Jul 1, 2004

The Christ of the Three Appearings

Many pastors, perhaps most, take a very deep breath before they commit themselves to preaching through Hebrews! Understandably so, for it brings most Christians into a world that is alien and distant: Melchizedek and Aaron, temple and furniture, blood and animal sacrifices, types and antitypes.

Yet Hebrews is a key to the entire Bible, a roadmap to the whole history of redemption, as its opening verses make clear. And from time to time — as in the lofty opening verses — the author provides us with remarkable, and in some senses “simple,” summaries of the saving plan of God. Occasionally he provides a kind of summary outline that helps us grasp the broad sweep of redemptive history and to see our own lives in the context of God’s ongoing purposes.

One such summary comes in Hebrews 9:24–28. Here the author uses the verb “to appear” three times, with reference to three distinguishable “appearings” of the Lord Jesus. He mentions them in the order of the argument he is pursuing; their significance underlines the way in which he thinks of Christ’s work: First, Christ has appeared once for all to put away sin by His sacrifice (Heb. 9:11, 26b). Second, Christ now appears in the presence of God on our behalf (Heb. 9:24). Third, Christ will appear to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him (Heb. 9:28).

The dimensions of the Christ’s work are expressed in three different tenses. This helps us to understand the wonder of God’s plan in history by illumining the experience of Old and New Age believers and by teaching us the dimensions of Christ’s High Priestly ministry on our behalf. In this way we learn to think like the biblical scholar of a previous era who, asked by an enthusiastic believer if he was saved, gave this answer (alluding to the three tenses in which the verb “save” is used in the New Testament): “Do you mean have I been saved, am I being saved, or will I be saved?” All three are true; all three help us better appreciate our Lord’s work.

So when believers ask us (as some do a great deal!) if we believe in the “appearing” of the Lord, we might similarly respond, “Do you mean His first appearing, His present appearing, or His future appearing? I believe, and am saved, by all three. They are all part of His ministry as my High Priest and Savior.”

Christ appeared on earth to put away sin. Unlike the repeated offerings of the Aaronic priesthood, He has done this “once for all.” That is why the author says He appeared “at the end of the ages” (Heb. 9:26). The work of Christ brings the days of preparation and expectation to an end. It ushers in (by His death, resurrection, ascension and gift of His Spirit) “the last days” (Heb. 1:2; Acts 2:17).

This perspective helps us to understand spiritual experience in the Old Testament through the eyes of the author. Old covenant believers lived in the light of the promises of God and walked by faith trying to understand the inner significance of the sacrifices God had provided. They looked at the sacrificial system to the real, final sacrifice that they typified. They did not receive what God had promised (Heb. 11:39). Yet, at the same time, they understood that the pattern of repeated sacrifice of animals, by a long line of priests who needed to atone for their own sins, could not be the way of full and final forgiveness (Heb.9:6–10; 10:1–4).

How privileged we are to live in the age when Christ has appeared and has dealt fully and finally with our sin. Christ is now appearing in heaven to intercede for His people. The author is now thinking of what took place after the death of our High Priest.

When our High Priest went into the presence of God on Calvary, He carried no other sacrifice than Himself. There, in the true Holy of Holies, in the darkness of Golgotha, He was “stricken, smitten by God and afflicted” (Isa. 53:4). Suddenly He cried, “My God, you have forsaken me! Why?” His body, dead under the weight of our sins, was thereafter laid in the garden tomb. And no bell sounded either on that night or through the next day. But then He came forth, risen in the power of an indestructible life, ascended to the right hand of the Father. There He appears for us — evidence if ever it was needed that His sacrifice for our sins has been accepted and that it never needs to be repeated. Now He embodies in Himself the propitiation He made for our sins (Rev. 5:6). Jesus’ appearance there — at God’s right hand — is the intercession we need!

So long as Jesus Christ is there, our salvation will last. And He is there for ever (Heb. 7:25). Christ will appear in glory to save those who eagerly await Him. We often say “Christians live between the times,” tasting the “already” or “now” of salvation but conscious that there is a “not yet” about our experience.

The author of Hebrews understood that the same pattern was true of Old Testament believers. Now he underlines how — now in the light of the first two appearances of Christ — the same is true for us as new covenant believers. We are not yet home with Christ; the pilgrimage continues until Christ appears for the last time finally and fully to save us. Notice the description of those Christ will save: “those who eagerly wait for Him” (Heb. 9:28). Waiting — eagerly (Rom. 8:25)! Does this description fit?

The three appearances of Christ help us understand the Gospel. But they also cause us to search our hearts. Have the first two appearances of the Lord Jesus given you such an appreciation for what Christ has done and is doing that you are eagerly waiting for Him?