A reader writes
Dear Mr. Burge,
Could you help me understand a difficult text. I am a conditionalist like you, but I am having a really tough time making sense of Heb 12:23, specifically, the reference in that verse to “spirits of righteous men made perfect.” I have consulted many commentaries, but they all explain this in a dualistic fashion. I have read your short study of this verse in “From Death to Life” (issue 30), but I had a hard time following your argument. I agree that as Christians we worship God in the Spirit, but I don’t see the connection of that point to the phrase in Hebrews about coming to “the spirits of righteous men made perfect.” The plural “spirits” is what makes the phrase tough. If it were singular, then I could see it as a reference to the Holy Spirit, but the plural seems to indicate that something else is in view. And seeing that the author has just catalogued the righteous saints of old, whom he says God wanted to perfect with the Church, it seems very much like the author is referring to these dead saints in 12:23. Perhaps the idea is that their spirits, that is their lives, which are somehow with God now, even if not conscious, have been perfected? Anyway, I am sure you are very busy, but might you be so kind as to drop me a couple of lines to clarify your position? I would be very appreciative. I hope to hear from you when you get a chance.
Here is the article to which the reader refers:
The writer to the Hebrews speaks of “the spirits of righteous men made perfect” (12:23). Many assume this is a reference to believers who have died and that since, in some way, the Hebrew saints are “come” to them in Heaven, the souls of the departed must already be in heaven. Not at all! Jesus once told a Samaritan woman that a time was coming when true worshippers would worship the Father “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). To worship “in spirit” is not just to worship sincerely. This God has always required (Deut. 6:4-7; Isa. 1:10-18). John, however, in Revelation, was “in the spirit” on the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10). In Revelation 4 we see him in heaven, “in the Spirit” (v2), at a heavenly worship service. The early church understood that all of our worship takes place, in some sense, “in the spirit”, in heaven, around the throne of God with the angels and other heavenly beings (Heb. 12:22ff).
While Old Testament worship consisted of “fleshly” ordinances, anchored in the physical realm (Heb. 9:1-10), New Testament worship is geared more toward what takes place in the spiritual realm. Ours is a “spiritual temple” (1Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:19-22). We offer “spiritual sacrifices” (1Pet. 2:5,9; Rom. 12:1; Heb. 13:15). Our prayers are sweet incense (Rev. 5:8) offered to God. So too, to worship “in truth” is not to worship according to the commands of God. Such was expected in the Old Testament (Deut. 5:32-33). Rather the contrast is between that which is “true” and that which is a “shadow” pointing to the truth!
The elements of Old Testament worship were a “shadow” of things to come (Heb. 9:8-9 cf. 9:11-12, 24). The worship of the church is the true worship, of which the former is a shadow!
It is in this context that the author to the Hebrews tells his readers that they have already come “in the spirit”, though still very much alive upon the earth, to the heavenly Zion, in the heavenly Jerusalem, to myriads of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the first-born, whose names are already written in heaven (presumably in the book of Life), to God himself, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect (Heb. 12:22-24). These “righteous men made perfect” [See also Heb. 10:14] are no more dead than the Hebrews are! Are only the Hebrew Congregations worshipping “in the spirit” in heaven. Not at all. The whole
Church is there! They (we) have, of course, been “made perfect” in a relative sense only [See Heb. 10:14 again]. Only at the resurrection will we all be made fully perfect together (Heb. 11:39, 40). Meanwhile how wonderful to know our worship reaches up to heaven!
My own point was that the “spirits of just men made perfect” are living believers (when Paul was writing) who, figuratively or spiritually speaking, are worshipping “in the spirit” in heaven. An equally acceptable interpretation consistent with a conditionalist view point is as follows:
“We know from Ecclesiastes 12:7 that the spirit returns to God when the body returns to the dust.The Lord Jesus commended his spirit to the Father’s keeping (Luke 23:36), even as (in Acts 7:59) Stephen commended his spirit to the Lord Jesus.There, in God’s keeping, the human spirit is preserved in a condition which Scripture designates as “sleep” — as undoubtedly even the Lord’s human spirit was also preserved till He Himself raised his own body as He said He would (John 2:19,”this temple”) and thus reconstituted his humanity. As each redeemed spirit is taken into God’s care, these “spirits of just men” (Hebrews 12:23) are freed of all imperfections, imperfections which are instantly left behind in departing from this world. Their spirits thus made perfect await a like glorification of the body (Philippians. 3:21). The ultimate immortality of the redeemed spirit is guaranteed by the promise of never again perishing (John 10:28) once the body has been reunited with it. This reunion is the “making alive” of 1 Corinthians 15:22f., a term meaning to place beyond the power of death. It is therefore unconditionalbecause God’s promise is unconditional.” (“Journey Out of Time” by Arthur Custace, 148-149).
Any other suggestions from readers of this website are welcome?