When God gave the Law to Israel, speaking from the mountain, proclaiming those edicts which would become known as the Ten Commandments, the book of Exodus tells us that it was an awe-inspiring, fear-inducing occasion (cf. Exodus 20:18-19). So moved were the Israelites to terror that they requested Moses to henceforth be the ambassador, interceding between themselves and God.
The writer of Hebrews, in the New Testament, seeking to encourage his Christian readers, reminds them of that ancient occasion, drawing a contrast to their own experience. He writes first, “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear. (Hebrews 12:18-21; ESV)”
To the contrary, the writer argues, the Christian experience is far different, being occasioned less by stark terror at the awesome might of God, and more by a celebratory air rejoicing in the salvation of Christ and a place in His kingdom.
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:22-24; ESV).”
The heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God on the true Mount Zion, is not a reference to that physical city bearing the same name. It is a city not to be found on any terrestrial map, hence the “heavenly” description, but is instead a prophetic allusion to the Kingdom of God. In this sacred city, saints and angels alike congregate. The saints are identified as “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,” and the angels, innumerable, are seen in festal gathering, all before the throne in the center of the city, upon which sits the King and Priest of the new covenant: Jesus the Christ, whose blood cleanses sin and testifies to the salvation of the recipient.
The rejoicing angels call to mind another passage. Jesus taught, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance,” and “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7, 10; ESV).”
Men on earth were afraid when God spoke from heaven and the earth itself trembled before His voice. But when God shows forth His love and mercy in Christ, it brings joy to all who partake and it brings joy to those who serve the Lord. God Himself rejoices over the souls who are saved. The angels, beholding the face of their joyous Creator, likewise rejoice, and all heaven becomes a festal gathering, celebrating the salvation of Christ each time a single soul turns from sin and in obedience to the good news of Christ, has their sins washed away (cf. Acts 22:16).
Even as the angels rejoice, so too should God’s people here on earth. The fruit of the Spirit is not sorrow, but joy (cf. Galatians 5:22). The Ethiopian eunuch heard the message of Christ and obeyed it, and knowing the treasure he had received, we read, “he went on his way rejoicing (Acts 8:39).” His example is recorded reminding us of the propriety of joy in the face of salvation and life.
The awesome might of God is not reduced from what it was when He delivered the commandments to Israel, but it is tempered by the glory of the gift of Christ. The writer of Hebrews wisely counsels all, “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking (Hebrews 12:25).” There is no good sense in turning away from the gift of life offered in Christ. Those who have not yet come to Christ in obedience should not delay, but make every effort to partake of the grace of God in Christ.
Likewise, having received such a gift, “let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28-29; ESV).” Our worship of God as Christians is a celebration of our salvation, reminiscent of the festal gathering of the heavenly angels. It is reverent and awe-filled, for we are coming before the Living God, but is also full of gratitude at what God has done for us. A gift as wonderful as that which Jesus has given to us deserves nothing less than heartfelt joy on the part of the recipients.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.