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!


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