Jesus our All-Sufficient Mediator: Some Thoughts on Hebrews 12:18-29
The overarching message of this passage is the reality of two radically different ways of relating to God as the Lord and judge of all the earth: the first way is the way of trembling before God’s majesty, because of our unworthiness; and the second way is the way of rejoicing in God’s mercy, because of Christ’s worthiness. The first way is the way of exposure to the just judgment of the consuming fire of God for our sin; the second way is to be covered and protected from judgment, and brought into the mercy and favour of God by someone else who isn’t consumed by God’s judgment, by a pure and righteous Mediator. All who believe have by God’s grace come to him in the second way, not in the first.
There are a lot of images brought into the scene here from all over the Bible, and they centre on these two ways of relating to God as represented by two different mountains:
- The first half of the passage talks about one mountain, Mount Sinai, and it’s all about the covenant that the Lord made with Israel in the desert after rescuing them from Egypt. Sinai isn’t mentioned by name (in fact even it’s being a ‘mountain’ is implicit), but we know the mountain’s identity because of the description (Read Exod 19:9-13a, 16) There the people meet God, but are fully aware of the danger because of their sin. This mountain is the way of relating to God in trembling before his majesty.
- The second half of the passage contrasts that first mountain with Mount Zion, which is named, and there are all sorts of amazing images from the Old Testament psalms and prophets describing the place where God dwelled among his people in mercy and grace and salvation. This is the place where God is praised for who he is and what he’s done by countless people and angels. This mountain is the way of relating to God in rejoicing because of his mercy.
Now, that’s what is happening here, but we need to know the reason for the amazing turnaround going on here. Why the change from the first half of the passage to the second? Why the change from Mount Sinai to Mount Zion?
Is it because God has changed? From the OT God of fire and brimstone into the NT God of love and compassion?
- NO-Look at verse 23:…to God, the judge of all…; and compare v. 25; vv. 28-29. God is the same judge and consuming fire in the first half and the second, just as he has always been gracious and compassionate. These aren’t mutually contradictory, as we’ll see in a minute.
Is it because we’ve changed? Speaking of Christians, after all, the author contrasts ‘You have not come’ (v. 18), with ‘but you have come’ (v. 22): so it’s because of our coming. We approach God successfully when we approach him more acceptably. Israel at Sinai blatantly rebelled, but we try to come like we should-so is this the reason for the change?
- Again, NO-Those who truly come to Mount Zion are changed (v. 23), but it is God who changes us (being ‘firstborn’ and ‘righteous’ and ‘made perfect’ are gifts); in and of ourselves we can’t stand the words any more than the Israelites: ‘if even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned’ (v. 20), and even Moses, who met with God on the mountain, ‘trembled with fear’ (v. 21). Do we think we’re better? If we think we can bring our goodness or our deeds before this God and survive the consuming fire, then we’ve never really felt the heat.
So why the radical turnaround from trembling before God’s majesty in fear, to rejoicing before his mercy in thankfulness? What can bring us from Sinai to Zion? The author of Hebrews brings everything to a head in verse 24, and answers this question for us: he speaks of those who have come ‘to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.’ This is the answer; this is the reason for the change from Sinai to Zion, from a fearful to a confident relationship with the God who is judge of all and a consuming fire.
So Jesus himself is the answer to the question of being in right relationship with God, but we’re also told a lot about the remarkable way Jesus accomplishes this in v. 24: he brings us to a new mountain by being the mediator of a new covenant sealed by his own blood. This is in a nutshell what it means for Jesus to be our mediator. It has 3 elements:
- The Mediator: Jesus’ identity as such is both like and unlike our common sense understanding of the term
- Mediator does NOT mean Negotiator, someone trying to find a compromise, or get the best deal. This passage speaks of two radically different relationships with God: terror before God (vv. 18-21) versus joy before God (vv. 22-24). God doesn’t compromise his standards, he is both fully righteous and fully merciful, and we can’t try to pit these against one another or strike a bargain. Both must be upheld.
- Mediator DOES mean one who reconciles, who brings together again two sides, God and humanity.
(Read Heb 9:13-15, 24-28). So Jesus doesn’t try to find a compromise to God’s holy and righteous standards; what he does is meet God’s standards, and therefore open the way for God’s mercy. Jesus is willing and able to do this:
- Because as mediator he is God-In connection with the rest of the Bible, Heb 9 testifies that Jesus is truly God, because he’s the unique Son who offered himself up to the Father by the power of the Spirit. This passage is all about the saving work of the Trinity! Jesus’ name means ‘God with us’, the Son who came into the world for the purpose of seeking and saving the lost.
- Because Jesus as mediator is man-Again in conncetion with the rest of the Bible, Heb 9 also testifies to his true humanity. Jesus was born, grew up, was educated, learned a trade. He experienced the range of human life and in that was tempted in every way that we are-like us in every way, yet without sin (‘spotless sacrifice’, Heb 9). He saves the lost by living and dying and rising again in all his humanity on our behalf.
Jesus as Mediator is God and man in one person, the wonderful mystery of the one who came down to humanity from God, as God, who has taken our humanity to himself, that he might take us back to God. This is Jesus’ identity as Mediator.
- The New Covenant: Jesus brings us back to God by bringing us into the new covenant, the covenant of grace. This covenant isn’t new in the sense of ‘time’, but in comparison to the ‘old’, Sinai. What is new is the fulfilment of all the promises to Abraham for a Seed, and to David for an heir.
- In reconciling us with God, Jesus also reconciles us with each other. The new covenant community described in v. 22 as gathered together in ‘the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem’, and in v. 23 as ‘the firstborn enrolled in heaven…the righteous made perfect’. This is a picture of all the people of God of all ages gathered together, at the end of the ages, at the beginning of the age to come. This people isn’t made up only of the church now, but also everyone in Israel then who, like Abraham, looked forward to Jesus with hopeful expectation. So don’t think that the two mountains mainly represent two periods of time; they represent two ways of relating to God, and everyone who has ever trusted in God for salvation belongs to the covenant of grace, together with all who come in faith to Mount Zion.
- The Better Sprinkled Blood: Both the grace and mercy we receive from God in the new covenant, and the restored fellowship humanity has as the new covenant community, are remarkably summed up in the last part of verse 24: we come to ‘the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel’ What is Jesus’ blood saying, and how is it better than what Abel’s blood is saying? What does it mean for blood to speak!?
(Read Gen 4:1-14) You see, Abel’s blood was unjustly spilt, and so it cries out to God the judge of the earth for vengeance and judgment on his murderous brother Cain. As a consequence Cain the sinner was banished from the Lord’s presence. The just sentence of God was pronounced: guilty. But, praise God, Jesus’ blood cries out not for vengeance and judgment but for mercy and forgiveness. This is the better word: Jesus’ blood was so much more unjustly spilt than Abel’s, yet the most amazing thing is that it was voluntarily spilt on behalf of sinners like Cain – sinners like us – so that we may return to the Lord’s presence, and not be banished forever, because Jesus reconciles us even while we’re still enemies of God.
- Even though we like Cain stand under God’s judgment for our sin, if we appeal to Jesus on our behalf, God looks at Jesus’ suffering our punishment in our place. God the judge again pronounces judgment: but this time it’s ‘not guilty’. Not only does God pronounce us not guilty because of Jesus, in fact, but God accepts us as upright and pure and blameless before him because of Jesus. Verse 23 describes believers as righteous and perfect only because we get credit for Jesus’ uprightness and purity, because he is our pure and upright mediator by faith, and he also works in us the fruits of faith by the Holy Spirit. You see, Jesus is an all-sufficient mediator.
This is the believer’s only confidence, not in ourselves, but in that we do not have to come before God in trembling fear, but we may come before him in thankful joy, because we’ve come to this ‘Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, and to his sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel’ Thus to all of us the author says, ‘See that you do not refuse him who is speaking’-but rather ‘let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.’