It is easy when people speak about “holiness” and “righteousness” for people to interpret the message as a demand of perfection, unattainable and futile, frustrating and infuriating. It’s easy to interpret it that way. It’s wrong, but I can see how one would hear the message that way, because I used to hear the message that way.
In the past few years I have learned that holiness and righteousness are not about adhering to a list of demands from an unfeeling master, but rather about relying solely and fully on the only one who is truly holy and righteous.
Hebrews 12 speaks to me to that point more than any other passage in the Bible. It begins with a heavy portion of the chapter addressing how we behave, instructing us to press on, to focus on Jesus, to expect ridicule and attack, to endure discipline as a blessing, to strengthen your spiritual self, to refuse to fall short, to reject anything that might cause you to reject Christ, because in unrighteousness is incredible and terrible consequence.
Alright, seriously, how do you read that and not think again that this holiness thing is simply about behaving better? You read on, because in the second half of the chapter, following some of the strictest admonishment in the New Testament of how to live our individual faith lives, comes some of the most freeing, sweetest breath of life and hope kind of words that I have read.
Moses climbed the mountain to receive the law, but there were strict boundaries placed which limited the Israelites from drawing near this event. Exodus 19 recounts this story and makes it clear that to attempt approaching the holiness of God by climbing the mountain would result in death. Hebrews sends us back to that moment, to remind the listeners of the familiar story, Moses going up the mountain to receive the 10 commandments. These commands and the law were given to God’s people so they would be set apart from the rest of the world,
But the writer makes such a strong statement saying “You have not come.” You have not come to the kind of mountain where law is given as a method of setting you apart, of making you holy. At Mount Sinai, Moses had to consecrate himself and follow strict guidelines and then he still had to wait for the trumpet blast in order to approach God there.
When I didn’t understand holiness, this is how I thought of it. That it is marked rightly as burning with fire, darkness, gloom and storm. That it is about consecrating yourself, following those rules and regulations, and then waiting for a trumpet blast to tell me that I’ve been good enough to come to God. However, Paul makes it clear with those 4 words “You have not come…”
So if we are not approaching the mountain of the law, what do we approach?
There it is. “You have come.” The other mountain, the mountain of God, where the first indicator is one that points at worship, thousands of angels in joyful assembly. And then “You have come” again, this time, not to a place, but to Him, to God. It is this path that ends in communion with our holy God.
How is this accomplished? By the word of The Word Made Flesh, which speaks better than all of the condemnation laid out from the first condemnation, that of Adam.
But it doesn’t end there! It goes on…
Just before Moses stepped onto that mountain, it shook violently. These details would have been so familiar to the Hebrews receiving Paul’s letter here, that to connect the shaking of Mount Sinai before Moses went to receive the law would translate so sensibly to what is experienced when the Holy Spirit came to the new believers in those days.
The writing of the shaking mountains moves into the consuming fire, this Holy Spirit symbol that we still recognize today, thinking of those tongues of flame that rested on the apostles as the Holy Spirit came upon them. It connects to Exodus 19 as the mountain shook, it was covered in smoke “because the Lord descended on it in fire.” Paul connects the power of holiness on the mountain to the fire witnessed at Pentecost to explain the power now available to us through His Spirit.
Before we are ready to allow the Holy Spirit into our lives, to experience him not like the nation of witnesses kept at bay down at the foot of the mountain, but to experience Him in full at the mountain top, we will find a shaking away. Just as God shook the mountains and arrived in fire, just as the Spirit arrived with rushing wind and fire on Pentecost, so to will He come to us in an experience unlike any other.
When my shaking time was on me, a friend heard a song and gave me a lyric from it which says “You’re world’s not falling apart, it’s falling into place.” My friend, there is deep truth in that. I ran those words through my mind as things seemed to go from bad to worse. I found myself, at last, at a point where I was out of options and out of ideas on how to fix the mess all around me. I sat there in the sanctuary with what sounded like thousands of angels singing around me and in front of me I saw two empty hands with up turned palms. “Those are my hands,” I thought “I have nothing to offer. I have no more ideas. I have nothing.” Then into those empty hands slipped another pair of hands, filling them, curving around their edges, the meaning clear. Now that I had empty hands, they were ready to be filled by His. Now that I had nothing to give, He could give to me. Now that I had no more ideas, He could use me.
When you feel control is slipping through your grasp, don’t clench your fists. Let things fall around you, leaving your hands open so that what is of this world shakes away. Let His hands fill yours so that instead of you trying to grapple and grasp on to whatever you can grab to hold as the world breaks around you, He can hold on to you.