“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, 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, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
Where do you go to church? For me, I go to an Anglican church in North Epping, Sydney, Australia. Easy, right? I suppose a better question is this: where are you when you’re at church? These verses from Hebrews 12 show us why that’s a question that’s worth asking, and what’s going on when we gather as God’s people.
The argument of Hebrews has been steadily building in the previous chapters to show us that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament law in a number of different of ways. So the author shows us that the Sabbath rest couldn’t have been fulfilled by the promised land of Canaan because David wrote Psalm 95 about a rest to come (Heb 3:7-4:13). Similarly, the Levitical priests couldn’t be the final mediators between God and humanity because David wrote Psalm 110 about the Messiah ordained as a priest in the order of Melchizedek (Heb 5:1-10, 7). The Sinai covenant with Israel couldn’t have been the final word, as Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant where God would remember their sins no more (Heb 8, 10:1-18). But in Jesus we enter that rest (Heb 4:3); in Christ we have a perfect great high priest forever (Heb 7:24-25); in Christ we have a new covenant with God (Heb 8:13, 10:10-14).
In short, in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection he fulfils the Old Testament offices and law, and transforms our everyday lives to be radically different (Heb 10:19ff.). We can approach God with confidence. We have a tremendous assurance to hold unswervingly to the hope we profess. We meet together to spur each other on, to encourage one another, to do good, to love one another, to praise Jesus.
But as we meet, it’s not as if we’re in the same situation as Israel under the old covenant. We’re not in fear and trembling at the foot of Mount Sinai, as Israel were when Moses received the law (Heb 12:18-21). When we meet as God’s people we’re participating in the heavenly reality that surrounds our great high priest, the mediator of the better covenant, the one who offered the
one true sacrifice for sins once for all. We’re gathered together in the heavenly Zion, the glorious assembly of the resurrected King.
So as we meet as the people represented by Jesus, we’re a gathering that is both like and unlike the Old Testament assembly of God. We’re gathered to God, brought together by his grace and power. But our mediator isn’t a prophet or a human priest, it’s Jesus, on the basis of his perfect obedience and sacrifice that cleanses us. Through his death we’re under a covenant in which we all know God, from the least of us to the greatest, able to enjoy his presence (cf. Heb 8:10-12, 10:22). By his resurrection as an eternal priest, we are members of the great church of the firstborn, with our names written in heaven, gathered by the living Christ around him in his word.
In other words, the church is both constituted by the risen Lord Jesus and gathered around the risen Lord Jesus.1 At this point in history, before Jesus returns, we can only express this heavenly gathering with the whole assembly of the firstborn by meeting together physically. When Jesus returns, of course, that heavenly reality will be ours in the fullest sense (cf. Heb 13:14), but for now we both experience it and wait for it patiently. Each week—or more often—when two or three (or more!) are gathered together in the name of Jesus, he is with them and they are with Christ. We, his people, are gathered by Christ and around him in his word.
So when you’re in your local church, with about five other people since it’s 7pm on a cold, rainy, windy winter night: that group of people is created by the living Jesus Christ and gathered around him. The church is where Christ is. You are in the presence of the mediator of a new covenant that speaks not of judgement but of forgiveness. It’s a gathering around Christ, who is present by his Spirit, speaking his word.
- For much more on this important point, see Mark Thompson’s article in Briefing #397 on how Donald Robinson and Broughton Knox contributed to this discussion. ↩