The Expected and Eventual City
by Josh Keller
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. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned...” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem… Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
At a youth conference that we attend every spring, we close the weekend off singing “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.” The song situates the singers on Jordan’s banks looking off into the Promise Land. Each verse abounds with the beauty and delight of that healthful land, and then rapturously repeats in the chorus that we are bound for that promised land.
Once after singing that song, a thoughtful kid mused to me that the song seemed outrageously presumptuous. How could we be so confident, even arrogant, at being bound for that promised land? The answer is here in Hebrews and the word hope.
It’s a powerful word, the same way an unopened box on the top shelf of a cabinet is powerful. Anything could be in that box—just imagine! And look at what we wrap into hope–joy, desire, happiness, goodness, change, peace, delight, safety. And whatever we think will give us the above we make the shelf for our box of hope. In fact, the only thing that slows our hope is her cousin, a tempering word dropped at the end of a comma. “This week, I’ll get that box,” we say, then add, “hopefully.” Ah! That word of sudden uncertainty slouching around the horizon like a spoiling cloud. But what else can you do in a sin-crushed world? Dark clouds live beyond every horizon. Hopes are hardly realized. But that it isn’t how the Bible talks about hope. Hope in God’s Word is, as some kid rightly said, outrageously presumptuous.
Hebrews 12.22 perfectly captures the biblical idea of hope through these four words: But you have come...
The book of Hebrews has been arguing consistently up to chapter 12, that Christ is not only superior to the Old Covenant, but that He is what the entire Old Covenant was pointing toward. And now at the climactic and poetic finish in chapter 12, the entire Old Covenant is summarized in that frightful moment from Exodus 19 when the nation of Israel stood before Mt. Sinai and God came down upon the mountain in fire and smoke, with a loud trumpet, and deafening peals of thunder. At that moment the consistent refrain (announced three times) was do not touch, or else God in His holiness will break out against you. It wasn’t exactly reassuring.
Still God took His people from Sinai into Canaan, the land of promise and rest. There a holy city was built and a temple was created for God to dwell in with His people. Yet they did not have rest. That temple was destroyed. That kingdom was shaken to the ground. Canaan cracked under the weight of sin. They still needed something better. They still needed to know God’s rest. They still needed a better, heavenly city. They needed a kingdom which would never shake. And if that was what the people of God hoped for, have always hoped for, Christ made that hope an expectation.
The writer of Hebrews is emphatic. You will not come to the city of the Living God, hopefully. In Christ, you have come. Christ, to whom you belong by faith and by baptism, has taken you there. He has brought that rest. He has secured your sacrifice in the heavenly temple before God’s very throne. He has ushered in a Kingdom which will never be shaken, a Kingdom where the fire of God burns eternally, over all, through all, and in all—consuming but not destroying. He has brought us to the expected and eventual city.
And for us in Christ, that should change everything. The recipients of this letter were going through a time of suffering, but they could endure it, precisely because they hoped expectantly. Or as Hebrews 10:34 says, “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” If there is a more challenging verse to our current cultural angst, I don’t know it.
Are you fearful for yourself, for these United States, for the liberty of Christians in the next generation? Never forget: you have already come in Christ to a land without anxiety, to the Kingdom which never falters, to a city of perfect freedom. Are you so fixed on heaven, that the pains of earth cannot cripple you?
As W.H. Auden said,
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.1
Because of Christ, we have an expectant hope, and an expected and eventual city to which we are bound, and will not fail to find. Live in that Hope. Live in that expectation. Fear not.
1 W. H. Auden “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio”