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Volume 7, Issue 1: Exegetica

In the Presence of God: Hebrews 9:23-28

Jim Nance

God has spoken to His people throughout history in many ways. He revealed His laws to Moses, and through Moses to all of Israel, when He appeared to them on Mount Sinai. He appeared to the high priests of Israel in the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle on the annual Day of Atonement. He revealed Himself to the prophets of old in dreams and visions, that they in turn might warn Israel against turning from Him and following after other gods. And God appeared to His people in these last days when He was born as a Man and lived and died as a ManJesus Christ.

So when Jesus came the first time from heaven, He came to a nation of people who had been taught by Him generation after generation. And throughout the generations, central to His teaching was this: His people and all of mankind are sinners, having continually turned away from Him, following their own lusts and desires. As sinners, the only means by which men could be welcomed into the presence of God was to put away their sin and be purified by a perfect sacrifice.
The animal sacrifices which the priests of the Old Testament offered, and indeed the priests and the tabernacle itself, were all a continual visual aid of this, reminding the people that "without shedding of blood there is no remission" (Hebrews 9:22), that is, no removal of sin. The blood of the sacrificial bulls and goats which was sprinkled on the tabernacle, on the priests, and on the people, pictured the great work that Jesus Christ would accomplish when He died on the cross to remove the sin and guilt of His people forever. "Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands"that is, the Jewish tabernacle"which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us" (Heb. 9:2324).
Once a year, the Jewish high priests would take the blood of the sacrifices into the tabernacle before the place where God's presence was manifested, above the ark of the covenant. This pictured the work of Jesus our High Priest, who appeared before God as His own sacrifice. However, one difference between the picture and the reality is that, though the animal sacrifices were made over and over again, the sacrifice which Jesus made when He offered Himself on the cross occurred once for all time, "not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with the blood of anotherHe then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself" (Heb. 9:2526). By God's plan, the crucifixion of Jesus His Son is sufficient to put away sin in a way that the animal sacrifices were not. The fact that the animal sacrifices were repeated showed that they were n ot sufficient to remove sins; the fact that Jesus' death was not repeated shows that it was.
"And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many" (Heb. 9:2728). God has appointed that all men everywhere will leave this life and one day stand before Him at the judgment. At that time He will separate men as a farmer separates the wheat from the chaff or a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The goats will stand before the Judge of the world in impotent nakedness, bearing their own sin and guilt. On them judgment will fall to their eternal destruction. The sheep will stand before Him with joy, knowing that Jesus Christ was offered once to bear their sin and has taken their judgment upon Himself to their salvation.
Looking at this passage of Hebrews again, we see that it speaks of three appearances of Jesus Christ. The first appearance was on earth, where He came to "put away sins by the sacrifice of Himself" when He was "offered once to bear the sins of many." On the cross Jesus bore the sins of many, His people, receiving on Himself the punishment for those sins which the holy justice of God demands. Now for them God's wrath is appeased. Now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, those for whom He died, because for them God's justice has been satisfied.
The second appearance is in heaven, where Jesus, having been raised from the dead, ascended "now to appear in the presence of God for us." Those for whom Christ was Sin-bearer, He is also Intercessor, pleading their case before God. As the high priest presented the sacrifice and prayed for the people on earth, so our High Priest has presented His sacrifice and prays for His people in heaven. As it says elsewhere, "Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us" (Romans 8:34).
His third appearance in this passage is His second appearance to men, this time in the glorious splendor of His majesty. "To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation" (Heb. 9:28). Those for whom He died and for whom He intercedes, those who put their trust in Him for their eternal salvation, are those who eagerly wait for His second appearance at the culmination of human history. For He comes apart from sin; the sin which He bore on His first appearance He has done away with forever. He now comes to complete the salvation of His people, to raise them from the dead and welcome them to share in His eternal kingdom.

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