“It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
These striking words in the letter to the Hebrews are almost incidental to its teaching on the work of Christ, but they should encourage careful reflection for modern man. Every part of that statement is challenged today, although in the ancient world Christians and most pagans would have viewed it as self-evident. Today, many doubt that anything happens after death, and even more would doubt a coming judgment. Some even doubt the reality of death, calling it an illusion. Some certainly reject the existence of the God who appoints a time of death or judges the dead or has a moral standard by which to judge them.
For Christians, however, the reality of God, of death, and of judgment is a firm conviction. So, we must ask ourselves and others: How will we be judged? We know that the moral standard by which the holy God will evaluate us is His own perfect law. We also know from our own consciences and from the law of God that we as sinners cannot stand in the light of God’s holiness. The proper response to this situation is to say with Isaiah: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips . . . for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5).
As sinners, we will no more stand in the judgment in our own righteousness than the leper will heal his own leprosy. Who will cleanse, who will save, who will take our place in the judgment? The answer to this question is found in the Christian doctrine of justification, the doctrine of getting right with God. This doctrine is most fully explicated by Paul in his letter to the Romans, but it is taught in various ways throughout the Bible. As Paul uses images of the courtroom to explain justification, Hebrews uses images of the temple. In discussing the priesthood of Jesus, Hebrews shows how sinners can stand in the judgment: “[Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:26).
Whose sins did Christ put away? Clearly not His own. Hebrews states repeatedly that Christ was sinless. He is “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).
For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins. . . . How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God? (7:26–27; 9:14)
The perfect purity of Christ is arrestingly summarized by John Murray: Christ has “a righteousness in which omniscience can find no spot and perfect holiness no blemish.”
Did Christ, then, die for all the sins of all people? Again, the answer is no. Hebrews 9:28 states pointedly, “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time.” Here clearly is an echo of the great messianic prophecy: “He bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12). Jesus did not die for the sins of all, but He died for the sins of His people: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). His sacrifice put away the wrath of God from the sins of His people.