As we’ve noted over the course of this series, the author of Hebrews is concerned that his readers are losing heart and thinking about giving up—they’re taking some hits for their faith in Christ, and they’re starting to get discouraged and wonder if they should just turn and walk away. To fight this, the author spends the bulk of the letter pointing them to Christ, showing them how great and good Jesus is; the main thing he wants them to understand is that they should put all their faith and hope and trust in Christ because no one and nothing else even comes close to deserving it. That’s one of the best things about this book, because that’s the point we all need to understand: whoever or whatever else we might value, wherever else we might put our trust, Jesus is better, and Jesus is worthier, and it doesn’t even begin to be close.
At the same time, though, while that’s the most important thing that needs to be said, it isn’t the only thing that needs to be said, because human beings are very good at being short-sighted. Left to our own devices, we tend to focus on what’s right in front of us, at the expense of the bigger perspective—and so if what’s right in front of us is painful and uncomfortable, we start looking for ways to get out of it or avoid it. Some people, then, are going to look at this and say, “OK, so Jesus is best. Fine. But if I can get something 70% as good as Jesus for 20% of the suffering, that might be a better deal”—and to some, that argument will seem to make a lot of sense. That’s why we have chapters 10-12 of Hebrews, to make the point that avoiding suffering isn’t really a good thing; in particular, that’s why the author uses the language of athletic competition to argue that trials and suffering are part of the discipline God uses to train us and build us up so that we will be spiritually fit to live well, and to have the endurance to keep living well all the way through life.
“Therefore,” Hebrews says in verse 12, you need to run the race differently than you’ve been running it to this point. Where the world teaches us to live to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, as followers of Christ, we have a different goal, and pursuing that goal requires us to value pleasure and pain differently. When trials come, when we face opposition for telling people truths they don’t want to hear, we must not lose heart or see them as things to avoid; rather, we need to recognize them as opportunities to serve God and grow in faith, and rise to the challenge rather than shy from it. And in a world that values the undisciplined and unquestioning pursuit of sensual pleasure—in our popular culture of a thousand Esaus, happily trading their spiritual birthright as children of God for sex, drugs, and rock and roll—we need, as a community of faith, to stand against that. More and more, our culture insists that sexual desire in particular should never be restrained—that physical desire is identity is destiny; it’s appealing, on the surface, to go along with that and indulge our appetites, whereas if you tell someone that never mind how powerfully they want to do something, it’s still wrong, you will be attacked. But we have to call people to holiness anyway, because those who live like Esau will ultimately derail themselves like Esau.
The key thing here is understanding that there’s something better coming. It’s not that God doesn’t like pleasure—God created pleasure, of every type, as part of making us and our world good. Nor does he like for us to struggle, and suffer, and grieve; all these things came into this world as a result of human sin and rebellion, not because they were part of his plan. But God doesn’t want us wasting our time on cheap, empty pleasures when he’s offering us infinite joy. If you knew you were having your favorite dinner tonight with your dearest friends and family, would you sit down this afternoon and stuff yourself with cheap Halloween candy? And yet spiritually speaking, that’s what we do, time after time. As C. S. Lewis said, our problem isn’t that we care too much about pleasure, it’s that we settle for too little; we’re far too easily pleased.
That’s the point of this interesting comparison between Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Law, on the one hand, and Mt. Zion, the city of the living God to which we are gathered in Jesus, on the other—a comparison which introduces the final warning of the book, a warning which sort of summarizes all the others. The first people to hear the book of Hebrews were thinking about going back to Judaism—back, if you will, to Mt. Sinai—and the author reminds them of how little that really accomplished. It was a necessary part of God’s plan, yes, but it couldn’t bridge the distance between God and his people; they didn’t stand before the mountain with joy, they were terrified. Even Moses, who spoke with God as a friend, was afraid. What Jesus offers us is far better—life made perfect in the city of God, with that distance removed and no need for fear; he offers far more than they, or anyone, could ever have thought to ask for before he came.
The question is, even though Jesus offers a gift far better than the Law is capable of giving—something far beyond any human ability to make or earn—why are those early Jewish Christians tempted to go back to Sinai anyway? And why are we so easily tempted to our own forms of legalism, to put our faith in our own little imitations of Sinai? It’s so easy for us to put our trust in money, to seek long-term security in our investments and let the laws of money and income rule our decisions; or to hope in our family, to love them more than God and put our hope for the future in marriage and children and grandchildren; or in our résumé, our education, our career, our traditions, or any of a hundred other human things that cannot save us. Why do we do that?
In part, it’s because Mt. Sinai can be touched. Because you know exactly what you’re looking at and exactly where you stand, and you don’t need faith to know it. Because once you’ve decided to accept the standards, you’re in control of what you do and how well you do it. As such, you can interpret those standards, and what you need to do to meet them, to suit yourself—to allow you to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.
In the short term, that might seem like a decent bargain; in the long term, it’s a disaster, for if we do that, we’re putting our faith and hope in things that will not last. At Sinai, God’s voice shook the earth; the time will come when he will shake the earth again, and the heavens, and all the nations, and nothing that can be shaken will survive. This isn’t arbitrary or unreasonable; our God is a consuming fire—his goodness and holiness and glory are so great that nothing that is not of him, no one who is not of him, can possibly survive in his presence. When he calls all the world to judgment, the mere sound of his voice will be enough to shake and shatter everything that is merely human, and the light of his glory alone will burn it like sawdust; and those who have put their faith and their hope in human effort, human laws, human religion, will see all that supports them and all they have trusted swept away, shaken and fallen and turned to ash. It’s a particularly salutary reminder on the eve of another Election Day, when many are looking forward to changing our government pretty significantly; by all means, go vote, but put not your trust in politicians, in mortal people who cannot save. In the end, no human institution will endure, only the kingdom of God.
All things human are shaky, and all things merely human will fall; those who seek them and build their lives on them will fall with them. We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t “show himself,” by which we usually mean do this thing we want or give us this thing we want; all too often, it’s because what we really want is something we can put our faith in instead of him, something we can see and touch—and that something would only be temporary. Time passes, things fade, and the joys of the past only ever slide farther and farther away from us. As natural as it is for us to want to put our trust and our hope in things and people we can see and touch, we need something more; we need something that will endure, a kingdom that cannot be shaken, a foundation for our lives that is rock-solid, no matter what this world might do. And our reason for worship, our reason to keep running and not lose heart, our reason to bow before God with reverence and awe and astonished gratitude, is that in Jesus, by his gift and his grace, that’s exactly what we’ve been given. Because of him, the kingdom of God is ours, no matter what.