By Reverend Mark Hunnemann
Perfect Atoner, Perfect Atonement—perfectly accomplished and perfectly applied and perfectly timed (exegesis of Hebrews 9:27-28)
11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come,then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)
12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify 6 for the purification of the flesh,
14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our 7 conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.8
16 For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established.
17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.
18 Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.
19 For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people,
20 saying, d“This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.”
21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both ehe tent and all the vessels used in worship.
22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.
24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God ion our behalf.
25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own,
26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, lhe has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,
28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear sa second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
10 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? 3 But yin these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
5 Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
c “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
7 Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”
8 When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9 then he added, d“Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second.10 And by that will ewe have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,
16 n“This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,”
17 then he adds,
o“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Hebrews 9:27 is a classic text that folks appeal to for a variety of purposes…including showing the unbiblical nature of earthbound spirits.. They affirm (as they have to) that this text denies both reincarnation as well as a second chance for salvation after death.
In addition, a perusal of commentaries will show a consensus of scholarly opinion that this text also clearly states that everyone faces their own personal judgment before God IMMEDIATELY after death. This HAS to be the case or there would be no entrance to heaven….or hell. And justification by Christ alone is the password. But I’m jumping ahead of myself.
Nevertheless, it has come to my attention that some evangelicals dismiss or seriously water-down this text in the following manner.
The word ‘after’ (Greek, meta) is said to be non-specific in terms of time. I suppose ‘meta’ is as common in Greek as the word ‘after’ is in English…. Hence, this allegedly allows for a period of time between death and personal judgment for deceased souls to wander on earth. There is no attempt to exegete the text. There is the simple statement that the word ‘after’ does not always necessarily mean “immediately after”. That’s the extent of their ‘argument’. Then they turn around and accuse my interpretation of eisogesis.
How do we reply?
First, the most natural meaning of the word ‘after’is to take it at face value, which is a basic rule of hermeneutics. When I say that I will change the babies diaper after I get off the phone, it is assumed that there will not be a lapse of time. You can come up with a thousand illustrations of your own in which, generally speaking, the word after means AFTER…certainly usually not implied is some significant time lapse as some authors assume (especially Dr Montgomery in “Principalities and Powers”pg.142)—unless it is stated otherwise…or made clear by context. Of course there are exceptions to this, as language is fluid, and the meaning of a word is usually found in its context. However, there is nothing in the verse itself which would suggest time lapse. Indeed, I would argue that if you read v.27 naturally then the judgment which comes after death is most naturally rendered ‘right after your only death comes your judgment.” As I said, ‘meta’ can allow for time lapse, depending on the context…but I know of no commentary that argues for that….only a few books which the authors are already committed to the some form of visitation/entrapment of the dead. I do not have access to tons of commentaries so there MAY be exceptions, but my argument does not rest on what others have said.
The point is this: when we die, we go immediately before the throne of God for a personal/private judgment. That is what v. 27 is referring to. “After that comes judgment.” It does not say ‘THE judgment”, that is, the great white throne. “…meta de touto krisis.”—after that (death) judgment.
One of the problems with this text is that it is almost always ripped from its context when interpreting it. Authors I know make no attempt to deal with the immediate or larger context of this text in the book of Hebrews. And frankly, few people who quote v.27 make any attempt to unpack the surrounding verses, or context….and that includes me!! So, I humbly offer my efforts to clarify.
According to the ESV Study Bible the theme of Hebrews is—“Christ is greater than any angel, priest, or old covenant institution; thus each reader, rather than leaving such a great salvation, is summoned to hold on by faith to the true rest found in Christ and to encourage others in the church to persevere.” (pg.2358) Having seen the big picture of Hebrews, let me briefly go through the immediate context—what comes before and after v.27, 28.
Hebrews 9:11-28 is sub-titled ‘redemption through the blood of Christ’. We are on holy ground, my friends.
v.12 Jesus entered once for all the heavenly Holy of Holies to secure our eternal redemption through His infinitely precious blood. A PERFECT ATONEMENT
v.14 Christ is perfect (without blemish)THE PERFECT ATONER
v.15 Hence, the called can/will receive an eternal inheritance as the perfect fruit of the perfect person and work of Christ
v.22 without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins….especially Christ’s…the God/Man (Ch.2)
v.24 our Great High Priest entered heaven itself on our behalf, and sat down….redemption perfectly accomplished and finished (10:12)
chapter 4ff—the great promise is that upon death believers enter their rest…this blessed promise is woven throughout the book of Hebrews because it is the consequence of the perfection of the Person and Work of Christ. Resting is not a lounge chair rest---it is entering GOD’S rest….that is our inheritance and eternal bliss
Ch.10:1-18 (Christ’s sacrifice once for all)emphasis is placed on the voluntary nature of Christ humiliating Himself, for us—especially through the cross. Once for all…
10:14 incredibly, through Jesus’ atonement we are now perfect in God’s eyes for all time—through the imputed righteousness of Christ—but we are also being continually sanctified in ourselves by the same atonement. The now/not yet tension. The perfection of the atonement has been personally applied to us, and will be the basis of our redemption 10 billion, billion years from now!
The following text (v.27-28) is book-ended with this sublime discussion of the perfection of Christ’s person and work—that is crucial in its proper interpretation!
The logic is this—just as Christ died once (to atone for our sins), so we die once to face personal judgment, and just as Christ died once to bear our sins, so He will return to complete salvation for those who are in Christ. So, the once for all perfection of the Person and Work of Christ is inextricably intertwined with our judgment after death (did you catch that?). Hence, to diminish the immediate certitude and seriousness of personal judgment after death (by asserting its delay) is tantamount to denying the perfection of the person and work of Christ, and its finished nature. Do we forget the centrality of death in the bible and how its defeat figures so prominently in the cross of Christ? To diminish the fruit of the atonement is a diminishment of the atonement itself.
That we are APPOINTED to die once, etc will be discussed momentarily.
Personally, I think one can summarize this rich book by saying that it presents the Perfect High Priest offering the once for all sacrifice of Himself. Nowhere is the perfection of the Person and Work of Christ elaborated more in-depth then in Hebrews..esp chaps 9-10. We see the Perfect Atoner (the God/Man), accomplishing and applying the Perfect Atonement, in God’s perfect time. We are saved by the finished work of Christ on the cross, plus nothing. To me, the book of Hebrews is the New Testament companion volume to the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Hebrews shows how much greater/better Christ’s all sufficient sacrifice is to the innumerable animal sacrifices of the Old Testament. However, one theme that is a common motif in both is the utter holiness of God Almighty as the Judge of heaven and earth. He is a God to be feared with reverence and awe. This a theme we shall return to when asking whether the BIBLICAL GOD would allow saved or even un-saved persons to wander the earth after their deaths. In light of the truths of Hebrews it is utterly unthinkable.
As we saw, the immediate context of this text is verses 9:11-27, which is sub-titled ‘redemption through the blood of Christ’, and 10:1-18 is sub-titled ‘Christ’s sacrifice once for all’. This is holy ground we are standing on as the heart of the atonement is being laid bare.
Instead of entering an earthly tabernacle, Jesus entered once for all a heavenly tabernacle and achieved eternal redemption for us. In 2:17 Jesus made ‘propitiation’ for the sins of the people. The cross is a many splendored thing, and we need to understand propitiation because it is the heart of the atonement. When Jesus took on our sin as our divine sin-bearer, He also was PUNISHED for our sins—that is propitiation. He experienced ‘hell for us.’ Nobody can plumb the depths of the horrors that Jesus experienced while the Father poured out His unmitigated fury upon His dearly Beloved Son. The Father unleashed hell upon our Lord Jesus, for us. Propitiation has been described as: God Himself, punishing Himself, in order to save us from Himself. Jesus didn’t just die for our sins, He was also punished for them. Only then could there be a just redemption (Romans 3:25) Salvation is free, but it is not cheap….it cost God in Christ everything.
In (9:1-10) the author outlines in brief the function of the tabernacle and the high priest. Then in vvs 11ff the contrast is made in that Christ entered the true tabernacle, heaven itself, and offered His own infinitely precious blood, once for all. As The High Priest Jesus secured complete forgiveness of sins, eternal salvation, purified consciences, and direct access to God. This is in contrast to the earthly tabernacle and the earthly high priest who could enter the Most Holy Place once a year, and had to offer blood for his sins as well.
The beauty of the redemption through the blood of Christ, the divine sin-bearer, is infinitely better/greater than the law declared by Moses. The Law reminds us continually that there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood (v.22) We can summarize vvs 23-26 thusly—the Perfect Lamb of God offered once for all a Perfect atoning sacrifice for our sins. It need not be repeated. Indeed it cannot be repeated! In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all the rituals, sacrifices and the Law were fulfilled. V.26 ‘He came at the end of the ages’,….meaning that he came in God’s perfect timing…in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4) In God’s absolute sovereignty over human/cosmic history, Jesus was born at the precise perfect nano-second.
In chapters 9 and 10, which book-end our text—we see a magnificent display of God’s absolute sovereign control over human/cosmic history as the theatre in which the drama of redemption unfolds. God is both the primary Actor as well as The Director.
Please take the time to read the texts I have quoted in full because they provide the unspeakably rich context of Christ’s once for all Perfect Atonement…and it provides the context for understanding/interpreting the classic verse (27).
In God’s perfect timing, the perfect High Priest, offered Himself as the perfect atonement. THAT is the context of our text. (v.27-28) I must insist that all that follows must put front and center the perfection of the atonement, or we do violence to the context. We may put it this way: this well known text is book-ended on both sides with a passionate defense of the beauty and glory of the perfect Atoner and atonement.
What a monstrous introduction of asymmetry—in the midst of utter holiness and perfection—to state that miserable sinners can slink around for a wee bit…or perhaps even a very long time. Once you understand the context, the seriousness of the ‘time-lapse’ theory is seen for the man-centered aberration that it is.
“And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment….” In discussions of this text I have never seen anyone mention the word “appointed”. I’m not sure why because it adds a lot. The text does NOT say, “Men die once, and after that comes judgment.” WE ALL ARE APPOINTED TO DIE. Psalm 139 states that every day is planned out by God. The Greek word for appointed is ‘apoketie’. It as if to say, “The sovereign King has soveringly decreed each mans only death, and afterwards He has sovereignly decreed for them to face Him at His holy judgment throne.’ We must not miss the force of this word ‘appoint’ because it brings front and center God’s holy, absolute sovereignty over life and death. We don’t just die once, we are appointed to die once.
Now it makes more sense when it says that ‘..to die once..’ (Greek, hapax) With one fell swoop the word ‘once’ shoots down the notion of reincarnation, and any idea of a second chance to convert after one dies.
The text and grammar invites us to see the ‘appointing’ applies to the second clause. As if to say, “It is appointed (or sovereignly decreed) as well that after we die, we face judgment. Once we let the sovereignty of God sink in on both sides of the comma, it should make a difference in how we view things. The Greek construction is such that the coming judgment after death is just as much under Gods sovereign control as is our deaths. How could they not be? God is always sovereign or He is not God. Ephesians 1:11
Notice that it does not say THE judgment…it says, “and after that (death) comes judgment.” (meta de toutoo krisis) Given that deceased believers are in heaven now, and unbelievers are in hell now, there must be a personal, individual judgment immediately after death. There is a distinction between our personal, private judgment following death and the Great White Throne Judgment which is public, and at the end of time—that is mentioned in v.28. There HAS to be a distinction or there would be no believers in heaven now.
JW Montgomery and others state that ‘after’ does not mean ‘after’ in this text…it means, at some later point…perhaps a day…perhaps decades…or even centuries. (I will evaluate Montgomery’s book in-depth next time, Lord willing. His writings have had a profound influence on others). In this view you might as well drop the word ‘appoint’. Worse, the certitude of the hope of seeing God face to face upon death is vitiated. Worse still is the implications regarding the atonement.
But remember that God’s ‘appointing’—His absolute sovereign will—is woven through the entire verse. Just as it is appointed by God for man to die once, so it is appointed by God that after death we face judgment. Now given all we know about what God has done to accomplish our redemption, all we know about His sovereign appointing, all we know about how He applies His redemption, all we know about the perfection of the atonement and the atoner, all we know about the horrific nature of the propitiation, all we know about the consuming fire nature of Gods holiness as Judge of heaven and earth,…are you really going to assert that once men die by sovereign appointment, that they may wander on earth…avoiding their audience with their absolutely sovereign Creator and Judge? JW Montgomery states that not only believers may wander around for awhile but non-believers too. Why not? Once you open the door to anyone wandering or not coming to judgment immediately after death, then Pandora’s box is opened. Worse, the perfection of the atonement is brought into question. As I said, neither he nor his followers have offered a sufficient exegesis of this text—just announcing that after does not mean after, and this allows for ‘wiggle room’…all in the name of ‘intellectual honesty. However, JW Montgomery’s book is laden with occult ideas which are fraught with peril, and have affected many others.
But its not just God’s holy sovereignty at stake. All that we said about the perfection of the atonement is nullified if we allow for the word ‘after’ to mean anything but “immediately after”.
From the very beginning of my quest to find the truth regarding the notion of ghosts, I realized that the most important issue is: what does the notion of trapped spirits imply regarding the Person and Work of Christ? There are dozens of other issues and arguments, as I point out in my book and blogs. But nothing comes even close to THE Litmus Test: Does it enhance the beauty and perfection of the perfect atonement, or does it diminish it in ANY way? THAT is the main issue. It always has been and always will be. And I humbly insist that any notion of wandering human spirits demeans the infinitely precious and perfect work of Christ, which was intended, in part, to conquer death, and lead us into our eternal rest (see Hebrews 4)—which extrapolates from God’s eternal Sabbath after creation to our entrance into His eternal rest immediately upon death, IF we are in union with Christ and His perfect atonement.
After all the Trinity has been through to accomplish/apply our redemption, may I humbly suggest and plead with you to think through what your beliefs regarding ghosts implies about the nature of God and His Son’s unspeakably precious and perfect atonement. Don’t we understand how jealous God is for us? Are you not aware that God passionately longs for us to come home so that we may be with Him forever? According to the bible, physical death is God’s portal to lead His dearly beloved Bride home. Yes, He is anxious to see you—face-face-face-- for all eternity. He has already, at great cost to Himself, overcome all obstacles that prevent us from seeing Him immediately after death. You really think that our Lover is going to let saints (and sinners) dilly dally for even a second? If so, then you don’t understand how wildly passionate He is in His love for us. HE WANTS US HOME!!
Let me close with an illustration. When riding by a magnificent cathedral at night, the powerful flood-lights are focused on the cathedral. Nobody drives by saying, “Wow, what wonderful lights!” Instead, they say, “What a magnificent cathedral!” Similarly, that is the role of the Holy Spirit—He does not shine the Light on Himself, but He delights to accent the perfection and beauty of Christ’s Person and Work…and that He perfectly accomplished all He set out to accomplish. (There is a tension between the now and not-yet until Jesus returns.) Do not take the spotlight off the ‘cathedral’ of Christ’s utterly perfect atonement, and God’s burning holiness, and speculate on whether the deceased can hang around a bit. That is the kind of speculation which the bible warns us against. Does God wants us home now or later, after death? NOW!!! The greatest gift of the gospel is God Himself. His chariot will swing low…sweet chariot….coming to take us home.
Mark Hunnemann is the author of Seeing Ghosts Through God's Eyes: A Worldview Analysis of Earthbound Spirits. It's also available in eBook format.