“What is the meaning of the phrase, ‘the spirits of just men made perfect,’ in Hebrews 12:23?”
The book of Hebrews is in a class of its own compared to the other documents of the New Testament. It has been described as a “summarization of the transition from the old system to the new” (H.C. Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955, p. 297).
The book is addressed to Jewish Christians who were the target of certain Hebrew influences. Such teachers sought to seduce these brethren in the Lord away from Christ, and back to the Jewish system. This document clearly reflects an attempt to inoculate Christians against a defection from the faith (6:4-8; 10:26-31; 12:14-19). How anyone could study this letter, and still contend that it is impossible for a child of God to apostatize is almost an unfathomable mystery.
In the development of his theme, the inspired author first lays the foundation for his argument, namely that Christ and his regime are superior (“better” — 12 times) to the Mosaic economy. Finally, he finishes with an exhortation to faithfulness. This concluding segment of encouragement begins in chapter 10, verse 19, and runs through chapter 12. The terminal chapter 13 deals with the practical implementation of certain Christian responsibilities.
The phrase that is the focus of our current question — “the spirits of just men made perfect” — comes within a section that commences with 12:18 and continues through the balance of the chapter.In this section the sacred writer contrasts, one might say, the “emotional climate” of the Mosaic era, with that of the Christian dispensation.The former age was punctuated with dramatic scenes that struck terror in the hearts of the Israelite people (for example the awesome events at Sinai when the law of Moses was given). By way of contrast, those who are faithful Christians have a tremendously more positive vision. Let us view the larger context surrounding the phrase that solicited our attention.
“. . . but you are come to mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable hosts of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn [ones] who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better than that of Abel” (12:22-24).
The descriptives clustered in the previous paragraph speak of a wonderful complement of blessings that are intended to be a source of resilience to those Jewish Christians who were in danger of apostasy. There are several things that we should note in approaching the special phrase of our interest.
- The expression, “are come,” represents a perfect tense verb, perhaps suggesting a settled condition in contrast to the frenzied travel of the Hebrews in the wilderness of Sinai. Or maybe the point of emphasis is the permanence of the new era as distinguished from the temporary nature of the old. F.F. Bruce notes that the verb is the same one that stands behind the term “proselyte,” so that the sense here “carries with it the overtones of conversion” (The Epistle to the Hebrews — Revised, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990, p. 355).
- Mount Zion, metaphorically speaking, is the abode of God, paralleled in this context by the “heavenly Jerusalem.” Albert Barnes makes a very important observation regarding this phrase.
“They were not, indeed, literally in heaven, nor was that glorious city literally on earth, but the dispensation to which they had been brought was that which conducted them directly up to the city of the Living God, and to the holy mount where he dwelt above” (Notes on Hebrews, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1955, p. 309).
- One of the joys of the eternal city will be the presence of unnumbered angels (cf. Daniel 7:10; Jude 14; Revelation 5:11). Certainly angels have long been employed in the implementation of Jehovah’s redemptive plan, and earlier in this epistle the writer had commented upon their abiding ministry on behalf of God’s people (1:14; cf. Luke 15:10:).
In this connection there is a reference to a “general assembly”; the Greek is but one word, a term that suggests a “festive” or joyful assembly. The question is whether it refers to the “thousands of angels” (preceding), or the “church of the firstborn” (following) — as suggested by the punctuation of the KJV and ASV. Many of the best modern scholars, however, argue for the former, i.e., a “festive assembly of numberless thousands of angels.” Seesemann contends that this was the view of “most of the Greek fathers” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Friedrich, ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967, Vol. V, p. 722).
- The expression “church of the firstborn” is a reference to the body of Christian people. The term “firstborn” in the original language is a plural form, hence, “firstborn ones.” The word “firstborn” frequently is used of rank (i.e., favor, privilege), without any reference to chronological order (cf. Colossians 1:15). For a more detailed consideration of this matter, see the author’s booklet, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Doctrine of the Deity of Christ, Pasadena, TX: Haun Publishing, 1978, pp. 11-13).
While some suppose that “firstborn ones” alludes to the saints of all time, both living and dead, it is most likely that the reference is to the family of God on earth, since the glorified saints seem to be viewed as a separate class in the subsequent phrase, “and to the spirits of just men made perfect.” M.R. Vincent suggested that the phrase could embrace the righteous, both dead and living, but he conceded that the latter class “quite likely” was most prominent in the inspired author’s mind (Word Studies in the New Testament, Wilmington, DE: Associated Publishers, 1972, p. 1171). The reference to their “names” being “recorded in heaven” is a common one that denotes the firm promise of eternal bliss — dependent, of course, upon fidelity (cf. Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5; 13:8).
- The allusion to God as “the Judge of all” is most probably, in this context, a reference to the promise that even though these Hebrew Christians were being persecuted by their kinsmen in the flesh, the Lord was not unmindful of their plight and, in due time, would avenge his faithful ones (cf. Luke 18:7; Revelation 6:9-11). What assurance that would be!
- Now to the exact phrase under examination — “the spirits of just men made perfect.” While some would restrict the “just men” to the saints of Old Testament fame, it is better to see this group as being constituted of the righteous (i.e., the redeemed) of all ages who have passed into a post-earth state already. They are designated as “spirits” because their bodies are sleeping in earth’s bosom, awaiting the day of resurrection (Daniel 12:2; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15). But what is the significance of the verb “made perfect”?
The root teleioo, as found in Hebrews 12:23, is in a perfect tense, passive voice form. The passive sense indicates that the result, the “perfectedness” is not the result of human merit; rather, ultimately, the glory is to God (though certainly this does not exclude human obedience to the Lord’s requirements). The perfect tense suggests that the “perfected” state is an abiding one. No one will ever desire to leave heaven or be in danger of being expelled therefrom.
But there is a slight diversity of opinion as to the significance of teleioo in this context.Some see the emphasis as “perfected” in character through the atoning effect of the Savior’s blood (S.J. Kistemaker, Hebrews, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984, p. 394; F.W. Danker, et al., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago: University Press, 2000, p. 996). Others, e.g., R.C.H. Lenski, think the sense is “brought to completion,” delivered to “the final goal” (The Interpretation of Hebrews, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1966, p. 458). Practically speaking, there is little difference in these two concepts.
The promise, therefore, is this: there is a band of spiritual kinsmen that await, with victory already won and in much anticipation, those that will join them in the eternal home of the righteous. What rejoicing that will occasion.
- Finally, there is the confidence that results from knowing that our trust is grounded in “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better than that of Abel.” Those of the old law had Moses; we have Christ. Moses was the mediator of the old covenant. Jesus is the mediator of the new. As the old covenant was ratified by the sprinkling of animal blood (Exodus 24:8) and atonement for sin similarly was effected (Leviticus 16:14-15), so likewise the new law was ratified by the blood of God’s Lamb (Matthew 26:28), and forgiveness was made possible through the shedding of his blood (1 Peter 1:18-20; Revelation 1:5; 5:9).
Then there is that matter of the voice of Abel’s blood, as such is contrasted with that of the Lord. Abel’s blood cried out from the ground testifying to guilt (Genesis 4:10), while the Savior’s blood is an appeal for forgiveness. Little wonder, then, that the latter is “better” — indeed, far, far better!