For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
If you have read much of the Bible, or if you have gone to church very long, you already know that somewhere, out there in the future, there is a day of judgment. Somehow, in my youth, in listening to various preachers, I got the impression of God, sitting behind a bench in a courtroom setting with a lot of books open before him, judging my life. One preacher I recall envisioned God playing our sins back for us on a giant movie screen for everyone to see. I groaned inside and figured I would want to crawl under my pew and find a place to hide.
Another preacher envisioned God having a big lever by his throne, and when we come there for judgment, some go to heaven but for others, he pulls the lever and a trapdoor opens and sends them screaming down to hell. That one left my hair standing on end.
Most of what you hear about Judgment Day owes more to the imagination of man than to the Bible. But we have already seen that there is a day of judgment. Even dying doesn’t get us away from it. Sooner or later, we have to face up to judgment. As Paul said, “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
But this Judgment Day is nothing like the traditional depictions, and there is one very surprising thing about it which I will come to later. But the first thing to know about it is that, in spite of the fact that the day of judgment is pictured on the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement is also tied to Judgment Day. This is not entirely surprising, because Jewish tradition also connects Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The author of the book of Hebrews is a Hebrew himself, writing to Hebrews, who would have naturally made the connection. As noted, the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, they call “The Days of Awe.” They are days of self examination and repentance in preparation for the Atonement.
One can only wonder why something so meaningful in the plan of God, and so firmly connected to biblical holidays, is so consistently neglected across Christendom. Every one of these “Jewish” holidays is a festival showing forth the life, work, plan, and ministry of Jesus Christ. The fact that most Christians have forgotten them in favor of holidays that are not in the Bible notwithstanding, these days are crucial to understanding the plan of God.
So, what do we know about Judgment Day? Earlier, we looked at what Jesus had to say about it. On the first occasion where he sent his disciples out on their own, he told them where to go, where not to go, and what to do and say. On this journey, they were to take no money. They were to depend entirely on the hospitality of the people of the town. Then Jesus told them that whatever house or city they entered where the people would not listen, they were to leave and to shake the dust off their feet. “Assuredly, I say to you,” Jesus said, “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!” (Matthew 10:15).
Now it is hard to imagine any place more corrupt than Sodom and Gomorrah and yet we find the curious fact that there may be some greater level of tolerance for them in the day of judgment than for some other cities. There is a day of judgment, and there are distinctions to be made. And we should make no mistake. If there is reason why a person should have known better, there isn’t going to be very much slack. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but apparently it can be mitigating on the day of judgment. On yet another occasion, Jesus chastised his audience and warned, “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36).
It sends a little chill down your spine, doesn’t it? There is not a one of us who has not spilled out words that we later wish we hadn’t said. But if every slip of the lip is going to be judged, what about some of our more serious crimes? Every idle word, not just the malicious words, will be judged.
I discussed earlier how the Temple elite were already consulting about how to dispose of Jesus. It is incredible that they would contemplate murdering such a man, especially in the face of all he had done. But the awful truth is that Jesus’ message threatened their hold on power and that trumped every other consideration. Returning to that passage in John, Jesus, knowing all that was in their hearts and minds, told them this:
Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does; and He will show Him greater works than these, that you may marvel.
The first step was to establish the foundation of Jesus’ authority. He wasn’t the harbinger of a new religion. He wasn’t acting on his own. He was only carrying out the will and intent of the Father. How far could this reach? All the way to the resurrection of the dead:
For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will. For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son.
This is stunning. It isn’t the remote God who sits in judgment of sinful man, it is the Son. There is a reason for this which he develops as he goes forward:
That all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment [Gr. “condemnation”], but has passed from death into life. Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man.
So now we know who the Judge is. It is not the Father, it is the Son. And he is given judgment because he is the son of man. I take that to mean that authority to judge was given because he had been human. He had lived in the flesh. He had been tempted in every way that we arei, and yet had never yielded. He had the authority and the right to judge.
Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth; those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me.
Jesus is not acting unilaterally. He does nothing of himself, and judgment is once again connected to the resurrection. His judgment is right and is fair. We now know who the Judge is and we know why.
Something very important follows on the heels of this piece of information. I said before that the statement in Hebrews about the Judgment Day, “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment,” came in the middle of a commentary on the Day of Atonement ceremony. That ceremony, which is described in some detail in Leviticus 16, is interesting for a number of reasons. One is the clear connection between the duties of the High Priest on that day and the ministry of Jesus. On this day, the priest made certain offerings, went into the Holy of Holies for the one and only time of the year, sprinkled blood there, made an atonement for the people, put all the sins of Israel on the head of a goat and sent him away.
But what did the people do on the Day of Atonement? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. But didn’t they have to fast? Well, yes, but fasting is doing nothing — not even eating. They did have to come before God in a repentant spirit. The ten days from the Feast of Trumpets to the Day of Atonement are called the days of repentance. They take time for self examination and repentance at this season.
But on the Day of Atonement, they do nothing. The High Priest does everything for them. The whole ceremony, the animals that had to be killed, all the washings, all the sprinkling of blood, all the sanctifying of vessels, altars and Tabernacle, were all done by the priests. The people stood there in assembly and did absolutely nothing. The corollary with the ministry of Jesus is clear. There is nothing we can do to justify ourselves. We cannot earn the forgiveness of sin. We cannot accomplish it with sacrifices and never could have. And so when we come to stand before God in judgment, there is nothing we can do. Everything has to be done for us, by our High Priest, Jesus Christ.
Even Israel of old could not achieve forgiveness by their own efforts. There was nothing they could do. They had to assemble on the Day of Atonement in humility and fasting and do nothing, while the High Priest made an atonement for them and reconciled them to God. It is odd how many people seem to believe there was a different way of salvation for people in the Old Testament from the way in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, they think, the Jews were saved by works, but in the New Testament, men are saved by grace. Not so. Salvation has never been by works. It was never possible that it could have been done by works. The Day of Atonement makes that clear enough.
For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another.
This is a plain reference to the ceremony on the Day of Atonement in the Temple, where the priest symbolically went into the presence of God, into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled blood there to make an atonement for the people. Jesus is now at the right hand of the Father, appearing in the presence of God on our behalf.
He 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. 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. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.
It is a lot like the ceremony of the Day of Atonement in that he appears before God once to make an atonement for us. And then for those of us who look for him, he will appear the second time, like the High Priest returning to the people from the Holy of Holies, this time without sin, this time for salvation. Judgment Day is actually, for those in Christ, a day of salvation, not condemnation. If you are in Christ, when you stand before him at the last day, it is not to be condemned, it is to be saved. And there is nothing for you to do when you get there. You don’t have to bring in a list of good works. You don’t have to bring in your good deeds, your accomplishments, your righteousness. None of that will help. What you need, and all that you will need, is Christ.
Paul continues his letter along this theme, comparing Christian salvation to the Day of Atonement.
For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect.
There was no consideration that all the sacrifices in the world would somehow make you right with God. If that had been the case, then there would have been no further need for them.
For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year.
The continual round of sacrifices seems to have been for the purpose of keeping a man mindful of the fact that he is a sinner, something we find all too easy to forget. Paul then underlines this in the plainest of words: “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.” It never was. This should be obvious, but it may take a mental adjustment on our part, and perhaps a reevaluation of some favorite Scriptures to get this straight.
But if the blood of animals didn’t affect salvation, how did those people get their sins forgiven? The only way this could possibly have been efficacious was by looking forward to Christ in those sacrifices they made.
Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, But a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You had no pleasure.”
That last is an Old Testament citation.ii It is not some new idea. Then why were animal sacrifices offered? And if they didn’t forgive sins, how were people in the Old Testament forgiven their sins? One can only conclude that they were forgiven the same way we are. By the sacrifice of Christ. I can only see animal sacrifices in the Old Testament as living icons. They were reminders of sin, a presentation on the stage of the Temple that told us how God was going to forgive our sins by the shedding of blood. They were all images, verbal icons, of the work of Jesus Christ.
Then I said, “Behold, I have come; In the volume of the book it is written of Me; To do Your will, O God.” Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
He takes away sacrifices and burnt offerings for sin, that he may establish the will of God. The idea of “once” is repeated again and again to connect to the one time in the year when the priest did this, signifying the one time in history when Christ would do it.
And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified. But the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us; for after He had said before, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them” Then He adds, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”
This is a surprising statement. He doesn’t say he is going to do away with the law, but rather that he will write the law in their hearts and minds. It is not a matter of whether the law exists, but where it resides. It is no longer external, it is internal. “Now where there is remission of these,” Paul continued, “there is no longer an offering for sin.” Once you have repented, been baptized, and been forgiven, there is no further need for any sin offering.
As Paul continues, remember the parallel with the priestly ceremony of the Day of Atonement.
Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
All of these icons are well recognized as elements of the ceremony of the Day of Atonement: The entering into the holiest of all, a new and living way, drawing near to the very throne of God, the full assurance of faith, the sprinkling of our hearts, our bodies washed with pure water like the priests also had to do. Any Hebrew reader would hear the echoes of the ceremony of the Day of Atonement.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.
Here is where some people become frightened. We don’t want to hear about the unpardonable sin. But recall that on the Day of Atonement, we only have to come before God in a repentant spirit. Remember that the law requires that we fast as a sign of repentance and there is nothing for us to do. I think this is the way we have to understand the admonition in Hebrews. Any sin that can be repented of can be forgiven. But you do have to take that step. There is no need to be afraid of judgment if you come to God repentant. The act of atonement is accomplished entirely by Christ. All this would be immediately clear to his Hebrew readers.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul returns again to the theme of the Day of Atonement. It seems the ceremony played very large in his thoughts.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
And those who could be described as ungodly will be able to stand before God, justified, in the day of judgment.
For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.
The whole idea of atonement is the reconciliation of man to God. It is a pity that more Christian people do not take notice of this day, because this day pictures what their faith is all about.
For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).↩
ii. Psalm 40:6 ff.↩