One of the things I love about Facebook is getting in touch with old friends I haven’t heard from for years. However, after the initial contact and the questions back and forth on what we’ve been doing, the relationship usually settles back into the dormant state that it was in during the intervening years. Finding out what an old school friend is doing now often does nothing more than satisfy my curiosity. It doesn’t have any real impact on our friendship.
How important is it for us to think about what Jesus is doing now? Is it just something to merely satisfy our curiosity? After all, surely it is more important to concentrate on what Jesus did in the past—his incarnation, his life, his death, his resurrection—or to think about his future return from heaven. When we do think about Jesus in the present, we perhaps tend to think in general terms about what God is doing. Jesus is doing what God is doing. That’s true; Jesus is God, and so if God is doing something that means that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all doing it. At the same time, there are things that we can say are unique about the different persons in the Trinity, and that it would be wrong to say about the other persons of the Trinity. The Father did not die on the cross; only the Son died on the cross. The Son did not come down at Pentecost; only the Spirit came at Pentecost. So, what can we say specifically about the Son today—what is he doing?
There is a surprising amount of material in the New Testament describing the current work of Christ. One important aspect of Jesus’ ongoing work is to ensure the church is strengthened. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells Peter that he will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. That is a promise that continues. Jesus is building his church, which is a great encouragement in the face of opposition and persecution. Whatever happens, we can be confident in the promise that Jesus is building his church.
One way he builds his church is by equipping it. In Ephesians 4:11-12, Paul tells us that Christ gave the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body”. Christ equips believers by giving us Bible teachers who prepare us to do the ministry of building the church. In Ephesians 5:28-30, Paul tells husbands to love their wives as their bodies. They are to nourish and cherish their own bodies “just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body”. The health of the church depends on Jesus’ ongoing sustaining work. There are other aspects of Jesus’ work that we could look at, but I want to concentrate on three that are particularly relevant for our salvation.
1. Jesus is sitting at the right hand of his Father
It might appear that sitting is not all that significant an activity. How many movies are made where the hero sits down the entire time? Hollywood’s heroes are all active. But one of the most important aspects to grasp about Jesus’ current activity is that he is sitting. The fact that Jesus is sitting means that his work of redemption is finished.
Hebrews helps us see this more than any other book. It’s written to people who were tempted to turn from belief in Jesus to Judaism. It could be that the writer was addressing Jewish Christians who were tempted to go back to their old religion. Or perhaps the readers were Gentiles who were tempted to turn to Judaism, which externally seemed so impressive. After all, Judaism was an officially recognized religion, more tangible with its priests and temple. It may have seemed more ‘real’ than faith in a Christ who was in heaven.
Either way, the author of Hebrews spends time showing not only how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament, but also how Jesus is superior to the religion of the Old Testament. For a large part of the book he does that by comparing Jesus and the Old Testament priests from a number of different angles. In Hebrews 10, the author talks about how under the Old Testament sacrificial system sins were not really dealt with. That sacrifices were continually made year after year simply pointed to the fact that they were ineffective. And the reason? Simply, it “is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (v. 4). The author then moves on to compare Jesus to the Old Testament priests. Hebrews describes Jesus as a priest, but unlike the Old Testament priests, who continued to offer sacrifices year after year, Jesus offered “for all time a single sacrifice for sins” and then “he sat down” (v. 12). Why? Because his work is finished. Because “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (v. 14). Only one sacrifice was necessary, because the sacrifice that Jesus offered was his own perfect blood and it perfected the recipients for all time. He did not and does not need to do anything else to secure our redemption, so he sat down.
Verse 14 is strong language—because of Jesus’ one sacrifice we have been perfected for all time. “But don’t I still sin, and don’t I need to change?” Yes! But in God’s sight, because of Jesus’ one sacrifice, you are ‘complete’—not lacking anything. In terms of your relationship with him you are perfect. There is nothing more that needs to be done to reconcile you to God. Nothing more that needs to be done to pay for your sin. Nothing more that needs to be done to deal with his wrath. As Christians we need to continually remind ourselves of the cross, but we also need to remind ourselves of Jesus sitting at the right hand of God, because that reminds us that his death on the cross was effective and that we are now perfect in God’s sight.
It is worth being clear how this differs from what the Roman Catholic Church teaches. In the New Testament, the Lord’s Supper is a wonderful physical reminder of the death of Jesus—the finished work of Jesus. However, the Roman Catholic Catechism teaches this:
The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” “And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner… this sacrifice is truly propitiatory.”1
For the Roman Catholic Church, the Mass is not a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, although that is sometimes how Protestants portray it. Roman Catholicism teaches not that the Mass repeats Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice, but that it extends it. It is seen as one and the same sacrifice. As such, the Mass is believed to actually take away sin. It is understood to be truly propitiatory. That is why the Mass is so central in Roman Catholic theology. But this understanding cannot help but denigrate the finished work of Christ. It denies the fact that when Jesus offered himself he sat down. His work is done. He does not continue to offer himself through the ministry of human priests. His work is complete. It does not need to be extended, only received in faith. By that one finished sacrifice, Christ has perfected those who trust in him. Christ has sat down.
2. Jesus is appearing in heaven on our behalf
In Hebrews 9:23-28, the author makes a very similar point to the one he made in chapter 10. In this passage, the point is again that Jesus is not like an Old Testament priest. When the Old Testament priest made a sacrifice, he would enter the sanctuary to appear on behalf of the people. However, Jesus does not enter a man-made sanctuary but enters heaven itself. Also, he stresses that Christ did not offer himself repeatedly but offered himself once: “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (v. 26). But the author also describes what Jesus is doing now. He has entered heaven “now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (v. 24).
Jesus is appearing in the presence of God on our behalf. What does that mean? When we think of someone appearing on our behalf, we tend to think of a courtroom where a lawyer will defend his accused client. And so, because we have this image, sometimes this text can make us a bit nervous. Doesn’t it seem to say that when I sin Jesus has to persuade the Father not to punish me? But that cannot be what it is saying—because Jesus has already paid the price for all our sin. The author makes that point in verse 26: “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself”. Jesus has appeared in heaven once for all. It is his very presence in heaven that speaks to God on our behalf.
In 1 John 2:1-2 there is a similar idea:
If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
Surely an advocate is one who will plead on our behalf? Isn’t this saying that every time we sin Jesus is pleading in heaven for us? No, again we need to look at how John continues in verse 2: “He is the propitiation for our sins”. It is not what Jesus says but his very presence—as the one who paid for our sins—that speaks to God. The simple fact that he is there means that we need never fear punishment. He is our advocate because he is our propitiation, not because he is continually pleading for us to be forgiven.
What is Jesus doing now? He is appearing in heaven on our behalf. His very presence speaks to God for us.
Both Jesus sitting in heaven and his appearing for us flow out from his once-and-for-all sacrifice on the cross. He is sitting down because his work is finished. He is appearing for us because his very presence in heaven speaks to God on our behalf. Both these aspects to Jesus’ current work remind us that, when we sin, we need to learn to look up as well as back. We look up and we see Jesus enthroned in heaven. We remember that he has finished his work, that his very presence in heaven speaks to God on our behalf. As long as he is there we don’t need to do anything. When we sin, we don’t have to do anything. It is easy to think of confession as doing something, but it is not. When we confess our sins we are admitting them, but we aren’t actually doing anything. No, we are actually admitting that nothing needs to be done because it has all been done. Our security, our assurance, our hope even as we rightly feel guilty for our sin—is in the finished work of Christ. If we are honest, it is often the passage of time since we last sinned that becomes the foundation of our confidence. The fact that it’s been a whole month since we lost our temper or looked at that website is what makes us feel good about ourselves. But as we think like that, we take our eyes off the one who is sitting in heaven, appearing on our behalf. The one who has made an end to all our sin.
Both Jesus’ sitting and Jesus’ appearing are vital to grasp. They are both essentially passive actions flowing from his finished work.
3. Jesus is interceding at the right hand of his Father
In Hebrews 7, the author again compares Jesus to the Old Testament priests. This time, the point of comparison is the fact that they died. Their individual priesthoods came to an end, whereas Jesus lives forever and so his priesthood continues eternally. As a result, the author tells us that Jesus “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (v. 25).
Verse 25 may jar a little. Haven’t we said that we are perfected already? Why does the author speak about us needing to be saved ‘to the uttermost’? And how does this ongoing work of intercession fit with the idea that Jesus has finished his work, and that he is sitting at God’s right hand?
Firstly, aren’t we saved already? When I was a young Christian, I was part of a church in Northern Ireland. Each Christmas, one of the older men in the church would play Santa Claus at the Sunday school Christmas party. He was a very godly man who was concerned for the children’s spiritual state. So, when they were put on his lap, he wouldn’t ask them what they wanted for Christmas—no, he would ask them if they were saved! I have always wondered if someone actually became a Christian through this man, and whether in their testimony they could share about being led to the Lord by Santa Claus. I imagine they would need to do some careful theological sorting out of what actually happened! The point is that it’s a legitimate question to ask someone, because the New Testament does speak of us being saved already, in Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith”.
However, the New Testament also speaks about salvation being a future occurrence. In Hebrews 9:28, the author says, “Christ… will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him”. Hebrews, this book that says so much about Jesus’ one sacrifice for sin and how he has finished his work, also says that our salvation is future. If you read through Hebrews, you will see that the author writes an awful lot about the need to persevere and not give up on the Christian life. In fact, in 13:22 the author describes his letter as a word of exhortation. Hebrews is written so that we don’t give up but keep going, so that we will be saved at the end.
There are very severe warnings here about the danger of abandoning the Christian life. Does that contradict what we have been saying about how Jesus’ death made us perfect in God’s sight? No, because the Christian life is one of continual trust in Jesus. We don’t just trust in him once and that’s it. The Christian life is so difficult because we continually face temptations to give up. I have two close friends who have left the faith—one because he fell in love with getting rich, the other because he felt he couldn’t live the Christian life.2Whatever the reason, all of us sooner or later will face the temptation to give up. Hebrews was written to those who were tempted in this way.
But persevering in the Christian life is not simply a matter of our own effort and willpower. No, remember the description of Jesus in Hebrews 7:25? Jesus is praying for us to be saved to the uttermost, interceding for us to persevere, petitioning that we keep on. This verse sometimes gets considered with the ones we have just looked at in terms of Christ passively representing us before God, and so his intercession is understood in a representative manner. People will say, “It is not as if Christ is actually praying for us, because he doesn’t need to. His presence in heaven is a kind of prayer for us.” Their argument goes that if you say that Christ is continuing to pray for us, then you are calling into question the efficacy of his atonement. However, the word ‘intercede’ is never used in this kind of metaphorical way in the Bible. In Romans 8:26, the Holy Spirit is described as interceding for us “with groanings too deep for words”. The Spirit is actively praying for us. It’s the same in Hebrews. Jesus is praying for us—not that we’d be reconciled to God, he is not interceding for our sins to be forgiven. No, he is praying that we would be saved to the uttermost, to be saved to the end—something that lies in the future. Jesus is praying for us to persevere. He is praying for us to keep going as Christians.
Jesus is praying in heaven the way he prayed on earth. Jesus frequently prayed for his disciples to persevere. In Luke 22:32, Jesus prayed for Peter’s faith not to fail. He prays in John 17:15 that the disciples be protected from the evil one. The prayers of Jesus are for the disciples’ perseverance in faith. It is his ongoing prayer that sustains them.
This idea of Jesus continuing to sustain and help believers is present elsewhere in Hebrews. In 2:18, Jesus is described as being able to help those who are being tempted. Similarly, in 4:16 believers are enjoined to go to the throne of grace so that they may receive help in times of need. Jesus sustains believers in times of temptation so that, like Peter in Luke 22, we will persevere in our faith. We are continually in need of his help in the face of temptation.
So often we think of our perseverance in terms of what we need to do—our prayer, our bible reading, our church attendance. But Hebrews reminds us that even our perseverance rests on Christ. He intercedes for us to keep going.
It is a real encouragement to have a Christian friend praying for us. How much more to have Jesus praying for us at God’s right hand! The response is not to sit back and go into cruise control. No, the response is to keep trusting in him, to “draw near to God through him” (7:25), knowing that not only is he the only one who can reconcile us to God, but that he is the only one who can ensure we make it to the end.
What is Jesus doing now? He is sitting at the right hand of the Father, appearing on our behalf. His work of redemption is complete. Nothing more needs to be done—by him or by us. It is finished. But he is also praying for us, because we are not in heaven yet.
Knowing what he is doing now does more than just satisfy our curiosity. When we sin, we need to remember that Jesus is sitting down, that his work is finished, and that he is appearing in heaven on our behalf. When we struggle to keep going and are tempted to give up, we need to remember that someone is always praying for us. And not just anyone, but the risen and exalted Lord Jesus is the one who is continually praying that we will be saved to the uttermost.
1The Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, paragraph 1367.
2Their giving up shows that they were never really Christians (1 John 2:19)—but that is another discussion for another time!