18 You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, 19 and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. 20 (For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.’ 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’) 22 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, 23 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, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
25 See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! 26 At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.’ 27 This phrase ‘Yet once more’ indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; 29 for indeed our God is a consuming fire.
Today’s reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews is found near the conclusion of a letter that remains one of the most mysterious writings preserved in the canonical New Testament. More a homily than a letter, Hebrews is perhaps most associated with its distinctive Christology that portrays Jesus as an eternal high priest presently enthroned beside God in a heavenly sanctuary.
Because this association is such a familiar one, it tends to obscure the multiplicity of themes that are actually treated in this ancient sermon. Our homilist ranges broadly, in virtuoso fashion, over a wide field of sacrificial symbols, scriptural stories, and even scriptural characters. As a result, we may very well find ourselves more than a little puzzled over the precise connections the homilist wants us to make.
I would like to suggest that this was our author’s intention all along. Much like the historical Jesus employed parables to disorient his audience in an attempt to clear a path for potentially new and even uncomfortable insights, the homilist similarly invites the reader to contemplate a fresh portrait of Jesus that moves beyond the elementary ABC’s of theological formation (6:1-2). Indeed, just as Jesus’ motivation for his use of parables was to disturb the status quo in terms of how we customarily behave in the world, we might think of our homilist’s motivation as one of disturbing a kind of status quo in the realm of theological reflection.
While the homilist admittedly devotes considerable thought to the topic of the ultimate identity of Jesus, he also gives a central place in the sermon to the question of the identity of the people of God; this is a topic which in many ways is arguably the major theme of Hebrews 12:18-29. Put differently, the motivation of this ancient homilist was not simply to stimulate his audience’s thinking concerning the deeper implications of the identity of Jesus; he also wanted his audience to reflect anew on the implications of their collective identity as partakers of a heavenly destiny.
What the homilist describes variously as the community’s heavenly call (3:1), heavenly homeland (11:16), and even a “new and living way” (10:20) is nothing less than a renewed fellowship with God gained through the faithful death of Jesus. The community now lives in a renewed covenant relationship with God (12:24), a relationship which has powerfully transformative implications for their lives in both the present as well as the future.
One of the principal metaphors that drives the rhetorical power of Hebrews is the metaphor of a journey. Indeed, the sermon is replete with verbs of motion, with the Greek verb meaning “to approach” serving as an especially favorite term for our homilist (see 4:16; 12:18; 12:22).
The motif of a journey is not an unfamiliar one in the context of our own contemporary culture. But whereas we frequently employ the journey metaphor individualistically, and often in the service of articulating hopes for mere personal growth or advancement of some kind, in Hebrews the motif of a journey functions in a decidedly communal and transcendent key.
The homilist depicts the collective people of God as forever on the move, always striving forward on a journey, the ultimate goal of which is entrance into what the homilist describes provocatively as God’s transcendent “rest” (4:11). When one considers how often the homilist links the verb “to approach” with the specific concept of drawing near to God (7:25; 11:6), it is hard to resist the conclusion that “rest” in Hebrews functions ultimately to convey the idea of accessibility to, or fellowship with, God.
Much like Jesus prioritized the laying up of treasure in heaven by means of concrete acts of covenantal love of neighbor, so, too, the author of Hebrews sees true rest ultimately in transcendent terms. Ultimate rest for our author is communion with God, the treasure of the people of God. In company with Jesus, our homilist would not have thought much of either the secular visualization of the goal of a life’s journey as one of worldly success and advancement or the deceptive promises of the contemporary prosperity gospel.
On the one hand, then, the rest envisioned in Hebrews is certainly eschatological in character. Presently experiencing social dislocation, and perhaps even physical suffering in their contemporary setting (10:32-34), the audience addressed in this sermon looks forward to receiving an unshakeable kingdom in the renewed age to come (12:28). For this reason, the homilist urges his audience to reconfigure their own painful experiences with being labelled as social deviants by looking to Jesus, their forerunner and pioneer (2:10; 6:20; 12:2), who himself “despised” the shame of the cross for the eschatological joy that lay before him (12:2).
At the same time, however, the homilist seeks to embolden his audience with the assurance that in some sense they already possess this future destiny in the here and now. It is in chapter 12 where the homilist returns to the scriptural account of the wilderness wandering, a motif which first appears in chapter 3 and continues through chapter 4 of the sermon.
Fittingly, given the ubiquity of the journey motif throughout the homily, the homilist describes the community of believers addressed by Hebrews as persons who have both approached and encountered something (12:22) that the wilderness generation did not (12:18). Whereas the encounter with God on Sinai for the wilderness generation was a tension-filled one to say the least, the encounter with God mediated through the faithful death of Jesus is a joyous encounter.
In Jewish apocalyptic thought of the Second Temple period the images of Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem functioned to articulate the assurance of God’s presence to God’s people. God’s presence filled the cosmos, but it was somehow especially present in the holy city of Jerusalem.
It is important here not to misinterpret our homilist’s intention in any sort of supersessionist manner. Nowhere in the sermon do we see anything like a replacement paradigm in which Christianity replaces the Jewish faith. Rather, the author’s point is that the wilderness generation did experience a real encounter with God.
For our homilist it was Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, who perfected or brought to fulfillment this encounter. Ancient speech-writers would have recognized immediately that the homilist employs here the rhetorical device of comparison, whereby the greatness of a given person or thing is demonstrated by comparing it with someone or something already regarded as excellent. What we see in this passage, in other words, is the perfection of God’s intention to be in full fellowship with humanity, Jew and Gentile alike.
Interestingly, this more perfect encounter with God is described by the homilist as a “festal gathering” (12:22). In other words, the author envisions a lavish party complete even with angelic guests.
It is tempting to discern here an echo of the historical Jesus and his use of banquet imagery to depict the world to come as a place of universal table fellowship in a renewed, and for that reason, different world from the one we presently inhabit. Just as the historical Jesus saw this radically inclusive party as a future event foreshadowed in the present by his own radical table fellowship, the author of Hebrews, looking back creatively on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, likewise sees the power of that future promise informing the present right now for the people of God.
Kevin B. McCruden is Professor of Religious Studies in Gonzaga University, specializing in the area of New Testament interpretation and criticism. He is currently writing a book length treatment on the connection between religious experience and common life in the four Gospels and letters of Paul.