Further Up and Further In
From Gospel Translations
We've all sung it:
“Yet we on earth have union,
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won.”
But do we believe it? More importantly, should we believe it?
All Christians agree that we on earth are united with the heavenly Christ, and through Him with the Father and the Spirit. But the second affirmation is more problematic. Is it true that we have “sweet communion” with saints in heaven?
We have good reason to believe that Samuel S. Wesley was completely in control of his faculties when he wrote those words. According to Hebrews 12:22–23, we “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.” The Greek verb translated “have come” (or “are come”) in verse 22 is in the perfect tense, which normally is used to indicate a past event that has continuing effects in the present. Whatever its specific nuance, this tense would not be used if the “coming” were purely future. Approaching Mount Zion and hob-nobbing with the “spirits of just men made perfect” is a blessing that Christians enjoy now. Access to this mountain and its assembly is one of the privileges of being in the new covenant. For the writer of Hebrews, the Biblical story is a tale of two mountains, Sinai and the heavenly Zion, and those who trust in Jesus have come to the latter. We on earth do have “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”
In what way do we fellowship with the saints? Do we enjoy this communion with the saints in heaven at any particular time or place? Throughout the ages, the church has thought so. An ancient hymn of the church known as the “Te Deum Laudamus” (“We praise You, O God”) celebrates the church’s union in worship with various categories of saints — the glorious company of the apostles, the fellowship of the prophets, the noble army of martyrs. In many liturgies, the “Sanctus” (“Holy, Holy, Holy”) is introduced by an exhortation to join with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” to “laud and magnify Thy holy name, evermore praising Thee.” At the heart of Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper is the “Sursum Corda” (“Lift up your hearts”), which, for Calvin, meant that in the supper the church ascends by faith to feed on the exalted Christ. Communion with the glorified saints takes place pre-eminently in worship.
Hebrews 12:22–23 focuses specifically on the liturgical fellowship between the church on earth and the company of heaven. Sinai and Zion are contrasting mountains, but also two churches, two ekklesiai. Though often interpreted as “the called-out ones,” the word ekklesia is more accurately understood as “the called-together ones,” and the assembly of Israel at Sinai was the very definition of the old covenant church. As Dr. Edmund Clowney has put it, “God’s assembling of His people to Himself at Mount Sinai is the image that provides the pattern for the subsequent use of the term ‘assembly’ for the people of God” (see Deut. 9:10), and Hebrews 12:22–23 explicitly speaks of the “church” meeting in the heavenly Jerusalem. The writer of Hebrews informs us that we no longer are members of the church-assembly of Sinai, but of another church-assembly.
When Moses demanded that Pharaoh let the Israelites go, he said that they had been commanded to assemble in the wilderness to offer sacrifice and to serve Yahweh in worship (Ex. 3:18; 5:1, 3; 8:1). The Sinai “assembly” was the fulfillment of that demand.
What defined Israel as the “church of God” was the fact that the people gathered in Yahweh’s presence for worship, and the church in the new covenant is likewise a liturgical assembly. When the writer to the Hebrews says that the new covenant church is characterized by fellowship with angels and glorified saints, he is saying, by definition, that this fellowship characterizes our assemblies.
The fact that the Christian church is pictured as joining an assembly on a mountain is also significant. In the Old Testament, places of worship were established on mountains, because mountains were symbolic meeting points of heaven and earth. A high mountain touched the sky, piercing through the firmament into another realm.
Israel’s “ascent to heaven” in worship was not, however, merely a symbolic movement into heaven. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s presence was signified by the “glory cloud,” which resided in the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle and temple. When the tabernacle was completed, the cloud filled the Most Holy Place (Ex. 40:34–38), and the same thing occurred at the completion of the temple (1 Kings 8:10–11). Because the God of heaven had put His name there, Israel’s sanctuaries were literally places where heaven touched earth. Israel’s ascent to the temple mount was truly an ascent to heaven on earth. Israel was the people of the God of heaven at all times and places, but they actually approached the heaven of this God only when they assembled at His house. God was with them always, but He met with the people in a special way on the mountain.
The glory that marked Yahweh’s presence in the Old Testament was carried on wings of cherubim. According to Deuteronomy 33:2, the Lord came to Sinai in the midst of “‘ten thousands of saints.’” When Ezekiel had a chance to look closely at the cloud, he saw living beings within it, with four faces and four wings (Ezek. 1). This was the same cloud that had resided in, and now was abandoning, the temple (Ezek. 10:1–5; 11:22–25; cf. 43:1–5). Ascending to the sanctuary was not only an ascent to the Lord’s presence, but to the place where the “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” gathered around Yahweh’s throne.
If all this was true of Israel, how much more is it true of us, who worship through the ministry of a heavenly High Priest? At Pentecost, the glory cloud descended on the assembled church and consecrated it as the new temple of God, the new meeting place of heaven and earth, the new mountain of the house of the Lord. Given the Old Testament typology of mountaintop sanctuaries, however, Hebrews 12 is not speaking about a general fellowship with the heavenly church but about a specific fellowship that occurs in worship. When the church meets in the name of Jesus, He is there in the midst, and with Him is the joyful assembly that worships continually before His face. When the church gathers, she ascends to Zion, heaven kisses earth, and the church above embraces the church below.