For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. (Heb. 7:26–28)In this passage we see the importance given to the fact that Jesus identifies with those for whom he died by undergoing temptation. We are also made aware of the necessity that this high priest be sinless, or else he would not have been qualified to enter into the heavenly sanctuary on our behalf. The author of this epistle clearly assumes that this once-for-all sacrifice is enacted on behalf of individuals: “…since he did this [offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people] once for all when he offered up himself” (Heb. 7:27b). What wondrous love is this?
But while we may know well-enough about the personal benefits of Jesus’ atonement, how often do we think about its effect on the community at-large? How does this relate to the call of loving others through good deeds? Why is the task of outward reconciliation part and parcel of the Christian life?
Saint Paul wrote about this in his letter to the Colossians: Through Jesus, all things will be reconciled unto himself, “whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (1:20).
Unfortunately, some theologians today take the apostle to mean that this outward peace ought to be the primary element of the atonement, that it is not so much concerned with the reconciliation of individuals but with the reconciliation of the entire world through works of mercy. But what makes up the entire world if not individual and particular living souls?
Attempts such as these offer an unworthy trade, not to mention a false dichotomy. If a community of individuals seeks to establish the good works of Jesus on earth (which includes both preaching redemption and meeting human needs) without first being a community that realizes the depth of their depravity before a holy God, then they are destined to promote an empty moralism, worth nothing, saving no one. We evangelicals cannot afford to let those who deny Paul’s message of reconciliation to individual sinners champion the cause of doing good through works of mercy in this world. We own it, properly speaking. The once-for-all sacrifice of the great high priest not only affects our individual lives at one particular instant in history, it affects the whole of our lives, and through us, the whole world.
Therefore, being in the world, as a community of atoned-for individuals, means having a righteous effect upon the world. Such a task could not be fulfilled if we were to withdraw out of the world, or if we were to succumb to the world, thus becoming of this world, or “worldly,” as the apostle John phrases it (see 1 John). The church’s mission is entirely wrapped up in Jesus’ work on the cross. We must see that it is because of the selfless, tortured, and crucified Son of God that the church is bound to the task of doing his work in every generation. Jesus intimately knew pain, hunger, mental anguish, death, and something this side of physical death no one has known — being forsaken by the Father. Jesus took that ultimate burden upon himself. Thus the cross, and the atonement procured for sinners therein, becomes the very reason we seek to establish righteousness here and now.
If Jesus had already returned (as certain end-time enthusiasts exclaim), there would be no need. But our time here is filled with tension, filled with the need to establish justice and righteousness. It is a tension that describes the kingdom as here but not yet fully. It is a tension that portrays the visible people of God as consisting of both wheat and tares. It is because of this tension that the church still seeks to fulfill her mission.
Stemming from God’s command to love Him totally, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, Christians are called first to the conversion of souls and then to works of mercy. It was no coincidence that Jesus inaugurated his redemptive ministry in Galilee with the following words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19). Throughout his ministry, Jesus did just that. He preached repentance and reconciliation to the downcast, not to the “righteous” (Luke 5:31–32). He also healed the sick and fed the hungry (Matt. 15:32; Mark 1:41). As followers of Christ, then, we are to do the same. After reading about the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) or the king who divides sheep from goats (Matt. 25:34–40), who does not think part of the church’s mission is to meet human needs with mercy and liberality? Through this, the world will see the love of God and the authenticity of his good news — that saved sinners love God and their neighbors.
The final question we are left with is this: Will Jesus return to a world in shambles due to our neglect? Or, will he return to a church empowered by the life-giving Spirit, a church that has taken seriously her commission to train disciples in the kingdom of God?