The Three Appearances of Jesus, 1

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Hebrews 9:24-28

Most Christians are aware that Jesus will appear on earth a second time.  We call this appearing, appropriately enough, “the Second Coming.”  Orthodox Christians will differ about the exact order of the events; or whether or not a “rapture of the saints” will occur.  But no orthodox Christian believes that there will be no second appearing of Jesus on the earth.

Jesus appeared on earth the first time on earth in a humiliating manner.  The mighty Son of God came to earth as a crying baby.  He grew and matured as a man, experiencing all the things any other man would experience – the good and the bad things.  Our Lord, in obedience to His heavenly Father, carried out His mission of redemption by experiencing the greatest humiliation of all:  death by crucifixion, a death reserved for the scum of the earth.

However, in between that first appearance and His second appearance, Jesus appeared again.  No, I’m not referring to Joseph Smith’s fiction of Jesus appearing to the native Americans.  Consider what the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote:

For Christ has entered into heaven itself to appear now before God as our Friend. It was not in the earthly place of worship that he did this, for that was merely a copy of the real temple in heaven.   Nor has he offered himself again and again, as the high priest down here on earth offers animal blood in the Holy of Holies each year.  If that had been necessary, then he would have had to die again and again, ever since the world began. But no! He came once for all, at the end of the age, to put away the power of sin forever by dying for us.  And just as it is destined that men die only once, and after that comes judgment, so also Christ died only once as an offering for the sins of many people; and he will come again, but not to deal again with our sins.  (Hebrews 9:24-28  TLB) 

Jesus Christ “has entered into heaven itself to appear now before God as our friend.”  So really the Second Coming is the third appearance of Jesus, having appeared the first time, born of a virgin.  He is in heaven, right now, by the Father’s side.  What Hebrews 9 is referring to are the three tenses of His appearings:  the past, the present, and the future.

This is an important thing, because all three appearings of our Lord are connected with the three aspects of our great salvation:  the past, the present, and the future.  Put another way, we were saved when Jesus came the first time, we are being saved by His ministry before the Father in heaven, and we will be saved when He returns.

The facts and significance of Jesus’ first appearance on earth  are well known.  So let’s consider the other two appearances, beginning with our Lord’s appearance in heaven.

Setting the scene:  some context 

The author of this letter was a Hebrew himself, writing to Hebrews of things they would understand.  We may struggle to grasp what he wrote, but his readers would have easily grasped every word.  This great letter began with the proposition that “God had spoken…” and by the time we get to chapter 8, the writer declares that “we have a high priest.”  Yes, the Jewish faith had a priesthood that worked in and around the Temple in Jerusalem, in fulfillment of the Mosaic Law, but that’s not the high priest the writer was referencing.  The Christian also has a High Priest, and that’s who he’s writing about:

What we are saying is this: Christ, whose priesthood we have just described, is our High Priest and is in heaven at the place of greatest honor next to God himself.  (Hebrews 8:1  TLB) 

The Jewish system of belief and practices was precise and demanding.  But it was insufficient.  The demands of the Law could not save a man.  No human being could possibly keep every jot and tittle of the Law.  Yet, God wasn’t playing some great cosmic game with His people by giving them Laws He knew couldn’t be followed.  Man needed to discover for himself that there was nothing he could do that would result in his salvation.  Something – someone –  else was needed.

This has an important lesson for us today. For under the old system, gifts and sacrifices were offered, but these failed to cleanse the hearts of the people who brought them.  For the old system dealt only with certain rituals—what foods to eat and drink, rules for washing themselves, and rules about this and that. The people had to keep these rules to tide them over until Christ came with God’s new and better way.  (Hebrews 9:9, 10  TLB) 

This has an important lesson for us, as well.  We aren’t the Jews to whom this letter was written, but there is within every human being the notion that it is by our efforts we are saved.  Good deeds, many think, can earn them a place in heaven.  The idea is that man must do something in order to get saved or stay saved.  The Galatians had this problem.  They believed sincerely that Jesus Christ provided their salvation, but at the same time false teachers hoodwinked them into believing that, while Jesus may have saved them, they had to do things, too.  To which Paul exclaimed:

Oh, foolish Galatians! What magician has hypnotized you and cast an evil spell upon you? For you used to see the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death as clearly as though I had waved a placard before you with a picture on it of Christ dying on the cross.  Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by trying to keep the Jewish laws? Of course not, for the Holy Spirit came upon you only after you heard about Christ and trusted him to save you.  Then have you gone completely crazy? For if trying to obey the Jewish laws never gave you spiritual life in the first place, why do you think that trying to obey them now will make you stronger Christians?  (Galatians 3:1-3  TLB)

There are many Christians today every bit as foolish as the Galatians were 2,000 years ago.  They foolishly believe that wearing certain clothing or doing certain things in the church or working for this benevolent group or that somehow earns brownie points with the Almighty!  It doesn’t.  Doing things like that may make you feel good, or help other people, or put you in good stead with your friends and neighbors, but not so with God.  With Him, all you need is what Jesus did for you.

Christ’s work was done where it counted 

All the high priests of Judaism worked tirelessly in the Temple, which we are told was a mere copy of the heavenly temple, doing things that didn’t result in anybody’s salvation, yet did point to the future and to the work of another High Priest, Jesus Christ.

But Christ didn’t do His work in any man-made temple.  Atonement for sin doesn’t happen in a church or by following an established set of rules, no matter how good they may seem.  Jesus accomplished the forgiveness of sins in a most remarkable way:

For Christ has entered into heaven itself to appear now before God as our Friend. It was not in the earthly place of worship that he did this, for that was merely a copy of the real temple in heaven.  (Hebrews 9:24  TLB) 

You may sin on earth, but it is God who is offended in heaven, therefore Atonement must be made in heaven.  And that’s where Jesus did His great work, by way of the Cross, and that’s where He continues to do His work of salvation today!

All those Jewish high priests were doing their work in a copy or a shadow of where Jesus would do His.  But that doesn’t mean those earthly high priests were wasting their time.  On the contrary, by their work the Hebrews were meant to see their own weaknesses and the insufficiency of the Law and long for some permanent solution to their sin problem.

Who then will condemn us? Will Christ? No! For he is the one who died for us and came back to life again for us and is sitting at the place of highest honor next to God, pleading for us there in heaven.  (Romans 8:8:34  TLB)

Jesus has appeared in heaven, but He’s not on vacation, taking it easy!  He is “pleading for us,” that is, we may be saved, but we are continuing to be saved by Christ’s continuing work  – not on the Cross, because that’s all over and done with –  in heaven, beside His Father.

One salvation, three aspects 

Christ’s work has three aspects, one of which is completed, one of which continues to this very day, and one of which will happen some time in the future.  No wonder the Bible refers of our salvation  as “glorious!”  It is!  God’s plan of salvation was brilliantly conceived, magnificently executed, wonderfully maintained, and will be splendiferously consummated when our Lord appears for the third time – the second time here on earth.

So why write about all this?   Adolphus Huxley, pacifist and well-known drug user, who wrote Brave, New World and whose death nobody remembers (he died the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated), once wrote during a lucid moment in his life:

Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.

And I would add to Mr Huxley’s observation these words:  “especially Christians.”  We are the absolute worst; we take our salvation for granted almost the moment after we are saved!  For some of us it may take a little longer, but eventually we all take what Jesus did for us for granted.

And that’s a real shame.  When was the last time you thought about what Jesus is doing for you, beyond asking Him to answer some prayer or another?  He prays for you.  He intercedes for you when you sin.  For some of you, that’s practically a full time job.  When was the last time you took the time to thank God for the fact that Jesus is saving you right now?

 

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