The sermon the church has called “Hebrews” is addressed to a struggling community of believers. Some have already given up the habit of assembling with the community, some are on drifting out of the community, some are regressing and others are discouraged. The preacher speaks a word of encouragement.
The sermon assumes an assembled group of believers. Its language envisions the assembly “drawing near” to God, or approaching his throne, or entering into his presence in the context of this assembly (cf. Hebrews 4:16; 7:25; 10:22). Believers enter the presence of God as a gathered people. Certainly this is not the only time they enter that presence–we can “draw near” to God anywhere, anytime–but the assembled church is a moment of such entry through the curtain into the Holy of Holies.
To encourage his struggling church, the preacher reminds them that there are many “witnesses” to the power of faith as past believers persevered through diverse trials (Hebrews 11:39; 12:1). The “roll call” of faith encourages present believers to persevere.
The climax of the homily takes his audience back to the “day of assembly” (Deut. 9:10; 10:4) at Mt. Sinai when Israel entered into covenant with God. There, at Mt. Sinai, Israel approached the divine presence in fear and awe. But the church, when it gathers–when it assembles, comes to a different mountain.
The church draws near (comes to) Mount Zion, the dwelling place of God. They come to the heavenly Jerusalem. They come to the festive assembly of angels. They come to the throne of God and to the one who sits at the right hand of God, Jesus. They come to the church of the first born ones whose names are written in heaven, that is, they come to the universal church gathered in the throne room of God. When the church gathers, it gathers in the presence of God, Jesus, the universal church and the heavenly host.
And….the church comes to (draws near) “to the spirits of righteous people made perfect.” Who are these people? I don’t think they are the angelic host since the word “righteous” is used by the preacher to describe human beings in Hebrews. I don’t think they are resurrected (embodied) human beings since he refers to them as “spirits” (just like he does disembodied angelic beings in 1:14).
I believe he is referring to the “witnesses” –the righteous who are now perfected in the presence of God– of Hebrews 11: Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab. Moreover, we could add the NT “witnesses” to that list: Peter, Paul, James, Lydia, Phoebe. And, we can add those whom we have known and loved, including my father, my wife, my son.
When the church gathers in the presence of God around the throne of God, we join not only the angelic host in the praise of God but we also join the “witnesses.” We gather around the throne with our deceased loved ones. Together we praise God–the living and the dead (who nevertheless live). We gather around the same throne.
I feel most connected with my son, for example, when I am present with the saints as an assembly of worship. I stand with the saints on the earth to join the saints around the throne. Together–my son and I, along with all the rest–worship the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb. I sense his presence through my presence in the throne room of God. I visualize him sitting with me, eating with me at the table, and singing with me.
I don’t regularly visit the “resting place” of my son, my wife or father. That is helpful for many people and I certainly would not want to any way denigrate the comfort that many draw from such visitations. But I conceive of worship with the assembled saints as that time when I most feel the presence of my beloved ones. I imagine –an imagination given power, reality and spiritual fervor by this text in Hebrews 12– myself surrounded by the “witnesses” from my own family.
I don’t want to miss the assembly of the saints because the assembled saints include Joshua, Sheila and my dad. It is where I “visit” them as the Spirit of God lifts me into the throne room of God where they are “before the throne” and through worship I am there with them.