Hiding in plain site when we read the Bible devotionally are countless nuggets of truth that await that prayerful moment to be revealed. Sometimes it’s a word; sometimes it is in the language. And sometimes we might look at the punctuation.
Look at Hebrews 12:22-23:
But you have come to Mount Zion, …. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly….
In the original: assembly is a single word. The original word is not “assembly” but “joyous assembly.” The word speaks to a festive occasion, a celebration where there’s dancing and singing. The translators of the Old Testament into the Greek language used this word in Isaiah 66:10 to describe the Hebrew word “to dance and leap for joy.”
Isaiah descriptively adds: “rejoice greatly.” The word “rejoice” in the Hebrew suggests a horselike “prancing,” an almost giddy, fidgeting where the participants are too overjoyed to stand still. The praise of God is on their lips and in their feet!
This in not just an assembly; it is a festive one. It is heaven’s version of a New Year’s Eve at the start of all new beginnings in Christ, a celebration heightened by the appearance of Jesus and the saints of previous spiritual victories. It undoubtedly highlights the songs of praise to God for Calvary.
Jesus spoke of this excitement among the angels over a single person coming to faith.
In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents – Luke 15:10
How much greater should we suppose their joyous celebration now that the innumerable company of the saints is assembled! Oh, how we have longed for this moment!!
But who is in this “assembly”? Are they just the angels? Or does this assembly include the church? It is not clear who the “angels” are in verse 22. In Matthew 11:10 John the Baptist is called an “angel” because the word means “messenger”. If these are the “cloud of witnesses” in verse 1, the saints who have preceded us, dare we expand this group to include the entire (verse 23) “…church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven”?
It is in part a question of punctuation (punctuation is not inspired) whether our word “assembly” is the last word of verse 22 or the first word of verse 23. If it belongs in verse 23, it is better understood to refer to the church. If it is part of verse 22, it refers to the thousands of messengers (angels?) in attendance.
So, who exactly is celebrating God’s achievements among His people?
The entire twelfth chapter is a caution to remain faithful, to be holy, to stay on the straight and narrow even if persecuted. Writing to the church, the writer’s tone changes to that of a solemn warning when he reminds us of unfaithful Israel’s lost opportunity under Moses.
The writer of Hebrews (may I say, Paul?) rolls back the curtain. We have the privilege here to be in attendance at—from our present perspective—this unimaginable and glorious festivity on Mount Zion in contrast to Israel’s experience (in the Old Testament) at the foot of Mount Sinai on fire. That scene was so terrifying that even Moses was “trembling with fear.” [verse 21]
Paul, then, speaking to us, adds:
See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. … let us be thankful, and … worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, — verse 25, 28.
(We should put this verse on a plaque hanging on our bedroom wall.)
The words reverence and awe take on a more somber tone.
There is no room here for the fear of persecution or shame from living outside a life of holiness. This is a celebration of the grace of God!
… throw off … the sin that so easily entangles – verse 1
Worship includes service—an idea common in Paul’s writings. This is not the church service but the church in service—non-compulsory service. We serve Him because we love Him.
This is a pious fear of God. Piety, yes! But also a fear, a respect, a profound acknowledgment of His omnipotent love. It is a devotion to God resolved to forevermore honor Him.
This word, scholarship says, describes a “repugnance” (a shame) to doing anything that might dishonor God. Our awe speaks to a lasting humility that must never lose sight of what God has done for us.
It behooves us, especially when our faith is most tested or the cross we carry feels heaviest, that we, as Paul began, “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
To those who overcome: There is a great victory celebration coming!