Once and Always

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The work of Christ is finished. And it never stops.

At it’s heart, the message of Christianity is good news. Unlike other religions which claim to instruct us in the best way to save ourselves, the gospel offers us a salvation which we cannot achieve on our own, which comes to us as a gift from God to be received by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Our own works cannot save us; rather, we are saved by the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

The good news of Jesus centers on two events: the death of Jesus on the cross, and his bodily resurrection on the third day. This pair of events is what Christians around the world celebrate in Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

At various times, Christians have been tempted to make either the death or resurrection of Jesus subordinate to the other. Among some of the eastern church fathers, for example, there was a tendency to downplay the public crucifixion of Jesus as a mere prerequisite for his saving resurrection. Conversely, many protestants in recent years have treated the resurrection of Jesus as mere validation of his saving death.

These views fall short of the biblical message that we are saved by both the death and the resurrection of Jesus. Both-and. Thus the same Paul who begins his first letter to the Corinthians asserting that Christ crucified is the saving power of God  (1 Corinthians 1:17-18, 23; 2:2) closes by declaring that without Christ’s resurrection, our faith would be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Jesus both died for our sins and was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). His death did not merely prepare the way for his resurrection, and his resurrection did not merely prove God’s acceptance of his death. Rather, each of these events has an essential and distinct role in our salvation.

Jesus’ death and resurrection both save us, but in different ways. One way of understanding the difference between these twin facets of Jesus’ work is through a reflection on two key biblical phrases: “once” and “always.”

Jesus’ death is described by several biblical authors as having occurred “once for all” (Romans 6:10; Hebrews 9:12; 10:10; 1 Peter 3:18). Unfortunately, this phrase is a confusingly translation for modern English speakers, who usually understand it as asserting two distinct things: 1) that Jesus died one time; and 2) that he died on behalf of all people (or all believers). Our focus often then turns to the universal offer and sufficiency of Christ’s death, leaving the fact that Jesus died on just one occasion on the sidelines. This is a complete misunderstanding. “Once for all” is actually an old-fashioned translation of a single Greek word – either hapax or ephapax, which both mean simply “once” or “on one occasion.”¹ Of course, there are places in the Bible where Christ’s death is described as having taken place “for all” (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15), but that is not what is being taught in the phrase “once for all.”

The death of Jesus occurred just once. It will never be repeated. For Paul, this means that death no longer has dominion over Jesus (Romans 6:9) and sin no longer has dominion over us (Romans 6:11). For Peter, it means that we also can have the courage to share in Christ’s suffering in expectation of the glory that follows it (1 Peter 3:17-4:1).

The book of Hebrews digs deepest into the theological significance of the fact that Jesus died “once.” More than anywhere else in the New Testament, Hebrews explains the saving power of Christ’s death through the sacrificial imagery of the Old Testament. It is this framework that makes the fact that Jesus died “once” so significant. Unlike the animal offerings of the old covenant which proved their insufficiency by the fact that they had to be repeated over and over again, Jesus’ sacrifice worked the first time (Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:10-14).

Christ’s suffering is finished because his sacrifice is complete. Nothing needs to be added to it. Our sins have been paid in full, cancelled out and washed away in the precious blood of Christ.

And yet, Hebrews joins the rest of Scripture in insisting that the saving work of Christ still continues through his risen life. This is not a mere add-on to the cross, but an absolute necessity. If we did not have the risen Jesus as our high priest, our mediator, our representative, we would have no hope of salvation. Why is Jesus “able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him”? Only because “he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Always! Why are we secure from condemnation? Not only because it is Jesus who died — “more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34).

Right now, the living Jesus is interceding for you. Always. This means that you do not need to come to God on your own. It is not your job to make your own case, to remind God of what Jesus did on the cross. It is not up to you to somehow make a connection with an event that happened ages before you were born. The same Jesus who died on the cross is alive at this moment, and you come to God “through him” (Hebrews 7:25; John 14:6). He is the one who serves as your advocate with the Father on the basis of his own cleansing blood (1 John 2:1; 1:7). As eternal God and living, glorified man, he alone can act as the mediator between God and humanity (1 Timothy 2:5). Through his sacrificial blood and his never-ending priestly intercession, you can come to God with complete confidence (Hebrews 10:19-22; Ephesians 3:12).

Jesus is both sacrifice and high priest, both substitute and representative. His sacrifice never needs to be repeated; his substitutionary work is done. But his role as our representative lasts forever. By his death he took our place; by his risen life, he secures our place. So our faith both looks back to a finished salvation and looks up to a living Savior, enthroned at the right hand of God. And because that Savior lives forever, our faith looks forward with confidence to the day when we will share fully in his glorious life.

That is what this Holy Week is all about. This Friday, believers in Jesus commemorate his perfect sacrificial death, that single atoning work which has decisively and finally paid the penalty for our sins. Once. Just once. Never to be repeated again.

But on Sunday, we will celebrate with gladness and gloriously unspeakable joy that our Savior is alive, and evermore will be, that he never ceases to intercede for us, that his resurrected humanity provides us with access to God that can never be blocked off or taken away, that he serves as our representative and advocate and mediator and priest for all eternity. Always. Without fail. Yesterday, today – and forever.

 

¹ In other contexts, hapax is translated simply as “once,” such as when Paul asserts that he was stoned “one time” (2 Corinthians 11:25), or when he recalls how the Philippians sent him financial support more than “once” (Philippians 4:16), or when the author of Hebrews states the obvious fact that each person is destined to die “only once” (Hebrews 9:27). None of these statements have any suggestion that the action is undertaken “for all.”

 

Image credit: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/water-drop-2-1141077

 

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Not a Prophet, Priest, or King (Part 2)

Holman_Furniture_of_the_TabernacleIn my last post, I cautioned against using the biblical titles of Prophet, Priest, and King to describe the role of a pastor. My goal is not to quibble over terminology; I know most pastors who use those terms intend them to express the genuine pastoral tasks of teaching, caring, and leading. But I am convinced that such a use is confusing, both because it departs from the biblical meaning of those titles in some significant ways, and because it can reinforce some common misconceptions of what a pastor is.

I have already explained how it’s inappropriate to confuse pastoral ministry with the biblical office of Prophet. This post continues with an exploration of the differences between pastors and the offices of Priest and King.

A pastor is not a priest. A pastor certainly is called to attend to and care for the spiritual needs of his flock. But calling this “priestly” ministry is confusing on two counts. First, this work of caring for others was not the role of priests in the Old Testament. In biblical categories, a priest “is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5:1). A priest was an official mediator, representing and interceding for the people in the worship of the temple. The entire book of Hebrews is an explanation of how Jesus fulfills and surpasses the priesthood of the old covenant in this sense. This priestly role is then extended to all believers, as we offer ourselves to God (Romans 12:1) in lives of praise to God and service to others (Hebrew 13:15-16). This means that we all may approach God directly, both on our own behalf and on behalf of other believers. We have “confident access” to God in Christ (Ephesians 3:12).

So, calling a pastor a “priest” because he cares for people misses the biblical picture of what a priest is. This confusion may stem from the fact that Roman Catholic priests perform pastoral care, which brings us to the second kind of confusion that arises when an evangelical pastor calls himself a “priest.” Catholic pastors are called “priests” because of the traditional teaching that the Lord’s Supper is an atoning sacrifice which can only be performed through the miraculous grace bestowed on ordained clergy. This is taught nowhere in Scripture, which is why the reformers rejected “priest” as a special clerical title. Calling the caring work of a pastor “priestly” thus not only departs from biblical categories of priesthood, but it risks blurring the difference between the biblical model of pastoral elders and traditional conceptions of a special clerical caste distinct from ordinary, “lay” Christians.

Being a pastor does not make me a priest. Caring for the flock certainly is part of pastoral work, but that is not the biblical conception of priesthood. Ordination does not confer some special access to God which other believers do not have. Every believer is a priest before God through Christ.

Finally, a pastor is not a king. Too many pastors have failed to recognize this, and their arrogant abuse of authority has led to the wounding or even dissolution of too many churches. The elders of the church do indeed have real authority within the church, and believers are called to respect, submit to, and even obey those God has placed in those positions of leadership (1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Corinthians 16:16; Hebrews 13:17). But this authority – like all authority – must yield to the authority of God himself (Acts 4:19-20). In any case, the relationship between a pastor and other Christians is not that of king to subject, nor of father to child, nor even of teacher to student, but of brother to brother (Matthew 23:8-12). Pastors are to lead not by domination, but by example (1 Peter 5:3). My role as pastor does not place me above other believers, but below them as their servant.

I am not a prophet, nor a priest, nor a king. Those are Jesus’ job titles. He is the one through whom God has spoken his ultimate revelation (Hebrews 1:1-2). He is the one whose sacrifice gives us access to God (Ephesians 2:18). He is the one who rules over the church, enthroned at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:20-23).

But, as a pastor, I do share one title with Jesus. “Pastor” is just the Latin word for “shepherd.” Jesus, our Prophet, Priest, and King, does care for us as a shepherd cares for his sheep. He feeds us on his word, supports us in our struggles, and leads and directs us in obedience to him. As I serve as an elder and overseer of a local congregation, I also am called to feed, tend, and lead the flock of God in obedience to Christ, the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4). In doing this I advance not my own kingdom, but his, as long as I preach not my own word, but the word of God’s grace, which alone is able to build up the church (Acts 20:32).

That’s what it means to be a pastor.

 

Image Credit: Furniture of the Tabernacle, By illustrators of the 1890 Holman Bible [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Not a Prophet, Priest, or King

There’s a lot of confusion out there about what it means to be a pastor. Pile up two thousand years of church history and add our distinctively American love for religious experimentation, and you will wind up with a vast array of different models, theories, and paradigms for pastoral ministry.

Because I’ve only been a pastor for a couple of months, I’m really just in the beginning stages of learning how to go about pastoral ministry. So my first two posts as a pastor aren’t an attempt to tell other pastors how to do their jobs. Instead, I want to explain what this role of pastor is – and is not. This is something all Christians should care about, because while not every Christian is called to pastor a church, we are all called to participate in the life of the church under the guidance of gifted and qualified pastors. The Bible teaches that ministers of the word are given by Christ to equip and enable the growth and activity of his entire body (Ephesians 4:11-12). This is a crucial role; how a pastor serves the church and how each believer responds to pastoral ministry has a massive impact on the health of the body. So it is vitally important that every believer understand what the Bible says about pastoral ministry.

Preparing for full-time ministry has given me lots of opportunity to reflect on the biblical teaching about the calling and function of a pastor. I’ve written previously about my philosophy of ministry and some important principles of pastoral ministry, in which I’ve tried to do justice to the biblical teaching about what a pastor is. This week and next, I want to talk a little about what a pastor is not.

Grommé,_Kuningas_Daavid_ja_profeetta_NathanOne recently popular way of explaining the various facets of pastoral ministry has been through the Old Testament offices of Prophet, Priest, and King. Since the reformation, these three offices have been held to foreshadow and depict the saving work of Christ, who perfectly reveals God, intercedes with God on the basis of his finished sacrifice, and rules over God’s kingdom. Recently, however, these offices have also been held to reflect the pastor’s three-fold call to speak God’s word, care for his people, and lead his church. Different pastors will, of course, feel more or less gifted or inclined to each of these aspects, so that a particular pastor who ascribes to this model might describe himself as primarily a prophet, with a good dose of king and a smaller gifting as priest.

This paradigm has its merits. Pastors certainly are called to teach, care for, and lead God’s people. But while I greatly respect a number of pastors who use this terminology, I have serious reservations about applying it to myself or any other pastor, because at the end of the day I find it profoundly misleading. I want my people to understand that I am not a Prophet, Priest, or King. This week, I’ll explore the first of those titles.

A pastor is not a prophet. There are various kinds of prophetic ministry in the Old and New Testaments, but all have the common element of being given a message directly from God. The foundational revelation of Scripture is a prophetic and apostolic witness to the church (Ephesians 2:20). And while the group of apostolic witnesses to the resurrection is now closed (1 Corinthians 15:8), and with it the canon of Scripture, I believe there is a place for ongoing direct prophetic revelation in the church as God continues to speak to his people through the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:20). Nevertheless, it is important to note that the pastoral leaders of the church are not required to be gifted as prophets, but as teachers (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9; Eph 4:11). That is, leadership within the church does not belong with those who claim to have a direct word from the Lord, but with those who faithfully pass on the word already delivered to the saints. In this way prophetic messages can be tested by their conformity to the apostolic gospel (1 John 4:1-6).

I would love to have God speak to me more clearly and directly than I have yet experienced, and in obedience to the Bible I do pray for an increase of my gifts (1 Corinthians 14:1). But I am not a prophet, nor do I need to be to be a pastor. My authority as a pastor does not come from a special, direct revelation, but from faithful teaching and application of the Scriptures, which are what enable me to equip the people of God for every good work (Ephesians 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). This is why I practice expository preaching – it helps ensure that I am feeding God’s flock with real spiritual food. If I tell my people “thus says the Lord,” I expect them not just to believe it because I say so, but to examine the Scriptures to see if my teaching is true to what God has already said (Acts 17:11).

Check back next week for an exploration of the difference between pastoral ministry and the biblical offices of Priest and King.

 

Image Credit: By William Grommé (1836–1900) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons