'. Ye are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven."—Heb. xii. 22, 23.
HE magnificent passage of which these words are part sums up the contrast between Judaism and Christianity which this whole Epistle has been illustrating and enforcing. The writer takes the scene on Sinai as expressive of the genius of the former Revelation, whose centre was a law which evoked the consciousness of sin, and kindled terror; and which was embodied in sensible and material symbols. Far other and better are the characteristics of the latter Revelation. That excites no dread; is given from no flashing mountain, with accompaniments of darkness and trumpet blasts and terrible words; and it brings us into contact with no mere material and therefore perishable symbols, but with realities none the less real because they are above sense, and not remote from us though they be.
For, says my text, " Ye are come," not "Ye shall come." The humblest life may be in touch with the grandest realities in the universe, and need not wait for death to draw aside the separating curtain in order to be in the presence of God and in the heavenly Jerusalem.
How are these things brought to us? By the revelation of God in Christ. How are we brought to them? By faith in that revelation. So every believing life, howsoever encompassed by flesh and sense, can thrust, as it were, a hand through the veil, and grasp the realities beyond.
The scene described in the first words of my text may verily be the platform on which our lives are lived, howsoever in outward form they may be passed on this low earth; and the companions, which the second part of our text discloses, may verily be our companions, though we "wander lonely as a cloud," or seem to be surrounded by far less noble society. By faith we are come to the unseen realities which are come to us by the revelation of God in Christ. "Ye are come unto Mount Zion."
Now, looking generally at these words, they give us just two things—the scene and the companions of the Christian life. The remainder of the passage will occupy us on future occasions, but for the present I confine myself to the words which I have read. And I shall best deal with them, I think, if I simply follow that division into which they naturally fall, and ask you to note, first, where faith lives, and, second, with whom faith lives.
I.—First, then, where faith lives.
"Ye are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem." There are two points here which carry us back to the topography of the ancient sacred city. In the literal Jerusalem, Zion was the lofty Acropolis, at once fortress and site of the king's palace, and round it clustered the dwellings of the city.
The two symbols are thus closely connected, and present substantially the same idea. And perhaps it is pressing a figure too far to find a diversity of meaning in the separate parts of this closely-connected whole. But still it seems to me that there is a substantial difference of aspect in the two clauses.
The first thought, therefore, that I would suggest to you is this, that the life of a man who has truly laid hold of Jesus Christ, and so is living by faith, is on its inward side—that is, in deepest reality—a life passed in the dwelling of the great King. AH through this letter the writer is recurring to the thought of access to God, unimpeded and continual, as being the great gift which Jesus Christ has brought to us. And here he gathers it into the noblest symbol. There, lifted high above all the humbler roofs, flash the golden pinnacles of the great palace in which God Himself dwells. And we, toiling and moiling down here, surrounded by squalid circumstances, and annoyed by many cares, and limited by many narrownesses which we often find to be painful, and fighting with many sorrows, and seeming to ourselves to be, sometimes, homeless wanderers in a wilderness, may yet evermore "dwell in the house of the Lord, to behold His beauty and to enquire in His temple."
The privilege has for its other side a duty; the duty has for its foundation a privilege. For if it be true that the real life of every believing soul is a life that never moves from the temple-palace where God is, and that its inmost secret and the spring of its vitality is communion with God, what shall we say of the sort of lives that most of us most often live? Is chere any truth in such exalted metaphors as this in reference to us? Does it not sound far liker irony than truth to say of people whose days are so shuttlecocked about by trifling cares, and absorbed in fleeting objects, and wasted in the chase after perishable delights, that they " are come unto Mount Zion," and dwell in the presence of God? Is my "life hid with Christ in God "? There is no possibility of Death being your usher, to introduce you into the house of God not made with hands, unless Faith has introduced you into it even whilst you tarry here, and your habitual direction of heart and mind towards Him keeps you evermore at least a waiter at His threshold, if you do not pass beyond. "I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than dwell in the tents of wickedness."
My brother, do we so knit ourselves to Him, by heartfelt acceptance of the good news of His loving proximity to us which Jesus Christ brings, as that indeed we have left earth and care and sin at the foot of the mount, with the asses and the servants, and have our faces set to the lofty sweetnesses of our "Father's house " ?" Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house," and no less blessed are they " in whose hearts are the ways" that lead to it.
Then let me remind you how Zion contrasts with Sinai, and thus suggests the thought that a true Christian life, based upon faith, has a communion with God which is darkened by no dread, nor disturbed by a consciousness of unforgiven sin. We have set against each other the terrors of that theophany on Mount Sinai, attendant on or rather precedent to the giving of the law—the mountain wrapped in smoke; in the heart of the wreathing blackness the flashing fire; from out of the midst of it the long-drawn trumpet blasts, the proclamation of the coming of the King; and then the voice which, Divine as it was, froze the marrow of the hearers' bones, that they entreated that no words like these should any more fall on their trembling ears.
That is the one picture. The other shows us the mount where the King dwells, serene and peaceful the clouds far below the horizon; the flashing fire changed into lambent light; the blast of the trumpet stilled; the dread voice changed into a voice " that speaketh better things" than were heard amidst the granite cliffs of the wilderness.
And so in vivid, picturesque form the writer gathers up the one great contrast between the Revelation of which the message was law and its highest result the consciousness of sin and the shrinking that ensued, and the other of which the inmost heart is Love, and the issue the attraction of hearts by the magnetism of its grace. The old fable of a mountain of loadstone which drew ships at sea to its cliffs is true of this Mount Zion, which is exalted above the mountains that it may draw hearts tossing on the restless sea of life to the "fair havens" beneath its sheltering height. There is no dread, though there is reverence, and no fear, though there is awe, in the approach of those who come through Jesus Christ, and five beneath the smile of their reconciled God and Father. "Ye are come unto Mount Zion," the dwelling-place of the living God, from whose lips there will steal into the ears and the hearts of those who keep near Him gracious words of consolation, so thrilling, so soothing, so enlightening, so searching, so encouraging, that they which hear them shall say "Speak yet again, that I may be blessed."
And then there is the other aspect of this scene where faith lives. "Ye are come unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem." I need not remind you of how much we hear in this Epistle in reference to that city. It is generally set forth as being yet to come, as being the object of seeking rather than of possession. But the fact is that there are two aspects of it. In one it is future, in the other it is present. The general idea to be attached to it is simply that of the order and social state of those who love and serve God. Here, in this part of my text, we have to deal with the city rather than with its inhabitants. They follow thereafter, but, so far as we can separate between the two, we have just this idea enforced in the words that I am now commenting upon—viz., that the lowliest life, knit, as it seems to be, by so many bonds to the perishable associations and affinities of earth, yet, if it be a life of faith in Jesus Christ, has its true affinities and relationships beyond, and not here. "We have our citizenship in heaven," says the Apostle, "from whence also we look for the Saviour." And every Christian man and woman is therefore bound to two or three very plain duties.
If you are living by faith, you do not belong to this order in the midst of which you find yourself. See that you keep vivid the consciousness that you do not. Cultivate the sense of detachment from the present, of not being absorbed by, or belonging to, things which are not coeval with yourself, and from all of which you will have to pass. Cultivate the sense of having your true home beyond the seas; and look to it as emigrants and colonists in a far-off land do to the old country, as being home. Live by the laws of your own city, and not by those that run in the community in which you dwell. You are under another jurisdiction. The examples, the maxims of low earthly prudence, or even of a somewhat higher earthly morality, are not your laws. You are not bound to do as the people round about you do. "I appeal unto Caesar." I take my orders from him. I send my despatches home, and report to headquarters, and if I get approbation thence, it does not matter what the people amongst whom I dwell think about me. Make your investments at home. The Jews invented banking and letters of credit in order that they might the more easily shift their wealth from one land to another as exigencies required. We are strangers where we are. Do not put your property into the country in which you live as an alien, and lock it up there; but remit, as you can do, to the land where you are going, and to which you belong. Home securities are a good deal better than foreign ones. "Ye are come to the city of the living God." "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth."
II.—And now let me turn to the other thought here: with whom does faith live?
I need not trouble you with merely expository remarks upon the diversity of arrangement which is possible in the second half of my text. Suffice it to say that just as the scene of the life of faith has been represented in a twofold and yet closely connected form as Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem, so the companions of that life are also represented in a twofold and yet closely connected form.
A slight alteration in the punctuation and order of the words in our text brings out, as it seems to me, the writer's idea. Suppose you put a comma after "innumerable company," and substitute for that phrase the original Greek word, so reading "and to myriads," and then pause there. That is the general definition, on which follows the division of the "myriads" into two parts; one of which is "the general assembly of angels," and the other is the "church of the first-born which are written in heaven." So then, of companions for us, in our lonely earthly life, there be two sorts, and as to both of them the condition of recognizing and enjoying their society is the same — viz., the exercise of faith.
Now, the word rendered "general assembly" has a grander idea in it than that. It is the technical word employed in classic Greek for the festal meetings of a nation at their great games or other solemn occasions, and always carries in it the idea of joy as well as of society. And so here the writer would have us think of one part of that great city, the heavenly Jerusalem, as, if I may so say, the dwelling-place of a loftier race of creatures whose life is immortal and pure joy; and that we, even we, have some connection with them. In an earlier part of this letter we read that they are all "ministering spirits sent forth to minister to them that shall be heirs of salvation." But here the ministration is not referred to, simply the fact of union and communion.
I am not going to enter at any length upon that subject, concerning which we know but very little. But still it seems to me that our ordinary type of Christian belief loses a great deal because it gives so little heed to the numerous teachings of the New Testament in regard to the reality of the existence of such beings, and of the tie that unites them with lowly believers here. All the servants of the King are friends of one another. And howsoever many they may be, and howsoever high above us in present stature any may tower, and howsoever impossible it be for us to see the glancing and hear the winnowing of their silver wings, as they flash upon errands of obedience to Him, and rejoice to hearken to the voice of His word, there is joy in the true belief that the else waste places of the universe are filled with those who, in their loftiness, rejoice to bend to us, saying, " I am thy fellow servant, and of them which worship God."
Brethren, we have a better face brightening the unseen than any angel face. But just because Jesus Christ fills the unseen for us, in Him we are united to all those of whom He is the Lord, and He is Lord of men as well as angels. So if the eyes of our hearts are opened, we, too, may see "the mountain full of chariots of fire and horses of fire round about" the believing soul. And we, too, may come to the joyful assembly of the angels, whose joy is all the more poignant and deep when they, the elder brethren, see the prodigals return.
But the second group of companions is probably the more important for us. "Ye are come," says the text, not only to the angelic beings that cluster round His throne in joyful harmony, but also "to the Church of the first-born, which are written in heaven." And, seeing that the names are in heaven, that means, evidently, men who themselves are here upon earth.
I have not time to dwell upon the great ideas which are here contained in the designation of the community of believing souls; I only remind you that probably the word " church " is not so much employed here in its distinct ecclesiastical sense (for there are no ecclesiastical phrases in the Epistle to the Hebrews), as with allusion to the assembly of the Israelites beneath Mount Sinai, the contrast with which colours the whole of the context. It means, therefore, in general, simply the assembly of the firstborn. Can there be more than one firstborn in a family? Yes! In this family there can, for it is a name here not pointing to a temporary order, but to dignity and prerogative. The firstborn had the right of inheritance; the firstborn was sanctified to the Lord; the firstborn, by his primogeniture, was destined in the old system to be priest and king. All Israel collectively was regarded as the firstborn of the Lord. We, if our hearts are knit to Him who is pre-eminently firstborn amongst many brethren, obtain, by virtue of our union with Him, the rights and privileges, the obligations and responsibilities, of the eldest sons of the family of God. We inherit; we ought to be sanctified. It is for us, as the "first fruits of His creatures," to bring other men to Him, that through the Church the world may reach its goal, and creation may become that which God intended it to be.
These firstborn have their names written in Heaven—inscribed on the register of the great city. And to that great community, invisible like the other realities in my text, and not conterminous with any visible society such as the existing visible Church, all those belong and come who are knit together by faith in the one Lord.
So, dear friends, it is for us to realize, in the midst, perhaps, of loneliness, the tie that knits us to every heart that finds in Jesus Christ what we do. In times when we seem to stand in a minority; in times when we are tormented by uncongenial surroundings; when we are tempted by lower society; when we are disposed to say, " I am alone, with none to lean upon," it does us good to think that, not only are there angels in heaven who may have charge concerning us but that, all over the world, there are scattered brethren whose existence is a comfort, though we never clasped their hands.
Such, then, is the scene, and such is the society, in which we may all dwell. Christian men and women, do you make conscience of realizing all this by faith, by contemplation, by direct endeavours to pierce beyond the surface and shows of things to the realities that are unseen? See to it that you avail yourself of all the power, the peace, the blessing which will be yours in the degree in which your faith makes these the home and companions of your lives.
How noble the lowest life may become, like some poor, rough sea-shell with a gnarled and dimlycoloured exterior, tossed about in the surge of a stormy sea, or anchored to a rock, but when opened all iridescent with rainbow sheen within, and bearing a pearl of great price! So, to outward seeming, my life may be rough and solitary, and inconspicuous and sad, but, in inner reality, it may have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, and have angels for its guardians, and all the firstborn for its brethren and companions.