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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A City that Has Foundations

A few weeks ago, our family was rocked by the news that we had sixty days to find a new place to live.

Our home is special to us. It’s kind of like the Old Granville House in It’s a Wonderful Life; it’s not necessarily in the best of shape – the windows are drafty, the floors are scuffed, and the whole living room shakes if you stomp on the floor – but it is full of charm and many, It's_a_Wonderful_Life_old_homemany precious memories. We’ve lived there ever since we got married, and our kids have never known any other home. It’s a part of us, and now we’re about to leave it forever.

We will miss this place deeply. But the shock of our new situation doesn’t arise primarily from that fact. By many measures, our family outgrew our current space a long time ago, and it’s not getting any smaller! So, even before we were given notice, we’d been talking about when and where and how we should move. No, the thing that makes this deadline so daunting is not knowing where home will be just a few weeks into the future. And, since we live in a pricey area, finding a place that actually fits our little family means we don’t even know what state we will live in.

It’s scary to know you have to take a step without being able to see your next foothold.

In the midst of all this, my daily Bible reading has taken me through the book of Genesis. People often think of Genesis as telling the story of the creation and the flood, which it does. But most of the book is taken up with the story of a single family which is chosen by God as his means for blessing all the families of the earth. At the center of it all is one man named Abraham, who was called by God to pack up his family and leave his home behind without knowing where he was going.

That sounds familiar. It’s relatable. In fact, it could be easy to make it a story all about me and make an easy bid for comfort: God met Abraham’s material needs, so I can trust him to meet mine as well. And that is true on one level. But if I stop there, I’m completely missing the point of the story.

You see, Abraham doesn’t get to settle down in a newly renovated prairie-style 4BR, 3BA single-family dwelling within easy walking distance of shopping, entertainment, and grazing lands in the highly coveted Hebron school district. He lives in a tent. Unlike his nephew, Lot, who moved into a house in prosperous Sodom, Abraham never settles down in one place. And lest we think that he just loved his free-wheeling nomadic lifestyle, we should note that at the end of his life – when he’s negotiating the purchase of a gravesite for his wife, because he doesn’t own an inch of land himself – he describes himself as “a stranger and an exile” on the earth (Genesis 23:4; Hebrews 11:13).

The book of Hebrew points us to the deeper meaning of Abraham’s call to leave his home. The fact that Abraham died without receiving the land God promised him means that God had a different and greater kind of land in mind. God did not fail to keep faith with Abraham; the fact that the Lord continues to reveal himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” means that their story did not end with their burial in the cave of Machpelah that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite (Exodus 3:6; Hebrews 11:16). As Jesus himself makes clear, this is not merely the dream of some ethereal, disembodied afterlife; it is the promise of a glorious resurrection (Matthew 22:32).

God promised Abraham a real, concrete land, and he meant it. But the land of his sojourning, the land that would be occupied by his descendants centuries later, was only a foretaste and a shadow of the real thing. However incompletely they may have understood it at the time, the patriarchs we meet in Genesis lived their unsettled, rootless lives in the hope of a home that this broken and unstable world could never provide. Or, as Hebrews puts it, “By faith Abraham lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:9-10).

In retelling the story of Abraham, Hebrews is presenting him as an example for us to follow. We, too, are sojourners and exiles. This world cannot be our home, because its foundations are made of shifting sand. It’s a place to pitch a tent, not a place to build. Sometimes it can be a beautiful campground, for with all its brokenness, it is full of the glory of God. But it is not and will never be home.

Living in a tent means living by faith. It’s not easy. I so want to be able to settle down here and now, to find a foundation I can build on by my own effort and will. But God calls me to put my hope not in building my own city here and now, but in the city that he has prepared for those who trust in Christ. This, after all, is the pattern of the gospel. Jesus himself was homeless, rootless, and excluded, from his birth in a stable to his death outside the gates (Luke 2:7; Hebrews 13:12-13). And the amazing thing is that he freely chose this life of exile. He chose to be humbled, to be poor, to have no place to lay his head, to endure the cross, despising its shame in the confidence of the joy set before him (Philippians 2:5-11; 2 Corinthians 8:9; Matthew 8:20; Hebrews 12:2). And all for us. He became homeless to secure us a home.

I don’t know why God wants my family in our present situation. It’s unnerving to look into the future and not see our next foothold. But maybe part of the reason we can’t see that next step is so that we will learn to look past the immediate future to the end of the journey. This world can never fully satisfy our longing for a home, a haven, a place to lay our heads. But that desire was made to be satisfied, and one day, it will be. “We have here no lasting city, but we are seeking the one that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).

Image Credit: National Telefilm Associates – Screenshot of the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17630836

Jesus Christ is the Same

celtic-cross-1224247The name of this blog comes from a declaration that jumps out of the last chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today – and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

There are lots of directions we could go with this statement. We could make it very personal, experiential, and subjective: Jesus is always there for me as a warm, comforting presence whenever I need him. Or we could make it exclusively doctrinal: Jesus, as the eternal Son of God and Second Person of the Trinity, is immutable in his essence and attributes, and so never changes.

These things are true as far as they go. But I think they miss the full scope of the truth that the author of Hebrews so intensely wanted his readers to understand and hold on to. After all, Hebrews 13:8 – like every other verse in the Bible – wasn’t just divinely imprinted on key chains and mugs and Facebook memes and some guy’s bicep. It’s part of a particular book with a particular message, and it only hits us the way it’s supposed to when we look at it in light of that bigger context.

In it’s original context, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today – and forever,” is not an assurance that Jesus will always be there for you individually, but a reminder that Jesus has always been and will always be there for us. It is the basis for the command that precedes it: “Remember your leaders, who taught you the word of God. As you consider the outcome of their way of life, imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). This isn’t about having “your own, personal, Jesus.” It’s about continuing in fellowship with the community of faith and holding on to the faith of the community. It’s about following in the footsteps of those who walked with Jesus before you, in the confidence that the same Jesus who was with them will be with you, too.

Hebrews addresses people tempted and confused by “varied and strange teachings” (Hebrews 13:9) and points us back to the people who showed us how to follow Jesus in the first place. For me, that includes my mom, my grandpa, the director of a camp I went to every summer as a kid and worked at in high school, some long-dead theologians, and a series of patient and faithful pastors. (Maybe I’ll get to tell you about some of them in a future post!)

But Hebrews 13:8 doesn’t stop with the continuity of Christian tradition and the legacy of faith. It’s not just talking about our collective experience; it’s saying something specific about Jesus that provides the objective basis for our experience. It’s not just affirming the lasting truth of the message about Jesus; it’s affirming the constancy of Jesus himself.

This is an important theme that ties into the central message of Hebrews. We have a Mediator, a Savior, a Representative, a Great High Priest who lives forever. Unlike the priests of the tabernacle, he will never need a replacement (Hebrews 7:23-24). His death on the cross was the perfect and final sacrifice, so he will never die again (Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:14). He has become “a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:20).

This is not just an interesting piece of theological trivia. It is the anchor of our salvation (Hebrews 6:19). Our access to God is only through Jesus, and it is only secure because Jesus never changes. He always lives and always represents us to God. “He is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:25).

If you believe in Jesus, you have a living Savior. He is always alive, always interceding, always saving. Yesterday, at the very moment when you were falling back into that same pattern of sin that has plagued you for years, God’s love and acceptance toward you was not diminished for an instant solely because Jesus was interceding for you the whole time. Today, when you’re struggling and doubt, with bitterness, with lust, with shame, Jesus is alive and claiming you as his own. Into all eternity, your standing with God will never be based on your own record or personal holiness, but always and eternally on the fact that you belong to his once-crucified and ever-living Son.

Jesus Christ is the same. Always. Yesterday, today, and forever. He will never fail you and never leave you (Hebrews 13:5). He is the same Savior who died for your sins, rose from the dead, and entered into the presence of God, where he now sits at the right hand of his Father and names you as his own. He is the same Jesus who has sustained and upheld believers down through the ages, and he is the same Christ who will come again in glory to renew this fallen world.

This blog is about that Jesus. My hope and prayer is that it helps you to know, trust, and follow him, today and everyday.

Photo credit: Jamie Peabody, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/celtic-cross-1224247