From: Hebrews 12:18-19, 21-24
Striving for Peace; Purity; Reverent Worship (Continuation)
18-21. The text recalls in detail all the physical signs which accompanied the ma-
nifestation of God on the heights of Sinai (cf. Ex 19:12-16; 20:18), and to these it
adds other things taken from Jewish oral tradition.
All this helps to inspire feelings of religious reverence and fear, which explains
why the people begged God not to speak further, for they were afraid they would
die. To assert his transcendence God forbade anyone to put foot on the moun-
tain (Ex 19:12, 21); this was a way of showing this as yet uncivilized people the
difference between the true God and idols.
There is no mention in the Pentateuch of Moses being frightened of the vision he
saw when God manifested himself on Sinai; when his fear is mentioned (Deut 9:
19) it is in the context of the second time he went up the mountain to be given
replacements for the tables he had broken in a fit of rage (Deut 9:15-18; Ex 32:
19-20). His fear was that God would punish with death those who had adored the
golden calf. When telling (cf. Acts 7:32) the story of God’s first revelation to Mo-
ses in the burning bush, St Stephen says that “Moses trembled and did not dare
to look”: thus, the presence of divinity provokes in him the deepest feelings of re-
verence and fear (cf. the attitude of Abraham: Gen 15:12; of Zechariah: Lk 1:12;
of Isaiah: Is 6:4-5; of Jeremiah: Jer 1:6; of Gideon: Judg 6:22-23; etc.).
22-24. The sacred text dramatically contrasts two scenes—that of the establish-
ment of the Covenant on Sinai, and the vision of the heavenly city, the dwelling-
place of the angels and saints. The comparison implies a rhetorical question: if
the setting of the Old Covenant was so solemn and awesome, and if the Cove-
nant itself was so supernatural and divine, what must not be said of the New
We have therefore overwhelming reasons for staying faithful: what awaits us is
not an austere and vengeful God but, rather, the joy and splendor of the heaven-
ly city. For the Hebrew people Mount Sinai was the most important symbol of
their special connection with God, reminding them that the Almighty was also
the Supreme Judge who claimed their exclusive devotion and who abominated
idolatry. Similarly, another mountain, Mount Zion, on which the Temple was built,
repre- sented God’s protective presence in the midst of his people. Both moun-
tains, Sinai and Zion, prefigured the mountain from which the Messiah-King
would reign and towards which all peoples would flock to worship the true God
(cf. Ps 2:6; Is 2:2).
The vision which Judaism, on the basis of Scripture, had elaborated of heaven
as the “new Jerusalem” is now extended: not only is it the holy mountain, the
source of the light and glory of Yahweh (cf. Is 8:18; 28:16; 60: 1-11; Ps 50:2;
74:2; Joel 3: 17), the city of peace (cf. Is 33:20); it is the city where the angels
and saints dwell and rejoice, the demesne of the living God and of Jesus—the
heavenly and everlasting Jerusalem, which is also illustrated in the Book of
Revelation (cf. Rev 21:15-17; 22:1-5).
The text once more recalls the Exodus (cf. Heb 3:16-18; 4:1-2; 9:18-20; 10:19-
22). Christians are making their way to heaven, their lasting homeland, their true
place of rest, just as the ancient Israelites made their way out of Egypt and
crossed the desert to reach the land promised to their forefathers.
However, despite this parallel there are differences: the Old Covenant, although
it did include expressions and promises of joy and jubilation, was set in an at-
mosphere of religious fear and trembling; whereas the New Covenant is full of joy
and exultation, although in the midst of suffering.
“It is a question [...] of the glorious and supernatural joy, prophesied for the new
Jerusalem redeemed from the exile and loved with a mystical love by God him-
self [...]. Through the course of many centuries and in the midst of most terrible
trials, these promises wonderfully sustained the mystical hope of ancient Israel.
And it is ancient Israel that transmitted them to the Church of Jesus Christ, in
such a way that we are indebted to ancient Israel for some of the purest expres-
sions of our hymn of joy. And yet, according to faith and the Christian expe-
rience of the Holy Spirit, this peace which is given by God and which spreads
out like an overflowing torrent when the time of ‘consolation’ comes, is linked to
the coming and presence of Christ” (Paul VI, “Gaudete In Domino”, 2-3).
22. The mention of Zion recalls the other mountain on which the Covenant was
made (Sinai), as also the many prophetical texts which proclaimed that the Mes-
siah’s reign would begin on Zion, his holy mountain (cf. Ps 2:6; Is 2:2-4:25:6;
Zech 14:4). Thus, Mount Zion, the city of the living God, and the heavenly Jeru-
salem all mean the Church in triumph in heaven.
St Thomas emphasizes that part of eternal happiness in heaven consists in the
vision of the heavenly assembly: “for in the glory of heaven there are two things
which most cause the blessed to rejoice enjoyment of the Godhead and the
fellowship of the saints” (”Commentary on Heb., ad loc.”).
“Proceeding from the love of the eternal Father (cf. Titus 3:4), the Church was
founded by Christ in time and gathered into one by the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph 1:3,
5, 6, 13-14, 23). It has a saving and eschatological purpose which can be fully
attained only in the next life. But it is now present here on earth and is composed
of men; they, the members of the earthly city, are called to form the family of the
children of God in this present history of mankind and to increase it continually
until the Lord comes” (Vatican II, “Gaudium Et Spes”, 40).
23. “The assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven”: the blessed, in-
cluding the righteous of the Old Testament, the Apostles and all Christians who
have attained the beatific vision. They are called first-born because, as in the
case of the Patriarchs, they were the first to have faith; because, as in the case
of the Apostles, it was they who received Christ’s call initially, to pass it on to
others; and, finally, because, as in the case of faithful Christians, they were cho-
sen by God from among the pagans (cf. Rom 8:29; Phil 3:20; Col 1:18; Rev 1:5;
14:4). Their names are written in heaven (cf. Lk 10:20; Rev 2:17; 3:5; 13:8; 17:8).
24. As Incarnate Word and High Priest, Jesus is the mediator of the New Cove-
nant (cf. Heb 8:6; 9:15; 1 Tim 2:5; cf. Heb 2:17; 13:1; 7:25). The letter focuses
for a moment on the most significant point in the alliance—the shedding of our
Lord’s blood, which ratifies the Covenant and cleanses mankind (cf. Ex 24:8; Heb
9:12-14, 20; 10:19, 28-29; 13:20; 1 Pet 1:2). This blood “speaks more graciously
than the blood of Abel”, “for the shedding of Christ’s blood was represented figura-
tively by the shedding of the blood of all the just there have been since the begin-
ning of the world [...]. Therefore, the spilling of Abel’s blood was a sign of this new
spilling of blood. But the blood of Christ is more eloquent than that of Abel, be-
cause Abel’s called for vengeance whereas the blood of Christ claims forgiveness”
(St Thomas Aquinas, “Commentary On Heb., ad loc.”). The confidence the blood
of Christ gives us makes us feel happy to be sinners who, repentant, take refuge
in his wounds.
“Sinners, says the Epistle, you are fortunate indeed, for after you sin you have
recourse to the crucified Jesus, who shed all his blood so that he might stand as
mediator to make peace between God and sinners, and win you forgiveness from
him. If your evildoing shouts against you, the Redeemer’s blood cries aloud in
your favor, and divine justice cannot but listen to what this blood says” (St Al-
phonsus, “The Love of Jesus Christ Reduced to Practice”, 3).
Source: “The Navarre Bible: Text and Commentaries”. Biblical text from the
Revised Standard Version and New Vulgate. Commentaries by members of
the Faculty of Theology, University of Navarre, Spain.
Published by Four Courts Press, Kill Lane, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, Ireland, and
by Scepter Publishers in the United States.