Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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February 2011 • Volume XIII, Issue 10


Mount Sinai (2)

Hebrews 12:18-21 constitutes a warning against apostasy, especially departing from the gospel of Jesus Christ for Jewish legalism. The first of the seven things mentioned about Mount Sinai (here representing Old Testament law and worship, without Christ’s cross and mediation) in Hebrews 12:18-19 is that it is touchable, physical and material: "the mount that might be touched" (18). By contrast, the other mount, Mount Sion, is not touchable, physical or material (22). In keeping with the nature of Mount Sinai, as touchable, physical and material, the form of worship laid down at Sinai consisted of a "worldly sanctuary," i.e., the tabernacle (9:1); "carnal ordinances" (10); a physical altar; animal sacrifices; priestly garments made of linen; etc.

The second of the seven points made concerning Mount Sinai is that it "burned with fire" (12:18). Fire symbolizes God’s presence for He is a "consuming fire" (29). Particularly, fire represents God’s jealousy and His burning severity against sin and sinners. "For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God" (Deut. 4:24). God’s fiery judgment falls upon Judaism without Christ, Jews who apostatize from Christianity, all who depart from the gospel and all who know not the Lord Jesus.

The third and fourth phenomena at Mount Sinai are similar: "blackness, and darkness" (Heb. 12:18). Both "blackness, and darkness," as well as "fire," are mentioned in Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 4-5. We could say that blackness is the colour of a thing and darkness is its effect upon others, so that the (all-encompassing) blackness causes darkness. There are two main ideas here: first, blackness and darkness terrify us (the fear of the dark!) and, second, they hinder or stop our beholding God’s glory. But how can there be both fire and darkness/blackness? Surely the fire would dispel the darkness to some degree? It is the same in hell which Scripture describes as a place of both darkness and fire. Both fire and darkness increase terror.

The fifth feature at Sinai is the "tempest" (Heb. 12:18).The tempest includes thunder and lightening in the sky above. This adds to the terrifying effect of God’s revelation at Mount Sinai to give the law. Do you really want to leave the gospel church of Jesus Christ? To go back to Old Testament law and worship? To Sinai? To this?

The sixth aspect of God’s revelation at Mount Sinai is "the sound of a trumpet" (19). There was no physical trumpet at Sinai, but Jehovah produced the sound of a trumpet, an "exceeding loud" sound (Ex. 19:16), growing "louder and louder" (19) as He came nearer to the mount. The dreadful sound of the trumpet announced the coming of Almighty God and summoned the people before Jehovah the judge. All this symbolizes the terror of the law convicting us of our manifold sins and sinfulness.

"The voice of words" is the seventh and last phenomenon at Mount Sinai (Heb. 12:19). God thundered the ten commandments with a deafening sound that struck fear into the hearts of the assembled people. What an awful event was the giving of the law! Think of what Israel saw: a mountain burning with fire and enveloped with blackness and darkness, with lightning streaking across the sky. And what did they hear? Thunder, a trumpet and the voice of God!

Look at the fearful response of the people at Sinai. They "intreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more" (19). Why? "For they could not endure that which was commanded" (20). This is not to say that the people did wrong in begging God not to speak to them in this way any more. They were right and God agreed; from now on He would speak to them through Moses the mediator (Deut. 5:23-31). But Hebrews 12 is saying that God’s voice itself was terrible to their ears and that what it said condemned them, "For they could not endure that which was commanded" (20). By God’s thundering the law, all knew themselves to be guilty and condemned sinners, worthy of eternal destruction. This reminds us of Galatians 4:21: "Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?" Thunder, trumpet, God’s terrifying voice and so on—this is what you get if you go back to Old Testament law and worship and forsake Jesus Christ and His New Testament church!

Mount Sinai even spelled destruction for livestock: "And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart" (Heb. 12:20). Do you hear what God is saying? "Keep your distance! You have no access to the mount! Keep out!" Not even animals are allowed to get close, never mind people. This is the message of Old Testament worship. The holy of holies is out of bounds for 99.999% of the people. Only the high priest gets in—briefly, once a year and he has to bring blood. God, whether at Sinai or in the most holy place, is shut off. No access! Keep your distance! Do you get the point? Jehovah is inaccessible by means of Old Testament law and worship. Only by the blood of Jesus Christ can we draw near to God. So do not return to the weak and beggarly elements of the law! And what happened to a beast, say a sheep or a calf, that strayed up the mount? The people were to kill it by stoning or by a dart (arrow). Why not by a knife? The Israelites must not get close; they must keep their distance even from the animal that touched Mount Sinai. If the Israelites were not to get too near to an animal that strayed onto the mount, they must surely keep their distance from the dreadful God revealed at Sinai!

Sinai was awful not only for the people and the beasts, but even for Moses: "And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake" (21). This was the Moses who had met God at the burning bush. He had stood before mighty Pharaoh, bringing Jehovah’s message of judgment upon him and his people time and time again. He had faced down Israelite rebellions and murmurings. He was the mediator! Yet even Moses shook in extreme fear. How much worse for those who turn away from the Lord Jesus and go back to salvation by works or return to the world! Rev. Stewart

Baptism With Fire

"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire" (Matt. 3:11).

Question: "Could you explain what it means that Jesus Christ will baptize with fire?"

The words of John the Baptist quoted above are a kind of figure of speech called a hendiadys. Such a figure of speech is very common in Scripture—and, for that matter, in our own daily conversation. We may say, for example, "I am going to go to the store and buy a loaf of bread." We do not mean that we are now going to do two unrelated and completely separate things: go to the store and, in addition to going to the store, we will also, somewhere, buy a loaf of bread.

The meaning is, as we all know: "I will go to the store to buy a loaf of bread." In other words, we combine two words or thoughts with the word "and," and thus mean only one thing.

A familiar hendiadys in Scripture is our Lord’s words: "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). The Lord does not mean that He is three separate and unrelated entities. He means: "I am the way because I am the truth. And I am the way and the truth because I am the life."

The Lord means the same thing in His words: "I am the resurrection, and the life" (John 11:25). His meaning, obviously, is, "I am the resurrection because I am the life."

The Old Testament also frequently uses this figure. God told Eve in Paradise after she ate of the forbidden tree, "I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception" (Gen. 3:16). The Lord means that He would multiply the sorrow of Eve’s conception of children. The words "sorrow" and "conception" are one idea, not two separate ideas.

The same figure of speech is used in Matthew 3:11. By saying that Christ’s baptism is "with the Holy Ghost, and with fire," John means to say Christ’s baptism is with the Holy Ghost who comes with fire. This was literally fulfilled at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out by Christ and tongues of fire appeared along with the other signs.

But this necessary introduction does not yet answer the question.

Fire is a picture of judgment in Scripture. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire and brimstone (Gen. 19:24). Fire burnt up Nadab and Abihu when they offered "strange fire" at the tabernacle (Lev. 10:1-2). The giving of the law from Sinai was accompanied by fire (Ex. 19:18). The final judgment on this earth will come with a great fire that shall consume all the creation (II Peter 3:7, 10-12).

Baptism is with both water and fire, according to John the Baptist. The reference is not, of course, literal; when the minister performs the rite of baptism he does not use fire. But what is signified and sealed in the sacrament of baptism is signified and sealed by the terms "water" and "fire."

The water of baptism signifies the washing away of sin. As water cleanses the filth of the body, so does the water of baptism cleanse the filth of the soul.

This must not be understood, however, as if the outward administration of baptism cleanses the soul. This is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church with its doctrine of baptismal regeneration. The sprinkling with water pictures in the sacrament the blood of Christ. So, as water washes the body from dirt, the blood of Christ washes the soul from sin.

But when John says "with the Holy Ghost and with fire," the reference is somewhat broader. Fire is destructive. Fire is the destruction that comes with judgment. Baptism is therefore a sacrament that signifies judgment, a point not to be forgotten.

The flood that came in Noah’s day was both the judgment and destruction of the world and the salvation of the church. The church is delivered at the end of time by fire that destroys this wicked world and cursed creation, and by it the church is saved from the world.

There are statements to that effect throughout Scripture. Isaiah, in predicting the captivity, says, "Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness" (Isa. 1:27). Peter speaks of the faith of believers as being purified with fire as gold is purified with fire (I Peter 1:7). In the same epistle, Peter speaks of judgments from God that "begin at the house of God;" and he says that this is necessary for "the righteous scarcely be saved;" that is, saved with great difficulty and only by means of judgment (4:17-18).

That judgment that baptism signifies is the judgment of the world that is present in our own flesh. Our flesh must be destroyed in order for us to be saved. Sanctification comes through destruction of the old and the birth of the new. Holiness comes only through burning that which is corrupt so that that which is pure may be saved. We are baptized into Christ’s death and buried with Him in order that we may rise with Him unto newness of life (Rom. 6:1-10).

When John speaks of baptism by the Holy Ghost and by fire, he means that this wonder work of God, this reality of which baptism is a sign and seal, is performed only by the work of the Holy Spirit of Christ. Christ, in His death, destroyed sin and corruption by His obedience in suffering the punishment of God for sin. He was perfected through fire—the fire of hell—and in this way He rose to newness of life. He sends forth His Spirit into the hearts of His people that their old man may be burned to make room for the new man that is holy as Christ is.

There is an antithesis in our salvation: Redemption through judgment; cleansing through fire; a new creature through destruction. It is a wonder. It is the wisdom and greatness of God. Prof. Hanko

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