6. Just men made perfect – (Hebrews 12:22-24)
What will we be like in heaven? The visions in the Book of Revelation characteristically portray the redeemed as a static audience of worshippers in white robes, assembled before God’s throne.
These visions have generated the images so popular with cartoonists, of saints standing around on clouds strumming harps — hardly an inviting prospect!
But the Revelation is more about how God’s people get through this world and into heaven than how they live when they get there. For this, we have to look elsewhere in the Bible.
The Bible tells us most about how we will live in heaven when it focuses on how we should live in this world. For what we will be there is the goal and model for what we ought to be here.
John MacArthur comments that ‘Heaven will seem more like home than the dearest spot on earth’ (The Glory of Heaven, pp.140-141).
Thus we are challenged in Hebrews 12 to ‘run with endurance the race that is set before us’ here and now (v. 1), on the ground that we have come to ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’ and ‘the spirits of just men made perfect’ (v. 23).
Our destiny in eternity informs our calling in this present age. We are told what we will be like in the next life, so that we will know how — and why — to live in this life.
There is no richer description in Scripture of what it will mean to live in heaven than Hebrews 12:22-24, which sets out the essential identity of God’s believing people. Believers are heaven-born and heaven-bound.
So when the writer to the Hebrews wants to help us live successfully, he points us to our goal, to heaven, and says, ‘Be what you really are in Christ’.
To what, then, have we already come? The answer in Hebrews 12:22 is, perhaps, surprising. It is not about faithful churchgoing or successful Christian parenting. It is not about anything we do here.
It is about heaven, angels, saved sinners, a new covenant, and a blood-bought salvation through a Mediator, Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us. We have ‘come to’ heaven, and that gives meaning and direction to our discipleship in this world.
To understand what Christians will be like in heaven, however, we must focus on just one aspect of the ‘heaven’ to which we have already come, namely, ‘the spirits of just men made perfect’. This refers to the present ‘intermediate state’ of the saved in heaven.
This state will continue only until believers are clothed with their resurrection bodies at the general resurrection. Nevertheless, it provides a window on our eternal state in the consummated new heavens and new earth.
The key is the term ‘made perfect’. Even now the ‘spirits’ (souls without bodies) of ‘just men’ (believers declared righteous in Christ) are ‘made perfect’ (sanctified entirely, or glorified; Romans 8:30).
This tells us that in passing from here to heaven, the believer is perfected in his soul. Nothing is left that could defile or exclude him from glory.
Fundamental transformations have already occurred in the believer. Already there is a new heart — ‘a heart of flesh’ in place of ‘a heart of stone’ (Ezekiel 36:26).
Everyone who is ‘in Christ’ is ‘a new creation; old things have passed away; behold all things have become new’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Even so, the choicest Christians are far from perfect. ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). We often feel the need of deliverance from ‘this body of death’ (Romans 7:25).
This final deliverance is effected on the doorstep of glory, and has several aspects.
In this life Christians are imperfect. Paul contrasts our present and future states when he writes: ‘But we all … beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 3:18).
When Moses descended from Sinai, he veiled his face to conceal the reflected glory of God. Under the gospel, believers already have ‘unveiled faces’, which shine with spiritual radiance in Christ.
But the day is coming when they will be taken from ‘glory to glory’. They will be transformed to be like Christ, sharing his perfected human nature with unparalleled fulness: ‘we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2).
Christians are already regarded by God as cleansed and completely forgiven (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). They really know something of what it means for Christ to dwell in them, as ‘the hope of glory’ (Colossians 1:27; Romans 8:18).
But Jesus prays for us to grow in grace and be sanctified through the Word of God (John 17:17). To be reckoned holy in a legal sense is one thing, but to be perfectly holy in every moment is another.
How then is our personal behaviour brought to perfection? Not by our efforts, which are compromised by daily sinning in thought, word and deed. Nor by ‘doing time’ in some unscriptural purgatory!
But only by Jesus Christ our Saviour who, having justified his people, makes them perfectly holy, bringing them instantaneously to heaven (cp. Revelation 21:27). He frees us from evil and corruption in all its forms.
The death of our physical body is tangible proof of our corruption and need of redemption. The resurrection promises a radically renewed body: ‘sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption … sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory … sown in weakness, it is raised in power … sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body’.
And the underlying reason for this is that ‘as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man’ (1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 49). Here is the fulfilment of the psalmist’s hope: ‘I will see your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in your likeness’ (Psalm 17:15).
Everybody wants to ‘enjoy life’, but all are not agreed as to what ‘enjoy’ means. Yet all agree that life is less enjoyable when bad things happen to us! Disappointments, illnesses, betrayals, poverty, drudgery — the list is endless.
But worst of all is death. Yet death is the last hurdle between those who love Jesus Christ and the perfect enjoyment of God for ever in glory!
At death every believer will hear God’s welcome: ‘enter into the joy of your Lord’ (Matthew 25:23), and savour the ‘fulness of joy’ and ‘pleasures for evermore’ that await us in his presence (Psalm 16:11).
How different life would be if we all loved one another perfectly! Many will dismiss the very notion as a fantasy. They have a keen nose for the faults of others. James had it all pegged long ago: ‘Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?’ (James 4:1-7).
Heaven sees an end to all strife, tears and broken relationships. Freedom from sin means freedom to be holy. And perfected godliness means perfected relationships.
Family feuds, personality clashes and doctrinal controversies will vanish for ever. All will be cleansed of every fault and persuaded of every truth. And all will love one another in glorious harmony.
Perfectly sanctified hearts will rejoice in ‘the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace’ without a shadow of disharmony.
Perfected fellowship with God
What makes fellowship with God possible is his initiative in reaching out to save lost sinners. The first prerequisite of fellowship, then, has to be the Lord’s pleasure in those he has saved.
Isaiah prophesied that God would ‘see of the travail of [Christ’s] soul, and be satisfied’ (Isaiah 53:11). The obstacle to reconciliation — and therefore to fellowship — was removed at the cross.
The ‘glorious church’ (Ephesians 5:27) in heaven will be characterised by perfect fellowship with God in Christ her Saviour.
Believers will be with Jesus (John 17:24). They will enjoy fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3). They will have a full knowledge of the Lord (1 Corinthians 13:12) and they will see Jesus’ face (Revelation 22:4).
Their communion with God will be direct, visible, audible and perfect. All things are made new.
We said at the outset that what we will be in heaven is the goal and model for what we ought to be here. This brings us back to Hebrews 12.
Our preparation for heaven is to ‘run with endurance the race set before us’ right now! — looking to Jesus, who brought us to saving faith (vv. 1-2); ‘looking diligently lest anyone fall short of the grace of God’ (v. 15); and seeing that we ‘do not refuse him who speaks … For our God is a consuming fire’ (vv. 25,29).