by Al Maxey

Issue #432 ------- February 20, 2010
The essence of a man is not in what
he is, but in what he is able to be

Abraham Joshua Heschel {1907-1972}

A Study of Hebrews 12:23
Spirits of Just Men made Perfect

If you have followed my preaching, teaching and writing over the past few decades you are aware of my perceptions with respect to the nature of man and his eternal destiny. I am thoroughly convicted that the Scriptures teach the holistic view of man. One of the important truths conveyed in the OT Scriptures, as the nature of man is considered, is that man is a unified whole, rather than a loose fusion of separate and disparate entities. It was much later that the pagan nations began to influence the thinking of the people of God in the direction of two (dichotomy) or three (trichotomy) distinct parts to man. This dualistic manner of conceptualizing human beings has persisted throughout most of Christian history, yet such false notions only began to influence Jewish thinking during the so-called Intertestamental Period. Such was never the biblical view. The traditional teaching (to which a great many of us in Christendom have been exposed all our lives) that some "immortal being" resides within our physical bodies, and that this "eternal spirit being" is finally released from its fleshly prison to a greater spiritual existence by the death of its human host, is a fabrication of pagan philosophy (Plato, for example, was a bold advocate of such a view), but never a truth promoted in God's Word. For a far more thorough, in-depth biblical examination of the distinction between body, soul and spirit see Reflections #32.

This current issue of my weekly Reflections is not the place to present anew the large body of biblical evidence on the nature of man and his ultimate destiny. I have done this rather extensively in several previous studies, each of which may be found and read online at my Topical Index under the heading "The Nature of Man." I would also urge a careful, prayerful study of my debate on this subject: The Maxey-Thrasher Debate. As we all know, there are a few passages that, at least on the surface, seem to promote the position that some "eternal, immortal spirit being" dwells within our bodies, and that this being (the "real" us) soars off to a realm of either eternal bliss or misery at the precise moment of physical death. Although, after decades of intense study of the Scriptures, I believe this to be a false doctrine, nevertheless many still insist such passages proclaim such a view. For example, the account of an unnamed rich man and a beggar called Lazarus [Luke 16:19-31] is regarded by some as "proof positive" that such a "spirit being" travels to some "intermediate state" at the moment of physical death. I don't believe this parable even remotely teaches such a doctrine, as I have sought to demonstrate in Reflections #28. Others feel our Lord's promise to the thief on the cross is yet another proof of immediate transport to paradise upon physical death. I have sought to show the fallacy of this teaching in Reflections #28a. What about the fact that we are said to be created in the "image of God"? I have dealt with this in Reflections #51. And we could list a good many other such passages, each of which I have sought to examine in some depth from the Word of God (and all of which may be found on my web site in the above mentioned Topical Index).

One passage I had not yet dealt with, however, and this was brought to my attention recently by a reader who is currently examining his own beliefs on this topic, is Hebrews 12:23. This brother wrote, "Dear Bro. Maxey, Would you help me understand a difficult text? I want to believe in Conditional Immortality, for which you so vigorously argue, but I am having a tough time making sense of Hebrews 12:23, specifically with reference to that part of the verse which speaks of 'spirits of righteous men made perfect.' I have consulted many commentaries, but they all explain this in a dualistic fashion. I know you have surely thought about this verse, but I did not find any comment on it at your web site. Might you be so kind as to help me understand this? I hope to hear from you when you get a chance." As I alluded to previously in this present study, part of the problem in properly interpreting such passages lies in our previous perspectives on the nature of man that we bring to the text. If one has been indoctrinated to perceive man as a composite of distinct living entities (mortal and immortal), then one's understanding of the passage will be greatly influenced by this doctrine. Before one ever takes an isolated passage, such as the one we find in Hebrews 12:23, and seeks to understand some portion of it, one must invest the time and energy to thoroughly, and without bias, examine the entirety of God's Word with regard to the overall topic in question (which will deal with the nature of man and the nature of his eternal destiny). Only when one truly comes to understand the "big picture," theologically speaking, can one hope to reconcile single statements in Scripture with the whole of biblical teaching.

Those who have embraced the pre-Christian, anti-biblical Platonic perception of the nature and destiny of man, for example, will clearly view the statement in Heb. 12:23 as an endorsement of the view that some "immortal spirit being" dwelling inside the physical body departs at death to live more fully in another realm, while its host body rots away within this temporal one. For example, Robert A. Peterson, in his exchange with Edward Fudge (which has been preserved in the book: "Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue"), cites this passage as evidence that "the Bible teaches the continued existence of the immaterial part of human beings after death and before the resurrection of the body" [p. 167]. He had previously opined within the text of this written dialogue, "The expression 'the spirits of righteous men made perfect' refers to believers who have died and gone on to be with the Lord. They have not ceased to exist at death. They exist as disembodied spirits who experienced entire sanctification when they died" [p. 105]. This is the explanation of many within Christendom, and I am sure we have all heard it taught and preached time and again. In fact, we've likely heard it so often that we tend to accept it as fact without examination. And, as with many other such traditional dogmas, we may well have blindly, and tragically, embraced that which is false (which, in my view, we have).

The ultimate hope of mankind is not that he inherently possesses within his physical body some "immortal spirit being" that is utterly incapable of ceasing to be -- a spirit being just as immortal as God Himself. Instead, the ultimate hope of man is in the promise of God, demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus, that he will be raised from the dust of the ground and given immortality. Our Lord "alone possesses immortality" [1 Tim. 6:16]. Therefore, this is not a quality inherent to man. It can be conferred, however. Jesus Christ "brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" [2 Tim. 1:10]. Eternal life is a great gift from God through Jesus Christ, not an inherent right of man because he possesses within his fleshy body an immortal spirit being that not even God Himself can destroy. Paul declares that "eternal life" will be given to those who "seek for immortality" [Rom. 2:7]. So, why are men "seeking for" that which they already possess?! The reality is: the Lord alone possesses it; thus, He alone can bestow it. And that gift is through His Son. "God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son does not have the life" [1 John 5:11-12]. Eternal life -- immortality -- is a gift from Him who alone possesses it, and that gift is reserved for those who have sought it by means of a relationship with Him during our sojourn in this temporal realm. At the resurrection, all will be raised from the dust of the ground to face the One who alone possesses that which we seek. Upon some this blessed gift will be bestowed; the rest will experience the second death (i.e., life and immortality will be denied them). Although mankind continues his journey here below (with some already sleeping in the dust of the ground, and others yet to be born), from the view of the Throne the human journey stands completed. He who stands outside of time and space, sees the whole as a completed reality. Appreciating this divine perception is important to our interpretive efforts, as it finds its way into certain expressions of His inspired revelation to man. This is especially seen in the book of Revelation, for example, where God sees (and portrays for us) the consummation of all things as a completed reality, although from man's perspective (bound within time and space) it continues to unfold.

With all of this firmly in mind, in the book of Hebrews we are presented with a multi-faceted overview of the critical distinctives between God's different covenants with mankind, with the focus being on the supremacy of His current covenant, "a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises" [Heb. 8:6], over His previous dealings with His creation. It's not that the particulars of that which came before was defective, it's simply the superiority of substance over shadow. When one's children grow and mature, one's relationship with them also undergoes change. This is no less true of man's relationship with his Creator as we are collectively guided by His Spirit into a more mature covenant relationship; a covenant in which we have moved from legislation to liberty. Time and again in this epistle we find the old contrasted with the new. Such is the context of that portion of Hebrews wherein we find our present "problem" passage. Contextually, Christians are being informed that when they come to the Father through the Son (when they "come to Mt. Zion"), it is a far different experience than when the people approached their God at Mt. Sinai. The writer of this epistle points out the fear that gripped the people of God during the latter experience, and then contrasts this with the experience of those who enter His presence through the sacrifice of His Son.

According to an in-depth study of this passage conducted by the Biblical Research Institute (which one may find online at their web site), "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, within the heavenly Jerusalem, in the presence of the heavenly community. What is still future is described as a present reality apprehended by faith." As the concluding phrase suggests, "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" [Heb. 11:1]. I am not yet standing perfected in that new heavens and earth, yet by faith I am fully assured that what my God already perceives as done, I will one day do. Thus, in an eternal sense, that for which we seek, within our space/time sojourn, is already secured outside of such temporal constraints. It is by faith that we embrace this reality, even though it is yet future for us. "All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance" [Heb. 11:13]. As the apostle Paul confidently stated just before his death, "I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day" [2 Tim. 1:12]. Paul placed his very life ... indeed, his hope of life (immortality) ... into the hands of his God, knowing that on the day of resurrection he would discover his trust had not been misplaced. He who promised is faithful. We, like Jesus, will not be abandoned to the grave, but will be raised up to receive the gift of life "at His coming" [1 Cor. 15:23]. Yes, we can envision ourselves, even now, within the company of those gathered on Mt. Zion within the New Jerusalem (the Bride of the Lamb) -- the perfected of all time: past, present and future -- and even though we may return to the dust of the ground, having yet to experience that glorious event, we close our eyes in the "sleep of death," knowing that we shall awake to the reality we had previously perceived by faith.

What a glorious assembly that will be when all those who love the Lord will finally and forever be together in the eternal city of our God on the holy mount (Zion). We will be gathered into the company of the angelic host: assembled with "myriads of angels" [Heb. 12:22]. We will be with our God [vs. 23] and His Son [vs. 24]. All those who are enrolled in heaven (whose names appear in the book of life), all those who are complete, mature, perfected in Him (which we are even now, by Him, regarded as being), all those who are the called out ones of all time, will be assembled together in a holy gathering where the expressions of joy and praise will be beyond anything we can begin to imagine. What a powerful contrast, in both scope and spirit, to the previous gathering of God's people at Mt. Sinai. The latter (at Zion) will most certainly be a far superior assembly.

Many scholars believe that the reference to the "first-born" -- those within this great assembly thusly characterized -- are the people of Israel (i.e., the redeemed of the old covenant). In Exodus 4:22-23, God characterizes the Israelites as "My first-born." If so, then these redeemed ones would "not be made perfect (complete)" without, or separate and apart from, our own completeness (perfection) as the redeemed under the new covenant. This may well be what the Hebrew writer had in mind in Heb. 11:39-40 -- "All these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect." Again, we see the contrast, and the superiority, of the new covenant over the old ... and yet those under the old are incorporated into the great assembly at Mt. Zion. Thus, "by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" [Heb. 10:14]. In our coming to God we join with all others who came to God by the same path -- faith, and together we are perfected (made complete) by the one sacrifice given for all. In this way, in the sight of our God, who is the Judge of all men, we are rightly regarded as "spirits of righteous/just men made perfect."

The word "spirit" is what seems to confuse people in this passage. We have been conditioned to believe it refers to some "immortal spirit being" dwelling within our fleshly body. "The term 'spirit' is used several times in the book of Hebrews, but it never designates a disembodied spirit" [Biblical Research Institute]. Indeed, the Hebrew writer declares that even those saints still living have been "perfected" by our Lord's sacrificial act. Thus, to assume that this is a state achieved only after death is to completely miss the point of the teaching of this fine epistle. In a dissertation presented by R. Bryan Kane titled "Zion in Hebrews 12:22-23," this biblical researcher observed that the root word from which we get the term "perfect/perfected" appears 25 times in this epistle, and it refers "to the perfect accomplishing of Christ's mission ... and the Holy Spirit's sanctifying work" on the hearts and minds of believers. Kane classifies this as "a 'now and not yet' eschatological paradigm." Jesus is the "perfecter of faith" [Heb. 12:2], and this perfection is available to all who by faith receive His faith.

The term "spirit" most certainly does not need to signify some being of a different dimension that may, in some way, be indwelling physical bodies of this dimension (such is the philosophy of Platonic dualism, not the holistic teaching of Scripture). It is more commonly used to denote the spiritual character of a man: his emotions, intellect, personality; that which tends to motivate us from within. The term "spirit" is not infrequently used in Scripture to represent the less physical aspects of man's being. Thus, one might be "mean-spirited" or have a broken or contrite spirit [Ps. 51]. These terms do not suggest an immortal being trapped inside the body, but merely reflect the mental and emotional aspects of man's nature. "In both the Old and New Testaments, spirit is used of humans and of other beings. When used of humans, spirit is associated with a wide range of functions including thinking and understanding, emotions, attitudes, and intentions. ... spirit is used extensively with human emotions. ... A variety of attitudes and intentions are associated with spirit" (Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 1300). Thus, we are all made of "like spirit" with our Lord Jesus; made complete, mature in Him (i.e., of like mind, attitude, purpose), just as Paul said Timothy was of "kindred spirit" with himself [Philp. 2:20]. Our goal should always be: "Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus" [Philp. 2:5].

Adam Clarke points out in his commentary on this very passage that "'the spirits of just men made perfect' are the full-grown Christians: those who are justified by the blood and sanctified by the Spirit of Christ" [vol. 6, p. 782]. In contrast to this, he mentions those nominal "Christians," who, consistent with a different "spirit," engage in conflict with one another. When James and John desired to incinerate a Samaritan village, Jesus rebuked them, declaring, "You do not know what kind of spirit you are of" [Luke 9:55]. Jesus wasn't referring to some "immortal spirit being" dwelling inside of them, but to their attitudes and intentions and motivations. As we grow and develop in Jesus, and through the transforming power of His Spirit who indwells us, we can mature "in spirit," becoming "conformed to the image of His Son" [Rom. 8:29].

Frankly, I find absolutely nothing either textually or contextually that even remotely suggests to me that the writer of Hebrews was providing "proof positive" that some immortal spirit being trapped inside our physical bodies finds it ultimate freedom and perfection at the moment we drop dead physically. On the other hand, I find great comfort and joy in the assurance conveyed that our Mt. Zion experience is one far superior in every way to the Mt. Sinai experience of our forefathers in the faith. The beauty of the supremacy of the former over the latter is that it includes all the redeemed who lived and died in faith prior to the one great sacrifice that brings us all together into the company of the heavenly host as the One Family, now made complete. Though viewed as accomplished from the perspective of the Throne, it is a reality we, who are in Him, confidently await during the days of our own sojourn, assured that whether we're asleep or awake, when He comes we shall know the fullness and perfection of His eternal embrace firsthand. Lord, hasten that day!!

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

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Readers' Reflections

From an Elder in Missouri:

Bro. Al, As I love studies of history and biography, I thoroughly enjoyed your Reflections article on Luke. I followed the discussion of your article on Facebook as well. I thought it was a good study. It made me think of the author of Hebrews, and who he might have been, so I reviewed your study of that subject (Reflections #128). I agree with your conclusions on both counts. I have known many brethren who will argue that the apostle Paul was the author of Hebrews, but, as you have shown, he most likely was not. Your study on Luke also sent me looking into the identity of Theophilus, to whom the books of Luke and Acts were dedicated and addressed. Another unknown quantity, even though there are several good theories out there. Again, brother, well done.

From a Reader in Florida:

Bro. Al, I've written to you several times. You are such a busy man, and so I was really surprised that you actually answered me each time that I wrote!! I can't tell you how thankful I am that I found your Reflections. I was in an extremely legalistic Church of Christ out in California, and spent over 21 years serving in it. I was steeped in legalism. However, as you might remember, things happened and my eyes began to open. And here I am now, so very thankful to God and to men like you who are dedicated to rescuing those like myself. Thanks so much, Al, for all of your continued help. I am still on my journey, and it isn't easy, but I now think I will make it. It is still really hard for me to fully accept that God is not the way the legalistic group portrays Him to be (that mindset is hard to shake), but I'm slowly changing the way I see things. Take care, Al, and please don't ever stop reaching out to those in bondage to legalism. You are reaching many of us!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, Yesterday I looked at the schedule for the upcoming Tulsa Workshop. If my memory serves me correctly, you have three speeches scheduled (one on Thursday and two on Friday). That is great! I was not decided yet about going to the Workshop this year, but when I saw your name listed as one of the speakers within the main Pavilion, I told my wife that we just HAD to go!! I have now called in our hotel reservations. We are really looking forward to getting to meet you in person! Thanks for all you do.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Dear Brother Al, I have just read your current article about Luke. Thank you for that one! I somehow managed to miss your "Peachy Parable," so was compelled to go immediately to your Reflections Archives so that I could enjoy the dessert. I perused your parable and found it to be peachy keen! I believe the King to be 'preciative of your perspective about permitting or prohibiting on the basis of inference or examples. Brother Al, God has truly given you a precious gift for pointing at the center of the target!

From a Physician/Elder in Oregon:

Dear Brother Al, Excellent article!! Thank you again for sharing your scholarship with us. Each issue is so thought-provoking! Michael Card, in his recent book on servanthood/slavery, makes a case for Luke having been a slave, or a freed slave. We tend to think of doctors in the 21st century as affluent, "pillars of society," but in Greek-Roman times they were often slaves, or, at most, considered servants. Wealthy patrons would pay for their education, then they would use them as their family physician. Card also says that "Luke" is a shortened form of Lucias or Lukas, and is the way a slave would be called (i.e., a nickname). I wonder. Also, I have seen Luke listed as one possibility for the anonymous author of Hebrews. His skill with the Greek language, and his close association with Paul, might qualify him for such consideration, but it's all speculation.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Brother Al, I'm a bit behind in reading your Reflections. I have just read Fellowship's Uniformity Factor -- Reflections #429 -- and notice that you have gone over 30 years without being able to get a very basic question answered by the legalists. That is so very sad!! If it is so very basic to the patternists to have a pattern to follow, then surely they should be able to actually provide "the pattern" to anyone who asks for it. I will be happy to give you the complete pattern to salvation. It really has only three very basic steps. Although these three basic steps are extremely simple, yet, in a life changing sense, they are quite complex, as they require us to constantly adjust ourselves during our walk with Him. This "pattern" is as follows: (1) A person must believe that God exists, (2) a person must love God with all his heart, mind, soul, body and strength, and (3) a person must love his neighbor as himself. That's it. In its entirety. THE pattern. Now, aren't you glad you asked?

From an Elder in Texas:

Brother Al, I surely do enjoy your Reflections each week, and also your bulletins that are mailed to us. It reminds me of the great group of Christians who are there in Alamogordo (with whom we used to be a part). I am also really glad to see that you are speaking at The Tulsa Workshop this year. I certainly wish that I could be there. Though we are very glad to be within a congregation that has a focus on the Grace of our Lord, and one that also has a Love for the lost, I really miss the bond I had with you and the other shepherds there!!

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