The following is a lightly edited transcript.
Notice the structure of this sentence: “Inasmuch as it is appointed unto men . . . so Christ also. . . .” The comparison is made between something we do, die and later come into judgment, and something Christ does, die and later come to save from judgment. There is a parallel between our experience and Christ’s. For every decisive experience that you have (like dying and facing God in judgment), the Son of God has a corresponding experience.
Only Christ’s experiences are not merely alongside ours and like them. His have an impact on ours. His death and our death are not parallel. His utterly transforms ours. Our arrival at the judgment and his arrival at the judgment are not parallel. His rescues us. In other words, the parallel between our life and Christ’s life is designed to show how utterly dependent on him we are at every point of our lives, and how great he is. He is the strong saving one and we are the weak and desperate ones.
“Jesus is the strong saving one, and we are the weak and desperate ones.”
So it’s not accurate to say merely that we run the race and he runs the race just as we will cross the river, so he will cross the river; just as we will face the dragon, he will face the dragon. No, it’s not like that. It’s like this. We have to cross the river, yes. And he did too. But he died crossing the river to build a bridge for us to cross the river. And we have to face the dragon at the end, yes. And he will face it too. Only he will save us from the fiery breath of the dragon and bring us into the joy of eternal life.
So the point of these two verses is to get us to think of the big issues of our lives, like death and judgment, and then to help us see that Christ has gone before us in these experiences. And that his experience of them is so powerful that when we have to walk through death and judgment, those experiences will be radically different because of Christ. The point here is to magnify Christ, and by that magnificence to unleash confident and courageous Christians in the world for his glory.
Christ’s Experience Prepares the Way
So let’s look at these things one at a time as they come in these verses of Scripture. Verse 27: “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once. . . .” Now this is a rich sentence. God has been very merciful to say this to us. Listen to two things God means for us to hear in this word. One is that all of us have an appointment with death. “It is appointed for men to die.” Who made this appointment with death? I surely didn’t. I make some appointments that I don’t like to make, like with the dentist or with the car mechanic. But I would never make this appointment if it were up to me. Who made it for me?
The answer is, God made it. When Adam and Eve sinned, human death entered the world. And God appointed the curse of death for every one of their ancestors. Romans 5:12 gives us the background. It says, “Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” God had warned this is what would happen. And he brought it to pass.
So death is not an appointment that comes to us only by natural processes. That would be far from the biblical view. As if the world just runs on its own laws without God’s daily oversight and guidance. No, our appointment with death comes not merely by natural processes but at the divinely appointed moment. God plans our birthday and our death day. Psalm 139:16 puts it like this: “And in thy book [O God] they were all written, the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” A certain number of days are ordained for me by God. God sets this appointment, not Satan and not my enemy and not cancer and not me.
But not only that, God sees to it that we keep the appointment. He plans it and he brings it to pass. You recall how Job said when his children were killed by the collapse of their home, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). So the Lord makes the appointment. And the Lord sees to it that death and we keep the appointment.
There is no absurd, meaningless fatalism here. All is governed by an all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving God, no matter what it looks like to us. God makes our appointment with death in his sovereign planning of all things. You recall how Jesus spoke to the apostle Peter in John 21:9 that the day was coming (the appointment was made) when he would be crucified like Jesus.
And a few minutes later Jesus spoke to Peter about the apostle John and said, “If I want him to remain [alive] until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22). In other words, Christ himself decides when and how his servants will die. “If I want him to remain, he will remain. If I want to take him, I will take him. You are all in my hands” (see Revelation 6:11). So Henry Martyn, the young missionary to Persia, was right to say, “If [Christ] has work for me to do, I cannot die.” (Journal and Letters, 460).
So it is appointed to us all to die. And we may rest assured, it is not man or Satan or fate or disease that makes that final, ultimate choice. It is Christ himself, our creator and king.
Second, “it is appointed for men to die once.” But there is another keyword here besides the word “appointed,” namely, the word “once.” This means that you can stop dreaming right now about reincarnation. We are not coming back to die again. We are not coming back in any form at all. The point of the word “once” here is to stress the finality of death. We die once. And that is the end of our experience of earthly dying.
Now all of this should have a profound effect on us. Samuel Johnson said, in 1777, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Moses put it like this in Psalm 90:12, “So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
Surely the writer of Hebrews wants us to hear this word of the Lord in verse 27 and be wakened from the usual numbness and sleepiness of our lives. Most people think very little about what matters most and think very much about what matters little. The Bible is God’s gift to us to keep us from that foolishness and to make us wise. Wise people are people who have proportion in their lives. What matters most they are most concerned with, and what matters least they are least concerned with. Death is huge and death is sure. And so God is calling us here to think about it and get serious about it in a way that fits with how momentous death is.
And After This Comes Judgment
The next phrase is what gives death its greatest seriousness. Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” Death is not the end of our existence. That is what is so awesome about it. We are not mere material beings that simply go out of consciousness and decompose in the ground. This word from God stands over against the common evolutionary idea expressed, for example, by William Provine, the historian of science at Cornell. He says that evolution finds no intelligent design operating in nature and “no such thing as immortality or life after death.”
“The Bible is God’s gift to us to keep us from that foolishness and to make us wise.”
According to him “we’re produced by a process that gives not one damn about us” (First Things, 32). Well, the word “damn” is a very important word in this connection, but not the way Provine thinks. When Hebrew 9:27 says, “After death comes judgment,” that is exactly what it means. God does give damnation after death. And it is the most terrifying prospect in the universe, that we might be met after death with a holy and angry and omnipotent God holding us accountable for whether we trusted him and worshipped him and followed his ways in this life. That is a fearful prospect.
Hebrews does not leave us in the dark about what this means. In Hebrews 10:27 it says, “A certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries” awaits us. And three verses later it says, “We know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people’” (verse 30). So when our text says that we have an appointment with death and after death with judgment, it means that it will be terrifying and a furious fire and a great act of divine vengeance even on those who claim to be part of God’s people, but are only external Christians.
These are sobering realities. May God use them to wake us up and make us alive to what really matters in this world! Now in verse 28 the writer makes the comparison between our experience and Christ’s. “It is appointed to us to die once and after that comes judgment.”
What about Christ? “So Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await him.
Christ Joins Us in Death and Judgment
Notice for your great encouragement here how Christ joins us in death and judgment. There is a parallel, he dies and he comes to the judgment. But the difference is infinite. Let’s see how.
Verse 28 says that his death is “an offering once to bear the sins of many.” We will see who the “many” are at the end of the verse. But the main thing to see is that the death of Jesus bears sins. This is the very heart of Christianity and the heart of the gospel and the heart of God’s great work of redemption in the world. When Christ died he bore sins. He took sins not his own. He suffered for sins that others had done, so that they could be free from sins. Look back at verse 26 (from last week). The last line says, “He has been manifested at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” So verse 28 says that “he bore the sins of many,” and verse 26 says that the effect of this is that “he put away sin.”
This is the answer to the greatest problem in your life, whether you feel it as the main problem or not. There is an answer to how we can get right with God in spite of being sinners. And the answer is that Christ’s death is “an offering to bear the sins of many.” He lifted our sins and carried them to the cross and died there the death that I deserved to die. Now, what does this mean for my dying? “It is appointed [to me] once to die.” It means that my death is no longer punitive. My death is no longer a punishment for sin. My sin has been borne away. My sin is “put away” by the death of Christ. Christ took the punishment.
Why Is There Death?
Why then do I die at all? Because God wills that death remains in the world, even among his own children, as an abiding testimony to the extreme horror of sin. In our dying, we still manifest the external effects of sin in the world. But the inner relation of sin to God has been radically changed. The death of God’s children is not wrath against them. Paul cries out in 1 Corinthians 15:55–57,
O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
In other words, the sting is removed because the death of Christ satisfied the law’s demand and set us free from condemnation. Death becomes an entrance into salvation not condemnation.
That is what the next phrase means. “Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin.” There are two great truths here. One is that the first coming of Christ and his offering himself to bear the sins of many was completely sufficient. He does not have to do anymore to pay the price for sin or to remove the guilt of sin. This is why it says here “without reference to sin.” He came the first time to deal with sin. He put away sin. It is finished. This is the wonder of the gospel. Your guilt is already removed. That much of the end-time salvation is past and done. “Once for all at the end of the ages” this great salvation happened. It cannot be improved on.
But there is more. This is the second great truth. We had to face the issue of death, and so Christ faced death and bore the guilt and punishment of it for us. Now, we must face judgment, so Christ comes a second time for us, this time not to deal with sin, but to save us from judgment. That’s what it means in verse 28 when it says, “He shall appear a second time for salvation.” This is not an addition to the salvation that the death of Christ purchased; it is an application of the salvation that Christ purchased. This is what Christ bought in his death.
In other words, Christ died to bear our sin and to free us from condemnation, and the application of this is the asbestos shield he gives us in the “fury of fire which will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:27; see 2 Thessalonians 1:7 and 1 Thessalonians 1:10). This is exactly what Paul said in Romans 5:9–10:
“Trust Christ in a way that makes you eager for him to come.”
Much more then, having now been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. It’s the past death of God’s Son for us that guarantees his future salvation of us from the wrath of God at the judgment.
Now finally, the utterly crucial personal question: Who are the “many” in verse 28a? “Having been offered once to bear the sins of many. . . .” And for whom is he bringing salvation at his second coming? The answer is given at the end of verse 28. He is coming for those “who eagerly await him.”
Faith That Is Eager for Him to Come
If you ask right now, and you should, What must I do so that I may know that my sins are taken away by the blood of Christ, and that, when he comes, he will shield me from the wrath of God and bring me into eternal life . . . if you ask that right now, the answer is this: trust Christ in a way that makes you eager for him to come. He is coming to save those who are “eagerly waiting for him.” So how do you get ready? How do you experience the forgiveness of God in Christ and prepare to meet him? By trusting him in a way that makes you eager for him to come.
This eager expectation for Christ is simply a sign that we love him and believe in him authentically. There is a phony faith that wants only to escape from hell, but has no desire for Christ. That does not save. And it does not produce an eager expectation for Christ to come. It would rather that Christ not come for as long as possible so that it can have as much of this world as possible. But the faith that really holds on to Christ as treasure and hope and joy is the faith that makes us long for Christ to come, and that is the faith that saves.
So I urge you, turn from the world and from sin and to Christ. Take him not just as your fire insurance policy, but as your eagerly awaited bridegroom and friend and Lord.