A sister in my church named Ann Carman recently died from COVID-19, and we continue to mourn her loss. We no longer see her, speak with her, or come to the Lord’s Table with her.
Despite the absence of her face from our assembly, she is still our sister in Christ. There are connections that even death cannot sever (Rom. 8:38). Ann has joined the church triumphant. But in a “mystic sweet” way, there remains a communion between the church on earth and the church in heaven.
I don’t mean we should live in denial or try to communicate with the dead. But I do mean something like what we find in Hebrews 12:22–24.
What Have We Come To?
In Hebrews 12:18, the writer describes how much better the church’s experience is under the new covenant than under the old. Alluding to Israel at Mount Sinai, he explains:
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. (emphasis mine)
But if we haven’t come to Mount Sinai, then what have we come to? The answer is found in verses 22–24, which list eight realities. Three of them are particularly relevant for our purposes here:
But you have come to:
1. the heavenly Jerusalem (v. 22)
2. the assembly (or church) of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven (v. 23)
3. the spirits of the righteous made perfect (v. 23)
Notice that the saints in heaven are still “the church” (ekklesia). Because they are disembodied, they are also called “spirits.” These particular spirits are the people described in chapter 11—those who “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39–40).
There are some connections that even death cannot sever.
Yet according to Hebrews 12:23, now they have been made perfect. Why? Because that “something better” they were waiting for has finally come. Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, has finally come and “by a single offering . . . perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). The blood that they trusted in under types and shadows has finally been poured out for the sins of entire church, past and present, living and dead, in heaven and on earth (Rom. 3:25–26).
Are We There Yet?
At one level, the meaning of these three phrases is simple. What’s surprising is the verb tense: not “you will come” but “you have come.” Based on a glance around us, this doesn’t seem to be the case. So how can Scripture say we have already come to these realities?
What’s surprising is the verb tense: not ‘you will come’ but ‘you have come.’
Of course, the author isn’t denying that there’s more to come. Perfect though they are (in one sense), the spirits of the righteous still await their resurrection (Heb. 6:2), and earth’s pilgrims still “seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). Nevertheless, there’s a clear sense in which these realities are already present.
This is an example of the familiar “already/not yet” tension found throughout the New Testament. Despite the distance between heaven and earth, between the dead and living, between now and eternity, we’re already citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, already enrolled in the same assembly. Ann now walks by sight while we still walk by faith—but we’re all looking to the same Jesus, all connected to the same Mediator, all sprinkled with the same blood.
Three Reasons to Be Encouraged
1. Our communion with the church in heaven should encourage us to run with endurance (Heb. 12:1).
The road God is calling us to travel may appear sparsely populated (Matt. 7:14). But we must not limit ourselves to what we can see. When the dead are included, it turns out that we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have run this race before us and will welcome us at the finish line (Heb. 12:1).
The church might look like a little flock here on earth, but in heaven it’s going to be a multitude no one can number (Rev. 7:9).
2. Our communion with the church in heaven should encourage us when we gather (Heb. 10:25).
We don’t know all the specifics of what’s going on there, but Scripture gives us a general idea, and it looks like worship (Isa. 6; Rev. 5–6). So when we gather to worship, we can be especially conscious that the cloud of witnesses does the same thing in heaven. The church on earth and the church in heaven—all worshiping the same God, all praising the same Lord, all filled with the same Spirit. They are seated around the throne; we are seated with them by faith (Eph. 2:6).
What we do every Lord’s Day is but a preview of that great day when the Lord will return and gather us together and earth and heaven will be one (Eph. 1:10; 1 Thess. 4:13–18; Rev. 21:1–2).
3. Our communion with the church in heaven should remind us that those who die in Christ are not lost to us.
When a saint dies in Christ, the true church of Christ doesn’t shrink, it just gets reshuffled.
When a saint dies in Christ, the true church of Christ doesn’t shrink, it just gets reshuffled. Ann Carman may not be a member of Grace Baptist Church anymore, but she’s still a member of the holy catholic church. And I can have the assurance of seeing her again, because there is a bond between us stronger than death—and that bond is Jesus Christ. The saints in heaven are still members of his body, just as we are. In the words of S. J. Stone’s “The Church’s One Foundation”:
Yet she on earth hath union
with God the three in one
And mystic sweet communion
with those whose rest is won.
So when you think on your brothers and sisters who have died, when you gather with your little (and socially distanced) flock, and when heaven still seems an eternity away, remember Hebrews 12:22–24. Lift up your eyes by faith and see what you’ve come to.