Monday, April 11, 2022

The Christ of our Past, Present, and Future (Heb. 9:23-28)

Time is such an unwieldy commodity. We cannot change the past, the present is slipping through our fingers faster than we might wish, and the future is out there unknown and unknowable. The problem is that this unwieldy commodity is also often weighted down with actual and potential sources of worry and concern. We can be haunted by our past, stressed by the present, and anxious about our future. Nevertheless, time is something none of us can escape, however unwieldy or threatening it might be. We are all growing older. We all have a past, present, and a future.

I think you can tell a lot about a person, and even a culture, in the way they try to relate to the flow of time. I don’t think there’s much doubt that older cultures tended to worship the past and to define the present and the future entirely in terms of the past, although you actually see this today in many of the Islamic cultures of the Middle East. This overemphasis on the past is stultifying, making it hard to pursue genuine progress in the present toward a better future. But the thing about this present generation here in the West is that it does the opposite: it fights the past, fixates on the present, and forgets about the future. We are living in a time which takes as its motto the very thing that the apostle mocks in his letter to the Corinthians: “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). We have trivialized ourselves as people who have no grand hopes for the future and are content to settle for nice lunches in the present.

Because this culture has jettisoned absolutes, it has no respect for the past. Our generation is not conservative because it doesn’t see anything of value to conserve. But for the same reasons, it simultaneously has also lost any hope in the future, especially when it comes to life after death. We are now as a culture defined by nothing more than our constantly changing desires. The only thing that is fixed is our refusal to be fixed by anything. We have nothing from the past to inform us and nothing in the future to invite us. But in doing so we pay a price: we can no longer have any real connection to the past or to the future, and the present we have embraced is a shapeshifter, an amorphous ill-defined thing that refuses to be defined by anything outside itself.

Christianity, on the other hand, enables a person to relate in healthy ways to past, present, and future. We don’t worship the past, but neither do we jettison it. We recognize God’s hand in the history that has gone before. We aren’t called to stress about the present, either, but neither do we waste it, for it is given to us by God, and the Christian is called to redeem the time (Eph. 5:16; Col. 4:5). Moreover, we are called to live in light of the future, a future which is bright with hope for the child of God.

One of the reasons for this is our Lord Jesus Christ. And in our text, we can see why. Christ is connected to our past, present, and future. In the verses we are considering, we see three ways in which Jesus has appeared and will appear for us (I am indebted for this insight to P.E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans, 1977], p. 384)In verse 24, we are informed that “Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” In verse 26, we are told that “now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” And in verse 28: “So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.” You can see how each of these appearings variously relate to our past (ver. 26), our present (ver. 24), and our future (ver. 28). In these verses, we see that our Lord appears now “in the presence of God for us” because he appeared once “in the end of the world to put away sin,” so that those who eagerly await his coming will be able to welcome him when he appears the second time without sin unto salvation. And this is important because if there is any reason why a person can have peace about their past, contentment in the present, and hope for the future, it is precisely because of who Jesus is and what he has done, is doing, and will do for us. It is this that we want to consider together.

The Present Appearing of Christ (23-24)

In these two verses, notice the emphasis on heaven. The Mosaic institution had all sorts of cleansing rituals which have been highlighted by the author at various points. But these purifications were only “patterns of things in the heavens.” Moreover, “the heavenly things themselves [are consecrated] with better sacrifices than these” (23). Then, in verse 24, we are reminded that our Lord’s priestly office is not exercised in an earthly tabernacle, but in “heaven itself” where he is “now to appear in the presence of God for us.” This is not the first time this has been emphasized. Throughout this letter, we are reminded that our Savior is even now in heaven as our forerunner (6:20), our interceder (7:25), and as our King enthroned with majesty (8:1).

The point is not just the location of Christ. The point is why he is there and what he is doing there. He is there for believers. He is ministering there for them. He is advocating for them (1 Jn. 2:1-2). And he is doing this now. If you are one of God’s elect, which you are if you are united to Christ by faith, then this is true of you. Our Lord is even now in the presence of his Father to represent you and to intercede for you. The Bible tells us about this because it is good for us to know it and to meditate upon it. So let’sconsider what our Lord is doing in heaven and how our Lord’s present appearing in heaven can strengthen our faith.

First of all, our Lord is in heaven as our representative. He is the representative for those who are united to him, who are “in him” in the Pauline sense of the phrase. And if we have union with Christ, that means that his victory over sin and death is also our victory over sin and death. Which means that his presence in heaven in the present secures our presence in heaven for the future. This is what the apostle Paul says, for example, in his letter to the Ephesians. There, he reminds the believers in Ephesus that God “raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6-7). The “together” means “together with Christ.” In his role as Redeemer, Jesus didn’t act for himself, but for his people, for those the Father gave him. Hence, when he died, they died; when he rose from the dead, they rose from the dead; when he ascended into heaven, they ascended with him.

Now it is true that we are presently on earth and our Lord in heaven. We are not personally in heaven or in possession of the fulness of our salvation. We are not yet among the saints made perfect. But what this tells us is that this future is guaranteed for us. We will make it into heaven to enjoy perfect fellowship with God because Jesus is already there for us. He is the first fruits, and we will certainly follow after. This is why Jesus is called our forerunner (Heb. 6:20). He has gone into heaven, not only to prepare the way for us, but to personally bring us there. This is what our Lord himself said: “In my Father’s house are manymansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (Jn. 14:2-3).

What should be our response to this? Well, it should be the response that our Lord intended: “Let not your hearts be troubled” (Jn. 14:1). This is something that cannot be taken away from us. Our possession in heaven is sure because it is kept for us by Christ himself. My friends, there are many things that can be taken away from you: your health, your friends, your jobs, and many other things. But no one can take us out of Christ. And if he is in heaven and I am united to him, then it is a sure thing that I will one day be in heaven. Let this fact encourage your heart and build up your faith and hope in God. Set your mind on things above (Col. 3:1-3).

But not only is Christ there as our representative, but he is also there to intercede for us. This is stated several times in Scripture (Isa. 53:12; John 14:16; 17; Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). This is also implied in his role as our “Advocate with the Father” (1 Jn. 2:1).

Now someone may ask, “Why does Christ need to intercede for us? I mean, if God knows our needs before we ask, and if the Father doesn’t need to have his arm twisted to do us good in the first place – what is Jesus doing?” If it is not to inform God and it is not to motivate God, then what is it for?

It is not for God’s sake, but for our sake, that this is done. And it is to remind us of the love and concern that our Savior has for us. It is to assure us of the certainty of our salvation (Heb. 7:25). And it is to remind us that our Savior is a present help in time of trouble. He is not simply waiting for us on the other side; he is presently in heaven for us and for our blessing and benefit. If the Savior is interceding for you, it means that you are not alone, you are not forsaken. As John Murray put it so well in his commentary on Romans, “nothing serves to verify the intimacy and constancy of the Redeemer’s preoccupation with the security of his people, nothing assures us of his unchanging love more than the tenderness which his heavenly priesthood bespeaks and particularly as it comes to expression in intercession for us” (Romans, Vol. 1 [NICNT], p. 330).

It means, in particular, that there is no sin that has not been taken care of, and no threat to your faith that is not being taken care of. And the fact that our Lord is there in the presence of the Father means that all the resources of heaven are being marshalled for your good and the salvation of your soul. Is this not a reason for hope and joy and peace? Our present burdens and worries and concerns can weigh us down and burden our hearts. But let us remember that no matter where we are at or what we are going through, Christ is presently in heaven in the presence of God for us.

Perhaps you look at where you are now and are just disappointed and discouraged. My friend, don’t be discouraged. For at this very moment, if your hope and faith are in Jesus, you have a friend and an Advocate at God’s right hand. Should this not bring us great contentment, no matter what our present condition is?

The Past Appearing of Christ (25-26)

The present appearing of Christ for us in heaven is based on the past appearing of Christ for us on earth, which is what these verses address. The point is that our Lord does not have to shuttle back and forth between heaven and earth to offer himself continually, as the high priest under the Mosaic institution had to do (25). Rather “now once at the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (26).

Let’s first consider this phrase “the end of the world.” It sounds apocalyptic, doesn’t it? But this is not so much a statement about the earth or even the cosmos, but a statement about time. It literally says, “the end of the ages” (ESV). The way the NT authors looked at things is that the coming of Christ marked “the last days,” not necessarily in the sense that the Second Coming is next week, but in the sense that the next big redemptive event will be the end of history as we know it with the Second Coming and the Final Judgment. We are living in the last days, although again we need to keep things in perspective by noting that this does not mean that the Second Coming is right around the corner. After all, a thousand years is with the Lord as a day (cf. 2 Pet. 3:8).

Why did Christ appear at the end of the ages? It was “to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (26). To put away sin means that he has borne away the judgment due to sin. It means that he has dealt with sin and all its consequences definitively (note the word “once”!). Sin’s guilt and sin’s defilement and sin’s end (death) have met their defeat in Jesus Christ.

How did he do this, though? Verse 28 tells us that he accomplished this as an offering, “to bear the sins of many.” In other words, he didn’t put away sin in some abstract sense. Nor did he put away sin for some amorphous group of people. Rather, he put away the sins of the many, and he put them away by bearing the punishment due to those people’s sins upon himself. If you ask who the many are, the answer is ready: they are those whom the Father gave the Son to save (Jn. 6:38-39; 17:9). That is to say, Christ died for the elect, and all for whom he died will be saved, precisely because their sins have been put away. Now if you ask how do you know if you are among those for whom Christ died, the answer is also ready: do you believe in the Son? Do you trust in him as your Lord and Savior? For this is also what our Lord said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16). The reason why the Son was given and the reason why he died was so that those who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life.

To believe in Christ simply means that you receive him as he is presented to us in the pages of Scripture. It means that you embrace him truly as your Lord and Savior. It means that you don’t have to do something to make yourself worthy for God. It means that you don’t have to purge your own sins, but simply to rest in his finished work. God does not ask us to contribute to redemption, because sin has already been put away. There is no more work to be done! Hence it is that the apostle Paul can say, “For by grace are ye saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

Here is the key to having peace about your past. You won’t have peace about past sins and failings if you think that the responsibility to purge your sins falls on you, that you have to be punished somehow in order to get right with God. But that is not the case. To say that is basically to say that Jesus didn’t get the job done on the cross. These verses we are considering, and indeed all the NT, say that our sins are finally, once-for-all, put away in the substitutionary death of Christ for us.

Now that doesn’t mean we don’t have to repent of our sins. Yes, we must turn from all our idols to serve the living and true God. Yes, we must turn from our sins. Yes, we must pursue righteousness. Without holiness no man will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). And in fact you won’t have peace if you remain in your sins: there is no peace to the wicked (Isa. 57:21). But we don’t repent of our sins in order to get God’s acceptance; rather, we repent from God’s acceptance. Our works are not the basis of our justification;they are the fruits of it. Are they evidences of salvation? Yes. The reason is that Christ does not present himself to us as a Savior only from the guilt of sin but also as a Savior from the grip of sin. Those who come to him must receive all of him, not just part of him. Those who receive Christ receive him not only to save them from sin’s punishment but also from sin’s power. Good works are the evidence of God’s work in us (Eph. 2:10). But they are not the meritorious basis of our salvation. The key to peace with God is resting in the work of Christ for us, and in that alone (Rom. 5:1-3).

The Future Appearing of Christ (27-28)

In verse 27, the writer says, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” This is meant to be an analogy for our Lord’s redemptive work. Just as men die once, even so our Lord died only once. This is because when he died, he fully satisfied God’s justice with respect to sins and therefore he won’t have to die again. This is the point, I think, of the phrase “without sin unto salvation” in verse 28. He is not referring to our Lord’s sinless state; rather, he is referring to the fact that when our Lord returns, there will be no more sin to deal with, for it was finally and decisively dealt with in the once- for-all offering of Jesus upon the cross. He won’t be coming back with our sins still hanging about his neck; for they have all, as it were, been dumped into the sea, never to be brought up again (cf. Micah 7:19). And so, our Lord’s finished work on earth means that he is not in heaven still trying to atone for the sins of his people, for that is already done. Rather, as we are reminded here in our text, he is in heaven on the basis of his finished work interceding for and blessing his people.

But here we get to the reason for the past and the present appearings of our Lord: it is so that, when he appears “the second time without sin unto salvation” (28), we will be able to welcome him with gladness and open arms. With respect to this future appearing, our author refers to it as “the second time” he shall appear. There is no “first time” explicitly mentioned in the context, but he clearly is referring to our Lord’s first appearing on earth. Now this is important because it shows us the continuity and the similarity between the two. In other words, just as our Lord’s first coming was a real, physical, historical, visible coming to earth, even so our Lord’s second coming will be a real, physical, historical, visible coming to earth. It reminds us of the words of the angels to those who watched the Lord ascend into heaven, who said, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall do come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). The Second Coming is not meant to stand for some “spiritual truth.” It is a real, future event for which we ought to be looking, waiting, expecting.

The focus on the verses is certainly on the future. In verse 27, we are reminded of future judgment, and in verse 28, of the future coming of our Lord. Now there are some folks who think that Christians will escape the judgment. But we will not. Matthew 25 doesn’t have the sheep looking on as the goats are in the judgment; they are all in the judgment together. The point is not that the elect will escape the judgment itself, but that they will escape the wrath of God as the sentence upon them on that final day of days. Or think about what the apostle Paul says to believers: “But why dost thou judge thy brother? Or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. . .. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:10, 12). The point that needs to be made here is that everyone will give an account of their life to God. No one will escape the coming judgment.

Also, this verse indicates that there are no do-overs for anyone. You die, and then the judgment. No second chances. The state in which you die is the state in which you will spend eternity: if you die a saved person, you will survive the judgment; if you die a lost person, you will not.

But that does not mean that we have to spend our lives wringing our hands in worry. No, the whole point of these verses is the hope that the believer in Christ has because of his competed and finished work! We flee from the wrath to come by fleeing to Christ. And having fled there, we have need of no more fear. In fact, this description of God’s people is so good: they are not people worrying about the Second Coming; they are people looking for the coming of their Savior. “Unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.” This is, of course, a looking with anticipation. This describes people who are eager for Jesus to return, who say with the apostle John, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20). Or as the apostle Peter put it, “What manner of persons ought ye to be . . . looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God?” (2 Pet. 3:11-12).

Why do believers look and long for the Second Coming? The apostle Paul provides the answer. As he put it to the Philippians, “For our conversation [citizenship] is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). Or, in the single word summary of our text: “Unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.”

Now perhaps you are puzzled at that word. Aren’t God’s people already saved? Yes and no. Salvation is of a piece, and I worry about those theologians who want to rend the fabric of salvation into half a dozen different pieces. Nevertheless, there are aspects of this one salvation that we haven’t experienced yet, and there are aspects of salvation that we have experienced. For example, the Bible says that if your faith is in Jesus, you are justified before God, and that this is a once-for-all event that never needs to be repeated. Regeneration also happens just once. Sanctification, on the other hand, is an ongoing event. However, the reality is that none of us are glorified – and hopefully I don’t have to establish that! That is what the author of Hebrews is referring to. Our salvation will not be completed until we are glorified, and that will coincide with the coming of our Lord.

What is the essence of glorification? Well, I would say it is sharing the glory of Christ and being with him forever. “Beloved,” the apostle John writes, “now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2). To see Christ and to be with him, in other words, will be a transforming event. And that is the goal of all our salvation: to be with Christ. The apostle Paul ends his description of the events of our Lord’s Second Coming with these words: “and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). That is the pinnacle of our hope and salvation.

So here is a call to hope. Here is a call to live in light of our future salvation. Here is a call to look for the appearing of our when he shall come without sin unto salvation. And this is what a Christian is: a Christian is someone who lives in light of the resurrection and coming of the Lord, and whose daily demeanor and decision-making reflects that hope. Does it for us? Do we live this way?

Do we live in light of our Lord’s past, present, and future ministry? Does the cross give us peace, the intercession contentment, and his future coming hope? I hope you see that these are not just truths to file away in the “I gotta believe this” category, but then go out as miserable, guilt-ridden, anxious, and discontented people. That’s the opposite of what these realities ought to do! If we are this way, I submit that we have never truly believed them. If, on the other hand, we do believe them and take the Lord at his word, then how can we but be holy, happy, and hopeful people? May the Lord make it so in each of us!

Sunday, April 3, 2022

The New Covenant-Testament (Hebrews 9:16-22)

In the text, you will notice that the word “testament” is used. The Greek word is diath𝑒̅k𝑒̅, and in the first century A.D., it almost universally carried the meaning “testament.” However, in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was used by the early church, the same word was used to translate the Hebrew word (berith) for “covenant.” It turns out that the King James Version translates diath𝑒̅k𝑒̅ as “covenant” also. In fact, in the book of Hebrews, it translates this word as “covenant” a total of 11 times, and as “testament” a total of 6 times (as “covenant” in 8:6, 8, 9, 10; 9:4; 10:16, 29; 12:24; 13:20, and as “testament” in 7:22; 9:15, 16, 17, 20). But why translate a word in two different ways, especially when a covenant is not the same thing as a testament? Which is it?

In verse 15, I argued that the word should be translated as “covenant.” Indeed, Jesus is the mediator of the new diath𝑒̅k𝑒̅and you don’t generally have mediators for testaments or wills, but you do have mediators for covenants. Interestingly, 8:6 reads that our Lord “is the mediator of a better covenant,” instead of “mediator of a better testament.” Again, you wonder why. The reason is that the Old Testament passage (Jer. 31) upon which this is based tells of covenants, new and old. So this would seem to indicate that this is way we should translate the word, as “covenant.

However, it is hard to understand other parts of our text in this way. When the author of Hebrews writes that “where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator” and that “a testament is of force after men are dead” (16, 17), this seems to indicate very strongly that our author understood the word in the sense of a testament, or will. A will certainly comes into force when the one who made the will (the testator) is dead. So this would seem to indicate that this is the way we should translate the word, as “testament.”

Well, I think this can be confusing to us because our words for covenant and testament signify two different things. It is true that they both refer to legal arrangements that are in some sense binding. But beyond that, there are more differences than commonalities. A covenant is an agreement between two or more parties, and the covenant or compact dictates the terms of a relationship between the parties who enter into it. One thinks of the marriage covenant, for example, when a man and a woman enter into a binding relationship based on promises and vows made to one another. Or we might point to the Mayflower Compact, which was a covenant that the first settlers of Plymouth Colony made in order to determine the political arrangement for the colony.

On the other hand, a testament or will determines the beneficiaries of an inheritance and perhaps the terms upon which they will receive the inheritance. It doesn’t establish a relationship per se but bequeaths an inheritance. One can see that often a big difference between the two is that a covenant is a two-way agreement or a bilateral enactment, whereas a testament or will is more or less a one-way thing, a unilateral enactment.

In New Testament times, although the word diath𝑒̅k𝑒̅ primarily referred to a testament, the connotation was still wide enough to refer to either covenant or testament. This is why the author can switch between the ideas of covenant and testament using the same word. But it turns out that in the case of the covenants between God and man, and certainly in terms of the New Covenant, this is especially fitting. In other words, it’s not either-or, it’s both. It’s a covenant-testament. We need both ideas to reallyunderstand the nature of God’s promises to save us in Christ. Now this is fitting because God’s covenants with man can take on the character of a testament in the sense that they are unilateral enactments by God for the good of man, and God alone determines the conditions by which we enter into a relationship with him. Unlike a human covenant, we don’t enter into the New Covenant as if we were on equal terms with God; far from it. Nor does our relationship with God depend upon our promises to him, but in the New Covenant we see that our relationship with God depends entirely upon his promises to us (cf. Heb. 8:10-12).

There is another sense in which the New Covenant is like a testament: it lies in the fact that it was inaugurated upon the death of our Lord. Now a covenant is not generally enacted upon the death of one of the folks who make it, but a testament is. And the text is very clear on this: the way our Lord is the mediator of the New Covenant is by dying: “And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance” (15).

Even though the Old Covenant was a genuine covenant, it pointed to this aspect in the way it was inaugurated. For it too was enacted by the death of a sacrifice, and this is the point of verses 16-22. The author goes back to Exodus 24 when the children of Israel formally entered into covenant with the Lord. God had given them his terms, particularly in the Ten Commandments, and they responded with the promise to obey (ver. 3). However, this is not all that happened, and in verses 5-8, we read this: “And[Moses] sent young men of the children of Israel, which offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basons: and half the blood his sprinkled on the altar. And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold, the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words.” This is the primary text that is behind our author’s words in Heb. 9:18-21. And they show us that just as a testament is inaugurated by death, even so the Old Covenant was inaugurated by death.

But not just any kind of death. For the death that brought the Old Covenant into being was the death of a sacrifice, and as we have seen the entire sacrificial system of the Mosaic Law was there primarily to point to the person and work of Jesus. Just as the sacrifices of the Old Covenant were meant to bring about ceremonial cleansing from sin, even so our Lord’s willing sacrifice of himself for us purges our conscience from dead works to serve the living God (9:14).

On the other hand, the New Covenant really is a covenant because in it God is establishing a relationship with us in Christ. He is binding us to him in an everlasting commitment of love and grace. He is not simply handing us an inheritance and then walking away; he is drawing us to himself by the Spirit so that we respond to his call in faith and love and obedience. He who is faithful is calling us to the fellowship of his Son (1 Cor. 1:9).

The character of the New Covenant as a covenant-testament is rich with important implications for the gospel and our hope. That is what we want to look at together this morning. In particular, I want us to consider the melding of these two ideas in the covenant God makes with us in Christ. Because it is like a testament, it is something which is bestowed upon us and something which bequeaths an inheritance to us. And because it is like a covenant, it is something by which God binds us into a saving relationship with himself. And because it is inaugurated by death, because it is blood-stained, it simultaneously takes on both the character of a testament and will. My prayer as we consider these things is that we will more fully appreciate the richness of God’s promise of salvation to us in Christ.

The New Covenant is bestowed.

When I say that the New Covenant is bestowed, I mean that it is something gifted to us by grace. It is not something we create. It is not something we earn or merit. It is not grounded in our commitment to God; rather, it is grounded in his commitment to us. Like a testament, God’s covenant with man is a unilateral enactment. It is his purpose in which it was originated, his promises which determined its character, and his power which brought it into being.

We need to be reminded from time to time that God did not have to save us. I think sometimes we can slip into an attitude that thinks God owes us something, that of course he would have saved us, and that it would have somehow been wrong if he had not. But this is entirely false; in fact, it is wicked to think that. It makes me think about the old Puritan minister who in order to determine where they were at with God would ask his children if they thought they deserved to go to hell. When they responded that they truly believed this, that is when he knew that God was doing a work in them. Indeed, it does take a work of grace in our hearts to turn us from our pride and overweening confidence in ourselves. We are so blind to the ugliness that is in our hearts.

If you call yourself a Christian, it should absolutely amaze you that the God of heaven would stoop down to save a wretch like you. We sing “Amazing Grace” by John Newton, but do we really believe what we are saying?

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound 
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found, 
Was blind, but now I see.

Wretched, lost, and blind: is that how we see ourselves apart from Christ? Does the weight of that land on us the way it ought? Even apart from our sinfulness, we who are creatures of the dust, why should we think that God would ever take notice of us? Like the Psalmist put it, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Ps. 8:3-4).

But the reality is that we are not only fragile creatures whose every breath is in the hand of God, but we are sinful, treasonous, rebellious against God. We who owe God everything, deny him, are ungrateful, and disobedient. God, who is holy, would of course be entirely just to destroy us forever. It would not be a mark against his love or kindness to do this. It does not make a judge unloving to uphold the law. God’s goodness would not be one whit less for doing so. His justice and his power would be magnified. The angels would praise him for his righteous works in the judgment of sinners.

And yet, despite all that, God has not only chosen to save sinners, even the chief of sinners, and he has done so at the unfathomable cost of his own Son. It boggles the mind! What should really amaze us is not that God doesn’t save everyone but that he saves anyone. It should stagger us to think that he would save us. Our salvation being entirely of grace should be an end to all our pride and arrogance and high- mindedness. God didn’t save us because we were good; he saved us despite the fact that we were very bad. God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).

So God’s covenant is a reminder of his sovereign and matchless grace. It is a reminder that the provision for our salvation does not lie in us but has come to us entirely from the riches of God’s grace and mercy.

The New Covenant is blood-stained.

At the end of the text, in verse 22, the author makes this trenchant observation: “And almost all things are by the law purged with blood: and without shedding of blood is no remission.” The great point of these verses is that the covenant could not have been inaugurated apart from the death of Christ. In this way, it is like a testament or will, in that Christ who is the testator had to die for its provisions to take effect.

And the point of verse 22 is to remind us why Christ had to die: he had to die because one of the chief provisions of the New Covenant is that of the forgiveness, or remission, of sins. In quoting the terms of the New Covenant, we are reminded of this: “For I [God speaking here] will be merciful to their unrighteousness and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb. 8:12). In the New Covenant, God promises to forgive the sins of his people; forgiveness cannot be achieved apart from blood-shedding; hence, Christ had to die in order for God’s people to have it.

Now I know that a lot of people will scoff and ridicule the gospel because of its insistence upon blood- shedding for atonement. They will say, “Why didn’t God just forgive sins? What is the purpose of all this blood? This is more pagan than enlightened. It is not worthy of God to imagine him demanding blood as the price of human sins.” To this I only say that to have such an attitude is just a reflection upon their lack of appreciation of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of sins. Those who take such a position have never really reckoned with the utter despicableness of their depravity. And that really is because they have never really reckoned with the utter transcendence of the holiness of God. To say that this is unworthy of God is just to reveal that you have really no idea who God is in the first place.

In the New Covenant, therefore, we see both the necessity and the sufficiency of the blood-shedding of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. If you would have the forgiveness of sins, you must come through Christ. There is no other way to have it. As the apostle Peter would put it to the Sanhedrin, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

But we must not only see the necessity of his death for us, but also the sufficiency of his atoning sacrifice. What I mean by this is that his blood really does cleanse us from all our sins. As the apostle Paul put it in his sermon in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch: “Be it known unto you, therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). How many condemning things are we justified from? All things! Or as the apostle John put it: “But if we walk in thelight, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7). From how much sin does the blood of Christ cleanse us? From all sin!

What does this mean? It means that if you are in Christ by faith, there is not one sin that you have to atone for, not one sin that you have to make right, not one sin that you must erase or purge. Now of course we are called to repentance, and we must repent. There is no salvation for those who refuse to walk away from their sins. But our repentance does not contribute one whit to our justification before God. We are justified and forgiven on the basis of the righteousness of God in Christ alone. As Charles Wesley put it so well,

He breaks the power of cancelled sin, 
He sets the prisoner free,
His blood can make the foulest clean, 
His blood availed for me.

The New Covenant binds.

Covenants bring multiple parties into a binding relationship. The New Covenant is no different. In the New Covenant, by the means of the death of Christ, we are brought into a binding relationship with God: I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: and they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest” (Heb. 8:10-11). And thank God, this relationship is based, not upon our worth and merit, but solely upon God’s promise in Christ. What binds us together in a relationship with God is not the steadfastness of ourcommitment to him but rather the steadfastness of his commitment to us. Because this covenant is a unilateral enactment, the relationship that it creates is a relationship based on grace. And being based on grace, it is a relationship that will endure.

So here you have a characteristic of the covenant-testament that is more covenantal in nature than it is like a will. For as we pointed out, the purpose of a will is not typically to establish a relationship between the testator and the heirs of the testament, but this is exactly what a covenant tends to do. Hence again we see how we are not just dealing with a covenant or a testament but with a diath𝑒̅k𝑒̅with a covenant- testament.

In binding us to himself, God has adopted us into his family. He has made us heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17). God the Father becomes our Father, and Christ our Brother. To claim this would almost be unthinkable if God had not revealed it to us. But this is exactly what God has said. What does this mean? It means that God loves us with all the tenderness of a father, only in this case our Father is perfect and holy and without fault and folly. This is the uniform testimony of Scripture: "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him" (Ps. 103:13).  Or as our Lord put it, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good gifts to them that ask him?” (Mt. 7:11). It is no wonder then that the apostle Johnexclaimed, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God!” (1 Jn. 3:1).

Some may complain, however, of the ways in which they think God has unjustly treated them, and think that there is no way that God could be a loving Father given what has happened to them (or perhaps what they have seen happen to others). What I would say to this person is, first of all, look to the cross. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life (Jn 3:16). In the cross, you have the ultimate example of innocent suffering and what must have seemed at the time to be utterly meaningless, but you also have the ultimate example of the love of God shining through for our salvation.

But I would also say that you have not seen the whole story and you need to wait patiently to the end. This is what the apostle James tells us, for example: “Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord, that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy” (Jam. 5:11). How do you see the pity and mercy of the Lord? By seeing what the Lord will do in the end. When we are in the middle of a trial, or when we are looking back on a tragedy and can only see all the hurt that it has caused, we are not in a position to judge either the wisdom or the love of God toward us. The Scripture is still true: all things work together for good to those who love God (Rom. 8:28), and though this doesn’t mean that all things are good in themselves, it does mean that God will work them out for good. And in the perspective of eternity, we will see it to be so.

In the meantime, God gives grace. Our good Father never forsakes his children. He is with us each step of the way. And all the trials he brings us through are meant to refine us, to perfect us, to enlarge the capacity of our souls to enjoy God and see the glory of God. I’m not saying that this makes things easy. I’m not saying that we will not go through things that may leave scars on our souls as long as we are in this world. Like Paul, many followers of Jesus can say, “From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Gal. 6:17). What I am saying is that God has promised grace now, however painful the trials we are going through, and glory to come. And the glory we will enter into in the age to come will be all the sweeter because of (not in spite of!) the trials we go through now. Why? Because God loves his children with a never-ending and unbreakable love. He has proven it by the New Covenant that brings us into his family through Jesus and keeps us there. We are bound to him with the unbreakable cords of covenantal love and faithfulness.

The New Covenant bequeaths.

As heirs of God, we receive an inheritance. The covenant gives it to us. The blood of Christ gives it to us. The apostle Paul talks about “the riches of the glory of his [God’s] inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18). When God speaks to us about our inheritance that he has laid up for us, it is in terms of riches and glory. Whatever poverty and loss we experience, it will give way to riches untold and unlosable. The riches we lay up right now we will inevitably lose. But not the riches of heaven. Whatever shame or lowliness we experience now, it will give way to glory undimmed and unfading. Glory now is fading and often even damaging. But not the glory to come. “The blessing of the LORD, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it” (Prov. 10:22).

The Bible tells us that we will receive an inheritance in a New Heavens and New Earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. It tells us that we will enjoy God’s presence with an immediacy and joy and clarity that we simply cannot know now. In the age to come, the poverty gives way to riches, mourning gives way to gladness, want and hunger gives way to fullness. Brothers and sisters, we will inherit the earth.

How do we know this? Because the cost at which the New Covenant was inaugurated was itself the greatest gift that God could have given, and having given this, we can be sure that God will give us everything else. This is the glorious logic of Romans 8:32, “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?”

We are meant to live in light of this. We are meant to live in light of eternity. As Jonathan Edwards put it, “Lord, stamp eternity on my eyeballs!” Live in expectation of the inheritance. When the apostle tells reminds the Colossian believers that the “Father . . . hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:11), he is expecting them to let that reality aid them “that they might worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God” (10). You cannot live the way the NT calls us to live without having an eternal perspective. But you cannot live out the practical implications of this eternal perspective apart from the hope of the future inheritance. And you cannot have this hope if you are not utterly and unshakably convinced that God has promised it to you. But if you are in Jesus, the mediator of the New Covenant, he has.

What shall we say to these things? Again, we are pointed to Jesus. How are these things given to men? Through the death of Jesus Christ for our sins, and in no other way. You must come to the Father through him. You that are weary and heavy laden, come! Our Lord himself beckons you. And the gospel tells us that those who trust him and receive him as Lord and Savior, to them all the blessings of the New Covenant belong. It means that you are a recipient of sovereign grace. It means that you are covered in the blood of Jesus and that all your sins are forgiven. It means that you have been adopted into the family of God. It means that you have been given an eternal inheritance that is “incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4).

God has not been miserly in his promises to us. On the contrary, they are breathtaking in their magnitude. They are hope-inspiring and joy-giving. In them the grace of God in Christ shines forth. Let us live in light of this covenant-testament with joy and peace and hope and love and faith and obedience.

A Prayerful Close to a Powerful Epistle (Hebrews 13:18-25)

  What is the epistle to the Hebrews? What was the author trying to do? Well, he tells us in verse 22, when he writes, “And I beseech you, b...