Second Reading: Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24

The Experience of God

Popular Translation

18 You didn’t come to a holy place where things could be touched, where you could see a consuming fire, where you could experience darkness and heavy storm, 19 and where the people who heard the trumpet blast and voice from heaven begged, “No more!”

22 Instead you came to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the Jerusalem in heaven! You came to an uncountable number of angels who dressed in festive clothes. 23 You came to all the risen who were gathered together and whose names have been enrolled in heaven. You came to the Judge, the God of all, and to the spirits of good people who God made perfect. 24 You came to Jesus, the mediator of God’s new agreement with his people, and to his blood that is sprinkled out on all believers! This blood is far better than the blood of Abel, the first man to be murdered.

Literal Translation

18 For you have not come to (that) being touched, having been burnt in fire, darkness, gloom, and storm, 19 a trumpet sound and the sound of words, which those having heard begged not to be set (anymore) words...

22 But, you have come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to a myriad of angels, a festive group, 23 and to the assembly of the first born having been enrolled in heaven, and to the judge, God of all, and to the spirits of the just having been made complete, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkling blood spoken better (than that) from Abel.

12:18-19 The signs listed in 12:18 (the touched, the consuming fire, darkness, gloom, storm, and trumpet blast/sound of heavenly voices) painted the encounter of the Israelites with God on Mt. Sinai. The two missing verses (12:20-21) referred to the holy nature of God (any animal that wandered on the mountain would be slain; ref. Exodus 19:13) and the human reaction to such holiness (I tremble with fear; ref. Exodus 19:16). The author insisted that, even with such a theophany, the believer would not react in fear.

12:22 “myriad” is a Greek word that literally means “tens of thousands.” The number was so vast it was uncountable.

12:24 “to the sprinkling blood spoken better (than that) from Abel” The blood of Abel was the first blood spilled in murder. It was life poured out that increased death. But the sprinkling blood was the blood of the new covenant (an echo of the agreement ritual to the Sinai covenant in Exodus 24:8). This was blood poured out that destroyed death. The spilling of blood began an era (Abel’s); the spilling of blood ended an era (Jesus’).

In his small, but influential book, “The Idea of the Holy,” early twentieth century German author, Rudolph Otto, proposed a psychology of the religious experience. Before Otto, theologians treated the word “holy” merely as a technical term, devoid of any relationship with experience. Otto insisted that an experience of the “holy,” the radical Other, drew us way beyond our comfort zones to a place where we feel an overwhelming sense of danger or unexplainable peace. This extreme dichotomy depended upon who we encountered: God the Judge or God the Savior.

Otto pointed to the Mt. Sinai experience as an example of divine dread. The author of Hebrews counterbalanced that experience with that of the heavenly Jerusalem. Notice the verb in 12:22 “you have come.” In other words, the author spoke of the religious experience present in the community! Becoming Christian entailed a taste of what was to come. The Christian already had a connection to heavenly Jerusalem, the myriad of celebrating angels, to the raised, to God, to the souls of the just, to Jesus and his saving blood. These were images of hope, not of dread. And this hope had a basis in the lives of the saved.

Does our Christianity have an experiential component? How do we experience God? The author of Hebrews presumed these questions had positive answers. Can we?

Reflect on the questions above. What clear experiences of God have you had? What were the results? How did those experiences deepen your faith in God?