When Heaven Celebrates (A Study in Hebrews)

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But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly 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 that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22–24 ESV)

Key Observation: Those who have gone before us are already in heaven in festive assembly. They are worshipping God and the Lamb with their sins forgiven.

Understanding the Word

The verses between yesterday’s passage and today’s include some stern warnings to the congregation. In 12:12–13, the author quoted Proverbs again with some instruction telling them, in effect, to stop slouching and pull themselves together. We have yet another stern warning to the congregation, in some ways the most startling of all.

Hebrews suggests that bitterness can take root in a person and not only make you impure but can “defile” many around you as well. The example he raised is that of Esau. Esau was the firstborn, and so had what they called the “birthright.” The firstborn son in those days inherited all or mostly all of his father’s possessions. But Esau’s younger brother, Jacob, was crafty and caught Esau in a moment of weakness, when he was returning from days of unsuccessful hunting. Esau sold Jacob his birthright for some food.

The most startling statement Hebrews makes comes in 12:17, which says that Esau could not find a place of repentance, even though he sought it eagerly with tears. Hebrews seems to say that there is a point where the audience could go so far away from Christ in turning their backs on him, that they might not be able to find the heart to repent. Perhaps they might know with their head that they need to repent, but they just might not be able to do so any more.

Here we are reminded that the Holy Spirit is what empowers our ability to repent. Christians do not believe that we have the power in ourselves to come to God. It is only by God’s grace and power that we can find a place of true turning and repentance. These truths raise the scary possibility that those who have said no to God their entire lives may not find themselves able to come to God at the end, even if they know with their heads that they need to. A heart of stone can only become a heart of flesh by a miracle of God. Thankfully, anyone who still feels the tug of God on their heart has not reached this point!

The verses for today paint a much better picture. The audience has not come to Mount Sinai as in the Old Testament (12:18–21). They have not become part of the old covenant with Moses. They have come to the heavenly Jerusalem and the true Mount Zion. This is the city prepared for them that the author mentioned in 11:16.

In that heavenly city are tens of thousands of angels in festive assembly. Jesus is there, the One who has brokered the new covenant. There are the spirits of countless righteous individuals there as well.

This is both a picture of this present time and a picture of what is to come. Those who have gone before us are already in heaven worshipping God and the Lamb. If we die before Christ returns, there will come a time when we will join that festive, heavenly assembly.

There will also come a day when Christ will return to earth. Then every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus, the Messiah, is Lord! God will shake the heavens and the earth (12:26), and we as Christians believe God will establish a new heaven and a new earth.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Have you ever considered the possibility that someone’s heart could become so hardened, even if they had once been a believer, that they could never find a place of repentance?
  2. Have you ever thought of our worship here on earth as a participation in the worship that is going on constantly in heaven? How might that affect the way you worship in church?
  3. The end of Hebrews 12 speaks of the shaking of the heavens and earth in their current form. Why would we not do everything we can to make sure as many people as possible do not experience that event?

Watch the first session of the OneBook Daily-Weekly: The Letter to the Hebrews Bible study here!

Did you find this entry helpful? It is part of Ken Schenck’s Bible study, The Letter to the Hebrews (OneBook Daily-Weekly). This eight week book study with accompanying video sessions is perfect for Sunday School or small groups. It is a perfect study for anyone seeking to: 1) Be encouraged to press on in the midst of a culture that’s unfriendly to the Christian life, 2) See more clearly Jesus’s sacrifice and what it meant for abolishing the Jewish system of the Old Testament. Quantity discounts are available for group studies. Get your copies from our store here.

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Ken Schenck (PhD) is dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University, as well as a professor of New Testament. An ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church, he is the author of more than thirty books, including Understanding the Book of Hebrews; Paul: Soldier of Peace; and Jesus: The Mission. He and his wife, Angela, have four children: Stefanie, Stacy, Thomas, and Sophia.

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