THE GLORIOUS REALITY OF THE HEAVENLY JERUSALEM (Heb. 12:22-24)
Sharper and more telling contrast could hardly be imagined than what is drawn here by the writer of Hebrews between Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion, the city of the living God. What is so striking is that in the case of the latter we are told beautiful and comforting details of the life of the New Testament church, while in the case of the former we are simply told some of the awe-inspiring dreadfulness of a touchable mountain, which if touched, even by a beast, would incur death upon it. However, here we take the shoes from off our feet, and we can draw nigh with full assurance of faith. God is come very near to us; He has come to dwell with us, and we with Him.
Mt. Zion is a mountain which is beautiful for situation. For Jehovah is great in Zion, His holy mountain. It is beautiful, the joy of the whole earth. God has made known Himself in her palaces for a refuge. (Ps. 48:1-3) This glorious mountain on which is situated the city of the living God is pictured here to us in Hebrews 12 as the “city of the living God.” And it is a mountain to which we “have come” as the New Testament saints.
Historically, in the prophetical history of Israel, the church of the Old Dispensation never even “came to” typical Mt. Zion until David became king over all Israel. It was then that David dwelt in the stronghold of Zion and called it “the city of David.” (II Sam. 5:7-10) In a certain sense Israel then came to Mt. Zion, the city of the living God. Something of what Abraham saw from afar was realized at that historic occasion; we see a little of the city whose builder and maker is God. (John 8:56; Heb. 11:10, 13) But this was not yet the resting place of God’s ark. David did soon bring the Ark of the Lord to Zion; he built a new tabernacle in the place of the one which had come to Shiloh in the tribe of Ephraim.¹ However, it was not till he actually brought the Ark of the LORD, carried by the priests, to Jerusalem that we have the typical-symbolical fulfillment of the ascension of Christ into the heavenly Jerusalem. Then the Ark comes to the mountain which God has desired for His abode. All the wicked may look askance at the church of God in the world, yet the Lord will dwell in His Church, His Zion, forever. The God Who appeared at Sinai, with His chariots thousand-thousand fold here ascended before the “humble David” to Zion to give gifts unto men. (Ps. 68:16-18) For this is the mountain in which it shall be seen what the Lord has in store for His people in fulfilling His oath to Abraham; here we see “Jehovah-Jireh” spoken of at the occasion of the sacrificing of Isaac by his father Abraham. (Gen. 22:14) The Lord declares the decree: I have set my Ring upon my holy hill of Zion. (Ps. 2:6, 7)
This city in our text is not the earthly, but it is the heavenly Jerusalem. It is, therefore, not found on the earthly hill of Zion where David’s throne was placed in the earthly land of Canaan. It is not here below; but it is above, where Jesus ascended when He passed through the heavens. In this respect it also is different from the earthly mount. It is outside of the world of our experience, natural experience. It cannot be touched, seen, nor ascended by any natural man. David never could have brought the Ark of the Covenant into this heavenly Jerusalem. The readers of the Hebrew Christians must, therefore, look away from the earthly city, which in character is the smoking mountain which can be touched, to the heavenly city, whose builder and maker God is, by His own i>fiat, as Creator and Recreator of heaven and earth. This is the city of peace; it is the true “Salem,” the peace which is brought about by the blood of atonement and of reconciliation. (Col. 1:15-20)
It is to this city that “we have come.” The city is all ready and prepared. For the sake of this city God is not ashamed to be called our God. (Heb. 11:16) This city is so wonderfully great in manifesting the glory of God’s gracious purpose and design from eternity in His Son over His people, that it is an honor and a glory forever to the builder and architect of this gracious work. Surely, He need not be ashamed to be called our God. Had nothing more been done for us than what we received at Sinai, the words of the law written upon tables of stone, we all would die. This is the letter which killeth. Then God would not have been able to bring us into the land of the heavenly kingdom. Moses’ plea for Israel would have forever gone unheard, were it not for the “exodus at Jerusalem” (Ex. 32:7-14; Matt. 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36) But now “we are come” to a better covenant, and we have come to the heavenly Jerusalem. Such is our legal status. We are not under the law, but we are under grace! And to this city of peace, city where the living waters of grace flow softly, we have come. Here the living waters flow from the throne of God and of the Lamb, waters which are for the healing of the nations.
Do not overlook that the text calls this city: the city of the living God. He is not a dead God like the idol-gods of the nations. In His very character and being He is a living God. He is the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of the world. He was the living God Who spoke at Mt. Sinai, as Moses says, “for who is there: of all flesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God out of the midst of the fire as we have, and live?” (Deut. 5:26) That the Canaanites are driven from before the face of Joshua is evidence and proof that the “living God” is in their midst. (Josh. 3:10) David cannot endure that Goliath defies the armies of the “living God.” (I Sam. 17:26) For the living God fulfills His counsel; His thoughts and action are always alike. Well, now, we have come to the city of the living God, Whose power and glory are great in delivering Israel and in destroying the armies of the wicked nations who would destroy the city of God. (Jeremiah 23:36)
Such is the glorious reality of the city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and of our abiding and certain status before the throne of the living God, the Judge over all.
SOME DETAILS OF THE GLORIOUS HEAVENLY CITY OF GOD (Heb. 12:23, 24)
What strikes our attention here in this passage of Hebrews is that the city of the living God is really inhabited. It has all the earmarks of a city where there is life.
There are myriads of angelic hosts in this heavenly city. They are portrayed as being in festal array. It is a heavenly “panegyric,” the assembly of the entire angelic world, having come to the eternal festal occasion of the church of God having come to Mt. Zion: These angels are not in the status of “sons” but of ministering spirits in the church. They do not simply come to present the law of God, within the thunder of Sinai, in the hands of the Mediator, Jesus, (Gal. 3:19; Deut. 33:2); but they see now that the fiery oracles were fulfilled by the Mediator, Jesus. That is cause for great rejoicing in the angelic hosts of heaven.
Besides, the text calls attention to the presence of the church of the firstborn, written in heaven.” This is the church as she is called, gathered, and defended and preserved by the Son of God out of the whole human race. They are citizens of heaven and of this heavenly city. Their names are registered there. They have a right to be there. They are called church of the “firstborn” with good reason. They belong to the firstborn Son among many brethren. The firstborn Son is the Firstborn of all creatures. In the womb of the counsel of God, the Son of God has the preeminence. All things are there because of Him. And all things are not only because of Him, but also by Him and unto Him. He has the central place and is set as the head over all things, in heaven and in earth. (Eph. 1:9, 10; Col. 1:18) And He is the Firstborn over all things as the Firstborn out of the dead. In this death and resurrection He is set high above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. The church in heaven is, therefore, the church composed of those who are, with Christ, born out of death, and set over all things with Him. Thus Israel is brought from sin’s bondage of Egypt and set in the Jerusalem above as God’s firstborn. (Ex. 4:22) And the firstborn sons of God are sanctified to the service of God in the church, to be a kingdom of priests unto God. Everyone of the children of God is a firstborn son. Each has his own preeminence in the great preeminent Firstborn Son out of the dead. Thus they are recorded in heaven. (Ex. 13:2) None of this was possible at the mount of the law-giving. To this great privilege of the firstborn we have arrived. No Levitical priesthood need to redeem us from the temple-service; we have been redeemed unto the temple-service of the living God.
Yes, as such sons we have arrived to the judge over all things, God. He is the final and perfect Judge. He sits in judgment over all things, and also over the church. His is the final verdict. He judges in strictest justice according to His law. It is the law which He Himself has spoken out of the darkness, the tempest, with a loud voice, the sound of the trumpet! And now He adjudges that we are worthy of the name of sons, firstborn. He delivered Christ for our sins, and raised Him for our justification. (Rom. 4:25) His throne of judgment is called elsewhere: the throne of God and of the Lamb. He is the Lamb standing on Mt. Sion. (Rev. 22:1; Rev. 14:1)
This heavenly city of the living God also has the “spirits of just men made perfect” dwelling there. These evidently are those saints who are now in glory and who are not yet reunited with their bodies which are in the grave. That is why they are called “spirits.” They are called spirits of men, to distinguish them from the angel-world. They are called “perfected” spirits. The term perfected means: come to full maturity, and the highest potential of sons as firstborn. They need not go through the trials and discipline of the heavenly Father of spirits again. They have finished the course, run the race; their dying was not a payment for sin, but was a dying unto sin and an entering into eternal glory. They have here their permanent and everlasting abode in the city of the living God. What the law could not do, that these spirits of just men made perfect have attained. (Heb. 10:1, 14; Heb. 11:40)
¹ It appears that after the Lord had made Shiloh a desolation, removing the Ark from there, that the tabernacle proper also was removed from Shiloh. God made Shiloh entirely desolate forever. (Jer. 7:12, 14; Jer. 26:6, 9) However, the tabernacle was set up in Gibeon, the highplace, where also Solomon went to sacrifice and where the Lord appeared unto him. Howbeit, the Ark of the Covenant was never again set in that tabernacle, but was removed from the houses of Abinadab and Obededom respectively to a new tabernacle in Jerusalem, which later David made. (II Sam. 6:4, 12 ff.)