For the last year and a half my small group has been going through the book of Hebrews. Last week we were in 12.18–29, a passage about the better Mount to which we as Christians have come. There is an interesting phrase in v.23 about the “assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven” which I want to expand on here along with how we can dwell in the midst of the God who is a “consuming fire.”
18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 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.
25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
Who are these firstborn? It’s possible the Jewish readers would have thought of Psalm 87, which reads,
1 On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
2 the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwelling places of Jacob…
4 Among those who know me I mention Rahab [Egypt; cf. Ezek 32.2] and Babylon;
behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Cush—
“This one was born there,” they say.
5 And of Zion it shall be said,
“This one and that one were born in her”;
for the Most High himself will establish her.
6 The Lord records as he registers the peoples,
“This one was born there.” Selah…
In Psalm 87, the Lord has founded a city, and it stands on his holy mount. He “loves the gates of Zion,” where the mount is. In the OT, God is said to dwell on Mount Zion.1 God’s giving birth certificates to foreigners and saying they are born in Zion!2 These foreigners are Israel’s enemies, but because they know Yahweh they are registered citizens. These are Gentiles, which includes myself and most of my readers. We are children of the Jerusalem from above,3 and we are citizens of the kingdom of God.4
Just prior to this, the author of Hebrews warned his congregation not to be like Esau, who was also a firstborn. The Hebrews should not imitate Esau because he was “sexually immoral,” “unholy,” and “sold his birthright for a single meal.” DeSilva says Esau “is not the master of his passions but their slave, and thus a degraded and sorry figure.”5 Esau the firstborn gave up his birthright for one, single, temporary meal, but Abel, though not a firstborn, was killed for doing what was right (by his firstborn brother, whom you also shouldn’t imitate).6 The author praises his congregation in 10.34 for joyfully accepting the plundering of their property, because they knew they had a better possession and an already-abiding one.
Jesus’ blood, which sanctifies us,7 speaks a better word than Abel’s. Both Cockerill and deSilva say that Abel’s blood (rightly) cried out for vengeance,8 but Christ’s blood provides salvation from judgment. The Firstborn became a curse for us, and his blood purifies our consciences to serve the living God, who gives salvation to all peoples, both Jew and Gentile. Yet to those who reject Christ (which too many of the Hebrews were close to doing), vengeance is the Lord’s, and he will judge his people.9
The author ends this section by saying “our God is a consuming fire.” In 12.18–29, Mount Zion has been contrasted with Mount Sinai. Israel came to a place of “blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest.”10 The people were fearful, even Moses trembled at Sinai.11 How can we stand at Mount Zion with a God who is a consuming fire? How can we live in the new creation, the New Jerusalem, with a burning fireball (Isa 30.27–30)?
A Consuming Fire
The Old Testament helps us out on that question. Isaiah 33.14 says,
“The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: ‘Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?’”
Verse 15 gives us the answer:
“He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil.”
Similar to Isaiah 33.14, Psalm 15.1 asks,
“O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?”
and Psalm 24.3 asks,
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?”
They both provide a similar answer—one who has clean hands, a pure heart, who is blameless, and speaks what is right. This is the King who embodied the Law of the Lord. He would “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”12 This King is Jesus who fulfilled the Law.13 This king ascended to God’s abode and poured out his Spirit onto his people.14 It is there, at the right hand of God, where Jesus, the firstborn, sits and rules.15
To those in Christ who fulfilled the Law, we fulfill the law when we love God and our neighbor. Then we can walk through fire and not be burned “and the flame shall not consume you.”16 But to those who reject Christ, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”17
Jesus was crucified outside the camp.18 There he bore our sins and became a festering curse—for us. The author of Hebrews tells us that we are to “go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.”19 Christ was shameful before the world’s eyes, and we are to join Christ and be shameful in their eyes too. Just as he despised their shame, so we are to despise it too. They do not have all the facts. In an ironic twist it is there with Christ where we receive the most honor. Through the shed blood of Christ we become children of God.20
The more we are dishonored in the eyes of the world because of Christ the more we are honored in the eyes of our living God, who dwells on Mount Zion, the lasting, eternal city to come, and is already here, with the innumerable angels, with the registered and enrolled firstborn citizens, and with Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant whereby we know that his blood washes away our sin and purifies our consciences. Be content with what you have, for that God is with us.21
1 Pss 2:6; 74:2; Isa 8:18; Joel 3:17; Gareth Lee Cockerill, Hebrews, 651.
2 Isaiah 49.6.
3 Galatians 4.26.
4 Philippians 3:20.
5 David A deSilva. Perseverance in Gratitude: Hebrews, 461.
6 Hebrews 11.4.
7 Hebrews 13.12.
8 Genesis 4:10.
9 Hebrews 10.30.
10 Hebrews 12.18.
11 Hebrews 10.21; cf. Deuteronomy 9.19.
12 Psalm 23.6.
13 Matthew 5.17; Luke 4.21; Romans 8.4; 13.8, 10; Galatians 5.14; James 2.8.
14 Acts 2.33.
15 Hebrews 1.3, 6, 8–9, 13.
16 Isaiah 43.2.
17 Hebrews 10.30.
18 Hebrews 13.12.
19 Hebrews 13.13.
20 Hebrews 2.10–14. Note the words “children” and “brothers.”
21 Hebrews 13.5.
If you hate footnotes, forgive me. I am a footnote hoarder.