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"Once in the end of the world hath he appeared, to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." HEBREWS ix. 26. (See a130 ix. 27,28; x. 2, 10.)"
THERE is a word here which recurs, like a note on an organ beneath the tumult of majestic sound. Five times, at least, it rolls forth its thunder, pealing through all ages, echoing through all worlds, announcing the finality of an accomplished redemption to the whole universe of God "ONCE!"
And there is another phrase which we must couple with it, spoken by the parched lips of the dying Saviour, yet with a loud voice, as though it were the cry of a conqueror: "When Jesus, therefore, had received the vinegar, he said, 'It is finished'; and he bowed his head and gave up the ghost." It is very seldom that man can look back on a finished life-work. The chisel drops from the paralyzed hand ere the statue is complete; the chilling fingers refuse to guide the pen along another line, though the book is so nearly done; the statesman must leave his plans and far-reaching schemes to be completed by another, perhaps his rival. But as from his cross Jesus Christ our Lord looked upon the work of redemption which he had undertaken, and in connection with which he had suffered even to the hiding of his Father's face, he could not discover one stitch, or stone, or particle deficient. For untold myriads for thee and me and all there was done that which never needed to be done again, but stood as an accomplished fact forevermore.
THE "ONCE" OF A COMPLETED WORK (ix. 26). In these words there is a sigh of relief. A thought had for a moment flashed across the sunlit page of Scripture, which had suggested an infinite horror. In pursuing the parallels between the incidents of the great day of atonement and the great day when Jesus died, we had been suddenly reminded of the fact that the solemn spectacle was witnessed once a year " The high-priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others" (ver. 25). Every year the same rites performed, the same blood shed, the same propitiation made. Suppose that, after the same analogy, Jesus had suffered every year! Every year the agony of the shadowed garden! Every year the bitter anguish of the cross! Every year the burial in the garden tomb! Then earth would have been overcast with midnight, and life would have been agony! Who could bear to see him suffer often!
But there was no necessity for him to suffer more than once; because repetition means imperfection, of which, in his work, there is no sign or trace. There petition of the sacrifices of the Jewish law meant that they could not take away sin, or make the comers thereunto perfect. Again and again the crowd of pious Jews gathered, driven to seek deliverance from the conscience of sins, which brooded deeply and darkly over their souls. Perhaps they would receive momentary respite as they saw the elaborate ceremonial, and felt that they were included in the high-priest's confession and benediction. And so they wended their way homeward; but ere long a weary sense of dissatisfaction would again betake them: they would reflect on the inadequacy of the atonement which stood only in the offering of the life of slain beasts. Sins were remembered, but not put away; it was impossible that the blood of bulls and goats could do that (x. 4). And so, doubtless, in the more thoughtful, hearts must have failed, and consciences moaned out their weary plaint unsatisfied. Therefore the sacrifices had to be presented continually.
On the other hand, Christ's work needs no repetition. It is final because it is perfect. Its perfection is attested, because it has never been repeated. "In that he died, he died unto sin once." Our Saviour set his hand to save us: he did not mean to faith he came into our world with this distinct purpose; he died to do it; and, having done it, he went home to God. But if from the vantage-ground of the throne, reviewing his work, he had discerned any deficiency or flaw, he would have come back to make it good; and, inasmuch as he has not done so, we may be sure that the death of the cross is perfectly satisfactory. "Now once, in the end of the ages, hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." Oh, ponder these wondrous words! Once. He liveth forevermore; and shall never again pass for a moment under the dark shadow of death.
He hath appeared (or been manifested). What then? He must have existed previously. The incarnation was but the embodiment in visible form of One who existed before all worlds; and the death of the cross was the unfolding in a single act of eternal facts in the nature of God. As the great sun-disk may be mirrored in a tiny mountain tarn, so in the one day of crucifixion, there were set forth to men, angels, and devils, love, sacrifice, and redeeming mercy, which are part of the very essence of God. Marvelous, indeed, the rending of the veil, by which such marvels are revealed.
In the end of the world (or of the ages). God is called the King of Ages. Time is probably as much a creation as space or distance or matter. It is an accommodation to finite thought; a parenthesis in eternity; a rainbow flung across the mighty age of deity. We break time into hours; God breaks it into ages. There are ages behind us, and ages before. We stand on a narrow neck of land between two seas. The first age of which we know anything is that of creation. The second, of Paradise. The third, of the world before the flood. The fourth, of the Patriarchs. The fifth, of Moses, ending with the fall of Jerusalem, and the death of the Messiah. The sixth, of the Gentiles, in which we live. And before us, we can dimly descry the forms of the Age of Millennium; the Age of Regeneration and Restitution; the Age of Judgment; and the Age in which the kingdom shall be delivered to the Father. There is thus a complete analogy between the creation of the material world, and the creation of the new heavens and earth.
Geologists love to enumerate the strata of the earth's formation through which the processes of world -building were carried; and we shall probably discover some day that God has been building up the new creation through successive ages of history and development. Christ's death is here said to have happened at the end of the ages; and we should at once see the force of this, even though there may remain several great ages to be fulfilled, ere time run out its course, if only we knew how many ages have preceded. Compared to the number that have been, this is the end, the climax, the ridge of the weary climb; what lies beyond are the miles of level surface, to the sudden dip down of the cliffs in face of the ocean of eternity.
He hath put away sin. Oh, marvelous word! It might be rendered to annihilate, to make as if it had never been. The wreath of cloud may disappear, but the separated drops still float through space. The bubble may break on the foam-tipped wave, but the film of water has gone to add its attenuated addition to the ocean depth. But Jesus has put sin away as when a debt is paid, an obligation is canceled, or a sin-laden victim was slain, burned, and buried in the old days of Moses. All sin, the sin of the world, the accumulated sin of mankind was made to meet in Jesus. He was made sin. He stood before the universe as though he had drawn upon himself all the human sin which has ever rent the air or befouled the earth, or put the stars of night to the blush; and, bearing the shame, the horror, the penalty during those dread hours which rung from him the cry of desolate forsakenness, he put it away, and wiped it out forever; and, in doing this, he has put away the penal results of Adam's fall.
The inherited tendencies to evil remain in all the race; but the spiritual penalty which Adam incurred for himself and all of us, as our representative and head, has been canceled by the sufferings and death of our glorious representative and head, the Second Adam, the Lord from heaven. Men will still have to suffer the penalty of sins which they voluntarily commit, and for which they do not seek forgiveness and cleansing through the blood; but men will not have to suffer the penalty which otherwise must have accrued to them, as members of a fallen race-fallen with their first parents and father, because Jesus put away that when he died. And thus it is that the multitudes of sweet babes, idiots, and others who belong to Adam's race, but have had no opportunity of personal transgression, are able to enter without let or hindrance into the land where there entereth nothing which defileth.
By the sacrifice of himself. Not by his example, fair and lovely though it was. Not by his teaching, though the food of the world. Not by his works, the source and fountain-head of modern philanthropy. But by his death, and by his death as a sacrifice. If you want to understand a writer, you must know the sense in which he uses his characteristic words, and you must carefully study the definitions which he gives of them. And if you would understand the meaning of Christ's death, you must go back to the definitions, given in minute detail in Leviticus, of the meaning of sacrifice, atonement, and propitiation, by which that death is afterward described; and Only so much you dare to interpret. Whatever sacrifice meant in Leviticus, it means when applied to the death of the cross. And surely there can be no controversy that of old it stood for the substitution of the innocent for the guilty; the canceling of deserved penalty because it had been borne by another; the wiping out of sin by the shedding of blood. All this it must mean when applied to the death of Christ, with this difference, that of old the suffering was borne and death endured involuntarily; but in the case of our blessed Redeemer, God in him took home to himself, voluntarily and freely, the accumulated results of a world's sin, and suffered them, and made them as if they had never been. "He put away sin by the sacrifice of himself."
What was the death of Christ? "A martyrdom," cries modern thought. "A mischance in an unenlightened age," replies the reviewer. "An outcome of all such efforts to battle with evil," says the broad-church teacher.
"A SACRIFICE!" thunders this Book. A voluntary sacrifice! A voluntary sacrifice by which sin has been borne and put away. Here we rest, content to abide, in a world of mystery, at the foot of one mystery more, which, despite all its mystery, answers the cry of a convicted conscience, and sheds the peace of heaven through our hearts.
THE "ONCE" OF MORTALITY (ix. 27). With a few exceptions mentioned on the page of Scripture, where miracles of raising are recounted, men die but once. For those there was one cradle, two coffins; one birth, two burials. But for most it is mercifully arranged that the agony and pain of dissolution should be experienced only once. And this, which is the ordinary lot of humanity, also befell Jesus Christ. He could not die often, because he was literally man, and it would have been inconsistent to violate in his case the universal law. He must become man, because only through the portal of birth could he reach the bourne of death; but, having been born, and assumed our nature, he must obey the laws of that nature, and die but once.
THE "ONCE" OF DEITY (ix. 28). There must have been something more than mortal in him, who in his one death could bear away the sins of many. Good and great men have died, who would have done anything to cancel or atone for the sins of their nation, their family, and their beloved; but in vain. How marvelous then must be his worth, whose sufferings and death will counterveil for a world's sin!
And we can see the imperious necessity that our Saviour should be God manifest in the flesh; and that he who became obedient to the death of the cross should be also he who was in the form of God, and thought it not robbery to be God's equal. If it be true that his death "once" has put away sin, then, bring hither your songs of worship, your wreaths of empire, your ascriptions of lowliest adoration; for he must be God. No being of inferior make could do for man what, in that brief but dreadful darkness, he has done once for all, and forever.
THE "ONCE" OF A PURGED CONSCIENCE (x. 2). We are not in the position of the Jews, needing to repeat their sacrifices year by year, in sad monotony; our sacrifice has been offered once for all. Therefore, we have not, like them, the perpetual conscience of sins. Our hearts are, once and forever, sprinkled from an evil conscience (ver. 22).
There is no necessity to ask repeatedly for forgiveness for the sins that have been once confessed and forgiven. God does not accuse us of them; we need not accuse ourselves. God does not remember them; we may well forget them, save as incentives to gratitude and humility. There is daily need for fresh confession of recent sin; but when once the soul realizes the completeness of Christ's work on its behalf, it cries with great joy: "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us."
THE "ONCE" OF A FULFILLED PURPOSE (x. io). Space forbids our lingering longer. In our next chapter we may show how completely the purpose of God has been realized in Jesus, and, therefore, that there is no necessity for a repetition of his sacrificial work. The will or purpose of God for man's redemption asks for nothing more than that which is given it in the life and death of our Saviour. Nothing more is required for the glory of God, for the accomplishment of the divine counsels, or for the perfect deliverance and sanctification of those who believe.
"Once for all, sinner, receive it!
Once for all, hrother, believe it!
Cling to the cross, the burden will fall;
Christ has redeemed us, once for all""
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