The writer of Hebrews concludes his book by using a common metaphor for Israel’s relationship with God – they are in the wilderness and coming to Mt. Sinai. It is clear that the writer has Sinai in mind in verses 18-21, but he draws a strong contrast between the “mountain which could be touched” (Sinai) and Zion, a mountain which cannot be touched. In order to describe this contrast between the two covenants, he contrasts the two mountains where the covenants were enacted. He combines texts from Exodus and Deuteronomy which describe the theophany at Mt. Sinai as fearsome and then compares them to our heavenly destination, Mount Zion.
The writer begins saying that salvation in the present age is not at all like the Old Covenant. Sinai was a physical place, which can be touched, but it is a place burning with fire. There may be a bit more referred to here than just the mountain itself. The word for “touched” is to “make an effort, despite difficulties, to come to know something, when the chances of success in such an enterprise are not particularly great – ‘to feel around for, to grope for, to try to find.’” (Louw/Nida) It is used of a “groping about like a blind man” (LS)
When you read the passage from Exodus it is clear that there was a tangible “feeling” of the presence of God, but the people were not comforted by it at all, they were terrified. The image is of a person robbed of sight, feeling around for something that cannot really grasp.
The story of the terror of Mt. Sinai is, for the writer, a summary of the Old Covenant, it could not bring a relationship with God, it could only bring fear and judgement. The New Covenant, however, does not bring its participants to Mt Sinai, but rather to Mt. Zion.
In contrast to this terror, the New Covenant is associated with Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God. While the physical Zion was the original name of the fortress captured by David in Jerusalem in 2 Samuel, Zion replaces Sinai as the focal point of Israel’s relationship with God in the prophets. Isaiah 25, for example, describes Israel and all the nations gathering at Zion to eat the feast which the Lord has prepared there, rather than at Sinai. Because the Lord “dwelt” in Zion, the place became a metaphor for heaven itself, the real dwelling place of God. Here in Hebrews the City of God is called Zion, the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Instead of terror, our entry to Mount Zion is described as a joyful celebration. There are thousands of angels in a joyful festival. This “festival” (πανήγυρις). The word is used only here in the New Testament and only four times in the LXX (Ez 46:11; Hos 2:13; 9:5; Am 5:21, all religious feasts). So too in classical Greek the word refers to a festal assembly in honor of some god.
But this is not only a “party,” the writer says that we are coming to God, the Judge of all men. The entrance into heaven is to come into the presence of God. God is described here as a Judge. The word judge always has a negative connotation in our minds, though some take this word as meaning “vindicator” or “avenger.” The entrance into God’s holy city is the ultimate vindication for our lives of suffering here on earth.
Salvation in the New Covenant therefore results in the glory of Heaven. Instead of marching in the wilderness, we are Marching to Zion.