Privileges Bring Responsibilities
The letter to the Hebrews, as our studies throughout the year have shown, is full of Old Testament language and ritual. Running throughout it is an ongoing sense that as believers we are on the move, on a pilgrimage through the wilderness. This motif echoes in our ears as we turn the pages. We are seeking to reach the land of rest (4:1). Indeed we can already come near enough to see the throne of its King (4:16; 10:19). It is the throne of grace before which Christ our High Priest stands. So we run the race before us with perseverance, our eyes fixed on Him (12:1–2).
All this lies behind the remarkable words of Hebrews 12:18–28. We have come to Mount Zion — not to Mount Sinai, as Moses and the first pilgrim people did. As participants in the new exodus accomplished by Christ (see Luke 9:31, where “departure” literally means exodus), we have come to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. We have already received a kingdom that cannot be shaken (12:28). That is why we must see to it that we “do not refuse him who is speaking.”
This sustained use of Old Testament imagery is all-pervasive in Hebrews, although elements of it obviously appear throughout the New Testament. But the underlying structures of thought are the same in three ways. First, the promise of the old has been fulfilled in the new, in Christ. Second, another grammatical pattern is evident, one which we usually associate with the apostle Paul; namely, the indicatives of grace give rise to the imperatives of obedience. Third, this principle is also evident in the way in which Christians are urged to live in the light of the privileges they enjoy already and therefore to persevere to enter those they do not yet fully experience. Thus promise leads to fulfillment, grace leads to obedience, already is linked to not yet.
Now, as the author comes to the final warning passage in Hebrews 12:25–29, it helps if we see its apparent severity in the light of this third principle. “You have not come … But you have come” (Heb. 12:18, 22). What are our privileges? They are truly amazing. Rather than come — as did believers in the day of promise and shadow — to an assembly convened at a mountain engulfed with a sense of awful judgment, we have come to the abiding city of God. Indeed we have come to God Himself, not with Moses, but with Jesus. For we have received the new covenant in His shed blood.
This is the assembly in which we gather for worship to hear the voice of Christ in His Word, to lift our voices under His choral direction in praise, to share His trust in His Father, and to gather around Christ as His brothers and sisters (see Heb. 2:10–13). Consequently, this is also our family — composed of the redeemed from among all mankind and the elect among the angelic host. This is the kingdom in which we are enrolled as citizens (12:23). Moreover, it is a kingdom, unlike all the kingdoms and empires of this world, that cannot be shaken (12:27–28). What riches are ours in these three dimensions of the life of grace! And they are already ours in Christ! Here and now, our lives are punctuated by special visiting rights to heaven’s glory as we assemble with our fellow believers.
“See that you do not refuse Him” (Heb. 12:25ff.). Here is the final extended warning passage in Hebrews. They have often been regarded as “problem” passages because of the implication they seem to carry, namely, that believers might fall away from Christ and be lost. But to read these passages in such a way is to abstract them from their contexts in the letter and from the covenant dynamic of the Gospel. For when we read these passages in the context of the letter as a whole, we come to realize that they belong to an ongoing series of exhortations to be read in the light of the privileges of grace.
In fact, the author of Hebrews thought of his entire letter as a word of encouragement to persevere (13:22). As any father would do, so the author, as a spiritual father, and speaking on behalf of the “Father of spirits” (12:9), encourages his spiritual children with exhortations that are both positive and negative.
The key here is the new covenant structure of the Gospel. It is built on a better Mediator and better promises than the old. But it remains a covenant. Its dynamic is the same: God gives His promise of grace (fulfilled now in Christ); His promise is life through faith in Christ, and death for any who spurn the blood of the new covenant (see 10:26–31).
So, we have already “come to Mount Zion … the heavenly Jerusalem.” But we have not yet finally entered it. We hear its worship, we experience its power; its light enlightens our camping ground (Heb. 6:4–5). But there is a River still to be crossed. The doors of the City are never shut (Rev. 21:5), but we do not yet dwell inside the city gates. We must still wade through the River. Like Christian, (in virtually the last words of The Pilgrim’s Progress, part one), we know that there is “a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.” God’s covenant faithfulness calls for faith that perseveres to the end.
When we have seen the privileges that are already ours, we have every reason to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and persevere in penitential faith until that which is now ours in part becomes ours in whole and forever.
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