Outline and Structural Analysis
vv. 18-21: Sinai
vv. 22-24: Zion, Heavenly Jerusalem
vv. 25-26: Warning with passage from Haggai 2:6.
v. 27: Explanation of Haggai 2:6
vv. 28-29: Exhortation
There is an inclusio with pyri and pyr in vv. 18 and 29, respectively (Attridge 373, Vanhoye 209). In the Greek, the section consists of five sentences (vv. 18-21; vv. 22-24; vv. 25-26; v. 27; vv. 28-29), with vv. 25-26 in the middle, suggesting that the warning about not refusing him who is speaking combined with the quote from Haggai is central to the section. In vv. 18-21, the author gives a description of the institution of the Old Covenant at Sinai, which is contrasted with the New Covenant characterized by Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem in vv. 22-24. This contrast sets the stage for our author to present a warning to his audience, reinforced by the Haggai quote (vv. 25-26). Next, in v. 27 is a brief explanation of the Haggai quote followed by an exhortation in vv. 28-29.
Verses 18-24 provide a ratio for the previous exhortation in vv. 12-15, by way of comparing the Old and New Covenants. In v. 18, the author provides a “stern note of warning” (Bruce 371), by way of negation, for those who have begun to make an approach to the New Covenant, but are in danger of falling back (cf. Heb 2:1, 3:12, 6:4-6, 10:23-25). His audience has not come to Mount Sinai, the place of the inauguration of the Old Covenant by Moses. Spicq suggests that the omission of the name “Sinai” in v. 18 is symbolic of the abolition of the economy of the old cult (403). Our author, however, reminds his audience of the phenomena which occurred during the initiation of that covenant in vv. 18-19. Verse18 describes the physicality of the mountain (psēlaphōmenō; cf. Exod 19:12), the burning fire (kekaumenō pyri; Exod 19:18; Deut 4:11-12, 15, 36; 5:22-26), darkness and gloom (gnophō kai zophō), which seems to refer to the thick cloud which Yahweh came in (cf. Exod 19:9, 16; 20:21; Deut 4:11; 5:22-23), and a tempest (thyellē; Deut 4:11; 5:22). Verse 19 recalls the sound of the trumpet accompanying the theophany (Exod 19:13, 16, 19; 20:18). It also speaks of the voice of Yahweh, which, in the original event of Exod 19:19, is addressed to Moses alone. In the Hebrew, the word for ‘voice’ is קול, which can be translated as ‘voice’, ‘sound’, or ‘thunder’. Our author relates that the experience of the voice caused the people to ask Moses that no further word (logon) be spoken to them. This plea comes in Exod 20:19, right after the people heard the thunder (הַקּוֹלֹת) and saw the lightening (Exod 20:18). This seems to suggest that only Moses heard the voice as one accommodated so that Moses could understand it as a human voice (cf. Wevers, Exodus 304, who points out that in Exod 19:19 קול cannot be translated as ‘thunder’ because it is not in the plural), whereas the people heard the voice as thunder. Such an occurrence would lead the people to fear and cause them to avoid any further communication from Yahweh. Likewise in Deut 5, it is questionable whether the people heard Yahweh directly in the giving of the Ten Commandments, since v. 5 says that Moses stood between Yahweh and the people in order to report the words of Yahweh (cf. Wever, Deuteronomy 99; von Rad 55). After which they dared not to have Yahweh speak to them any more, but rather only through the “echo” of Moses (Spicq 404), lest they die from any further exposure (Deut 5:24-27). This consideration will be of use in dealing with the question of who is the one warning epi gēs in verse 25.
Verse 20 truncates the command spoken to the Israelites in Exod 19:12-13. In the context of Hebrews, only beasts are threatened with stoning. Attridge suggests that the a fortiori implication is obvious and that our author’s quoting this passage from Exodus points to another contrast between the Old and New covenants, where in the Old, sanctity was had by exclusion or separation from the divine (374).
Verse 21 provides a crux interpretum, for in the original context of the event of Sinai described in vv. 18-20, Moses does not say, “ekphobos eimi kai entromos.” A cursory reading of v. 21 would lead one to think that our author depicts Moses as being afraid during the theophany, which is nowhere suggested during the original event. Spicq (404-405) and others (Bruce 372, Attridge 374, Koester 543, Ellingworth 676) rightly point out that Moses says, “kai ekphobos eimi,” in Deut 9:19 in relation to the sin of the golden calf. Yet, Spicq doesn’t let this affect his exegesis and posits instead a traditional haggadic explanation for Moses’ fear during the Sinai theophany. Attridge likewise entertains the haggadic theory and states that our author adds “embellishments” to the biblical account to enhance the imagery of Sinai (374). In support, they appeal to Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:32, where it is said that Moses, in speaking with God at the burning bush, “trembled and did not dare to look” (RSV/CE2; cf. Ellingworth 676, where he says these are ‘unconvincing’). But this does not seem to serve the purposes of our author’s argument throughout the epistle, nor does it credit him with a sophisticated understanding of the Old Testament as evidenced elsewhere (cf. Robinson 189, who says our author made a ‘minor slip’). It would seem that our author’s conflation of the Sinai theophany with the sin of the golden calf furthers his argument on at least two levels. First, it highlights the weakness of the Old Covenant with the unsavory origin of the Levitical priesthood in contrast to the perfection of the New Covenant and Christ’s priesthood, which our author has previously emphasized. Second, it provides a reference point for our author’s comment in v. 25 that those who refused him who warned on earth did not escape, since Moses and the Levites killed three thousand as a result of the sin of the golden calf (Exod 32:28).
Like v. 18, v. 22 begins with proselēlythate. Attridge suggests that this may derive from the Sinai event in Deut 4:11 and is related to a common term in Hebrews to describe what the believer ought to do in relation to God (372). Likewise, Thompson suggests that the parallels between Sinai and Zion “probably draw upon traditional contrasts between Mount Sinai and the new Jerusalem (cf. Jub 4.26; Gal 4:25-26; Rev 21:1-2)” (261). Moreover, Zion was prophesied to be the place of God’s new revelation (cf. Isa 2:2-4) (Thompson 261).
What the author has exhorted his audience to in Heb 4:16, 7:25, 10:22, and 11:6, he now describes them as having approached, yet inchoately (Koester 544). This is the city Abraham looked forward to (Heb 11:10, cf. also 11:16). It is not on Mount Sinai that the living God dwells, but Mount Zion. It is not Moses, Joshua, and the Levites that provide the final resting (4:9), but Christ, exalted at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly Jerusalem. There is both an earthly and heavenly dimension to Mount Zion, but the earthly is no longer fixed in one place (cf. Spicq 405, Ellingworth 678). Also, unlike the depiction in Rev 21:2, “the New Jerusalem has not yet come down to men, but in the spiritual realm they already have access to it” (Bruce 374-375). The precise manner within which this access comes about is faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Heb 11:6), who is the aupaugasma tēs doxēs kai charactēr tēs hypostaseōs of the living God (Heb 1:3).
The next part of v. 22, myriasin angelōn, panēgyrei, is problematic because it is ambiguous how to take panēgyrei. Spicq (406) provides various explanations for its interpretation and Attridge (375) gives a nice summary of Spicq. It seems that Attridge provides the best solution, which is that panēgyrei stands in either simple apposition or as a descriptive dative with the result of “myriads of angels in festive gathering” (375). Bruce suggests that this description of the angels invokes those who attended God at the giving of the Law on Sinai (Deut 33:2) and those Daniel saw serving God (Dan 7:10) (375).
The ekklēsia prōtotokōn apogegrammenōn en ouranois provides another point of contention. Spicq connects it with the previous phrase, myriasin angelōn, panēgyrei, and sees the ekklēsia prōtotokōn as the angels because they are the first beings created, and thus the firstborn of all the creatures (407). Aquinas holds that ekklēsia prōtotokōn refers to the Apostles, “who received the gifts of grace first and more abundantly, and through them it derived to later saints” (288). Spicq’s theory doesn’t hold, however, because of the fact that they are apogegrammenōn en ouranois, which is regularly reserved for men, as in Luke 10:20 and Rev 21:27 (Bruce 376, Attridge 375, Ellingworth 679). On the other hand, it seems that Aquinas’ theory is too limited. Rather than just applying to the Apostles, it seems that the ekklēsia are all those who have died in Christ, the prōtotokos par excellence (Bruce 377, Attridge 375, Ellingworth 679).
The phrase kritē theō pantōn can be taken in two ways: either as “a judge, God of all” or “God, judge of all”. According to Attridge, the former option fits better with the word order given in Hebrews and is more in accord with the positive presentation of the heavenly Jerusalem (376).
Some commentators (cf. Bruce 376-377, Attridge 376) suggest that the pneumasi dikaiōn teteleiōmenōn is parallel to the ekklēsia prōtotokōn. Our author, however, seems to have more than just a reiteration of the ekklēsia prōtotokōn in mind. Contra Thompson (263) and Ellingworth (680), it seems that we can find an antecedent for the pneumasi dikaiōn in Heb 11:40 (cf. Koester 551, Robinson 190). The faithful of the Old Covenant could not be ‘made perfect’ until the coming of Christ and his priestly self-offering and exaltation (cf. Bruce 378). Christ’s death and exaltation is the key that frees those under the first covenant, so that those who received the promise might at last receive their eternal inheritance (cf. Heb 9:15, 11:13).
Here, Aquinas reads “Spirit of the just made perfect” and concludes that it refers the Holy Spirit, i.e., “You have come to the Holy Spirit, Who makes men perfect in justice” (288). This reading would make for a nice Trinitarian reference, yet the manuscript evidence argues against it.
In verse 24, Jesus is explicitly mentioned as the diathēkēs neas mesitē, in contrast to Moses, the mediator of the Old Covenant (Heb 12:21). Connected with Jesus as the mediator of the New Covenant is the haimati rhantismou kreitton lalounti para ton Habel. Just as the Old Covenant at Sinai was ratified by the sprinkling of blood (Exod 24, Heb 9:18-22), so also the New is ratified by the sprinkling/shedding of the blood of Christ (Heb 9:12-14). The reference to Abel has a possible connection back to Hebrews 11:4, where Abel is said to be still speaking (cf. Thompson 263, Ellingworth 682). No reference, however, is made to his blood. As for Christ’s blood speaking better, Aquinas says: “Christ’s blood speaks better than the blood of Abel, since the latter cried for vengeance, but the former for pardon” (289). Attridge sees Aquinas’ interpretation as a possibility, but does not think it corresponds well with Heb 11:4, where Abel speaks as an example of faith and not of vengeance (377). A point to consider is that in Gen 4:10, nowhere is Abel’s blood described as calling out for vengeance. If our author is connecting the blood of Abel crying out to Yahweh with his statement that Abel is still speaking in Heb 11:4, the sense might be that whereas Abel’s blood that was shed still speaks as an example of faith, Christ is ton tēs pisteōs archēgon kai teleiōtēn (Heb 12:2), whose blood sanctifies the Christian (cf. Heb 10:29). This is why his blood speaks better.
Verse 25 moves from the Sinai/Zion contrast to an exhortation not to refuse him who is speaking, premised on an a fortiori argument that if those who in the Old Covenant did not escape when they refused “him” who warned epi gēs, much less shall our author’s audience escape if they reject him who warns ap’ ouranōn. The crucial aspect of interpreting this verse revolves around the identity of the one who is speaking and warning. Is the one speaking the same as the one warning epi gēs and/or ap’ ouranōn or neither? Attridge (379-380), like Spicq (410-411), holds that in all three places, the subject is God. Spicq sees the ton lalounta harkening back to lalēsas in verse one of the exordium: “The God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob and of Moses, speaks today to each Christian soul by the voice of his crucified Son” (410). This is plausible, however, the emphasis in Heb 1:1 seems to fall more on the one whom God has spoken ep’ eskatou tōn hēmerōn toutōn, namely through his Son, whom Hebrews sets up as superior to the former mediators. Moreover, it seems that we should not overlook the reference to one speaking (lalounti) in the immediately preceding verse (cf. Vanhoye 207, Ellingworth 682). Thus, Aquinas holds that it is the blood of Christ that the author has in mind here:
Now, the blood of Christ says two things to us: first, it tells us to be mindful of His kindness, by which the remission of sin was given to us. He, therefore, who sins, contemns the one speaking. Likewise, it exhorts us to imitation. I Pet. 2:21: Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps. He, then, who does not carry his cross to follow Him, refuses the one speaking. Ps. 94:8: Today if you shall hear His voice, harden not your hearts. Mt. 17:5: This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye Him (290; emphasis in original).
Further, Spicq insists that both subjects of the one who warns are God and the contrast is not between mediators, but the two places of revelation (Sinai, Zion) (411). Yet, for a couple of reasons this does not appear to be a satisfying explanation. First, God is explicitly stated to have spoken to Moses from heaven (Exod 20:22—hymeis heōrakate, hoti ek tou ouranou lelalēka pros hymas; Deut 4:36—ek tou ouranou akoustē egeneto hē phōnē autou paideusai se). Moreover, as was shown above in relation to Heb 12:19, it is not wholly clear that the people heard Yahweh’s voice qua a human voice during the Sinai theophany. Yet, even if the people did in fact hear Yahweh’s voice at Sinai, it is undeniable that Moses acts as mediator between Yahweh and Israel.
Spicq is correct that the one who is speaking is primarily God (cf. also Koester 552), yet it is God speaking through his Son (this seems to fit better with the immediate reference to one who speaks in v. 24, i.e. the blood of Christ, as well as Heb 1:1). Further, in light of the contrast in vv. 18-24, the one warning epi gēs would be Moses (cf. Robinson 192), the mediator of the Old Covenant, and the one warning ap’ ouranōn would be Jesus Christ (cf. Robinson 192), the mediator of the New. In Exod 19:21, Moses is told by Yahweh to warn (diamartyrai) the people. Although admittedly, the author of Hebrews uses a different word for ‘warn’ (chrēmatizonta), they both carry the same sense of a divine warning (cf. BDAG 233 and 1089, respectively). It is of note that in the Sinai theophany, it is Moses who warns the people, not Yahweh. On the other hand, Christ warns from heaven, where, having made purification for sins by the sprinkling of his blood, he is exalted and seated at the right hand of God (cf. Heb 1:3, 9:12, 10:12, 12:24).
Thus, it seems that the author of Hebrews does not have God in mind in the contrast between warning on earth and warning from heaven (surely it is the same God who originates the message, but this is hardly grounds for an a fortiori argument if the reference is to the same subject). The argument seems to be predicated on the mediator of the message (cf. Vanhoye 207-208; contra Ellingworth 685), rather than the originator, possibly as an echo of Heb 10:28-29, which is an explicit a fortiori argument contrasting the law of Moses on one side, and the Son of God and the blood of the covenant, by which one is made holy, on the other. Hence the warning here, as in Heb 10:28-29, is not to reject Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant (who is now in the heavenly Jerusalem and wishes to lead Christians to the same place), because if you do, you will also reject God who has spoken definitively through His Son (Heb 1:2). The latter rejection is greater (even though both are a rejection of the same God) because it is not just the rejection of a human mediator, but the Son, who is God himself (Heb 1:3). In this way, Spicq (411) and Robinson (192) are correct to point out that just as the Israelites who rejected God at Sinai were not allowed to enter into the Promised Land (the rest), if the Christians reject God and his mediator, Christ, not only will they not enter into the promised rest (Heb 4), but the chastisement will be greater.
Spicq points out that the second part of v. 25 is parenthetical and v. 26 is directly attached to ton lalounta in the first part of v.25 (411). Thus, the voice that shook the earth tote, is God’s. In the Hebrew account of the Sinai theophany in Exod 19:18, the mountain is said to quake. This detail, however, is absent in the LXX version. Yet, as Attridge notes, other places in the Old Testament do describe Sinai as quaking, such as Judg 5:4-5 and Ps 68:8 (380).
Our author goes on to say that God has made a promise nyn and proceeds to quote Hag 2:6:
eti hapax egō seisō ou monon tēn gēn alla kai ton ouranon.
The passage given here in Hebrews is a slight emendation of the LXX version, meant to emphasize the shaking of heaven (Attridge 380). Bruce tells us that in the Old Testament an earthquake was to mark the coming day of the Lord and points to Isa 2:19, 21; 13:13, where heaven also shakes (382). Spicq also notes that Rabbi Aqiba relied on Haggai 2 to prove that the Messiah would come at the end of the second temple (412).
In the original context of Haggai, the prophet informs the people that God will shake both heaven and earth, so that the wealth of the nations will be brought in to glorify the new temple. Thus, the glory of the new temple will be greater than before and the people can take courage because the Lord is with them.
Verse 27 provides an explanation of our author’s citation, with an emphasis on eti hapax, which Attridge suggests may have the connotation of ‘once for all’ (381). Koester notes:
“Here, the way God shakes the earth at Sinai anticipates the way he will shake the universe in the future. ...The future shaking will encompass heaven itself, so that not even those in the heavenly Jerusalem can escape the testing.” (552).
It seems that our author is warning his audience that in the impending shaking of the vestiges of the Old Covenant (cf. Vanhoye 208), even those who have approached the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb 12:22) will go through a trial. Yet, if they hold firm the initial reality to the end (3:14) and keep their sights on Jesus (12:2), then they will persevere unshaken. Moreover they can have consolation knowing that God disciplines those whom he loves (12:5-11). Attridge denies here any reference to the destruction of the temple and affirms only an eschatological ‘annihilation of the visible universe’ (380-381). Such a denial, however, hardly seems warranted, especially if it is the case that our author is writing pre-70 A.D. The sense might be that the immediate shaking, which includes the temple, could be a precursor to the definitive shaking at the end of time.
On the other hand, what cannot be shaken is what will remain. The New Covenant is the eternal, unshakeable covenant. With this new covenant comes a new priesthood and cult that will also remain. “Where there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the Law” (Heb. 7:12). Our author has previously argued that Christ is the eternal, definitive priest, after the order of Melchizedek, who has taken his seat at the right hand of the Father, having offered the perfect sacrifice once for all.
For this reason can our author exhort his audience in v. 28: Dio basileian asaleuton paralambanontes echōmen charin. Bruce points out that the present participle paralambanontes “suggests that the people of Christ have not finally entered into their royal heritage with Him, although it is already theirs by promise” (383; cf. Koester 557, Ellingworth 690). Thus, holding fast with an unshakeable faith and unwavering hope, they can be assured of receiving the kingdom because God is faithful (Heb 10:23).
The word charin provides some ambiguity. It could be taken in the sense of gratitude to God or of God’s grace bestowed on Christians. Vanhoye points out that the author seems to use the ambiguity of the word in a sort of “subtle interplay.” It is no doubt a question of giving thanks to God, but the very way in which we do so is by remaining faithful to his grace (Vanhoye 209). Being thankful for the kingdom they are receiving, our author further exhorts them to offer acceptable worship to God, with reverence and awe. Here again, Vanhoye sees the interplay in that if we wish to render an agreeable worship to God, it is necessary to have grace (209).
In order to encourage his listeners to offer such worship to God and remain faithful by not falling away from the New Covenant as those in Moses’ time fell from the Old, the author warns them in v. 29 that God is a pyr katanaliskon. This expression was used in Deut 4:24 as a warning to Israel not to abandon the covenant (Koester 557) and recalls the warning of Heb 10:26-31. Ironically, if one falls away from God and the New Covenant, one falls into the hands of the living God, the judge of all and a consuming fire!
Verses 18-29 provide a final comparison between the Old Covenant and the New, with their respective mediators, Moses and Jesus Christ. While emphasizing that the same God spoke through Moses and Christ, the Old was imperfect and served as a shadow of the good things to come in Christ.
Between the Christian condition and the ancient religious condition, one is able to notice on the one hand a real continuity: there is a resemblance, as between the work and its draft (ebauche) (12:25); but one must notice on the other hand a rupture: the insufficiency of the ancient order provokes its elimination (12:26-27). (Vanhoye 208)
The author has led his audience to this point throughout the Epistle. The heavenly Jerusalem is their promised inheritance, which is obtained for them by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and his exaltation at the right hand of the Majesty on high. This is the rest that they long for. A rest which they experience now by participation, but will later enjoy fully only if they hold fast to the end, not sliding back into the Sinai covenant, which could only provide for their earthly, external needs and not purify their inner conscience, something only the blood of Christ is able to accomplish. United to Christ, they can, with unshaken hope and confidence, continue to approach the living God with awe and reverence as the Day draws near, knowing that no matter what calamity may befall them, an unshakeable kingdom awaits.
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