William J. Stewart | Is That Really What It Means?
Let me paint a scenario that I’m confident we’ve all participated in. The preacher is drawing a great lesson on _________ (insert whatever topic) to a close, and as he extends the invitation, he wants to emphasize that we need to prepare ourselves for judgment, for unless the Lord comes first, we will all die and meet our Maker. To drive the point home, he supplies a quick quote from Hebrews:
…it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment… (Hebrews 9:27)
The lesson ends; the word has been proclaimed; folks have been encouraged; maybe someone even responded to the gospel by repenting of sin, confessing Christ and being baptized in water for the forgiveness of sin. All is good with the world, right? Yeah, well, for the most part.
Some will read this article and think, “What a nitpicker.” Others will read it and think, “That makes sense.” I hope more will be of the second opinion.
When citing a Bible text, we do not want to use it in a way the Bible does not. Further, we want to employ it in a way that is consistent with the context in which it is found. We want deal with God’s word with integrity and honesty, so we give no opportunity, no matter how small, to those who might seek to oppose.
Before we address Hebrews 9:27, let me give a few examples of what I am talking about. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus said, “…where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” This has been used to say that the Lord is with us in worship, no matter how few are assembled. That may be true, but that is not what Jesus is saying here. The context speaks about dealing with a brother who is in sin. The two or three are not worshipers, but witnesses (Matthew 18:16; cf. Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15).
Consider another example from Amos 3:3, “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” This is used to speak about the need for unity if we are to have fellowship. However, in context it is about the prophets walking with the Lord (Amos 3:7-8).
One more example. In 2 Peter 1:20, we read, “…no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation…” This has been used to say the Bible is not open to interpretation, that you or I do not have the right to apply our own understanding to a text. Though that is true, that is not what the apostle wrote about. The text deals with the transmission of Scripture, not the reception of Scripture.
So, what about our text in Hebrews 9:27? It is certainly true that a day will come when we will all die (unless the Lord comes first). Equally, it is true that the judgment is coming, and in fact, after we have passed from this life, though we do not immediately enter the final judgment, at that point our eternal destiny has been settled (see Luke 16:19-31). It is appointed for us to die once, and afterward judgment.
So, what’s the issue? Though it is true that we will die and afterward stand before God in judgment, and that is what verse 27 says, that is not the main point of the context. Far from it. Take a moment and read Hebrews 9:15-10:14. Do you see the true focus of this text?
Verse after verse is focused on the necessity of a sacrifice. The sacrifices which were made under the Law of Moses were not sufficient. They were powerless to take away sin. Thus, the necessity of Jesus, God’s Son, giving Himself as an offering for us. That is the focus of this text. And more pointedly, that this offering of Himself as an offering for our sin need only happen one time for all time for all people.
Verse 27 mentions our appointment with death and judgment, but it is a side note. To focus on our death and judgment but not the death of Christ in Hebrews 9 is like admiring a book cover but never opening it. Our focus is on the wrong thing! Verse 27 is an illustration, an example, a reference to something we are familiar with, to help us understand a bit better the reach and power of the death of Christ, one time for all time for all people (9:26, 28; 10:10, 14).