THE EFFORTS OF THE AUTHOR of the epistle to the Hebrews to help his readers grasp the transcendent importance of Jesus and the new covenant, over against the old covenant given by God at Sinai, precipitate a new and interesting contrast in Hebrews 12:18–24.
On the one hand, Christians “have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire” (12:18)—the reference is clearly to Mount Sinai when God came down upon it and met with Moses. The terror of that theophany is spelled out in graphic terms. God himself declared, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned” (12:20). Even Moses experienced deep fear (Deut. 9:19; Heb. 12:21). Christians have not drawn near to that particular mountain.
On the other hand, Christians have come to another mountain. But here the author throws us a curve. At first it sounds as if he is saying that the mountain we approach is not Sinai, connected with the desert and the giving of the law, but Mount Zion, the place where the temple was built in Jerusalem, the seat of the Davidic dynasty. And then suddenly it becomes clear that the text is not focusing on the geographical and historical Zion, but on its antitype: “the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God” (12:22).
There is a great deal that could be said about this typology, but I shall restrict myself to two observations.
First, it extends to other biblical books. The typology itself is grounded in the return from exile. The hope of the exiles was that they return to Jerusalem. Jerusalem became the symbol of all that was restorative. Already in the literature of second-temple Judaism, Jews sometimes speak of “the new Jerusalem” or the like, which is heavenly, perfect. Similarly in the New Testament. Paul can speak of “the Jerusalem that is above” (Gal. 4:26). The last book of the Bible envisages the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven (Rev. 21).
Second, if Christians have “come” to this “heavenly Jerusalem,” what does this in fact mean? It means that by becoming Christians we have joined the assembly of those “gathered” before the presence of the living God. Our citizenship is in heaven; our names are inscribed in heaven. We join the joyful assembly of countless thousands of angels around the throne. In short, we have “come to God, the judge of all men”; we have joined “the spirits of righteous men made perfect” (Heb. 12:23). Above all, we have come “to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant” (12:24). Here is the ultimate vision of what it means to be the gathered “church of the firstborn” (Heb. 12:23).