22 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)
The classic medieval romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is a legend of adventure and temptation. It begins with Sir Gawain bravely guarding the court of King Arthur against the mysterious Green Knight. It ends with his resisting the seducements of the Green Knight’s alluring wife: “[O]ften with guile she questioned [Sir Gawain] that she might win him to woo her, but he defended himself so fairly that none might in any wise blame him . . . ”1 Sir Gawain resisted temptation—he persevered in holiness—because he was motivated by what was most valuable to the fourteenth-century Englishman: chivalry. What inspires Christians to persevere in holiness? The answer is found in an even more ancient text.
The letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish Christians tempted to renounce their faith. Due to intense Roman persecution they seriously considered returning to the Old Testament law. Throughout the book they were exhorted to hold fast and even warned of the danger of falling away (Heb. 10:32). However, in 12:22-24 they were not warned but rather inspired into holiness as the author presented them with the greatest motive to persevere: the promise of God’s presence in Mt. Zion, the city of the living God.
In Hebrews 12:18-21, the author used the image of Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19) to clarify the impotence of the Old Testament law; it can make one aware of sin but cannot solve the problem of alienation from God. God’s presence is available only to those who have come through the blood of Christ to Mt. Zion. It is truly a glorious city! Angels rejoice there along with the “firstborn” of God, who are His people, the crown princes and princesses who have inherited the kingdom of God. Their place is secure, because they are “enrolled in heaven” (v. 23). This glorious Church is known as “the spirits of the righteous made perfect,” because in heaven all those who were only counted righteous on earth are now made wholly righteous. This is not possible because of the law but because of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. Whereas Moses was a mediator who brought a law that condemns, Jesus is a mediator whose own blood promises eternal life to lawbreakers. Unlike Abel’s blood that brought down a curse against Cain, Christ’s blood speaks the good news of forgiveness (v. 24).
This description of heaven shows that it is not discontinuous with Church life on earth. Angels minister in the world as well as in heaven (Heb. 1:13-14). The Lord is ever present, even in humble circumstances where only two or three are gathered together (Matt. 18:20). The pews hold assemblies of “the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.” In Bible study, saints study with other “spirits of the righteous” being made “perfect,” though not yet perfected. All the while, the Savior “mediates” for them on high (Heb. 7:25). In other words, Christians can have a taste of heaven on earth.
The exposition of heaven passages should be commonplace in the pulpit. Furthermore, what could be more encouraging to those in the midst of struggle than to see, in advance, the victory won? If God had given the D-Day invaders a preview of their parade through the streets of Paris, it would have only strengthened their resolve on the beaches of Normandy. Hope of triumph and peace breeds fortitude. And as good as the promise of chivalry might be, it is nothing compared to the hope born of Calvary.
1 “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in English Literature: A Period Anthology (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. 1954), 98.