Explanation of Hebrews 9:24-26
The cleaning of heaven by the blood of Jesus is the turning point of human history. This is what Hebrews 9:26 means when it says that Christ “appeared once for all at the end of the ages.” That expression marks this as the decisive point of history, when God’s redemptive plan comes into full focus as the climax of all history. Before Christ went into the heavens, having died on the cross and been raised from the dead, there was no way for sinners to have fellowship with the holy God. It had promised and symbolized, that is true. That is what the Old Testament Israel was all about, but when the great High Priest entered into heaven with his own saving blood, everything changed forever for those who come to God through Him. His appearing there for His people is the definitive act of history so far as the salvation of sinners is concerned.
A right view of history is important to the writer of Hebrews, and to make things perfectly clear, he relates the history of God’s redemptive work on the person history of every person born on earth: “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb. 9:27-28). There is a relationship between the personal history of every individual and God’s redemptive history that centers on the death of Christ. Indeed, the latter is fitted to the needs of the former and therefore they are similarly arranged.
The point in verse 27 makes is an important one. People want to know—or at least they should want to know what happens after they die. The general view of the ancient Greeks was that they are disintegrate into nothing or absorbed into a great impersonal cosmic sea. At best their hope was a vague “if”. As the Roman historian Tacitus wrote in eulogy of a man he admired, “If there be any habitation for the spirits of just men, if great souls perish not with the body mayest though rest in peace.” Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-empower of Rome, could think of only a spark from man’s soul returning to be lost forever in God. People who look to the Eastern tradition of reincarnation have a hope that is hardly better. They think of souls returning to the earth for ear-endless toil in one life after another, until finally they merit the reward of oblivion.
The Christian answer to this question could not be more different. The answer to this question is in Hebrews 9:27, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” There is this life and death, and no others, after which comes judgment before God’s holy throne. There is a resurrection for both the just and the unjust. All will die, and after death come to stand before God to be measured according to the perfect standard of God’s holy law.
This rules out the many “second-chance” theories that are occasionally popular in Christian circles. People like to think that even if they deny Christ in this life and then die in their sins, they can have another change when they die to see him after death. Hebrews 9:27 flies in the face of this teaching, and teaches that after death is judgment. Jesus warned in John 8:24, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” Indeed, the great gospel verses in John 3 make it plain that those who refuse Jesus Christ will perish. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18).
Jesus made the provision for the forgiveness His people need. He has died in the place of sinners on the cross, taking up their sins, and then appeared before God in heaven with the marks still on his hands and feet, his blood bearing testimony to his redeeming work for all who look and come to him in faith.
The shedding of Christ’s blood and his appearance in heaven as Redeemer of His own– is a once-for-all event that changes everything. Since Christ died to remove His people’s sin, this need happened only once. His blood is sufficient to the task, so there is no need for a repetition. Not only does this need to happen only once, but it can only happen once. This has profound impact on every Christian’s life. It is sadly, a very common experience today for Christians to supposedly experience conversion over and over– some Christians are even baptized repeatedly. The reason this happens is because they feel an ongoing need to deal with the guilt of their sin. They come to Christ, perhaps at a revival meeting which emphasized the importance of a personal decision, answering a call to come to the altar. There they gave their hearts to Jesus, pledging faith to him and enmity to sin. The emphasis was on their action, their decision. In the evening, as they lay their heads down to sleep, there were a joy and a peace they had never known before, the joy of the redeemed and the peace of the forgiven. In the morning, however, they awoke in the world and not in heaven. How much easier it would be were that not so! They awoke still as sinners, perhaps to their great alarm. Though truly saved, and though God had given them the new birth, they found they still sinned. Yes, often the Lord gives grace for an immediate deliverance from particular sins, ad this is a great encouragement to the new believer. But total deliverance from all of sin’s power, total escape from our sinful nature, comes only after death, and not at conversion. This is why Hebrews so strongly warns believers to avoid the snares of sin (3:13; 12:1)– were sin no longer a problem, such warnings would not have been needed.
The weak believer discovers the continuing reality of sin, to his alarm. With clawing fear he contemplates a judgment he now is more keenly aware of than ever before. Over and over again he seeks forgiveness out of resources of his own capacity to believe and repent, a capacity that is limited and insufficient to the task. Whole lives are present like this, seeking a conversion that will finally stick, seeking an experience that will do the job, seeking a passion that will cleanse them once-for all.
If Christians are saved by their faith, then it would not be “once-for-all” because faith is not reliable or permanent. Christians are often prone to wonder, sometimes being weak and sometimes strong. “Once-for-all” is not an expression used in reference to their faith and repentance because Christians have not sinned for the last time, or experienced their last doubt or shed their last tear for sin or failure.
The good news of the Gospel is that Christians are not saved by their faith, but by Christ Himself. This means that His death saves His people, and this was “once-for-all”. His entry into heaven to minister for His people saves His own, upholds those with weak and wavering faith, once-for-all. This proves the point that what is not once-for-all for Christians is once-for-all for Him. The peace of Christ is not in believers it is in Christ. Christians must receive Christ by faith, but the point is that the faith they exercise is not the foundation upon which salvation relies, since salvation relies upon Jesus, of whom it can be said, “once-for-all.”
Believers’ works will never give them peace, hope, or joy. The Scripture says that God has “no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17), but this is not a reference to Christians. “Once-for-all” the Lord Jesus Christ appeared before God, and there he remains, bearing the marks of his once for all sacrifice. Understanding this point makes it clear that forgiveness Christ procured on the Cross is once for all, which means God’s love towards His people is sure forever. Christ does not have to die over and over—does not have to bring His blood back and forth to God, because “he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). Therefore, Christians need not seek forgiveness over and over, but may rest their hearts in Christ and then get busy serving his cause in the world.
In the death of Christ and in his ascension into Heaven something definitive happened. It is a definitive work with a definite result: “to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9:28).
Hebrews 9:28 contains a statement of means and ends for all of history. The means is the appearance of Jesus Christ as the decisive intervention that changes all things. This was the import of his first coming: Christ was sacrificed to appear for His people in God’s presence. That two fold work—Christ’s death for our forgiveness and Christ’s life for our salvation is the focus of redemptive history. Paul write sin Romans 6:10, “For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.” Christ died definitively and He lives definitively, securing the salvation by His eternal testimony to His once-for all work of redemption. Together, His death and His eternal life in heaven are the means of the salvation of the people of God. “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” (Heb. 9:24).
Verse 26 then expresses the end toward which all is directed: “for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Verse 28 says it again: “to bear the sins of many.” Christ has taken away sins of His people– His work was directed to that end, and it is done once-for-all. This was the designed intention of the saving work of Christ, all of which is now declared in the tense. He was sacrificed he entered heaven to appear for His people. It is a definitive work, accomplished, secured, and finished. Yes, Christians still have to contend with sin– it is defeated but not removed. Therefore Christian’s await Christ’s return to save them from this struggle. But while Christians wait, they are secure forever in Him. This is why Christians can sing about this struggle with such confidence and hope:
When darkness veils his lovely face,
I rest on his unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the devil.
On Christ, the solid rock, I stand;
all other ground is sinking sand.
That leads to the second point, namely, that although Christ’s death and appearance in heaven for His people is the turning point of history, it is not the end of history. “So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb. 9:28).
History had a beginning in the creation of all things. History has a problem, namely man’s fall into sin and condemnation. It also has a focal turning point that answers every need: the first coming of Christ, with his death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven as Savior of sinners. History has its culmination: the return of Christ not in weakness but in glory, “not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb. 9:28). What a great hope this provides to all who believe, but struggle in this world.
The great Puritan, John Owen, writes:
Faith in the second of Christ is sufficient to support the souls of believers, and to give them satisfactory consolation in all difficulties, trials, and distresses. All true believers live in a waiting, longing expectation of the coming of Christ. It is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of believers so to do. At the second appearance of Christ there will be an end of the business about sin, both on his part and ours.
Judgment is inevitable, but sin is not. Believers will not have to put up with sin forever. It is not simply the way things are or always will be. It has been dealt with, and even as Christians war against it still, they know the victor’s crown lies not far ahead. Christians are waiting for Him, and while they wait, they are to serve Him, and worship Him with all their lives, bearing witness to a lost and guilty world. This is the worship of those who have joy and hope, awaiting the great day when salvation comes in the return of Christ.
The High Priestly ministry of Jesus is one of the deepest and most neglected truths in the Bible. Christians serve an exalted Lord and Savior who is their King and Priest. Jesus mediates the new covenant and empowers believers to know and serve Him. Jesus is the Intercessor who prays for His people that their faith will not fail, but remain steadfast. The truth of the ministry of High Priest is needed today as many believers struggle with assurance and perservance. The truth of Jesus mediating His covenant is of great assurance not only to those who struggle with doubt, sin and more, but is a great confidence to those who proclaim the Gospel. The ministry of Jesus as High priest confronts the pride of man by revealing an exalted Savior who remains supreme. Ultimately the ministry of Jesus as High Priest demonstrates His superiority by revealing how Jesus is the only way, the truth and the life. Jesus is superior in every way and He alone reigns supreme over His creation and His people.