Who makes up this “general assembly and church of the firstborn” mentioned in the verses above? Is there a special distinction between the two, or are they one and the same? Let’s compare and contrast the common and unique aspects of Old and New Testament saints.
• Our destined place
When we trust in God, He says that we come to “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” This New Jerusalem, the “mother of us all” (Gal. 4:26), the city Abraham “looked for” (Heb. 11:10), is described in Psalm 48 and Revelation 21, where we see its effect on the people of earth as it descends from heaven. The names on its gates are the twelve tribes of Israel; its twelve foundations are the Apostles (Rev. 21:12,14). One can see how the Old and New Testament saints are intertwined perfectly into this congregation: “Know, therefore, that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. So then they which are of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham” (Gal. 3:7,9).
• Our Testimony
Hebrews 11 gives us a record of the testimony of those who steadfastly trusted God in early times, summarized with this exhortation: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which does so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). These all became witnesses to God’s faithfulness in fulfilling His word through their active faith in what He promised, even though they never received the total fulfillment of those promises within their lifetime because God was yet going to call out from all nations a people for His name (Heb. 11:39).
Abraham is the prime example of these Old Testament saints, for it is recorded of him that “he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). God entrusted this man with precious promises, with this acknowledgement: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him” (Gen. 18:19). Because of this, the nation of Israel, which descended from Abraham, became God’s primary witness to the watching world. Today that nation has been temporarily set aside from that position until the fullness of the Gentiles is brought in to the Church, which is now His witness to the world (Rom. 11:25; Jn. 17:21).
Christ is building His Church of living stones, individuals who trust in Him, both Jews and Gentiles. And so, “Ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). Our testimony is that God’s promise comes by “faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the Law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all” (Rom. 4:16).
• Our Resurrection
“To Him (God’s anointed, Judge of the living and the dead) give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). One day at the Rapture, both living and dead (1 Th. 4:16-17) will stand before the Son of God to receive the due reward of their deeds. It is clear that God’s people have anticipated a resurrection at least since the days of Abraham; for when he was on his way to offer his beloved son as a burnt offering to God, he said, “I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you” (Gen. 22:5). Job declared: “For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though after … worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26). Daniel was told this: “Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2).
Jesus pointed this out to those who doubted a resurrection: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” By these words He indicated that these long-gone men were still living with God (Mt. 22:32). The resurrection of the living is for “they who have done good” in God’s sight. The “good” in John 5:29, is simply believing on Him whom God has sent.
The Old Testament saints believed on the One whom God would send. Abraham acknowledged, “My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8). And David testified of that coming King, “being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, He would raise up Christ to sit on His throne” (Acts 2:30). Since the time of the New Testament, we know that “this is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He has sent” (Jn. 6:29).
Thus Paul wrote: “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (Eph. 3:14-15). These believers’ names are found in heaven in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 20:11-12). The cloud of faithful Old Testament witnesses in Hebrews 11 consists mainly of Israelites, and they, like other Old Testament saints, will be included in the first resurrection: “These all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise, God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39-40).
Just as the spirits of just men are made perfect by the resurrection, those of this general assembly will one day have a body like His glorious body, as discussed in 1 Corinthians 15.
All these make up the general assembly, the New Jerusalem. But the author of Hebrews was writing to the saints of “these last days,” who now make up the Church of the Lord Jesus in this world. To them there is a better position, a better condition, and a better tradition than that of the Old Testament saints.
• A Better Position
Today God offers all who trust Him a far better position, for only a few of the Old Testament saints could be part of the priesthood – only those from the tribe of Levi. In contrast, all in Christ’s Church are part of both the holy and royal priesthoods “after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:20), called to serve both God and man (1 Pet. 2:5,9).
Moreover, we have also the position of sons: “Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called the children of God” (1 Jn. 3:1). We have the privilege of speaking to God as little children speak to their daddy: “Because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father’” (Gal. 4:6). The Lord Jesus addressed the Father with the same word in the garden of Gethsemane (Mk. 14:36). What a position for us who were once strangers and aliens! (Eph. 2:12).
• A Better Condition
The Holy Spirit of God now dwells within us as our comforter and guide, sealing us unto the day of redemption. Jesus said, “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever” (Jn. 14:16-17; Eph. 1:13). This is a far better condition than the Old Testament saints ever had, for then the Spirit would sometimes come upon them, but not continually dwell in them (Jn. 16:7-13).
This indwelling Spirit can give the Church a unity unknown to the Jews previously, for now both Jew and Gentile are made one through the Spirit (Rom. 3:22; 10:12). In fact, Jesus spoke of the Gentiles (non-Jews) who would believe on Him who said, “Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (Jn. 10:16). All can walk with God in the unity and power of the Spirit, laying “aside every weight, and the sin which does so easily beset us” (Heb. 12:1). “For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek; for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon Him” (Rom. 10:12). Now our goal is to “let brotherly love continue” (Heb. 13:1).
• A Better Tradition
Abraham was called out of idolatrous Ur, and left there not knowing where he was going. The nation of Israel was called out of Egypt to enter the Promised Land. So, too, the Church is called out of this world into the Kingdom of His dear Son. The meaning of the word translated “Church” is “called-out ones.” The foundation for this Church is the doctrine of the Old Testament along with the apostles, Christ being the chief cornerstone: “Now, therefore, ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are built together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19-22).
No longer required to appear before God in Jerusalem, we can have the Lord in our midst wherever two or three are gathered in His name (Mt. 18:20). Worship is now in the hearts of God’s children as they enter into His loving presence: “The hour comes, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeks such to worship Him” (Jn. 4:23). Ceremonial acts of animal sacrifice are no longer required. Our sacrifices consist of praising, doing good, and giving to those in need; “with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb. 13:15-16).
So you can see that saints from both time periods make up this general assembly, this heavenly Jerusalem. However, the Church of the firstborn has had, for the last 2000+ years, better privileges than those of the Old Testament.
By Tom Steere
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org