NOTES on Hebrews
12:22-29 (click here for study)
The writer of Hebrews has just discoursed on the role of discipline in the life of a loved son. He has followed his discussion of discipline with his last warning against refusing God. Now he reminds them that they have not been called to a distant and fearful religion but to a living God. They are now part of something heavenly as opposed to earthly. They are no longer tied to Mt. Sinai and its promises of curses and death. Rather, they are called to eternity, to life with God as part of his people. They are called to "the church of the firstborn."
Jerusalem, often called Zion, was a literal place. During the reign of David, Jerusalem became the political and religious capital of the nation of Israel. Even after the kingdom divided, Jerusalem, the city of Solomon's temple, symbolized the essence of Israel's identity. It was the walls of Jerusalem which Nehemiah undertook to rebuild after Israel's captivity in Babylon. Jerusalem came to represent the residence of God on earth. Jerusalem became a "holy" city, the place Jews dreamed of visiting, the place where they still desire to celebrate Passover.
In this chapter, however, the writer reminds his readers that they have not come to the literal Mount Zion. Now they have come to "the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God." Just as the sacrifices and laws of the Mosaic covenant between God and Israel were shadows of the reality of salvation which Jesus revealed, so was Jerusalem a shadow of the reality of the city of God. The Israelites were God's chosen people, a literal nation set apart from all others by rigid rules of behavior, worship, and inheritance. They worshiped at a literal city which represented all the uniqueness of their religion and their holy calling.
With the coming of Jesus, however, the rules and requirements for Israel found fulfillment in him. He became the true sacrifice. He defined the law. He made atonement for sin. He rose from the dead, and he gave eternal life to his people. The laws and ceremonies which defined Israel were subsumed in the reality of Jesus' perfect sacrifice, resurrection, and restoration of a connection between humanity and God.
In the same way the ceremonies were a shadow of the reality Jesus revealed, Jerusalem was also a shadow of ultimate reality. Christ followers have not come to Mount Zion, as Israel did every year at Passover. They have come to the city of the living God. They have come to heavenly Jerusalem.
Isaiah 24:23 prophesies that the Lord will reign on Mt. Zion and in the heavenly Jerusalem. Isaiah 2 tells us that in the last days the "mountain of the Lord's temple will be established" and nations will stream to it. The word of God will go out from Jerusalem, and the Lord will teach us his ways.
Revelation 14:1 says, "there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads." This verse underscores our text in Hebrews: we have "come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God." In the new covenant, Mount Zion and Jerusalem represent the eternal dwelling place of God and his people.
Revelation 21:2-5 is even more evocative. "I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband"
Revelation 21:9-10 continues the metaphor, "One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, 'Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.' And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God."
These texts all suggest that the Jerusalem of Israel is a shadow of the real Jerusalem. The heavenly Jerusalem, or the new Jerusalem, is the dwelling place of God. It is also the bride of Christ. Jesus, however, doesn't live in cities and buildings. He lives in the hearts of his people. The REAL Jerusalem is the people of God who, like a bride dressed for her wedding, awaits the coming of the bridegroom, Jesus. The real Jerusalem is the people who love Jesus, with whom he will personally spend eternity and with whom he is already one. While Jesus and his bride may live in a city of sorts, the physical details of that possibility are shadowed. The one thing scripture makes clear is that Jesus will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5, Duet. 31:6), and he himself is in us (John 17:26). The hearts of God's people are his dwelling place, and from the moment we accept him, we are eternally with him. The church, the body of Christ, is the new Jerusalem where Jesus will dwell for eternity.
Church of the Firstborn
The writer of Hebrews was reminding his Christian Jewish readers of the contrast between their heritage and the New Covenant which had given them a new inheritance. The Old Covenant had arrived with displays of fire, smoke, earthquakes, rumblings and trumpet blasts. (Ex.19:10-25; Dt. 4:11-12; 5:22-26) The people had been seized with fear for their lives. The Old Covenant had brought Israel specific laws governing behavior, worship, and national purity. These laws had been tangible rituals which set the people apart from their pagan surroundings and emphasized their status as holy unto the Lord.
The New Covenant, however, had arrived without a display of honor and power. A Man died on a cross, and at the moment of his death, the heavy veil dividing the Holy from the Most Holy sections of the temple tore from top to bottom. Three days later the man rose from the dead, and fifty days after that the Holy Spirit descended on a group of people waiting in a room as the Man had directed them to wait. The New Covenant did not bring new laws and rules for behavior. Instead, it brought a relationship. God's people could be intimate with him. He himself would govern their behavior and their worship of him by creating in them new hearts, by bringing their souls back to life, by indwelling them through the Holy Spirit.
The Old Covenant had been tangible, filled with physical requirements and visible results. None of these physical results was possible without faith, faith in a coming Messiah which the covenant ceremonies foreshadowed. The Old Covenant was anchored on Mt. Sinai, the literal, tangible mountain where God made the covenant between himself and Israel.
The New Covenant, on the other hand, was intangible. It was not defined by literal ceremonies, rules, and behaviors. Rather, it was rooted in the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. The risen Messiah is the anchor for the New Covenant. It is not a covenant between God and his people as the Old Covenant had been; it is a covenant between the Father and Jesus. Physical requirements and laws do not define it. The defining feature of the New Covenant is a new heart, not perfect behavior. It is still only possible to live in the New Covenant by faith, but now faith is in a Messiah who has come and who has completed the requirements for salvation and who fulfilled the shadow of the Old Covenant ceremonies.
The writer juxtaposes his declaration that his readers have come to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God, with the statement that they have come "to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven." The concept of the firstborn has been a significant figure of speech in connection with redemption and God's choice from the earliest days of Israel's history. When Moses went before Pharaoh to demand the slave's release, God told him to tell Pharaoh that "Israel is my firstborn son." Because Pharaoh did not release the slaves, God's firstborn, the Lord sent the tenth plague to Egypt: the death of the Egyptians' firstborn.
Jesus is also called the firstborn. He was the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:16) Hebrews 1:6 says, "Again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, 'Let all God's angels worship him.' " He is called "the firstborn among many brothers" in Romans 8:29. He is "the firstborn over all creation," and "the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy." (Colossians 1:15-18)
All of these references to God's firstborn inform the writer's use of the word in this passage of Hebrews. The difference from these other references to "firstborn", however, is that the Greek word for "firstborn" in chapter 23 is plural, not singular. Additionally, it states that these "firstborn" have their names written in heaven. The fact that their names are recorded in heaven suggests that these "firstborn" are those redeemed by the "firstborn of many brothers," the "firstborn from among the dead."
Revelation clarifies the identities of those whose names are written in heaven. "He who overcomes willbe dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life" (Revelation 3:5) Revelation 13:8 identifies them by a negative comparison: "All inhabitant of the earth will worship the beast-all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world." Revelation 17:8 also uses a negative identification: "The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast"
John describes the New Jerusalem, the "heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God," (Heb. 12:22) in Revelation 21. Verse 27 says, "Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life."
The writer of Hebrews juxtaposes the idea of the "firstborn" with the metaphor of the redeemed being those who have their names written in heaven. He is suggesting that "the church of the firstborn" is composed of those who share the inheritance of Jesus, the "firstborn of many brothers". Having our names written in heaven is the highest honor anyone can receive. It means we "will be delivered," (Daniel12:1). It means we "feared the Lord and honored his name," (Malachi 3:16) It is more the cause for rejoicing than having spirits submit to us. (Luke 10:20)
Having our names written in heaven means we have overcome the world, and Jesus will acknowledge our names before his Father and his angels (Revelation 3:5). It means God knew us and claimed us "from the creation of the world" (Revelation 13:8; 17:8). Being listed in the book of life means we will live eternally instead of being thrown into hell (Revelation 20:15). It means we will eternally be pure; our shame and deceit will be forever obliterated (Revelation 21:27).
Having our names written in heaven means we have believed Jesus and accepted his sacrifice for our sins and allowed his Spirit to give us a new birth and a new identity. We are saved.
Intangible Replaces Tangible
The writer contrasts the Old and New Covenants by comparing Sinai, "a mountain that can be touched," (v.18) with "the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God." (v.22) Instead of being established in thunder, fire, smoke, and darkness shrouding a literal mountain as was the Old Covenant, the New Covenant did not have a physical place of beginning. While Israel revered Sinai as the place God made his covenant with them, we in the New Covenant have no sacred "place". The only physical symbol of the New Covenant is the person of Jesus Christ. Instead of coming to Mount Sinai, a place smoking with symbols of God's judgment, "we have come to God, the judge of all men." (v.23)
Israel could not directly approach God. Sin stood in their way. As they stood before the burning mountain, a physical symbol of God's wrath and justice, fear awoke in them. They became aware of their incurable sinfulness and of the fact that they deserved God's wrath. They knew that the terrible burning they witnessed on that mountain was meant for them if they disobeyed God's commands in the slightest detail. They realized they needed to become reconciled to God.
We, on the other hand, can approach God directly. We no longer need a physical "holy place" where we can deposit our sin offerings and worship the God who is separated from us. Because of Jesus, the terrible smoke and burning are no longer our inevitable ends. Jesus took that wrath of God on himself and opened a way for us to come directly before God. We stand before him, not before a holy mountain, knowing that he is just, knowing that every human will give an account to him, knowing that he will reward our work and ultimately separate the faithful from the unfaithful. Because of Jesus, we can approach him directly, confident of his justice and confident of our place in his heart.
We can stand before God unafraid because, unlike the Old Covenant, the New Covenant is not established between God and us. Israel demonstrated fully that humans cannot keep a covenant with God. The New Covenant is between God and Jesus. Jesus, the God-Man, the representative of humanity who was yet God, kept the covenant for us. Only God can perfectly keep a covenant of obedience and perfection. Today he mediates that covenant for us. God looks at Jesus' obedience-at his becoming sin for us and dying on the cross, at his resurrection from death-and he sees that the penalty of sin has been paid. When we accept Jesus and allow him to give us a new heart, God sees Jesus' death and resurrection when he looks at us instead of seeing our own unworthiness. He honors Jesus' death and our faith in it, and he draws us to himself, calling us his sons and daughters.
Another "intangible" to which we come, according to this passage, is "the spirits of righteous men made perfect." This phrase, in the context of the preceding chapter, refers to the people of faith throughout the millennia who have died and whose spirits have gone to God. When we trust Christ and enter the New Covenant, we join the ranks of those who live by faith. We become part of the tradition which began long before Jesus came of people who believed God's promises and staked their lives on them.
This passage calls these pre-Christian believers (many of whom were named and discussed in Hebrews 11) "righteous men made perfect." God counted them as righteous, even though Jesus had not yet come and died, because of their faith in God's promises. The sins of these early people of faith had been left "unpunished" until Jesus became our sin sacrifice. (Romans 3:22-24) They became perfect at the same time we and the rest of the world did: at Jesus death.
God credits all of us with righteousness when we have faith in him. He credited Abraham and the patriarchs because they had faith in his promises of a Savior; he credits us because of our faith in the historical reality of Jesus' finished work. We are made perfect by "the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel." The imagery of the sprinkled blood evokes the memory of the first Passover when Moses instructed the Israelites to sprinkle the blood of lambs on their door posts so the angel of death would pass over them at midnight when God killed the firstborn of Egypt. That Passover blood foreshadowed Jesus' shed blood.
Abel's blood, spilled into the ground when Cain killed him, cried out for justice. God told Cain that Abel's blood cried out to him from the ground. (Genesis 4:10-11) Jesus' blood, however, no longer cries for justice; it IS justice. Jesus' blood paid the price for Cain's sin and for the sins of every human being on the earth, including the sins of the righteous who have been "made perfect." It has always been Jesus' blood that cleanses humanity from sin-even before Jesus physically came to earth. Jesus' blood justifies humanity "once for all" (Hebrews 9:12).
The One Who Speaks
The author of Hebrews warns his readers again. "See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks." (v.25) The Israelites "refused him who warned them on earth," he said. Moses spoke for God when God gave the covenant to Israel. The covenant came from God, and God himself met Moses on the mountain. God spoke the entire Old Covenant to Moses, but the people did not hear God's voice directly. Moses mediated between God and Israel. (Exodus 19:20-21; Hebrews 8:5) Also, according to Hebrews 2:2, angels participated in mediating the Old Covenant to Israel. The Israelites ultimately rejected their covenant with God, ignoring the human and angelic mediators who delivered God's words to them.
Now, in the New Covenant, we no longer need a mediator to bring us God's warning and word. Jesus himself, God the Son, has revealed the Father's will to us. He has demonstrated the results of sin and the promise of eternal life. We now answer to God himself, not merely to his spokesperson. If we turn away from him, we certainly will not escape consequences.
The writer compares the fire and earthquake that accompanied the Mosaic covenant with God's assertion that he "once morewill shake not only the earth but also the heavens." (v. 26; see also Haggai 2:6) He continues, "The words 'once more' indicate the removing of what can be shaken-that is, created things-so that what cannot be shaken may remain."
Haggai prophesied about God shaking the earth and the heavens. Peter clarifies this idea in 2 Peter 3:12b-13 where he says, "That day [the day of God-v.11] will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness."
Peter's prophecy of the heavens and the earth being destroyed and replaced by something completely new is reinforced in Revelation. When John describes the opening of the sixth seal in Revelation 6, he describes seeing an earthquake, the sun turning black, the moon turning red, and the stars falling to earth. Verse 14 says, "The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place."
In Revelation 21:1 John sees the outcome of this cataclysm. "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea." He continues by describing the sight of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven prepared for her bridegroom. Then, in verse 5, he says this: "He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making everything new!' "
These prophecies clarify that when God comes for the final judgment, the earth and sky and solar system as we know them will be destroyed and replaced by something we cannot imagine. The writer of Hebrews refers to this certainty when he says, "The words 'once more' indicate the removing of what can be shaken-that is, created things-so that what cannot be shaken may remain." (v. 27)
The point this passage in Hebrews is stressing is this: "We are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken." (v. 28) No matter what disasters happen, we can be certain that our citizenship in the kingdom of God is secure. Only "created things" will be destroyed, verse 27 points out. The kingdom is not a created thing. It is the eternal reality of God's sovereign rule over all. It is the eternal reality of Jesus' finished work, the death of the Lamb slain from the creation of the world. It is the eternal certainty of life, the resurrection life that redeems body and spirit, that brings light out of darkness, that creates something out of nothing.
Created Things Shaken
Verse 27 has further implications. It states that "what can be shaken" is "created things". That includes all nature and life as we know it. The stars and planets are created; vegetation is created; animals are created. Indeed, humans are created. If all created things are destroyed, what is left to comprise an unshakeable kingdom?
The only part of humans that is not created is the soul God breathed into Adam when he made him. God fashioned his body from dust, but, unlike his creation of the animals, God breathed life into Adam, and that breath of God made him a living soul. That part of us that God breathed into us, that part of us that God did not give animals, is the part of us that is not created. Our souls will not be shaken during the final judgment.
When we accept Jesus, our spirits become alive in Christ. We become connected to Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Our spirits enter the presence of God when we accept Jesus. Our bodies will decay if we die, but our spirits live on in Christ. If we are alive at his return, our bodies will be changed. Our created bodies will disappear, and we will receive resurrection bodies such as the one Jesus received.
Our living souls are what comprise the unshakeable kingdom. Alive in Christ, we will be with him eternally. Everything, even our bodies, will be destroyed or disappear, but our souls will remain securely in Christ, eternally safe and alive in him.
Even the dead souls of those who do not trust Christ will remain-but they will remain in separation from God. They will suffer eternally for refusing the gift of life in Jesus.
If it were true, as many of us had been taught, that humans die like animals, that nothing of us remains vital in Jesus, then at the final shaking referred to in verse 27, humanity would be shaken and destroyed also. We are "created things," and nothing would exempt us from being destroyed along with the rest of creation. No part of us would remain firmly in the kingdom. The resurrection would then be a new creation. God would have to somehow re-create each person he brought to life. The resulting resurrected person would not truly be the one who had lived and died. It would be someone who was just like him or her, but it would not truly be him or her.
Jesus said, though, that when we believe in him we will never die. "I am the resurrection and the life," he says as recorded in John 11:25-26. "He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."
Hebrews 12:27 makes it clear that only created things will be destroyed, and the human soul was breathed by God, not created. Our souls will not be shaken. We will be given new bodies, and we will remain eternal citizens of the kingdom that cannot be shaken.
Hebrews 12 ends with an interesting admonition. "Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire." (v.28-29)
Our response to understanding that the part of us that knows Jesus will never be shaken or destroyed and that we will be part of an unshakeable kingdom is to be thanksgiving. The certainty of our eternal future should stimulate in us deep thankfulness and praise and awe and worship.
The Bible speaks in both testaments about the nature of acceptable worship. Micah 6:8 says to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. We are to be both just and merciful, characteristics which sometimes seem to be in conflict. Yet when we are given the Holy Spirit, we begin to think and evaluate with the mind of Christ. Only with the wisdom and discernment of God can we act with both justice and mercy. Overriding all our interactions should be the knowledge that God desires to save every person with whom we relate. Only God can show us how to be both just and merciful, and only God can reveal the mercy in justice and the justice in mercy. Only God can reveal that both mercy and justice make sense only in the light of the cross. When we walk humbly with God, he makes us able to translate our reverence for him into acts of his justice and mercy in the world.
Malachi 2:4-5 refers to God's covenant with the tribe of Levi, his priests. They were to have reverence and awe for God. They were to realize his transcendence and power and justice, and they were to be in a relationship with him marked by worship and reverence. Today the Body of Christ, comprised of each believer, are the priests of God. We are still to experience him and worship him with reverence and awe. He transcends everything; he is sovereign. Our lives and plans are in his hands. We are to bow before him in gratitude and submission.
Jesus clarified our worship of God even more. We are to worship him in spirit and in truth, for God is Spirit. (John 4:19-24) This passage reinforces the fact that we have spirits in us. We are not merely to worship God with our intellects, analyzing and giving assent to what we perceive to be truths about God. We are not merely to acknowledge God and embrace proof of his existence. Our relationship with God is not to be merely an intellectual framework on which to hang our world view. Neither is our relationship with God to be a self-absorbed focus on good works for the purpose of earning his favor. Rather, we are to worship God in spirit and in truth.
Spirit is the part of us that communicates with God. Our spirits are what become alive with the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit when we accept Jesus. 1 Corinthians enlightens us about this phenomenon.
"We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned." (1 Cor. 2:14)
When we receive Christ, we receive the Spirit of God, and we become able to understand spiritual reality and truth. Our own spirits become alive with God's own life, and we become able to worship God in our own spirits. We know him spiritually. Spiritual knowing is much deeper, more intimate, more intense and personal, than mere intellectual knowing. We know God in our deepest selves, and we become able to worship him with love and understanding and surrender and trust because God has made our spirits alive with his own. We worship God in spirit and also in truth.
The truth that we embrace in our worship is the truth about Jesus. In Jesus we are eternally secure; nothing can undo our salvation. In Jesus we are citizens of the kingdom that cannot be shaken; in Jesus we are sons and daughters of God.
You have come before God. You no longer stand condemned before a tangible law and tangible ceremonies. You have walked out of the shadows of the Old Covenant into the glory and light of the New. Jesus is the center of your life. Jesus lives in you by means of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has rescued you from bondage and death. Jesus has saved you from yourself.
Now, empowered by the love and the authority of the Holy Spirit who develops in you the mind of Christ, you are free to surrender to Him the sins and wounds to which you have clung. Now you no longer have to try ceaselessly to squelch your bad behaviors. You can present them to God and let him take responsibility for bringing them to your attention as he wants you to deal with them. When you give your sins and sufferings to God, he gives you his power and insight to overcome them. He covers you in his love as he heals those weaknesses in your soul. He wipes away your shame as he reveals to you the ways he wants you to grow.
Rejoice, and worship God in spirit and in truth! He chose you, he redeemed you, and he will change you.
You have come not to a mountain that can be touched but to the city of the living God. You have come to the judge of all men and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant. You are part of an eternal kingdom that cannot be shaken.
You are part of the heavenly Jerusalem.
You are part of the wife of the Lamb. (Rev. 21:9)
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised December 8, 2001.