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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Who are the “spirits of the righteous made perfect,” mentioned in Hebrews 12:23?*
Let me quote the full passage: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 12:22-24).
1. Contextual Observations: We should always examine the context of the passage. In Hebrews 12:18 the apostle tells his readers that when they accepted Christ, they did not come to the presence of God manifested on Mount Sinai, a place that inspired fear, but to Mount Zion, a place where humans and God joyfully come together to celebrate. The experience at Sinai is contrasted with that of Christian believers to demonstrate that theirs is superior. By faith Christians can see themselves present on Mount Zion, in the heavenly Jerusalem, in the presence of the heavenly community. What is still future is described as a present reality apprehended by faith (Heb. 11:1). Therefore believers have, by faith, joined (1) the company of angels, (2) the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, (3) the glorious presence of God, the judge of all, (4) the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and (5) Jesus, their mediator. We are already part of the heavenly family!
2. The Church of the Firstborn: Apart from the angels, the Father, and Jesus, two other groups are mentioned. The first one is the “church of the firstborn,” understood as the community formed by those who belong to the Firstborn of God (cf. Heb. 1:6). During the exodus from Egypt God referred to the Israelites as His “firstborn” (Ex. 4:22, 23), but now the title is further defined as “those who have been enrolled in heaven” (literal translation). The description could apply to believers in general, but in context it appears to designate the faithful ones of the past (cf. Dan. 12:1) already considered by God as citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem.
3. The Spirits of the Righteous Made Perfect: The second group mentioned in the text appears to be a different one: “the spirits of the righteous made perfect.” The term spirit is used several times in the book of Hebrews, but it never designates a disembodied spirit. The term, in this particular case, could be defined by its usage in Hebrews 12:9 (cf. Num. 16:22). There God is described as the “Father of spirits [pneumaton],” in contrast to the “fathers of our flesh [sarx]” (KJV). The phrase “fathers [parents] of our flesh” simply means our natural fathers, and “Father of spirits” means our spiritual Father. The passage contrasts two modes of existence—the natural and the spiritual. “Carnal” (sarx) is the individual in his or her natural state. “Spirit” (pneuma) is the same individual as a spiritual person living in harmony with God. They are called “spirits” because they no longer belong to the world of sin, but to the spiritual realm. They are spiritual beings.
This group of believers is further described as “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” probably in order to distinguish them from the angels, who in Hebrews are called “ministering spirits” or “spirits [spiritual beings] in the divine service” (Heb. 1:14). The spiritual beings are identified as “righteous” humans, “those who have been made perfect” (literal translation). Since the faithful ones of the past are referred to as “the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,” this other group most probably designates Christian believers who are still alive. Notice that it does not say “the spirits of the dead righteous.” They are those “who have been made perfect,” or whole, through the sacrifice of Christ, having now full access to the Father. According to Paul, believers have already been perfected (Heb. 10:14).
The glorious meeting described by Paul is a future experience we can anticipate only by faith. Faith enables us to see ourselves already there, in the company of the angels, in the presence of God and Christ, rejoicing together with the faithful ones who have died but whose names were retained in the book of life and who will be resurrected and, with the living Christians, made whole through the power of Christ.
*Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in this article are from the New American Standard Bible.