Mount Zion—the Grace of the Gospel
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel. (12:22–24)
The mountain of the New Covenant is Mount Zion, representing the heavenly Jerusalem. The opposite of Sinai, it is not touchable, but it is approachable. Sinai symbolizes law and Zion symbolizes grace. No man can be saved by the law, but any man can be saved by grace. The law confronts us with commandments, judgment, and condemnation. Grace presents us with forgiveness, atonement, and salvation.
Ever since David had conquered the Jebusites and had placed the ark on Mount Zion, this mountain had been considered the special earthly dwelling place of God. “For the Lord has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His habitation. ‘This is My resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it’ ” (Ps. 132:13–14). When Solomon moved the ark to the Temple, which was built on nearby Mt. Moriah, the name Zion was extended to include that area as well. Before long, Zion became synonymous with Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was therefore the city of God and the place of sacrifices. Isaiah, who spoke often and hopefully of Zion, says that God will “grant salvation in Zion” (46:13).
Whereas Sinai was forbidding and terrifying, Zion is inviting and gracious. Sinai is closed to all, because no one is able to please God on Sinai’s terms—perfect fulfillment of the law. Zion is open to all, because Jesus Christ has met those terms and will stand in the place of anyone who will come to God through Him. Zion symbolizes the approachable God.
Sinai was covered by clouds and darkness; Zion is the city of light. “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth” (Ps. 50:2). Sinai stands for judgment and death; Zion for forgiveness and life, “for there the Lord commanded the blessing—life forever” (Ps. 133:3).
The Jews to whom Hebrews is speaking at this point are clearly believers, for they are told, you have come to Mount Zion. They were already on the gracious mountain of God, already in the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. As Christians, we are already citizens of heaven, where we now spiritually dwell (Phil. 3:20).
In coming to Mount Zion—that is, by becoming a Christian—we come to seven other blessings: the heavenly city; the general assembly; the church of the first-born; God, the Judge of all; the spirits of righteous men made perfect; to Jesus; and to the sprinkled blood.
the heavenly city
The city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, is heaven itself. Coming to Christ is coming to heaven, the only way to come to heaven. When we come to Mount Zion, we come by grace to the city Abraham looked for, “the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). From the moment of salvation, heaven is our spiritual home—where our heavenly Father and our Savior are, and where the rest of our spiritual family is. That is where our treasure is, our inheritance is, our hope is. Everything we have of any value is there and all that we should want is there.
Until the Lord takes us there to be with Himself, however, we cannot enjoy its full citizenship. For now we are ambassadors on earth. As ambassadors we have full citizenship in our home country, but we are away from it for a while and cannot enjoy its full blessings. In the meanwhile we are to be faithful emissaries of our Savior and our heavenly Father, reflecting their nature before a world that does not know them. And Paul encourages us not to lose our perspective of the incomparable value of our heavenly inheritance (Rom. 8:17–18).
And like the writer of Hebrews, Paul uses Sinai and Jerusalem as figures of the Old and New Covenants and, consequently, of the old and new relationships to God that they represent. “Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.… So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman” (Gal. 4:25–26, 31). Sinai is the mountain of bondage. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, is the mountain of freedom.
the general assembly
I believe the general assembly (panēguris, “a gathering for a public festival”) refers to the myriads of angels, rather than to the church of the first-born. The translation could be, “But you have come to … an innumerable company of angels in festal gathering.” When we come in Jesus Christ to Mount Zion, we come to a great gathering of celebrating angels, whom we join in praising God. Daniel gives us an idea of just how many angels we will be joining in heaven: “Thousands upon thousands were attending Him, and myriads upon myriads were standing before Him” (Dan. 7:10; cf. Rev. 5:11).
Innumerable angels were also present at Sinai, as mediators of the Mosaic covenant (Gal. 3:19), the covenant of law and judgment. But men could not join them there. Like the God they served, at Sinai they were unapproachable. The angels were not celebrating at Sinai; they were blowing the trumpets of judgment.
Contrary to what some churches teach, we are not to worship angels. We join them in worshiping God, and God alone. “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize,” Paul warns, “by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels” (Col. 2:18). During his vision on Patmos, John once was so awestruck that he fell at the feet of an angel and would have worshiped him. But the angel forbid him, saying, “Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus; worship God” (Rev. 19:10). In heaven, we will not worship angels, but will worship with angels. We will join them in eternal celebration and praise of God.
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.
Supremely we come to Jesus, in the fullness of His beauty and glory as the mediator of a new covenant. Our Lord is here called by His redemptive name, Jesus, which He was given because He would “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). When we come to Mount Zion, we come to our Savior, our Redeemer, our one and only Mediator with the Father. First John 3:2 sums up the ultimate end of this truth: “we shall be like Him.”
the sprinkled blood
To come to Christianity is to come to the sprinkled blood, the atoning blood, through which we have redemption, “through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7), and by which all who “formerly were far off have been brought near” (2:13).
The sprinkled blood of Jesus far surpasses the sacrifice of Abel (Heb. 11:4) and speaks better than the blood of Abel. Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God because it was offered in faith, but it had no atoning power—not even for Abel, much less for anyone else. Jesus’ blood, however, was sufficient to cleanse the sins of all men for all time, to make peace with God for whoever trusts in that blood sacrifice (Col. 1:20).
22. Unto mount Sion, &c. He alludes to those prophecies in which God had formerly promised that his Gospel should thence go forth, as in Isaiah 2:1–4, and in other places. Then he contrasts mount Sion with mount Sinai; and he further adds, the heavenly Jerusalem, and he expressly calls it heavenly, that the Jews might not cleave to that which was earthly, and which had flourished under the Law; for when they sought perversely to continue under the slavish yoke of the Law, mount Sion was turned into mount Sinai, as Paul teaches us in the fourth chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians. Then by the heavenly Jerusalem he understood that which was to be built throughout the whole world, even as the angel, mentioned by Zechariah, extended his line from the east even to the west.
To an innumerable company of angels, &c. He means that we are associated with angels, chosen into the ranks of patriarchs, and placed in heaven among all the spirits of the blessed, when Christ by the Gospel calls us to himself. But it is an incalculable honour, conferred upon us by our heavenly Father, that he should enrol us among angels and the holy fathers. The expression, myriads of angels, is taken from the book of Daniel, though I have followed Erasmus, and rendered it innumerable company of angels.
12:22 / The opening of this verse picks up the opening verb of verse 18. The perfect tense of this verb, you have come, indicates arrival some time in the past with continued enjoyment of the results of that arrival in the present. By the use of this tense the author clearly means to stress that what he is about to describe is in some way already enjoyed by the readers. They have come to Mount Zion, a mountain of even greater significance than the mountain alluded to in the preceding verses. Mount Zion is synonymous with Jerusalem in the ot (e.g., 2 Sam. 5:6f.; 2 Kings 19:21; Ps. 2:6; 9:11). Here it is further described as the heavenly Jerusalem, that eschatological expectation referred to in Revelation 21:2 (cf. Gal. 4:26; 2 Bar. 4:2ff.) and the city of the living God, a city already mentioned as Abraham’s true goal (11:10; cf. 11:16). In 13:14 it is written: “we are looking for the city that is to come.” Thus the readers already enjoy in the present the eschatological city of the future (cf. Eph. 2:6). Here again we encounter the tension between realized and future eschatology (e.g., 1:2; 4:3; 6:5; 9:11; 10:1). Christians have experienced fulfillment, but fulfillment short of consummation. The readers are also said to have come to thousands upon thousands (lit., “myriads” or “tens of thousands”) of angels. In Deuteronomy 33:2, “myriads of holy ones” are associated with the appearance of the Lord at Sinai; in Daniel 7:10, “ten thousand times ten thousand” serve before the throne of God. These hosts are also present in the city, the heavenly Jerusalem (cf. the marriage supper of the Lamb, Rev. 19:6).
12:22. This verse begins the description of the superior spiritual approach available to believers. Dread and fear have vanished. Believers can worship God in full fellowship and joy!
The name Mount Sinai, where Israel received the Law, does not appear in verses 18–21. The location at which believers meet with God is called Mount Zion. The mount is identified as the city of the living God and as the heavenly Jerusalem. The picture is one of calmness as God and his people enjoy fellowship together. Mount Zion represents the true worship of God, and Jerusalem symbolizes God’s people in community with him.
Thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly surrounding God show that he is approachable. He lives among a society of followers who worship him. These angels were the ministering spirits presented earlier in 1:14. Christians do not come together to worship these angels but to worship and serve the God who sends them forth.
This verse does not refer merely to a communion which believers enter at death. At conversion Christians become members of a community of those who can worship the living God and receive from him grace for daily needs (Heb. 4:16). Christians already experience a fulfillment of fellowship with God. The future will bring a complete consummation of this fellowship.
22. But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23. to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24. to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
- “Mount Zion, … the heavenly Jerusalem.” What a difference between the description of Mount Sinai and that of Mount Zion! What a contrast! The first scene is one of doom and dread; the second scene portrays life and joy. In the first portion of the argument Mount Sinai is not even mentioned, for the Israelites were not to stay there. In the second part, Mount Zion is described as “the heavenly Jerusalem” and as “the city of the living God.”
The verb have come intimates that the readers of Hebrews have arrived at a permanent place. That is, the temporary conditions of the old covenant have ended, and the everlasting terms of the new covenant now prevail. That the expression Mount Zion ought to be understood spiritually and not literally is evident from the explanation “the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” The new Jerusalem is the place where Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, dwells.
Zion, founded on the mountains,
God, thy Maker, loves thee well;
He has chosen thee, most precious,
He delights in thee to dwell;
God’s own city,
Who can all thy glory tell?
Mount Zion is the highest elevation in the city of Jerusalem. As a fortress it was fiercely defended by the Jebusites, who were defeated at last by David. In time, the fortress, including the surrounding area, was called the city of David, but poets and prophets used the name Zion and designated it God’s dwelling place (see, for instance, Ps. 2:6; 20:2; 99:2; 135:21; Isa. 4:3–5; Jer. 8:19).
The writer of Hebrews employs the adjective heavenly to signify that the place he mentions is not the southeast corner of Jerusalem, but the heavenly Zion where God dwells with all the saints (Rev. 14:1; 21:2). The citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem are known as sons and daughters of Zion. It is the place where “God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21:3). The heavenly Jerusalem excels its earthly counterpart, for sin and death are banished eternally in heaven; the city has no need of sun or moon, “for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (Rev. 21:23). The living God lives among his people forever.
What an honor to live in that city! Consider this: Moses was given the honor of climbing Mount Sinai and being with God for forty days and forty nights (Exod. 34:28). We shall be with him in heaven always. Mount Sinai is a windswept, uninhabited mountain; the new Jerusalem is a city populated by the saints who dwell permanently in Zion with their living God (Gal. 4:26; Phil. 3:20).
- “Thousands upon thousands of angels.” Already Abraham looked “forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10; cf. 13:14). That city is the habitation of countless angels as well. Certainly the New International Version has the translation “thousands upon thousands of angels,” but this is an expression that appears in Revelation 5:11 and stands for countless thousands. “Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels,” says John, “numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand.” This “joyful assembly” of angels sings a song of glory, honor, and praise to the Lamb (see also Dan. 7:10).
Translations differ on the exact position of the Greek word translated as “assembly.” Depending on the placing of a comma, the word assembly or its equivalent is taken either with angels or with “the church of the firstborn” in the next verse (v. 23). Commentators are divided on this matter. However, it appears that the translation “thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly” is preferred because the author of Hebrews “perhaps intended to offset any thought that angels were angels of judgment.”44 Angels were commissioned to deliver the law at Mount Sinai (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; cf. Deut. 33:2; Ps. 68:17); by contrast, they constitute a joyful assembly at Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem (see Rev. 5:11–13). In heaven angels rejoice when they see that one sinner repents (Luke 15:10). They are sent out to serve all those who inherit salvation (Heb. 1:14).
- “Church of the firstborn.” When the writer of Hebrews says to the readers, “You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God,” and then mentions the festive gathering of an immense number of angels, he could be misunderstood. Because he places the scene in heaven, the readers might say that they as yet have not come to the heavenly Jerusalem. But when he says, “[You have come] to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven,” he definitely addresses the readers. They are the ones who belong to the new covenant, and their names already have been recorded in the Book of Life (see also Luke 10:20; Phil. 4:3; Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 20:12).
That the believers belong to the church on earth is evident from the clause “the spirits of righteous man made perfect.” They are still sinners, and their spirits have not yet been glorified to join the church in heaven. They are on earth; their names, however, are written in heaven.
What is meant by the expression first-born? The New Testament shows repeatedly that Jesus is the first-born. Of the nine occurrences of this word (Matt. 1:25; Luke 2:7; Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:15, 18; Heb. 1:6; 11:28; 12:23; Rev. 1:5), seven refer to Jesus. One passage (Heb. 11:28) relates to Egypt’s first-born slain by the angel of death, and the other passage (Heb. 12:23) concerns believers. The privilege of the first-born is that he is able to lay claim to the inheritance. Christ is therefore the heir, and we are coheirs with him (Rom. 8:17). We value our birthright, whereas Esau despised it (Heb. 12:16). We are first-born because of Christ who makes us holy, and we who are made holy belong to the same family (Heb. 2:11).
Recording the names of the first-born males in Israel was done at God’s command. Moses counted all their names and made a list (Num. 3:40). In heaven all the names of those believers included in the new covenant are written in the Book of Life.
- “God, the judge.” God is judge of all men, and no one is higher than God. At Mount Sinai he came to Israel to give the people his law and to make a covenant with them. There he did not appear as judge, only as lawgiver.
Here the readers of Hebrews learn that God is judge of all men, and (by implication) that everyone must appear before him. Seated at Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, God summons his people to the judgment seat, not to condemn them, but to justify them. God declares them righteous because of his Son who paid their debt (2 Tim. 4:8). God’s right hand is filled with righteousness, says the psalmist (Ps. 48:10). God rewards his people by renewing them after his image of true righteousness, holiness, and knowledge (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).
- “Spirits of righteous men.” Who are these “spirits of righteous men made perfect”? Some commentators are of the opinion that these spirits belong to Old Testament believers; others think that the writer refers to New Testament saints who have died. But all believers of both Old Testament and New Testament times, who have been translated to glory, are declared righteous. They have been made perfect on the basis of Jesus’ work; he is “the author and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).
What then is the relation between the saints on earth and the saints in heaven? The saints in glory have been perfected, for they are set free from sin. Their souls are perfect; their bodies wait for the day of resurrection. In principle, the believers on earth share in the perfection Christ gives his people. They enjoy the prospect of joining the assembly of the saints in heaven. Only death separates the church below from the church above. When death occurs the believer obtains the fulfillment of Christ’s atoning work (Heb. 2:10).
- “Jesus the mediator.” In earlier chapters the writer explained the covenant (7:22; 8:6, 8–12; 9:4, 15–17, 20; 10:16, 29); once more he reminds the readers that Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant. He purposely uses the name Jesus to bring into focus the suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
At Mount Sinai Moses served as mediator between God and man; and with respect to the covenant God made with his people, Moses was the intermediary. But Mount Sinai represents that which is temporary: Moses died, and the first covenant eventually came to an end. To be sure, God replaced it with a new covenant (Jer. 31:31–34; Heb. 8:8–12), and Jesus became the mediator of it. The readers of the epistle observed that the establishing of a new covenant was relatively recent. It occurred when Jesus died on Calvary’s cross (also see Matt. 26:28). Moreover, the readers ought to look not to Moses, who mediated the old covenant, but to Jesus. As mediator of the new covenant, he calls the believer to joyful and thankful obedience; he removes the burden of guilt and cleanses the sinner’s conscience; he grants him the gift of eternal life; and he functions as intercessor in behalf of his people.
- “Sprinkled blood.” When Moses formally confirmed the first covenant at Sinai, he sprinkled blood on the altar, the scroll, the people, and even the tabernacle (Exod. 24:6–8; Heb. 9:17–22). Sprinkled blood signified forgiveness of sin, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). Jesus inaugurated the new covenant by shedding his blood once for all at Golgotha. Because of that sprinkled blood, believers enter the presence of God as forgiven sinners (Heb. 10:22; 1 Peter 1:2).
You have come, says the author, “to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” The comparison is somewhat unequal. The blood of Abel called for revenge, and God placed a curse upon Cain for killing his brother Abel (Gen. 4:10–11). The blood of Christ removed the curse placed upon fallen man and effected reconciliation and peace between God and man. Abel’s blood is the blood of a martyr that evokes revenge. The blood of Jesus is the blood of the Lamb of God who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
The deliberate contrast accentuates the significance of Jesus’ blood that proclaims the gospel of redemption. The blood of Jesus sets the sinner free. And that is the better word the author wishes to convey.
Practical Considerations in 12:22–24
“Why do you go to church on Sunday?” Your answer may be: “Because I want to worship the Lord my God together with his people.” You may also say: “I attend the worship services because the blood of Jesus shed for me has cleansed me from all my sins. I enter the very presence of God as a forgiven sinner cleansed by the blood of the Lamb.”
Sermons about the blood of Jesus are few. Certainly on Good Friday pastors describe the suffering and death of Christ, and the people sing “Alas! and did my Savior bleed.” But neither preacher nor parishioner dwells on the concept Jesus’ blood. The thought of blood is too gruesome. The repulsiveness of blood causes us to turn to pleasantries instead, and thus we miss the message of Jesus’ “blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (italics added).
What is the message of the blood? It tells me that Jesus removed the curse, lifted the burden of guilt, and forgave my sins. It assures me that I have peace with God and that I have been set free to live a life of obedience. It tells me that God loved me so much that he had his Son die for me.
I go to church not to hear a theological lecture or to receive some pastoral advice on how to avoid conflict, but to learn that the blood of Jesus daily speaks to me and brings me the message of salvation. I have been delivered from the bondage of sin because of Jesus’ blood. Throughout the week, but especially on Sundays, I am reminded of the words of an Italian hymn, translated by Edward Caswall,
Grace and life eternal
In that blood I find;
Blest be his compassion,
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (p. 333). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.