Hebrews – Chapter Twelve XXXVI

by Ed Urzi

“For they heard an awesome trumpet blast and a voice so terrible that they begged God to stop speaking. They staggered back under God’s command: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.’ Moses Himself was so frightened at the sight that he said, ‘I am terrified and trembling’ (Hebrews 12:19-21 NLT).

The Old Testament book of Exodus tells us that God’s descent upon Mount Sinai was accompanied by billowing smoke, fire, and a violent earthquake (Exodus 19:16-18). This was nothing like the elaborate pyrotechnic display that one might see at a concert, sporting event, or theatre presentation. Instead, this was terrifyingly real, and it had a profound effect upon those who witnessed it…

“When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.’ The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:18-21 NIV).

To grasp the significance of this event, let’s consider the effect of that experience upon the senses of those who were in attendance….

  • The people could see the lightning.
  • They could smell the smoke.
  • They could feel the earthquake.
  • They could hear the thunder and the sound of the horn.

Those sensory experiences clearly had a deep emotional impact upon those who were there. Nevertheless, the context of Hebrews 12:18-21 emphasizes the temporal nature of that experience. This reference to Mount Sinai serves to express that idea, for while Mount Sinai may be large and foreboding, it will eventually meet its end, just like the covenant it represents.

Another important aspect of this passage is its emphasis upon fear. While fear can help us develop a reverent attitude toward God, it should prompt us to respond to Him with love and respect in recognition of His holiness. Unfortunately, the people of Israel had need of a different motivation…

“In Exo_20:18-21, when God had given the Ten Commandments, the people were afraid of God’s awesome holiness. They wanted Moses to mediate for them, fearing that if God spoke to them directly, they would die (Exo_20:19; Deu_5:25-27), for he came as a consuming fire (Deu_4:24; Deu_5:24-25). But God’s purpose was to scare enough sense into them to get them to stop sinning (Exo_20:20).” (1)

(1) Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary [Hebrews 12:19]