Some Things Happen Only Once

Some of the happiest experiences in a pastor’s life occur when he shares with his people God’s people!—their joy in Christ at weddings, baptisms, or professions of faith. The saddest and most difficult experiences occur when he must stand at the side of the grave and bring comfort to his people God’s people!—at a time of loss and sorrow. Both the happy and sad experiences force him back into the Word of God for explanations and support.

I was recently forced in an unusual way to stand at the grave. While seeking words of comfort and encouragement in the Scripture the words of Hebrews 9:27–28 were indelibly impressed on my mind. I was reminded in a very forceful manner that some things happen only once! In these unique, once—only occurrences there shines forth in all of its glory the sufficiency of Christ alone to meet our needs. Permit me to share with you three reminders—forceful reminders—of the uniqueness of our Christ and of our dependence upon him.

The author writes, “Inasmuch as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this judgment; so Christ also, having been once offered to bear the sins of many, shall appear n second time, apart from sin, to them that wait for him, unto salvation.” These words point to Jesus Christ, the only perfect and complete sacrifice for the sins of his people. The warning given reminds of the necessity of Christ’s death. The encouragement expressed reminds of the nature of Christ’s death. The direction implied describes the required response to Christ’s death.

The Warning Given

Can anyone miss the note of warning? God has made an appointment for men: an appointment with death. It is an unavoidable appointment which has as its issue the validity of the Law of God. For rejecting that Law or in any way tampering with it a penalty is pronounced in the words of Genesis 2:17 – “In the day you eat thereof, you shall surely die.” God’s appointment for the violation of his word of command is death. But that appointment of God goes beyond the pronouncement of a penalty; it issues in a sentence passed. For we read in Genesis 3:19 that “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.” The penalty pronounced takes effect in the sentence passed. We are all familiar with the historical occasion for the passing of the sentence. “But are we as familiar with the issues involved? It was much more than the picking of the fruit. The issue involved the validity of God’s wisdom. Could man live by the wisdom of God which insisted that man should live under a Word of prohibition? Or would man place his own wisdom over against the wisdom of God and test, on the basis of his own presuppositions, the validity of the spoken Word? The issue involved more than the picking of the fruit. At stake was the goodness of God. Did God really have the good of man, his eternal welfare and blessedness, at heart? Did God desire that which was best for man? Or should man discover the “good” for himself, divorced from, or in opposition to, the spoken Word? Could man himself “be as God” and thus determine his own destiny? There was more involved than the picking of the fruit. It was a matter of sovereign authority. Did God have the right to lay down the rules by which man and God could live in fellowship? Or did man have some inherent right to determine his own destiny apart from the authority of his creator? It was over these issues that God pronounced the penalty and passed sentence of death upon rebellious man.

When one stands at the grave he is reminded that the issues have not changed. May one—or can one—place his own wisdom over against the wisdom revealed in the (now inscripturated) Word? Can one determine apart from the revelation of the inscripturated Word whether God intends his good or not? Is it possible for man to assert his own sovereignty over against the authority revealed in the inscripturated Word? At the grave man finds the answer. For it is appointed unto men to die—the penalty pronounced issues in the sentence passed—and man returns to dust.

God has made his appointment: man is to die ONCE. What solemn words of warning! Only once. No second chance. No probation. The wages of sin is death—once! This life determines our destiny. We live and die once. And as we leave this life we shall be received into judgment. It is an awe-ful adverb—ONCE!

To die once—and then judgment! The reference, I believe, is to the next great act in redemptive history in which we shall stand before the judgment seat of Christ IN OUR RESURRECTlON BODIES. Jesus said, “The hour comes in which all that are in the tombs shall hear his (i.e., the son of Man’s) voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment.” Can any of us avoid the words of Paul who said, “We shall all stand before the judgment-seat of God”? Were not even the pagans reminded that God “has appointed a day in which he will judge the world by the man whom he has ordained; whereof he has given assurance unto all men, in that he has raised him from the dead”?

The grave leads to judgment. And what a judgment! It will be a righteous judgment in which no mistrials are possible. No errors there! It win be the “revelation of a righteous judgment of God who will render to every man according to his works: to them that by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and incorruption, eternal life; but unto them that are factions, and obey not the truth, but obey unrighteousness, shall be wrath and indignation….” Each man will receive exactly what he deserves: no more—but also no less. And the standard will be what man has done with the Word of God. None can escape. Does his life give evidence that he believes God’s wisdom rather than his own? Does his life give evidence that he trusts in the goodness of God rather than his own? Does his life give evidence that he bows before the sovereign authority of God rather than his own?

It is appointed unto men once to die and then the judgment. What will you say in that day? Can you—can I—face the judgment? Can we take what we deserve? No more—but also no less? And when your pastor must be called to bring a word of comfort because YOU are at the grave; because God’s appointment with YOU has been kept, what may your pastor say about you?

The Encouragement Expressed

“It is appointed unto men once to die!” A word of warning which points to the necessity of someone to bear our sins, to face judgment in our place. But with the word of warning comes the word of encouragement. For “so Christ also, having been once offered to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time, apart from sin, to them that wait for him, unto salvation.” Yes, there is a word of encouragement. Jesus said, “He that hears my word and believes in him that sent me has eternal life and comes not into judgment but has passed out of death into life.” The truth of those wonderful words rests upon the fact that Jesus “having been once offered to bear the sins of man, shall come a second time.”

What a marvelous Savior! The great high priest presented to us in the book of Hebrews must offer the perfect sacrifice which will take away sins. And so he does; not as the Old Testament priests who come repeatedly with the blood of animals. So he does, by offering himself! Was a penalty pronounced? Was a demand made? Must man live in perfect obedience to have eternal life? This man did! There was no deviation from the Word of God found in him. Even in that moment when he was most forsaken of God, he held onto his God in perfect obedience. Would man question the wisdom of God and his Word? Not this man! Even when he had to cry out from the depths of his anguish with that unfathomable “WHY?” it was still “MY God, My God” to whom he cried. When the unfathomable question regarding the goodness of God passed his lips seeking to know why God had forsaken him it was still “My God, My God” from whom he sought his answer. Would man question the authority of God? Not this man. For we learn of his submission and obedience to his God even in that hour in which the fullness of the wrath of God was poured out upon him for sins not his own. He alone among men fulfilled the commands of God set out in the Word of Genesis. Upon him alone no sentence of death was deserved.

Yet he died. Why? Because as men are appointed once to die he also was once offered. His death was not for his own sins; the penalty pronounced was not for his own rebellion; the sentence passed was not because of his own transgressions. No. He was offered; he was the sacrifice which need be, and could be, offered only once. His offering was sufficient substitute for the sins of many.

What a Savior! He bore the sins of many in his own body on the tree. He took upon himself the guilt of many even though personally guiltless. Genesis 2:17 led the great high priest to lay himself upon the altar. He bore the punishment which justly belonged to the many. Genesis 3:19 led the great high priest to lay himself upon the altar. All the wrath of God was poured out upon him ONCE so that those covered by his sacrifice need not come into judgment but enter into life eternal. And now, as I stand at the grave, the death of that dear one is suddenly transformed. Death is no longer the penalty for the blood-washed one; it has been made an entrance into eternal glory. The grave is no longer the harbinger of judgment; it has been transformed into the vestibule of life. “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” Hallelujah! What a Savior!

As it is appointed unto men ONCE to die, so also Christ ONCE has been offered. For many? Yes, for many! For me? How can I know? Is this a word of encouragement and comfort for ME?

The judgment of God, dear reader, is a just judgment. He who bore the sins of many bore not one bit too much—or too little. The question is whether he bore YOUR guilt—and MY guilt; whether he received YOUR judgment—and MY judgment. Was what he suffered more than you deserved? Are your sins, your rebellion, your rejection of God’s wisdom and goodness and authority so terrible that they deserved what he suffered? God’s judgment is just; if your sins are not that bad, God never laid them upon the Christ. Suddenly it becomes clear that without conviction of sin, without Biblical repentance and faith, there is no assurance that my guilt and my judgement were laid upon him. Suddenly, that “ONCE having been offered” becomes my only hope.

The word of encouragement is found not only in the “having been ONCE offered” substitute of Christ; it is found as well in the ONCE appearing a second time. Man has once to die and once to be judged; the Savior has once to be offered and once to come again. But this coming will be apart from sin. He appears now not to bear our sins but to bring to finality the whole of our salvation. He is to appear this time not as an offering but as the Lord of glory. Men are raised to enter into judgment; Christ comes again to pass judgment. And therein is the test of our faith. Adam was tried by the test of obedience. Adam failed. We are to be tried by the test of faith; faith in the coming Lord of glory. Shall we fail?

How quickly our hearts condemn us. Of course, we’ll fail if we must stand in our own strength. But the strength of faith is not our own. The strength of faith is a gift of God through Jesus Christ. The Lord of glory gives his almighty Word. It is the power of God unto salvation. It is the gift of faith. The Lord of glory sends forth his Spirit. It is the Spirit of regeneration and sanctification. It is the Comforter who leads into the truth, that truth which makes us free. It is the gift of faith. The Lord of glory shows forth his power in the lives of men, reborn, transformed, made into new creatures. It is the power of God which works within us. That is the gift of faith. And so we shall be able to stand when we are tried. The test of faith will not fail for it is the gift of God.

The Direction Implied

To all such this text brings a Word of direction and assurance as well as of warning and encouragement. It calls for a response to the death of Christ as the only Mediator. For those who stand by faith the Lord of glory will come the second time apart from sin. He comes to those “who wait for him.” This is the crux of the issue. Assurance, hope, confidence is reserved for those who wait for him. Do you?

To wait for him involves and demands a firm belief that he will indeed come again. His own word to us is that when he goes away he will prepare a place for us. And if he prepares a place for us he will come again and receive us unto himself that where he is, there we might be also. So I discover my faith stands or falls with my belief in, and confidence in, the physical return of my Lord.

James tells us in his epistle that we are to wait patiently for his coming. We are to wait as the husbandman waits for the growth of his crop. And while waiting, we are to establish our hearts. Patience has no use for idleness. Patience demands application of the heart to be firmly grounded in the truth; to bow before the Word; to be built up in the faith. Patience demands involvement in the program and processes of the kingdom of God. Patience demands establishment.

The Lord tells us in Matthew 25:10 that those who wait for the coming of the Lord will also be busy in preparation. Only those who are ready for the coming of the bridegroom will enter into the wedding feast. An eager expectation of the coming of the Lord demands an active preparation of heart and life for his glorious appearance. He shall appear a second time, apart from sin, to those that wait for him. And that, my dear friends, lays an awful burden on the heart of a godly pastor. As a pastor, I shall be called upon again to stand at the grave. And I wish to bring words of comfort and encouragement. But what shall I say? What MAY I say? What is the only message I am authorized to bring by the Lord of glory?

If it were your grave, dear friend, could , speak of the evidence in your life that you were busy preparing for eternity? Would there be the evidence of a life reborn, transformed by the power of God? Would there be the evidence not only of a confession with the lips but of a life brought under the will of God? I remember that the Lord said, “Not everyone who SAYS unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven but he that DOES THE WILL of my Father who is in heaven.” Would your life as husband or wife, parent or child, citizen and churchman give evidence that your guilt and judgment had been brought to the cross and that the life that you now live you live by the power of the Spirit of God?

Some things happen only once. Such things as the death and judgment of all men. Some things happen only once. Such things as the offering of the Lord Jesus as a substitute for sin and his glorious second coming. Some things happen only once. Let us heed the warning, embrace the encouragement, and follow the directions indicated by these things that happen once. And thus may we be led to say with Paul, “Henceforth is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day, and not to me only, but also to all them that have loved his appearing.”

Rev. Elton J. Piersma is pastor of the Spring Lake Christian Reformed Church, Spring Lake, Michigan.