commences the second member of the comparison between Judaism and Christianity, which completes the foundation on which he bases the great exhortation found in verses 25-29. In the former member (verses 18-21) he had described the state of the Israelitish people (and the Church in it) as they existed under the Legal economy, taken from the terror-producing character of the giving of the Law and the nature of its demands: "they could not endure that which was commanded... and so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake." But now the apostle contrasted the blessed and glorious state into which believers have been called by the Gospel, thereby making manifest how incomparably more excellent was the new covenant in itself than the old, and, how infinitely more beneficial are its privileges unto those whom Divine grace gives a part therein. No less than eight of these privileges are here enumerated—always the number of a new beginning.
"That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in Him" (Eph. 1:10). These words throw light on the passage now before us: all the spiritual things of grace and glory, both in heaven and in earth, have been headed up in Christ, so that they all now center in Him. By His mediatorial work the Lord Jesus has repaired the great breach which the sin of Adam entailed. Before sin entered the world there was perfect harmony between Heaven and earth, man and angels uniting in hymning their glorious Creator: together they formed one spiritual society of worshippers. But upon the fall, that spiritual union was broken, and not only did the human race (in their federal head) become alienated from God Himself, but they became alienated from the holy spirits which surround His throne. But the last Adam has restored the disruption which the first Adam’s sin produced, and in reconciling His people to God, He has also brought them back into fellowship with the angelic hosts.
Now because God has gathered together in one, recapitulated or headed up, "all things in Christ both which are in heaven and which are in earth," when we savingly "come" to Christ, we at the same time, "come" to all that God has made to center in Him; or, in other words, we obtain an interest or right in all that is headed up in Him. Let the reader seek to grasp clearly this fact: it is because believers have been brought to Christ that they "are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels!" By their initiation into the Gospel state, Christians are also inducted into and given access unto all these privileges. Christ and His mediation are specifically mentioned at the close of the various privileges here listed (verse 24), to teach us it is on that account we are interested in them and as the reason for our being so interested.
Yes, it is to Christ and Him alone (though not, of course, to the exclusion of the Father and His eternal love or the Holy Spirit and His gracious operations) that the Christian owes every blessing: his standing before God, his new creation state, his induction into the society of the holy, his eternal inheritance. It was by Christ that he was delivered from the condemnation and curse of the law, with the unspeakable terror it caused him. And it is by Christ that he has been brought to the antitypical Sion and the heavenly Jerusalem. Not by anything he has done or will do are such inestimable blessings made his. Observe how jealously the Spirit of Truth has guarded this very point, in using the passive and not the active voice: the verb is "ye are come" and not "ye have come." The same fact is emphasized again in 1 Peter 2:25—"ye were as sheep going astray; but are (not "have") now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls"—because of what the Spirit wrought in us, we being entirely passive.
"But ye are come unto Mount Sion." We need hardly say that this language looks back to the "Zion" of the O.T., the variation in spelling being due to the difference between the Hebrew and Greek. It is in fact to the O.T. we must turn for light upon our present verse, and, as usual, the initial reference is the one which supplies us with the needed key. The first time that "Zion" is mentioned there is in 2 Samuel 5:6, 7, "And the king and his men went to Jerusalem unto the Jebusites the inhabitants of the land... thinking David cannot come in hither. Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion: the same is the city of David." The deeper significance of this appears when we carefully ponder its setting: Zion was captured by David when Israel had been thoroughly tried and found completely wanting. It occurred at a notable crisis in the history of the nation, namely, after the priesthood had been deplorably corrupted (1 Sam. 2:22, 25) and after the king of their choice (Saul) had reduced himself (1 Sam. 28:7) and them (1 Sam. 31:1, 7) to the lowest degradation.
It was, then, at a time when Israel’s fortunes were at a low ebb, when they were thoroughly disheartened, and when (because of their great wickedness) they had the least reason to expect it, that God graciously intervened. Just when Saul and Jonathan had been slain in battle, when the Philistines triumphed and Israel had fled before them in dismay, the Lord brought forth the man of His choice. David, whose name means the "Beloved." Up to this time the hill of Zion had been a continual menace to Israel, but now David wrested it out of the hand of the Jebusites and made it the stronghold of Jerusalem. On one of its eminences the temple was erected, which was the dwelling place of Jehovah in the midst of His people. "Zion," then, stands for the highest revelation of Divine grace in the O.T. times.
Zion lay to the south-west of Jerusalem, being the oldest and highest part of that ancient city. It was outside of the city itself and separate from it, though in Scripture frequently identified with it. Mount Zion had two heads or peaks: Moriah on which the temple was erected, the seat of the worship of God; and the other, whereon the palace of David was built, the royal residence of the kings of Judah—a striking figure of the priestly and kingly offices meeting in Christ. Zion, then, was situated in the best part of the world—Canaan, the land which flowed with milk and honey; in the best part of that land—in Judah’s portion; in the best part of his heritage—Jerusalem; and in the best part of that metropolis—the highest point, the "city of David." Let the interested reader carefully ponder the following passages and observe the precious things said of Zion: Psalm 48:2, 3; 50:2; 132: 13, 14; 133:3.
"Zion is, First, the place of God’s habitation, where He dwells forever: Psalm 9:11; 76:2. Second, it is the seat of the throne, reign and kingdom of Christ: Psalm 2:6; Isaiah 24:23. Third, it is the object of Divine promises innumerable: Psalm 125:1; 128:5, of Christ Himself: Isaiah 59:20. Fourth, thence did the Gospel proceed and the law of Christ come forth: Isaiah 40:9, Micah 4:2. Fifth, it was the object of God’s especial love, and the place of the birth of His elect: Psalm 87:2, 5. Sixth, the joy of the whole earth: Psalm 48:2. Seventh, salvation and all blessings came forth out of Zion: Psalm 14:7; 110:2; 128:5. Now these things were not spoken of nor accomplished towards that Mount Zion which was in Jerusalem absolutely, but only as it was typical of believers under the Gospel; so the meaning of the apostle is, that by the Gospel believers do come to that state wherein they have an interest in and a right to all the blessed and glorious things that are spoken in the Scriptures concerning and to Zion. All the privileges ascribed, all the promises made to it, are theirs. Zion is the place of God’s especial gracious residence, of the throne of Christ in His reign, the object of all promises. This is the first privilege of believers under the Gospel. They come to Mount Zion, they are interested in the promises of God recorded in the Scriptures made to Zion; in all the love and care of God expressed towards it, in all the spiritual glories assigned to it. The things spoken of it were never accomplished in the earthly Zion, but only typically; spiritually, and in their reality, they belong to believers under the new testament" (John Owen).
The contrasts between Sinai and Sion were very marked. The former was located in one of the dreariest and driest places on earth, a "howling desert"; the other was situated in the midst of that land which flowed with milk and honey. The one was ugly, barren, forbidding; the other was "beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth." Sinai was enveloped in "blackness and darkness," while Sion signified "sunny" or "shone upon." God came down on Sinai for only a brief moment, but He dwells in Sion "forever." On the former He appeared in terrible majesty; in the other He is manifested in grace and blessing. At Sinai the typical mediator trembled and quaked; on Sion Christ is crowned with glory and honor.
"But ye are come to Mount Sion." By this, then, we understand, First, that in being brought to Christ, the believer comes to the antitypical, the spiritual, Sion. Second, more specifically, we understand by this expression that believers are come to the Throne of Grace. Just as, originally, the historical Sion was a menace to Israel, so while we were under the curse of the law God’s throne was one of judgment. But, just as David (the "Beloved") secured Sion for Israel and it became the place of blessing, where God abode in grace, so as the result of Christ’s work the Throne of Heaven has become the Throne of Grace, He being Himself seated thereon. Third, in its wider scope, it signifies that believers have a right or title to all the good and glorious things spoken of and to Sion in the O.T.
"And unto the City of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem," by which we understand Heaven itself, of which the earthly Jerusalem—the seat and center of the worship of God—was the emblem. From earliest times the saints were taught by the Holy Spirit to contemplate the future blessedness of the righteous under the image of a splendid "City," reared on permanent foundations. Of Abraham it is declared, "He looked for a city which hath foundation, whose Builder and Maker is God" (Heb. 11:10). The force of that statement is best perceived in the light of the previous verse: "By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise." Abraham was given to realize that Canaan was but a figure of his everlasting heritage, and therefore did he look forward to (verse 10), "seek" (verse 14), and "desire a better Country, that is, a heavenly" (verse 14). The eternal Abode of the blessed is there called both a "City" and a "Country."
Many are the allusions to this "City" in the Psalms and the Prophets: we single out a few of the more prominent ones. "There is a river (The Spirit), the streams (His graces) whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High" (Ps. 46:4). "Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of His holiness" (Ps. 48:1). "Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God" (Ps. 87:3). "He led them forth by the right way, that they might go to a city of habitation" (Ps. 107:7). "We have a strong city; salvation will God appoint for walls and bulwarks" (Isa. 26:1). It is to be noted that in several passages the "City" is mentioned with particular reference to "Zion," for we can only have access to God via the Throne of Grace: John 14:6.
The "City of the living God" intimates the nearness of the saints to God, for Jerusalem was adjacent to Zion—their homes and dwellings were near to His. This figure of the "city" is also found in "Ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God" (Eph. 2:19)—see too Revelation 3:12. It is designated "the heavenly Jerusalem" in contrast from the earthly, the "Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all" (Gal. 4:26). It is referred to again in Hebrews 13:14. A "city" is a place of permanent residence, in contrast from the moving tent of the wilderness. In Bible times a "city" was a place of safety, being surrounded by strong and high walls; so in Heaven we shall be eternally secure from sin and Satan, death and every enemy. A city is well stocked with provisions: so in Heaven nothing is lacking which is good and blessed.
"But ye are come unto . . . the City of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem." "The apostle herein prefers the privileges of the Gospel not only above what the people were made partakers of at Sinai in the wilderness, but also above all that they afterwards enjoyed in Jerusalem in the land of Canaan. In the glory and privileges of that city the Hebrews greatly boasted. But the apostle casts that city in the state wherein it then was, into the same condition with Mount Sinai in Arabia, that is, under bondage, as indeed it then was (Gal. 4:25); and he opposeth thereunto that ‘Jerusalem which is above,’ that is, this heavenly Jerusalem. This the second privilege of the Gospel-state, wherein all the remaining promises of the O.T. are transferred and made over to believers: whatever is spoken of the city of God or of Jerusalem that is spiritual, that contains in it the love or favor of God, it is all made theirs; faith can lay a claim to it all.
"Believers are so ‘come’ to this city, as to be inhabitants, free denizens, possessors of it, to whom all the fights, privileges, and immunities of it do belong; and what is spoken of it in the Scripture is a ground of faith to them, and a spring of consolation. For they may with consolation make application of what is so spoken to themselves in every condition. A ‘city’ is the only place of rest, peace, safety and honor, among men in this world: to all these in the spiritual sense we are brought by the Gospel. Whilst men are under the law they are at Sinai—in a wilderness where is none of these things; the souls of sinners can find no place of rest or safety under the law. But we have all these things by the Gospel: rest in Christ, peace with God, order in the communion of faith, safety in Divine protection, and honor in our relation to God in Christ" (John Owen).