An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Passing of Judaism
(Hebrews 12:26, 27)
It is exceedingly difficult, if not quite impossible, for us to form any adequate conception of the serious obstacles presented to the mind of a pious Jew, when any one sought to persuade him that Judaism had been set aside by God and that he must turn his own back upon it. No analogy or parallel exists in our own experience. It was not merely that the Hebrews were required to turn away from something which their ancestors had set up, and around which twined all their own sentiments and affections of national patriotism, but that they were called upon to abandon a religious system that had been appointed and established by Jehovah Himself. That institution, a theocracy, was unique, sharply distinguished from all the idolatrous systems of the heathen. It was God’s outstanding witness in the earth. It had been signally honored and favored by Him. It had existed for no less than fifteen centuries, and even when Christ appeared, He acknowledged the temple—the center and headquarters of Judaism—as "My Father’s House."
We cannot but admire the tender grace of God in the gentle and gradual way in which He "broke the news" to His people, little by little preparing their minds to receive the truth that His purpose in Judaism had been completely accomplished. Intimations were given through the prophets that the order of things with which they were connected would give place to another and better. To the same effect the Lord Jesus dropped one hint after another: as, for example, when He pointed out that the old bottles were incapable of receiving the new wine, or when He declared, not that which enters into a man defileth him (as the ceremonial law had taught!) but that which issues from the heart, or when He announced "The hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father" (John 4:21; and finally, when He solemnly affirmed "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate" (Matthew 23:38).
The rending of the temple veil by a Divine hand was full of deep meaning for those who had eyes to see. The word given through Stephen that "the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands" (Acts 7:48), was another clear ray of heavenly light on the same subject. The conversion of Saul of Tarsus, and the commissioning of him as an apostle to the Gentiles, intimated the direction in which the stream of Divine mercy was now flowing—it had burst the narrow banks of Judaism! The vision granted to Peter (Acts 10) and his message to Cornelius (v. 35), was a further advance along the same line. The important decision of the apostles and elders of the Church at Jerusalem in Acts 15:23-29 not to bind the ceremonial law upon the Gentile converts, was another radical step in the same direction.
Yet Jerusalem still survived, the temple was yet intact, and its services continued. Moreover, the leaders of the Nation had rejected Christ and denounced Christianity as a device of Satan. Many of the Jewish Christians were sorely puzzled and deeply exercised, for the Roman yoke had not been removed. As yet the followers of Christ were but few in number, and for the most part, poor and despised. The Hebrew believers were being hotly persecuted by their unbelieving brethren, and God had made no manifest interposition on their behalf. They were therefore almost ready to conclude that, after all, they had made a dreadful mistake in forsaking the religion of their fathers, and that the sore afflictions they were passing through were a Divine judgment upon them. It was to allay their fears, to more thoroughly instruct their minds, to establish their hearts, that God moved the apostle to write this particular epistle to them—the great theme of which is a display of the immeasurable superiority of Christianity over Judaism, and its chief design being a call to perseverance and a warning against apostasy.
But even in this epistle the apostle did not come right out and say plainly "God has discarded Judaism." No, the path of faith is never an easy one. Faith can only thrive while it fights (1 Tim. 6:12). There must be that which deeply exercises the heart if the soul is to be kept in the place of complete dependence upon God! Nevertheless, God always grants sufficient light unto a truly exercised soul to indicate the path which is to be followed; He always provides a foundation for faith to rest upon. Though He may not remove the chief obstacle (as He did not for the Hebrews while the temple still stood!) and grant a complete solution to our difficulties, yet He graciously furnishes the humble soul sufficient help to circumvent them. Thus it was in this epistle. Though no explicit statement is made that God had done with Judaism, yet sufficient proof was furnished that He had set up something better in its place. This comes out again and again in almost every chapter, notably so in the passage now before us.
What has been pointed out in the last paragraph presents a principle and a fact which it is deeply important for true Christians to lay hold of today. Not a few of the Lord’s people are now confronted with similar problems, which if not so acute as the Hebrews faced, are just as real to them: problems relating to church-fellowship, baptism, the Lord’s supper, Sabbath observance. For thirty years a situation existed in Israel which produced two parties, neither of which could convince the other; and, as usual, the larger party was in the wrong. On the one hand was the long-established Judaism, which contained the great majority of the Nation; on the other hand was the handful of God’s faithful servants with the few who had sufficient grace to receive their teachings and walk by faith. Had the latter been regulated by ancient custom, or by mere numbers, or by the logic of circumstances (the outward providences of God), they had missed God’s will for them and had "forsaken their own mercy" (Jon. 2:8).
The little company of converted Hebrews who had left Judaism for Christ were faced with a perplexing and trying situation. No doubt in the case of many of them, their loved ones still adhered reverently and vigorously to the religion of their fathers. Nor could either party convince the other of its error by a simple and direct appeal to Holy Writ. Each side had some Scripture to support it! Nowhere in the O.T. had God expressly said that He would yet do away with Judaism, and nowhere in the N.T. had He openly declared that He had now set Judaism aside. No, dear reader, that is rarely God’s way! In like manner, Christendom is now divided on various points both of doctrine and of duty, and each side is able to make out a real "case" by an appeal to Scripture, and often, neither can cite one decisive verse proving the other to be wrong. Yet one is wrong! Only by earnestly waiting upon God individually can His mind be discovered.
But why has God ordered things thus? Why are not the Scriptures so worded that there would be no room for controversy? To try our hearts. The situation which confronted the converted Hebrews was a real test as to whether they would be followers of men or pleasers of God. The self-righteous Pharisees could appeal to a long-established system of religion in justification of their rejection of Christ; and there are those in Christendom today who vindicate their adherence to what God has never commanded and which is dishonoring to His Son, by an appeal to a long line of godly men who have believed and practiced these very things. When others seek to show that an opposite course is required by Scripture, they profess to be "unable to see" what is quite clear to simple and humble souls, and ask for some verse which expressly forbids what they are doing; which is like those who, in the face of His miracles, said, "If Thou be the Christ tell us plainly" (John 10:24).
No doubt it had made matters much easier for the Hebrews if the apostle said plainly, "God has completely finished with Judaism:" that had "settled the matter" for hesitating ones who were halting between two opinions—and poor fallen human nature loves to have things so "settled" that there may be an end to perturbation of mind and exercise of heart. Moreover, the converted Hebrews would then have had a clear proof-text which must have silenced those who differed from them—and we love to have a verse which will close the mouths of those who agree not with us, do we not? Or, God could have allowed the Romans to capture Jerusalem and destroy the temple thirty years sooner than they did: that also had "settled the matter"—yes, and left the Hebrews to walk by sight, instead of by faith! Instead, He gave them this epistle, which called for prayer, study, meditation, and for more prayer.
Let us now very briefly review the line of the apostle’s argument in Hebrews 12:18 and onwards. First, he informs the believing Hebrews "Ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched" and which was so "terrible" that even Moses quaked "exceedingly" (verses 18-21): no, Divine mercy had delivered them from that system. Second, Paul assures them "But ye are come unto mount Sion (verses 22-24): God had brought them unto an order of things where the Throne of Grace predominated. It is ever the Lord’s way to reserve the best wine for the last. Third, the apostle reminds them that increased privileges involve additional obligations, and that failure to discharge those obligations incurs greater guilt; therefore does he urge them to take heed unto God speaking to them in the person of Christ, warning them that failure so to do would bring down upon them the Divine wrath more surely than did the disobedience of Israel of old (verse 25).
"Whose voice then shook the earth: but now He hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven" (verse 26). This verse has occasioned much difficulty to the commentators, scarcely any two of them (ancient or modern) agreeing in their interpretation of it. Many of them suppose that the ultimate, if not the prime, reference in the quotation here made from Haggai relates to the final destruction of the earth and the heavens connected with it, as it is described in 2 Peter 3:10-12. But to suppose that Paul here made a declaration which concerned the then far-distant future, is not only to break the unity of this passage, but is to charge him with making a quotation which had no real relevancy to the immediate subject he was discussing. In pondering Hebrews 12:26-29 our first concern must be to trace the connection with the context.
Now in the context the apostle had been treating of two things: the immeasurable superiority of Christianity over Judaism, and what this involved concerning the responsibility of those who were the subjects of this higher and grander revelation. These same two things are still before the apostle in the closing verses of our chapter: he continued to show how immeasurably the new covenant excels the old, and he continued to enforce the pressing call which he had made in verse 25. First, he had intimated the vast difference which obtained between the mouthpieces which God employed in connection with the two revelations (verse 25): namely, "Moses" (Heb. 10:28) and "His Son" (Heb. 1:2). Second, he had shown the great disproportion between those two teachers, by pointing out the respective positions they occupied (verse 25). "Moses’ seat" (Matthew 23:2) was "on earth," whereas Christ speaks as seated upon His mediatorial throne "from Heaven."
Two things were intimated by God in the different seats or positions occupied by the messengers He had employed. First, inasmuch as He now spake through the Son from Heaven, God denoted that He had finished with Judaism, which was entirely a thing of the earth. Second, that Christianity was of Divine origin, and had to do solely with celestial things. From one angle, this call in Hebrews 12:25 was very similar to that exhortation "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth" (Col. 3:1, 2). Before their conversion, the affections of the Hebrews had been centred upon the temple—notice how the disciples, just before the crucifixion, came to Christ "for to show Him the buildings of the temple" (Matthew 24:1); but they were to be "thrown down!"—Christ had returned to Heaven, and thither their hearts must follow Him. Thus, the heavenly calling (Heb. 3:1), heavenly citizenship (Phil. 3:20), heavenly inheritance (1 Pet. 1:4), instead of the earthly concerns of Judaism, were now to engage the hearts and minds of the regenerate in Israel.
Next, in the verses now before us, the apostle brings out the vastly different effects produced through the two messengers. This is the central fact in verses 26, 27: the Voice "from Heaven" produced proportionately greater results than did the voice which spake "on earth." God through Christ speaks more powerfully and effectually than He did through Moses. Let us be careful not to lose sight of this general idea when pondering the details. A much greater and more far-reaching "shaking" was produced by the latter than was the case with the former. We believe that Matthew Henry was on the fight track when he said, "It is by the Gospel from heaven that God shook to pieces the civil and ecclesiastical state of the Jewish nation, and introduced a new state of the church, that cannot be removed, shall never be changed for any other on earth, but shall remain till it be made perfect in heaven." The apostle is still supplying proof that the Hebrew believers were no longer connected with Judaism, but were come to the antitypical Zion.
"Whose voice then shook the earth." Here is the connecting link with the context: the "then" referring to the instituting of Judaism. "But now He hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven." The "but now" is not so much a time-mark as it is an adverbial expression, relating to the theme under immediate discussion, namely, the establishment and super-excellency of Christianity. Thus, to show once more the infinitely surpassing and glorious effects of power and majesty which issued from the voice of Christ, speaking from heaven by the Gospel, and so as to give a more lively representation of the same, the apostle compares them with the greatly inferior effects that accompanied the deliverance of the Law. As the right understanding of this "But now" has an important bearing upon all that follows, we subjoin the comments of another thereon.
"The word now does not denote the period when the promise was made, but the period to which the promise referred, which was now, opposed to then when the Law was established. It was equivalent to ‘But with regard to the present period, which is the commencement of a new order of things, He has promised, saying.’ This use of the word now in the apostle’s writings is common: Romans 3:21; 16:26 etc." (John Brown). There is, then, an opposition of the "But now" to what occurred at the "then" at the beginning of the verse. It is to be carefully noted that Paul did not say "He hath now promised," i.e. that in the apostle’s day God had announced He was going to do something in the far-distant future; instead, it is "But now He hath promised:" the "now" relating to the fulfillment of what Haggai had foretold, and not to some promise given through the apostle.
"But now He hath promised, saying." This "saying" which the apostle at once quotes from Haggai he styles a "promise," and that for at least three reasons. First, because what was but a prophecy in Haggai’s day had received its actual accomplishment in the apostle’s time, in connection with the establishment of Christianity. Second, because this was therefore something for faith to lay hold of, and that is what he was seeking to persuade the Hebrew believers to do. Third, to prevent any misconception on our part: had the apostle been pointing out that the prophecy of Haggai contained a yet deeper meaning and more ultimate reference, even to predicting the final destruction of this world and all its works, he had surely been very far from designating such an unparalleled Divine judgment as that, by the term "promise!" A "promise" always refers to something that is good, and never to a calamity!
"Whose voice then shook the earth: but now He hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven." Let us now inquire, What is denoted by this "shaking" of earth and heaven? This is a figure which is used in the O.T. quite frequently to express a great change, produced by the providences and power of God in the affairs of men. "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea" (Ps. 46:1, 2), which is explained in "The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: He uttered His voice, the earth melted" (verse 6). "Thou hast made the earth to tremble: Thou hast broken it: heal the breaches thereof, for it shaketh" (Ps. 60:2): what is signified by that metaphorical language is indicated in the next verse, "Thou hast showed Thy people hard things: Thou hast made us to drink the wine of astonishment." "Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place" (Isa. 13:13)—language which signifies a tremendous commotion among the nations—compare Joel 3:16. Such vivid imagery is common in the Prophets.
"He stretched out His hand over the sea," which is interpreted in the next sentence "He shook the kingdoms" (Isa. 23:11). "Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down" (Isa. 24:1)—words, we need hardly say, which are not to be taken literally. "At His wrath the earth shall tremble," explained in the following clause, "and the nations shall not be able to abide His indignation" (Jer. 10:10). "Arise, contend thou with the mountains: and let the hills hear thy voice. Hear ye O mountains, the Lord’s controversy, and ye strong foundations of the earth" (Mic. 6:1, 2): such language is not to be understood literally, as the next clause shows "For the Lord hath a controversy with His people." "For the powers of heaven shall be shaken" (Luke 21:26). Even Mr. Darby admitted (in his "Synopsis"), "This shaking of all things—whether here (Heb. 12:26, 27) or in the analogous passage in 2 Peter—evidently goes beyond Judaism, but has peculiar application to it"—italics ours.
"Whose voice then shook the earth." The immediate reference is to Sinai at the time the law was given. But, as we have seen, that material mount was emblematic of the entire economy which was then established. Thus the "shaking" of the "earth" denoted the great outward change which took place in the days of Moses. The external state of Israel was then greatly altered. They were organized into a kingdom and church-state (Acts 7:38), into a theocracy. Yet glorious as was that change, it reached not to "heaven," that is to say, it affected not their inner man and was not concerned with spiritual and eternal relations. "The economy established at Sinai, viewed by itself, was a temporal covenant with a worldly nation, referring to temporal promises, an earthly inheritance, a worldly sanctuary, a typical priesthood, and carnal ordinances" (J. Brown).
"But now (in relation to Christianity) He hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven." The careful reader will observe that the prophet had said, "I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land" (Hag. 2:6), whereas the apostle was moved by the Holy Spirit to word it—for the sake of his emphasis—"I shake not the earth only, but also heaven," hence a shaking of both "earth" and "heaven" was here in view. "The voice in heaven produces more extensive and more permament effects. It shakes both earth and heaven—effects a change both on the external and spiritual circumstances of those who are under it; and it effects a permament change, which is to admit of no radical essential change forever" (J. Brown).
Though a great change had been produced in connection with the giving of the old covenant, a far greater change had been effected in the establishing of the new covenant. That had affected but one nation only, and that, merely in its external and temporal circumstances: this reaches unto God’s people among all nations, and affects their spiritual and eternal interests. It was reserved for God’s Son to bring this about, for in all things He must have the preeminence. A much greater commotion and convulsion in human affairs has been brought in by Immanuel, yea, it was then as though the very universe was shaken to its center. In order to the establishing of that kingdom of Christ’s which shall never be moved, there were tremendous revolutions, both in connection with Judaism and the idolatrous systems of the heathen—"These that have turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6) was the charge preferred against the apostles.
Now as the great change in the temporal affairs of Israel at the instituting of Judaism had been adumbrated by the quaking of Sinai, so the far greater alterations introduced by the establishing of Christianity were also shadowed forth in the various physical phenomena and angelic appearances. "At His birth a new star appeared in the heavens, which filled the generality of men with amazement, and put those who were wise to diligent inquiries about it. His birth was proclaimed by an angel from heaven, and celebrated by ‘a multitude of the heavenly hosts.’ In His ministry the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in the shape of a dove. These things may answer that mighty work in heaven which is here intimated. On the earth, wise men came from the east to inquire after Him; Herod and all Jerusalem were shaken at the tidings of Him. In the discharge of His work He wrought miracles in heaven and earth, sea and dry land, on the whole creation of God. Wherefore in the first coming of Christ the words had their literal accomplishment in an eminent manner.
"Take the words metaphorically for great changes, commotions and alterations in the world, and so also were they accomplished in Him and His coming. No such alteration made in the world since the creation of it as was then, and in what ensued thereon. All the ‘heavens’ of the world were then shaken, and after a while removed: that is, all their gods and all their worship, which had continued from time immemorial, which were the ‘heavens of the people,’ were first shaken, and then utterly demolished. The ‘earth’ also was moved, shaken and changed: for all nations were stirred up, some to inquire after Him, some to oppose Him, whereon great concussions and commotions did ensue; till all the most noble parts of it were made subject to Him.
"But, as we observed before, it is the dealing of God with the church, and the alteration which He would make in the state thereof, concerning which the apostle treats. It is therefore the ‘heaven’ of Mosaic worship and that Judaical church-state, with the ‘earth’ of their political state belonging thereunto, that are here intended. These were they that were ‘shaken’ at the coming of Christ, and so shaken as shortly after to be removed and taken away, for the introduction of the more heavenly worship of the Gospel, and the immovable evangelical church-state. This was the greatest commotion and alteration that God ever made in the ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ of the church. This was far more great and glorious than the shaking of the ‘earth’ at the giving of the law. Wherefore, not to exclude the senses before mentioned, which are consistent with this, and may be respected in the prophecy as outward signs and indications of it, this is that which is principally intended in the words, and which is proper to the argument in hand" (John Owen).
"And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain" (verse 27). This is the apostle’s inspired commentary on Haggai’s prophecy. He points out that the "yet once more" denoted there had previously been a great change wrought in Israel’s fortunes, and also that now another radical alteration had been made therein. He insists that the "shaking" was in order to effect a removal of what was only transient, and that the great change was only in order that that which is unchangeable might remain—that the permanent might be fixedly established.