- Locate the passage.
- Determine the structure of the text
Verses 18–24 constitute one paragraph in the Greek text, which the NIV divides at v. 22. The unit is marked by the double use of the Greek perfect indicative verb proselēluthate, “you have come,” in v. 18 and again in v. 22. The contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion is clearly indicated by the use of the Greek adversative conjunction alla “but” in v. 22. Each description of the two mountains is elaborated with a long string of datives in Greek, and both sections conclude with references to “speaking.”
Several discourse features mark v. 25 as the beginning of a new paragraph. There is a shift from the indicative which has characterized the preceding paragraph to the imperative. The absence of any introductory conjunction intensifies the force of this imperative in the discourse. The shift in topic from Sinai to Zion also indicates paragraph onset.
The preceding two paragraphs, balanced by contrast, function as the grounds for the exhortation in v. 25: “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks.” Because of this semantic relationship, v. 25 should not be viewed, as it often is because of the abrupt transition to an imperative, as beginning a new unit that is somewhat distinct from the preceding paragraph. There are clear indications of a new paragraph, but not independent of the previous two paragraphs.
- Exegete the passage
In v. 18, the use of the Greek subordinating conjunction gar again signals the author is providing the ground or reason for the preceding warning in 14–17. In vv. 18–21 the author is reflecting on several texts in the Pentateuch which describe in vivid detail the event of Israel’s terrifying experience in their encounter with God on the fiery mountain of Sinai.
The scene shifts from the terror of Sinai to the joy of Mount Zion in v. 22. The use of the Greek conjunction alla “but” coupled with the repetition of the same verb “you have come” contrasts this sub-paragraph with the preceding one. The Greek coordinating conjunction kai is best translated “even.” Note the absence of the definite article on all the nouns in vv. 22–23. The use of this perfect tense verb “you have come” implies the readers were converted and have entered a permanent place of eternal relationship with God.
The references “Mount Zion,” “city of the living God,” and “heavenly Jerusalem” are all in apposition to one another and refer to the same place. What exactly is meant by these references? In Judaism, “Zion” referred to the hill in Jerusalem where the temple stood. The name covers not only the temple hill, but all of Jerusalem as well. It was the place where Israel gathered for worship and where one hoped to see God manifested in his glory. Significant for Hebrews, Ps 110:1–4 speaks of Zion as the place where the Messiah, the one seated at God’s right hand, would rule.
The climax of 12:18–24 is given in v. 24. The absence of the definite article with the nouns in this verse indicates a focus on quality and nature. As in all other places in the epistle, the human name “Jesus” is placed last in the clause for emphasis, focusing on his humanity along with his work of redemption.
Verse 25 begins a new paragraph. Following the imperatival clause in v. 25, additional grounds are furnished by the immediately following conditional clause.
The first part of v. 26 makes clear that only one speaker is in view in the previous verse with the author’s use of “at that time . . . but now.” The same voice which “shook the earth” at Sinai now “promises” he will again shake not only the earth but the heavens. The use of the perfect tense translated “he has promised” indicates not that the promised fulfillment has occurred, but that the making of the promise has ramifications for the present.
Verses 28 and 29 function as the conclusion of the entire discourse unit 12:1–29. The conclusion is signaled by the Greek inferential conjunction dio, “therefore.” The present participle translated “since we are receiving” depicts the reception of an unshakable kingdom as in progress and serves as the ground or reason for the following two hortatory subjunctives. The shift to the present tense in v. 28 is important. It is consistent with the depiction of believers as engaged in an ongoing athletic contest (12:1–17). The use of “now,” in v. 26 also indicates that the readers are currently in the kingdom and that its reception is not totally an eschatological event. The “kingdom” is emphatic by word order and indicates the kingdom of God. It “cannot be shaken,” a phrase which illumines the author’s previous focus in vv. 26 and 27 on that which can and cannot be shaken.
Verse 29 is subordinated to 28 by the use of the Greek conjunction gar, “for.” The Greek coordinating conjunction kai (untranslated in the NIV) here is emphatic in its use with gar.
Hebrews 12:18–29 synthesizes the significant themes and motifs of the entire letter and can rightly be construed as the pastoral and theological climax of Hebrews.
See Neva Miller, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Analytical and Exegetical Handbook, 409-23; J. Harold Greenlee, Hebrews: An Exegetical Summary, 543-69; and David L. Allen, Hebrews, 588-600, for more detailed exegetical and semantic analysis of the text.
- Let the structure of the text drive the structure of the sermon.
I. 12:18-24 (Semantic focus is on v. 24)
II. 12:25-29 (Semantic focus is on v. 28)