We are all prone to imagine a god that is more like our culture than who God truly is. If we’re not careful, the culture will shape our view of God.
For example, the summum bonum—the highest good—of our culture is tolerance. Not surprisingly, as our culture becomes more tolerant and less concerned about sin, so does the god they worship.
To support the idea that God is getting more tolerant, some appeal to the Bible. After all, God isn’t raining down fire and brimstone like He did in the Old Testament. He isn’t turning people into pillars of salt for disobedience. No, something has changed. But it’s not God.
There is a difference between how God relates to people in the Old Testament and how God relates to people in the New Testament, but it’s not because of a change in His character. If God hasn’t changed, then what has?
Allow me to explain. To do so, I want to spend some time looking at a significant text in Hebrews where the author contrasts how God relates to people under the old and new covenants in different ways.
God Approaches People Differently
The author of Hebrews begins by describing how God related to the people of Israel under the Old Covenant.
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” (Hebrews 12:18–29)
The author reminds his readers that God, in the Old Testament, was unapproachable. To illustrate his point, he uses a historical event that all Jews would be familiar with: Moses receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Look again at the description: “a blazing fire,” “darkness,” “gloom,” and “a tempest.” Remember, this isn’t describing Hell. This is describing the presence of God.
God met with Moses at Mount Sinai. But the people were warned that they must not touch the Mount lest they be put to death. God gave Moses strict instructions:
And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, “Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.” (Exodus 19:12–13)
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:18–19)
Why does God appear this way? Why not appear like a disarming, Gandalf-like grandpa figure? Or, why not appear like a heavyset, non-judgmental, African American woman named “Papa”? I’ll tell you why. Most people—past and present—think that God can be approached by anyone, in any way. They believe that God is always loving and embracing, never wrathful and judging.
But that isn’t true. God appears this way—and Hebrews highlights it for us—to demonstrate that God is a lethal threat to anyone who dares approach Him through the law.
Let me put it this way: Apart from the gospel there is no access to God.
This, by the way, is why Islam, and Hinduism, and Buddhism, and New Age teaching won’t work. Those who embrace these religions will only find a blazing fire, darkness, gloom, a tempest, fear, and terror. If you reject divine grace in Jesus Christ, then you will get nothing but divine wrath.
God’s appearance on Mount Sinai communicated something we can all quickly forget: God is unapproachable on our terms. This account is meant to show that God is distant, separate, and off limits. For sinful people who trust in their own merits, God will always be a terrifying reality. In fact, our text says, “Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear’” (Hebrews 12:21).
Thankfully, the author of Hebrews does not stop at verse 21. Next, he contrasts this unapproachability with our current state before God.
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22–24)
We have not come to Mount Sinai (v.18), where God is distant and unapproachable. Rather, we have come to Mount Zion (v.22), where God is close and desires to dwell with His people.
How is this possible? Verse 24 answers this question. We have come “to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” The author of Hebrews is saying that we are no longer under the old covenant. We are under a new covenant.
And we have not only come to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, but we have also come “to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
How does Jesus’ blood speak a better word than the blood of Abel? Both Jesus and Abel were killed at the hands of the wicked. Both died deaths they didn’t deserve. But there was a significant difference. Abel’s blood cried out for vengeance, while Jesus’ blood speaks out for forgiveness, atonement, and pardon. Jesus makes all the difference.
Mount Sinai is a picture of approaching God when sins are not atoned for. Mount Zion, on the other hand, is a picture of approaching God through the atoning blood of Christ.
God is the same; Jesus’ sacrifice is the difference.
God Judges People Differently
Some people are quick to point out that we see a lot of judgment being carried out in the Old Testament. Yet, we see very few immediate acts of judgment in the New Testament. This observation has led people to falsely assume that God isn’t in the judging business anymore.
However, our Hebrews text rules this out:
See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:25–29)
This passage is clear. Just as they—the people of Israel—did not escape God’s judgment when they rejected Him, we will not escape God’s judgment if we reject Him. God is still wrathful—a consuming fire. And He still judges. But how He judges and when He pours out His wrath has changed.
How does God respond to wickedness today? God rarely judges with immediate, fierce judgment. Instead, He judges with delayed, future judgment.
Paul tells the Church in Rome, “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). Generally speaking, while God’s wrath in the Old Testament is poured out, His wrath in the New Testament is stored up. For those who refuse to repent, God’s wrath cannot be dodged. It is merely delayed.
There is a future day coming when God will perfectly judge mankind for their wickedness. In fact, Paul says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:6). And those who turn to God, Jesus will deliver “from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
We mustn’t confuse God’s patience toward sinners with tolerance toward sin. God is still judge. He hasn’t changed. But how He deals with sinful man has. Because of Jesus, God approaches people differently. Because of Jesus, God judges people differently. The God on Mount Sinai is the same God on Mount Zion. God’s wrath did not disappear in the New Testament. It didn’t just evaporate into thin air. No, we can be saved because God’s wrath was satisfied. For those who put their faith in Christ, God’s wrath was poured out on His Son in our place (1 John 4:10; Isa. 52:5–6, 10).