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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