To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.
There is a notion abroad that Christianity is on its last legs, or possibly already dead and just too weak to lie down. In the minds of many who do not understand Christianity, the chief proof of her death is said to be her failure to provide leadership for the world just when she needs it most.
Let me say that those who would come forward to bury the faith of our fathers have reckoned without the host. Just as Jesus Christ was once buried away with the full expectation that He had been gotten rid of, so His church has been laid to rest times without number; and as He disconcerted His enemies by rising from the dead so the church has confounded hers by springing again to vigorous life after all the obsequies had been performed over her coffin and the crocodile tears had been shed at her grave!
Christianity is going the way her Founder and His apostles said it would go. Its development and direction were predicted almost two thousand years ago, and this itself is a miracle!
Had Christ been less than God and His apostles less than inspired they could not have foretold with such precision the state of the church so far removed from them in time and circumstance. The true church is the repository of the life of God among men, and if in one place the frail vessels fail, that life will break out somewhere else! Of this we may be sure.
The Church of the First-Born
The church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven is the Body of Christ. The first-born are those who receive the inheritance. As believers, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,” who is “the first-born among many brethren” (Rom. 8:17, 29).
Jesus tells us that we should not rejoice in the great works that God may do through us but that our “names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Our names are enrolled in heaven in “the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev. 21:27).
God, the Judge of All
On Mount Zion we can come into God’s own presence, an incomprehensible concept to a Jew who knew only the God of Sinai. But at Jesus’ crucifixion, “the veil of the temple was torn in two” (Luke 23:45), and the way into God’s presence forever made open for those who trust in the atoning work of that crucifixion. To come into God’s presence at Sinai was to die; to come into His presence at Zion is to live (cf. Ps. 73:25; Rev. 21:3).
The Spirits of Righteous Men Made Perfect
The spirits of righteous men made perfect are Old Testament saints, those who could only look forward to forgiveness, peace, and deliverance. When we come to heaven we will join Abel, Abraham, Moses, David, and all the others in one great household of God (cf. Matt. 8:11).
They had to wait a long time for the perfection that we received the instant we trusted in Christ. In fact, they had to wait for us (Heb. 11:40), in the sense that they had to wait for Christ’s death and resurrection before they could be glorified. In heaven we will be one with them in Jesus Christ. We will not be inferior to Abraham or Moses or Elijah, because we will all be equal in righteousness, because our only righteousness will be our Savior’s righteousness.
23 Some commentators understand the “assembly of the firstborn” as a further description of the angels (who were created before human beings), but the term is not elsewhere used of angels (and indeed is used in this letter to describe Christ specifically in distinction from the angels, 1:6), and “names written in heaven” is a familiar idiom for God’s redeemed people (cf. Lk 10:20; Php 4:3).
12:23 Then we are with the general assembly of the firstborn ones who are registered in heaven. These are members of the church, the Body and Bride of Christ, who have died since Pentecost and are now consciously enjoying the Lord’s presence. They await the Day when their bodies will be raised from the grave in glorified form and reunited with their spirits.
By faith we see God the Judge of all. No longer does darkness and gloom hide Him; to faith’s vision His glory is transcendent.
The OT saints are there, the spirits of just men made perfect. Justified by faith, they stand in spotless purity because the value of Christ’s work has been imputed to their account. They too await the time when the grave will yield up its ancient charges and they will receive glorified bodies.
12:23 general assembly. The term here means “a gathering for public festival.” It does not likely describe a distinct group as if different from the church, but describes the attitude of the innumerable angels in heaven in a festal gathering around the throne of God. church of the firstborn. The firstborn is Jesus Christ (see note on 1:6). The “church” is comprised of believers who are fellow heirs with Christ, the preeminent One among many brethren (Ro 8:17, 29). righteous made perfect. See notes on 5:14 (cf. 11:40). These are the OT saints in distinction from the “church of the firstborn,” who are the NT believers.
12:23 assembly of the firstborn. “Firstborn” is plural in Greek and modified by “who are enrolled.” Jesus was previously called the firstborn Son (1:6); here his followers are also granted an inheritance as if they too were firstborn sons (1:14; 2:10; 9:15; 12:5–8). Enrolled alludes to the book of life (e.g., Dan. 7:10; Phil. 4:3; Rev. 20:12–15), listing the true followers of Jesus. The title judge of all recalls previous warnings (e.g., Heb. 10:30–31). Spirits of the righteous refers to the saints of the old and new covenants, here portrayed as holy (“righteous”) and as personally made perfect, which was the goal of Christ’s work (10:14; 11:40), though with their reembodiment still to come at the final resurrection.
12:23 assembly of the firstborn. All the firstborn in Israel were sanctified at the time of the Passover and consecrated to service in God’s presence, but the Levites served the sanctuary in the place of the firstborn (Num. 3:11–13). In the heavenly assembly all believers, redeemed from destruction, are “firstborn,” consecrated to God, and enrolled as His priests. Unlike Esau, who scorned his right as the firstborn (v. 16), believers share gratefully in the inheritance of Jesus, the firstborn (1:6, 14; 2:11, 12). In the heavenly assembly all believers may worship, in heaven and on earth (10:22, 25). See “The Church” at Eph. 2:19.
righteous made perfect. These are the spirits of those who have died in the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8; Rev. 14:13). Particularly in view are the Old Testament and intertestamental saints to whose righteousness by faith God Himself testified (11:2, 4, 5, 39), and who are now perfected (11:40) through the sacrifice of Jesus.
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