When Moses demanded that Pharaoh let the Israelites go, he said that they had been commanded to assemble in the wilderness to offer sacrifice and to serve Yahweh in worship (Ex. 3:18; 5:1, 3; 8:1). The Sinai “assembly” was the fulfillment of that demand.
What defined Israel as the “church of God” was the fact that the people gathered in Yahweh’s presence for worship, and the church in the new covenant is likewise a liturgical assembly. When the writer to the Hebrews says that the new covenant church is characterized by fellowship with angels and glorified saints, he is saying, by definition, that this fellowship characterizes our assemblies.
The fact that the Christian church is pictured as joining an assembly on a mountain is also significant. In the Old Testament, places of worship were established on mountains, because mountains were symbolic meeting points of heaven and earth. A high mountain touched the sky, piercing through the firmament into another realm.
Israel’s “ascent to heaven” in worship was not, however, merely a symbolic movement into heaven. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s presence was signified by the “glory cloud,” which resided in the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle and temple. When the tabernacle was completed, the cloud filled the Most Holy Place (Ex. 40:34–38), and the same thing occurred at the completion of the temple (1 Kings 8:10–11). Because the God of heaven had put His name there, Israel’s sanctuaries were literally places where heaven touched earth. Israel’s ascent to the temple mount was truly an ascent to heaven on earth. Israel was the people of the God of heaven at all times and places, but they actually approached the heaven of this God only when they assembled at His house. God was with them always, but He met with the people in a special way on the mountain.
The glory that marked Yahweh’s presence in the Old Testament was carried on wings of cherubim. According to Deuteronomy 33:2, the Lord came to Sinai in the midst of “ ‘ten thousands of saints.’ ” When Ezekiel had a chance to look closely at the cloud, he saw living beings within it, with four faces and four wings (Ezek. 1). This was the same cloud that had resided in, and now was abandoning, the temple (Ezek. 10:1–5; 11:22–25; cf. 43:1–5). Ascending to the sanctuary was not only an ascent to the Lord’s presence, but to the place where the “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” gathered around Yahweh’s throne.
If all this was true of Israel, how much more is it true of us, who worship through the ministry of a heavenly High Priest? At Pentecost, the glory cloud descended on the assembled church and consecrated it as the new temple of God, the new meeting place of heaven and earth, the new mountain of the house of the Lord. Given the Old Testament typology of mountain-top sanctuaries, however, Hebrews 12 is not speaking about a general fellowship with the heavenly church but about a specific fellowship that occurs in worship. When the church meets in the name of Jesus, He is there in the midst, and with Him is the joyful assembly that worships continually before His face. When the church gathers, she ascends to Zion, heaven kisses earth, and the church above embraces the church below.