John Piper does an excellent job answering this question in a sermon from May 26, 1996:

“But we do see Him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.” – Hebrews 2:9

For Those He Came to Save

Yesterday I marched for Jesus along with thousands of others in the Twin Cities and with millions of others around the world. As I turned from Nicollet Mall onto Sixth Street we were singing the second stanza of “Crown Him With Many Crowns.” I am probably the only one who was thinking at that moment of this morning’s message. The title of the message this morning is, “For Whom Did Jesus Taste Death?” The second verse of “Crown Him with Many Crowns” goes like this:

Crown Him the Lord of life,
Who triumphed o’er the grave.

Who rose victorious in the strife
For those He came to save.

His glories now we sing,
Who died and rose on high.

Who died eternal life to bring,
And lives that death may die.

He triumphed over the grave and rose victorious in the strife for those he came to save. “For those he came to save.” These words seem to signal that the writer of this hymn believes that Christ had a design to really save a particular group of people by his death. He triumphed over the grave for those he came to save. It sounds like there are some he came to save, and that for these the grave is defeated and eternal life is given.

For Everybody?

So my question this morning is this: “For whom did Jesus taste death?” Ask 100 evangelical Christians in America that question and 95 will probably say, “Everybody.” And there is something healthy about that answer—and something unhealthy. What’s healthy about it is that it is not cliquish or elitist or sectarian. It has an eye on the world. It wants others to enjoy the forgiveness of sins that believers enjoy. It is not narrow and confined in its affections.

It tries to express the Biblical truth that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes might not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). It is healthy and right to believe that everyone who has faith—no matter what race or education or intelligence or social class or former religion—everyone who puts faith in Jesus Christ is justified and accepted with God on the basis of Jesus’ shed blood. It’s healthy and right to believe that no one can say, “I really want to be saved by believing Jesus, but I can’t be because he did not die for me.” No one can say that. There is no one who truly believes for whom Jesus did not taste death.

There are lots of reasons why this answer (that Jesus tasted death for everyone) is a sign of spiritual health. One of the most obvious reasons is right here in our text, Hebrews 2:9: But we do see Him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.

The answer that 95% of evangelicals would give is a healthy sign of desire to say what the Bible says.

But to say what the Bible says and to mean what the Bible means are not necessarily the same thing. Which is why I said that there is something unhealthy about answering the question “For whom did Jesus taste death?” by simply saying “everybody.” What’s unhealthy about it is not, first, that it’s wrong. It might not be wrong. It depends on what you mean by saying that. What’s unhealthy is that it stops short of asking what Jesus really accomplished when he died. It assumes that we all know what he accomplished and that this he accomplished for everybody in the same way. That is not healthy, because it is not true. My guess is that most of those 95% who say Jesus died for everybody would have a hard time explaining just what it is that the death of Jesus really, actually accomplished for everybody—especially what it accomplished for those who refuse to believe and go to hell.

Then Why Is Not Everyone Saved?

In other words, it’s unhealthy to say that Jesus tasted death for everyone and not to know what Jesus really accomplished by dying. Suppose you say to me, “I believe that Jesus died for everyone,” and I respond, “Then why is not everyone saved?” Your answer probably would be, “Because you have to receive the gift of salvation; you have to believe in Christ in order for his death to count for you.” I agree, but then I say, “So you believe that Christ died for people who reject him and go to hell in the same way that he died for those who accept him and go to heaven?” You say, “Yes, the difference is the faith of those who go to heaven. Faith connects you with the benefits of the death of Jesus.”

There are several problems here. I will only mention one. And I dwell on this because, if this is what you believe, then you are missing out on the depths of covenant love that God has for you in Christ by understanding it to be the same as the love he has for those who reject him. And you are, in one serious way, “neglecting your great salvation,” which, we saw in Hebrews 2:3, we must not do. There is a greatness about being loved with Calvary love that you will never know if you believe that those in hell were loved and died-for the same way you were.

It would be as though a wife insisted that her husband loved and sacrificed for her no differently than he loves and sacrifices for all the women in the world. But in fact Paul, the apostle, says in Ephesians 5:25-27: Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless.

That’s what we mean when we say he died for the church, his bride. In other words there is a precious and unfathomable covenant love between Christ and his bride, that moved him to die for her. The death of Jesus is for the bride of Christ in a different way than it is for those who perish.

Here’s the problem with saying Christ died for all the same way he died for his bride. If Christ died for the sins of those who are finally lost, the same way he died for the sins of those who are finally saved, then what are the lost being punished for? Were their sins covered and canceled by the blood of Jesus or not? We Christians say, “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). And we mean that his death paid the debt those sins created. His death removed the wrath of God from me. His death lifted the curse of the law from me. His death purchased heaven for me. It really accomplished those things!

But what would it mean to say of an unbeliever in hell that Christ died for his sins? Would we mean that the debt for his sins was paid? If so, why is he paying again in hell? Would we mean that the wrath of God was removed? If so, why is the wrath of God being poured out on him in punishment for sins? Would we mean that the curse of the law was lifted? If so, why is he bearing his curse in the lake of fire?

One possible answer is this: one might say that the only reason people go to hell is because of the sin of rejecting Jesus, not because of all the other sins of their life. But that is not true. The Bible teaches that the wrath of God is coming on the world, not just because of its rejection of Jesus, but because of its many sins that are not forgiven. For example, in Colossians 3:5-6, Paul refers to “immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed,” and then says, “On account of these things the wrath of God will come.” So people who reject Jesus really will be punished for their specific sins, not just for rejecting Jesus.

In What Sense Did Jesus Taste Death for a Person in Hell?

So, we go back to the problem: in what sense did Christ taste death for their sins? If they are still guilty for their sins and still suffer punishment for their sins, what happened on the cross for their sins? Perhaps someone would use an analogy. You might say, Christ purchased their ticket to heaven, and offered it to them freely, but they refused to take it, and that is why they went to hell. And you would be partly right: Christ does offer his forgiveness freely to all, and any who receives it as the treasure it is will be saved by the death of Jesus. But the problem with the analogy is that the purchase of the ticket to heaven is, in reality, the canceling of sins. But what we have seen is that those who refuse the ticket are punished for their sins, not just for refusing the ticket. And so what meaning does it have to say that their sins were canceled? Their sins are going to bring them to destruction and keep them from heaven; so their sins were not really canceled in the cross, and therefore the ticket was not purchased.

The ticket for heaven which Jesus obtained for me by his blood is the wiping out of all my sins, covering them, bearing them in his own body, so that they can never bring me to ruin—can never be brought up against me again—never. That’s what happened when he died for me. Hebrews 10:14 says, “By one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” Perfected before God for all time, by the offering his life! That’s what it means that he died for me. Hebrews 9:28 says, “Christ also, [was] offered once to bear the sins of many.” He bore my sins. He really bore them (See Isaiah 53:4-6). He really suffered for them. They cannot and they will not fall on my head in judgment.

If you say to me then, that at the cross Christ only accomplished for me what he accomplished for those who will suffer hell for their sins, then you strip the death of Jesus of its actual effective accomplishment on my behalf, and leave me with what?—An atonement that has lost its precious assuring power that my sins were really covered and the curse was really lifted and the wrath of God was really removed. That’s a high price to pay in order to say that Christ tasted death for everyone in the same way.

I don’t think that the Bible commands us or, in fact, lets us say that Christ died for everybody in the same way. And the context of Hebrews 2:9 is a good place to show that the death of Christ had a special design or aim for God’s chosen people that it did not have for others.

What does “Everyone” mean?

At the end of verse 9 the writer says, “By the grace of God [Christ] tasted death for everyone.” The question here is whether “everyone” refers to every human without distinction, or whether it refers to everyone within a certain group. As when I say at staff lunch, “Is everyone present?” I don’t mean everyone in the world. I mean everyone in the group I have in mind. What is the group that the writer has in mind: all of humanity without any distinction, or some other group?

Let’s let him answer as we trace his thought in the next verses. Verse 10 is the support for verse 9: Christ tasted death for everyone “for it was fitting for him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.” In other words, immediately after saying that by the grace of God Christ tasted death for everyone, the writer explains that God’s design in this suffering of Christ was to “bring many sons to glory.” So verses 9 and 10 go together like this: Christ tasted death for everyone, because it seemed fitting to God that the way to lead his children to glory was through the suffering and death of Christ.

This means that the “everyone” of verse 9 probably refers to everyone of the sons being led to glory in verse 10. In other words the design of God—the aim and purpose of God—in sending Christ to die was particularly to lead his children from sin and death and hell to glory. He had a special eye to his own elect children. It’s exactly what the Gospel of John says in 11:52—that Jesus would die to “gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” These “children of God” that Christ died to gather are the “sons” that God is leading to glory through the death of Christ in Hebrews 2:10

You can see this in the next verses too. Verses 11 and 12: For both He who sanctifies [i.e. Christ] and those who are sanctified [the sons he is leading to glory] are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying [in Psalm 22:22], “I WILL PROCLAIM THY NAME TO MY BRETHREN, IN THE MIDST OF THE CONGREGATION I WILL SING THY PRAISE.”

In other words the sons that God is leading to glory through the death of Christ are now called Christ’s brothers. It was for everyone of these that Christ tasted death.

Verse 13 goes on now to call them, not only brothers, but in another sense children of Christ: And again, “I WILL PUT MY TRUST IN HIM” [Christ’s own confession of faith in his Father along with his brothers]. And again, “BEHOLD, I AND THE CHILDREN WHOM GOD HAS GIVEN ME.”

Notice, the sons that are being led to glory through the death of Christ are now called children that God has given to Christ. They don’t just become children by choosing Christ. God sets his favor on them and brings them to Christ—gives them to Christ. And for every one of these he tastes death and leads them to glory. This is exactly the way Jesus spoke of his own disciples in the prayer of John 17:6: “I manifested Thy name to the men whom Thou gavest Me out of the world; Thine they were, and Thou gavest them to Me.” So the picture we have is a chosen people that the Father freely and graciously gives to the Son as his children.

Then notice how verses 14-15 connect the aim of Christ’s incarnation and death with this chosen group of children: Since then the children share in flesh and blood [in other words, since those whom the Father gave to the Son have a human nature], He Himself likewise also partook of the same [human nature], that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives [namely, everyone of those children and brothers that God had given him to lead to glory by his death].

So here the reason given for the incarnation and the death of Jesus (in verse 14) is that the “children” share in flesh and blood. That’s the reason Christ took on flesh and blood. And the “children,” according to verse 13 are not humans in general, but children God has given to Jesus. And so the whole design and aim of the incarnation and death of Jesus was to lead the sons, the brothers, the children, whom God gave to Jesus, to glory.

Your Belief Was Purchased by the Death of Christ

Now I will stop here in our text, even though we could keep right on going through the rest of this chapter showing that the aim of God in the sending and death of Jesus was to accomplish something definite for his brothers, his children, those whom God has given him out of the world. But I will stop and make a closing application.

I am not the least bit interested in withholding the infinite value of the death of Jesus from anyone. Let it be known and heard very clearly: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes on him—I say it again: whoever believes in him—should not perish but have eternal life. Christ died so that whoever (in this room this morning) believes might not perish but live.

And when you believe as you ought to believe, you will discover that your belief—like all other spiritual blessings—was purchased by the death of Christ. The sin of unbelief was covered by the blood in your case, and therefore the power of God’s mercy was released through the cross to subdue your rebellion and bring you to the Son. You did not make the cross effective in your life by faith. The cross became effective in your life by purchasing your faith.

So glory in this, Christian. Glory that your sins really were covered when Jesus tasted death for you. Glory that your guilt really was removed when Jesus tasted death for you. Glory that the curse of the law really was lifted and that the wrath of God really was removed, and that the precious faith that unites you to all this treasure in Christ was a gift purchased by the blood of Christ.

Christ tasted death for everyone who has faith. Because the faith of everyone who believes was purchased by the death of Christ.

For further reflection see:
1 Timothy 4:10
Ephesians 5:25-27
Titus 2:14
John 10:15; 11:52; 17:6,9,19
Acts 20:28
Revelation 1:5; 3:9; 5:9
Romans 8:28-32
1 John 2:2 (compare John 11:52)

2 Peter 2:1