From Sinai to Zion, Pt. 2: The Unspeakable Blessings of Zion
Hebrews 12:18–24 18 For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, 19 and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them. 20 For they could not bear the command, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it will be stoned.” 21 And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, “I am full of fear and trembling.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.
The holiness of Sinai was an amazing moment in redemptive history because it accomplished two things simultaneously; first, it revealed God’s desire to dwell with His people in the context of covenant life. Second and congruent with the first point, while Sinai was a revelation of God’s power and glory, His holiness and His desire for a holy people; it was also a concealing of the glory of God in that His holiness could not be approached. This glory would not reach its full expression until at last we arrive at the substance of the shadows and types of the past (10.1). As God’s glory intruded upon the earthly people, it was both a revealing and concealing of God’s purpose and glory. The eschatology of the prophets was designed to anticipate the fulfillment of Sinai’s typology by pointing us towards Zion. But no prophet ever declared what Hebrews is now so boldly asserting, “you have come to Mount Zion”! No longer are we simply left to shadows of the past, in Jesus Christ and the New Covenant, we have now been ushered into the reality of the eschaton itself. But how can we summarize what we are seeing in these verses. There is here an enumeration of the blessings of Zion that ultimately reflects one great redemptive reality, namely that God desires, a holy people in a holy realm in a holy covenant bond of communion through Jesus Christ. This is what God’s plan has been since the dawning of time (note especially the historical reference to the primal death of Abel) and that is what is reflected in all of these eschatological realities. The first of these can be called, the gathering of heaven (vv.22-23a).
The Gathering Of Heaven
The Supremacy of the New Covenant is first cast in the light of our heavenly standing and our eschatological hope. “Mount Zion” (Σιὼν ὄρει) is here defined by two additional synonymous parallels, “the city of the living God” (πόλει θεοῦ ζῶντος) and the “heavenly Jerusalem” (Ἰερουσαλὴμ ἐπουρανίῳ). The reference to the angels and the church speak not only of the holy realm of the heavenly country but also the holy population of heaven. The reference to Zion here, is the fulfillment of the some of Scripture’s deepest typological symbolism in all of God’s revelation. One could argue that the imagery of Zion really began in the Garden of the Lord. This is why Eden is often described as God’s holy mountain, His dwelling, the holy realm where God dwells and rules by His word:
Isaiah 51:3 3 Indeed, the Lord will comfort Zion; He will comfort all her waste places. And her wilderness He will make like Eden, And her desert like the garden of the Lord; Joy and gladness will be found in her, Thanksgiving and sound of a melody.
We could ask the question why is it Mount Zion God’s chosen imagery? Why not the plains of Moab or the Sea of Galilee or a different imagery altogether? It was because Zion was a vertical sanctuary-temple that connected heaven and earth. As Meredith Klein wrote, Zion’s typology is, “the vertical cosmic axis of the kingdom” set forth in the original creation which was merely a type of the heavenly reality it anticipated. In a very general way Zion came to speak of a redemptive trajectory that points us heavenward and into the heavenly realms. What Hebrews is now telling us is that this symbolism has been realized through Jesus Christ. There are three components given to us that make up the gathering of heaven, the city we are gathered to, the angels that surround us, and the church we belong to. These are the blessing of the New Covenant.
The City We Are Gathered To
The first reality the New Covenant brings us into contact with is Zion which is also described as, “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (πόλει θεοῦ ζῶντος, Ἰερουσαλὴμ ἐπουρανίῳ). We should also mention the nature of this relationship at the outset. We are talking here about our positional righteousness before God. The arrival of the believer to Zion belongs to the realm of soteriology but also to eschatology. The eschatology here is what theologians call, “already-not-yet” in referring to the fact that this heavenly experience has begun, it has been inaugurated but not yet consummated. In the language of Paul this would be no different than speaking of our heavenly citizenship or our present position of glorification as a status a spiritual participation that exists by virtue of our union with Christ:
Ephesians 2:4–6 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
Philippians 3:20–21 20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; 21 who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.
Colossians 1:13 13 For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son,
Romans 8:30 30 and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
Whether we are talking about the consummation of the ages (1 Cor. 10.11; Heb. 9.26), or the arrival of the new creation (2 Cor. 5.17); the New Covenant brings us into the sphere of eschatological blessings that we enjoy presently and yet hope for diligently (9.28). This hope begins here by longing for the heavenly city which is called both “the city of the living God” (πόλει θεοῦ ζῶντος) and “the heavenly Jerusalem” (Ἰερουσαλὴμ ἐπουρανίῳ). Obviously the reference to the “city of the living God” and the “new Jerusalem” are all references to the heavenly country Hebrews has already mentioned:
Hebrews 11:9–10 9 By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; 10 for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
Hebrews 11:13–16 13 All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. 15 And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.
Ever since Genesis 4 two peoples have emerged with two cities; the city of man or the city of God. While Cain’s son Enoch is said to build a city bearing his name, Hebrews is telling us that the patriarchs were seeking a city bearing God’s name. God’s city does not reflect the glory of human industry, the architect and builder of this city is God (11.10). And what have man-made cities produced? We could say, curse upon curse where man is forced to labor under the sweat of his brow, cities bearing our names are full of violence, crime, perversion, idolatry, hedonism, sin and disease so that our cities languish under the sun of futility.
God’s city however is quite different. It is a city that is full of His Glory. Its is city devoid of the curse (cf. Rev. 22.3), devoid of suffering and the pain of disease (Rev. 7.16-17; 21.1-4). There will be no crying, no drive-by shootings, gang violence, Ebola outbreaks, no bird flues, Zika, storms or violent weather and disaster to harm us. But even more than this, is the moral purity of God’s city:
Revelation 21:8 8 “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
A life spent toiling in the city of man may lead stock brokers to leap out of his office building to his death; but in God’s city, we will forever be satisfied, not with the work of our hands, but fully refreshed with the work of God’s redeeming power (cf. Rev. 21.1-8):
Revelation 7:13–17 13 Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 “For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will spread His tabernacle over them. 16 “They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; 17 for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”
The Angels That Surround Us
The reference to the “general assembly” or “festal gathering” is probably designed to contrast the agency of angels at Sinai where they were part of the terror of the Lord (cf. Acts 7.38; Gal. 3.19). Here the angels are part of a festal or “joyful” assembly of the heavenly host now associated with Zion (see, O’Brien, Hebrews. 484). This angelic element serves to remind us of several things concerning the nature of our heavenly gathering.
The Absolute Transcendent Beauty Of Heaven
The sheer fact that angels do not attend us today reminds us that Heaven will be a place of absolute transcendent beauty where heavenly beings of such celestial light and splendor will decorate the metropolis of God not simply with art and images of heavenly beauty but with the beauty of the angelic hosts themselves. Note also the immersive experience that the angels provide, “myriads of angels, to the general assembly” (μυριάσιν ἀγγέλων, πανηγύρει), which again should probably refer to the ‘festal gathering’ which accents the worshipful function of the angels. We will be immersed in angelic praise. Daniel also mentions this angelic throng in the image of the Ancient of Days on His throne:
Daniel 7:9–10 9 “I kept looking Until thrones were set up, And the Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow And the hair of His head like pure wool. His throne was ablaze with flames, Its wheels were a burning fire. 10 “A river of fire was flowing And coming out from before Him; Thousands upon thousands were attending Him, And myriads upon myriads were standing before Him; The court sat, And the books were opened.
The Absolute God-Centeredness Of Heaven
The angels also remind us of the utter God-centeredness of heaven. Heaven will need no sun because God is the illuminating center of all things. He will not be outshined by anything or anyone. The angels serve the singular purpose to bring unceasing adoration to the Triune God who will fill all things. God will no longer be competing with church concerts and worship team ‘Rock stars’ for His glory; our proper place will be at His feet, with an eternal sense of awe and wonder, with our face to the New Earth and our highest posture will be to have our hearts bowed down before Him it total resignation as we join with the angels in saying, ‘holy, holy, holy’ for eternity long. The angels remind us that the supreme theme of Heaven is God himself in all of His infinity and glory.
The Absolute Holiness Of Heaven
Finally, the angels remind us of the absolute holiness of God as that attribute of God that secures all His attributes from being anything less than an expression of God’s perfection. Holy and perfect in power, holy and perfect in knowledge and wisdom, holy and perfect in justice and goodness. Heaven is the place where the holy God of heaven resides in perfect unrestrained omnipresence that fills the realm with His glory. Isaiah saw this prophetically:
Isaiah 4:4–6 4 When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and purged the bloodshed of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning, 5 then the Lord will create over the whole area of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, even smoke, and the brightness of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory will be a canopy. 6 There will be a shelter to give shade from the heat by day, and refuge and protection from the storm and the rain.
The angels merely echo the chorus of the living creatures and seraphim who are before God’s throne,
Revelation 4:8 8 And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.”
The angels only remind us that God’s city is itself called, “the holy city” (Rev. 21.2) because its deepest characteristic is found in the holiness that flows from God’s throne and fills the whole realm of heaven so that everything cries out, “glory”!
Revelation 5:11–14 11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” 13 And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.” 14 And the four living creatures kept saying, “Amen.” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
The Church We Belong To
The final component of the heavenly gathering completes the picture on a redemptive note. The New Covenant ushers us into the redeemed people of God referred to as “and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (ἐκκλησίᾳ πρωτοτόκων ἀπογεγραμμένων ἐν οὐρανοῖς). We join the “general assembly” or festal gathering of the angels in the heavenly places. The “church” is comprised by those the author identifies as “the firstborn” (πρωτοτόκων). Of course this is not a reference to Jesus since the term “firstborn” is plural not singular (cf. Col. 1.15, πρωτότοκος with reference to Jesus). The saints are the “firstborn” who are now marked by the person and work of Jesus Christ under the New Covenant. However there is a redemptive-historical nuance here that needs to be drawn out to fully appreciate what Hebrews is saying. The terms “church” (ἐκκλησίᾳ) and “firstborn” (πρωτοτόκων) are both terms that were associated with Israel in the OT:
Exodus 4:22–23 22 “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Israel is My son, My firstborn. 23 “So I said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may serve Me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn.”
Jeremiah 31:9 9 “With weeping they will come, And by supplication I will lead them; I will make them walk by streams of waters, On a straight path in which they will not stumble; For I am a father to Israel, And Ephraim is My firstborn.”
In Acts, Luke identifies the congregation in the wilderness with the word normally translated ‘church.’ These terms taken together in Hebrews and in many other NT passages suggests that what we are looking at here is the same thing we see throughout the NT, that the New Covenant believer, those who belong to God’s kingdom and church (cf. Mt. 16.18), are as it were a newly constitute Israel of God who are the first fruits of the new creation through Jesus Christ (cf. Jam. 1.18) (see also, Philip Hughes, Hebrews. 547ff.). Terms that were strictly reserved for the Jewish nation, now applied to Christians (e.g. 1 Pet. 1.9-10), signal the fulfillment of God’s OT redemptive promises (cf. 2 Cor. 1.20).
Another concept pointing us in the same direction is the phrase, “enrolled in heaven” (ἀπογεγραμμένων ἐν οὐρανοῖς). Before it refers to church membership, and it does, this phrase first has a typological function. The background of this concept is found in Numbers as Moses is commanded to register Israel’s firstborn sons and to make a detailed list of their names (cf. Num. 3.40ff.). Not only is this where we get the background for the NT teaching of a formal church roll (e.g. 1 Tim. 5.9), but shows us that this Exodus event ultimately pointed forward to the day when those who are truly part of the number of “firstborn” sons and daughters will be enlisted in the “city of the living God.”
The ultimate fulfillment of this typology however is in the concept of being registered for heaven. This is first recorded in the Exodus generation. Moses seems to have understood that God had a record of those who were faithful to the covenant and those who were not since his request seems to reflect an eschatological awareness:
Exodus 32:32–33 32 “But now, if You will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!” 33 The Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.
Thus, the NT picked up this imagery and applies it to those who continue to abide in Jesus Christ and holdfast to their confession to the end.
Philippians 4:3 3 Indeed, true companion, I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel, together with Clement also and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Luke 10:20 20 “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.”
Revelation 3:5 5 ‘He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
Revelation 20:15 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
All of this reminds us of the fact that what happens on earth has eternal consequences. If we do not remain faithful here, we cannot expect to arrive safely in the heavenly Jerusalem either (cf. Is. 11.9; 65.25). It reminds us that our desire should be to strive to conform our lives to God’s commands knowing that God is preparing us for our heavenly abode in the city of God which is devoid of sin (cf. 1 Tim. 6.14-16; Tit. 2.14). It also reminds us that our worship is precious in God’s sight (12.28-29; cf. Ps. 2.11). He cares about the purity of worship because He surrounds himself with innumerable angels who never cease to proclaim His holiness. The city of God also reminds us that the heavenly Jerusalem is not built by human hands; there has never been and never will be the sound of human industry so that when we arrive at our heavenly gathering we will only serve to illustrate the glory of God and not our own (cf. Dt. 27.5-6; 1 Kings 6.7). Paradoxically, heaven will be a place devoid of vainglory, conceit, pride and selfishness and yet, heaven will be a place where the people of God will never be more content, fulfilled, and satisfied. The blessings of the New Covenant are an invitation to be satisfied, eternally satisfied in Christ and by Christ here and forever:
Revelation 22:17 17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.