“The Fear of Death”
November 1, 2015
Only Jesus can free those living in the fear of death.
I. The way it was supposed to be, but isn’t (Hebrews 2:5-8)
II. The one who became like us to suffer for us (Hebrews 2:9-13)
III. The death of death and the death of fear (Hebrews 2:14-18)
In college we knew a guy who wasn’t a Christian but who was both intrigued and put-off by the faith of the believers around him. One day a couple of us invited him to sit with us at breakfast. “No,” he said, “All you Christians ever talk about is death.” Death. It didn’t seem to us that we talked about death much. We were more into eternal life. But death does come up in contrast, and we suspected he heard so much about death because he was burdened by it. We didn’t have the same issues, so we talked about it differently.
This summer in Slovakia we ran into a similar problem. Through a series of unrelated events it began to seem to our hosts in the Liptovsky region that all we ever talked about was death. Some of our serious skits and mimes showed death as the outcome of sin. So did our teaching. But these things also pointed to new life. Some of our less serious skits and games just showed people dying, and seemed to make light of it. In that culture making light of death or even talking about death to children, was shocking and a bit offensive. Why? I think both forty years ago in college and currently in Slovakia, the sensitivity to the mention of death is a symptom of the fear of death.
As human beings doomed to die, we seem to want to push the thought of death into the background, and not acknowledge it. We want to either dismiss it entirely or make it a subject so serious it can only be talked about among adults, in whispers, lest we be thought to be taking it lightly. In Slovakia, to be sensitive to the culture, so we modified the light end of our content. We took ‘play’ death out of skits and games. But we did need to acknowledge real death in order to offer real life in Jesus. Hebrews 2 teaches that only Jesus can free those living in the fear of death.
It’s easy to see and label the fear of death in other times and in other cultures. When we look at the paintings of the medievals, dying of the black death and of other arbitrary terrors, we see that pre-occupation clearly. But what does fear of death look like in our culture? I think it shows up in a couple of key ways. First, we have are preoccupied with health and safety. We spend an enormous amount of time, energy and money in thinking about how to avoid death. In a book called Safe Enough, Laura Jones says “Citizens of wealthy countries such as Canada and the United States have become preoccupied with health and safety. Even as we go about such ordinary activities as applying deodorant, driving to work, and eating, we worry. "Didn't I read somewhere that deodorants can clog pores and cause cancer?" "Is there any pesticide residue on these carrots?" "Are they genetically modified?"
In Risk Aversion: The Rise of an Ideology, Mark Neal points out that as a culture we have grown almost entirely risk intolerant. The many healthy risks some of us took for granted as children, from climbing trees to swimming in the bayou to riding our bikes to the store are now looked on with horror. This fear of harm and of death is so embedded that it is hard to even challenge in this culture.
A second indicator of the fear of death among us is a preoccupation with pleasure and entertainment. It was Neal Postman, almost two generations ago, who said we are amusing ourselves to death. It’s true. We numb ourselves to the reality of our mortality. On TV or on Facebook we are bombarded with an avalanche of the mundane or the tragic. The smallest acts of the most banal celebrities are celebrated like triumphs, and the deepest tragedies of murder and genocide are trivialized by repetition. Our entertainments do the same thing. First person shooter games allow us to cause endless, repetitive, even bloody death and destruction, but it is no more permanent and personal than the press of the home button. Movies imply in PG-13 and depict in R the cruel and horrifying deaths of hundreds or thousands or millions before the playful credits role. We numb ourselves to death and thus avoid thinking of our fear of it.
But these escapes are no answer. Death is real and inevitable. The mortality rate is still a hundred percent, and the world offers no answer. Medical immortality is a false hope: it wouldn’t be eternal life, but eternal death. The illusion of annihilation, that we just cease to exist at death is also false, shattered by the true hopes and fears of countless generations. No, death is real, and the fear of death is real even if we loudly deny it. Only Jesus offers the answer.
The book of Hebrews opens with a celebration of Jesus as greater than men, greater than angels, greater than any created being. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” Chapter two opens by warning us not to neglect so great a Savior offering so great a salvation.
Then the author reminds us of the way it was supposed to be, God’s promised creation. Hebrews 2:5-8 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 6It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? 7You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, 8putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.
These verses use truths about angels and men to teach us about Jesus. Angels, the author says, have no part in the rule of the world. They may have their angelic orders and hierarchies, but they do not rule. Instead, the ideal world, and the world to come is subject to man. The author finds that ideal view of man’s dominion in Psalm 8. It beings with the greatness of the created universe, the moon and stars that God formed. Compared to them man is nothing. “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” But though man seems insignificant, God “made him a little lower than the angels, crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.”
Man was made for this glory, honor and dominion. Genesis 1: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ 27So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” God put man in an amazing place of authority over creation, not angels. Only at the fall was an evil angel allowed to become prince of this world as mankind descended into slavery and death.
Verse 8: ‘at present we do not see everything in subjection to him.’ The author recognizes that God’s ideal design for man was never realized. Yes, we do have some dominion over the world and its resources, but we don’t understand and certainly can’t control everything, like hurricanes or earthquakes. Even worse, the acts of evil men disrupt countless lives. People abuse and murder, and organizations like ISIS and Planned Parenthood do it wholesale. We can’t control ourselves and we can’t control our world and we can’t defeat death. Some try to fight the good fight for human causes. But all human causes founder on the rock of human sin battered by the waves of a fallen world. So many others just whistle in the dark: eat, drink and make merry.
Humanity was created to have peaceful, eternal dominion over an awesome creation, but it’s all gone south, gone bad, and the end is death. The good news is Jesus, who stepped in to suffer death for us. Verses 9-13: But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 10For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” 13Again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.”
We don’t see man in the ideal state. But we do see Jesus. He was made a little lower than the angels to became a man, not in honor and authority, but in a world of sin and death. Jesus stooped to become what we had become. He gave up the glory he had as creator and Son and took our nature. What is for us an honor, to be little lower than the angels, was for him the supreme act of humility. The creator became a created being. The sovereign became a servant. The Son of God became the Son of Man. He stepped down.
Why? So he could step lower still and rescue us. Verse 9 says he suffered death so by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. His suffering was intentional. He didn’t just die, but he took on the suffering of death. He ate death so we would not have to swallow it whole. It’s true that in our mortal bodies we still die, but our eternity has changed. Verse 10, he brings many sons to glory. Jesus not only stepped down in the incarnation to become a little lower than the angels, but in his sinless life and sacrifice he stepped up to what man was supposed to be. Jesus has been crowned with glory and honor. Now he brings many sons to that same glory - the ones he died for. We are rescued by his great salvation.
How is this done? Verse 10 tells us that the only fitting way, in God’s sight, was the suffering of Jesus. God’s justice demanded payment and punishment. God could not allow sin, could not ignore sin, could not accept sinners in their sinful state. God is holy: he is by nature separated from sin. So if in love he wanted an eternal relationship with sinners, he had to find a way to cleanse them from sin, to carry out his justice, and yet free them eternal death.
How? Through Jesus. He was the founder of our salvation. The word in Greek means one who goes in front of others and leads the way. If Jesus had not blazed the way there would be no salvation. He was the ‘pioneer,’ more than an example to follow. He goes before us to make salvation possible through his suffering and death. It’s astounding to think that in blazing the trail of salvation, Jesus became perfect through suffering. How can Jesus, who was the Son from eternity past, who fully embodied the perfection of a perfect God, be made perfect? He can’t. But recognize that the English word ‘perfect’ imperfectly translates the Greek word ‘telios’. We could also say ‘complete’ or ‘fulfilled’. The saving mission of this pioneer was fulfilled by his suffering and death. The work Jesus came to do was completed - perfected - on the cross, and in completing his life work, he himself was completed or fulfilled.
As a consequence something wonderful happens - we become his brothers and sisters. Verse 11: “Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.”
Jesus, the holy one, became part of the human family so that he could make us holy, We are his life work. He’s glad to have us as part of his family. Isn’t that the intent of the quotes in verses 12 and 13? Jesus is talking to the Father: ‘I will declare your name to my brothers. In their midst I will sing your praise. I will put my trust in you, for I’m here with the children you have given me.’
So we find in Jesus the death of fear. Verses 14-18: Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16For surely it is not angels that he helps, but the offspring of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
The incarnation of Jesus was necessary because his children, his potential brothers and sisters were flesh and blood. Later in Hebrews we learn that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. This is why Jesus became a ‘flesh and blood’ person. The atonement required the incarnation. There have been many false teachings about what Jesus was like, making the incarnation only spiritual, not physical. But the physical was crucial. Jesus took on flesh and blood so that his body might be broken and his blood shed for us.
This is the sacrifice and the victory that frees us from the fear of death. “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Jesus’ death destroys the one who holds the power of death. Satan cannot give or take away our real life. He cannot choose the eternal fate of anyone. What Satan holds is a limited power to destroy the body and a great power of the fear of death. Death and what lies after seem so painful, so tragic, that the very fact of death can be used to numb those who are alive, or to cause them to cast off all restraint. Thus he chains people to their sin.
This fear of death, as we’ve seen, is a common denominator in every culture, because death is the enemy. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus not because of the loss of his friend but because death is wrong, death is not the way it was supposed to be. Death is painful to contemplate, painful and undignified and sad when it happens, and especially painful when it means separation from our loved ones. Further, sinners intuitively known that death leads to death. For those trapped in sin, death leads to judgment and to eternal separation from God in a place that is hell because of His absence.
Satan wields the fear of death with confidence because apart from Jesus, death is a great and inevitable victor. But through death Jesus destroyed Satan and freed those he held captive by fear. In 1st Corinthians 15, Paul calls death the last enemy, but then says “Death has been swallowed up in victory. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus frees us from slavery to the fear of death because, as our pioneer, he has blazed the trail by his resurrection to the far side of the grave. He has shown that there is life, eternal life, glorious life. If his suffering and death are the payment for our sins, his resurrection is the antidote for our fear. He has not left us to wonder whether death has the final victory: he has risen to show us it’s defeat.
And who did he do this for? Not angels. The author returns once more to that subject and says “it wasn’t for angels Jesus died, it was for Abraham’s descendants.” Jesus rescues people because he himself was made like his brothers in every way. At the end of the chapter the author gives three ways this affects his work on our behalf. First, he is a merciful and faithful high priest. As a man he knew our need of God: he saw the evil, hurt, pain and struggle of life in a fallen world every day of his earthly stay. He himself never sinned, but he knew the depths of need caused by sin, and so he has mercy and compassion on us.
The second great benefit of the incarnation is that as a man he could in justice pay man’s price for sin. He was made like his brothers ‘to make atonement for the sins of the people.’ When translated ‘make atonement,’ translators emphasize that this word means paying the price for sin. When translated ‘propitiate’ the emphasis is turning aside God’s wrath. As ‘reconciliation’ the emphasis is on a restored relationship with God. The Greek word encompasses all of these.
Third, there is a personal benefit to the incarnation and suffering of Jesus. Verse 18: “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Jesus did suffer when he was tempted. The drops of blood that fell from his brow in the Garden of Gethsemane were testimony to the anguish of his soul. He was tempted to try one of Satan’s alternatives, to take the easy way out. But he didn’t. He bore the temptation though bearing it was great suffering, and led to greater suffering. But now Jesus can help when we are tempted, first because he understands our temptation, and second because the way he pioneered, the path he opened is the way of escape from temptation. If he had given in we would have no one to show us that endurance leads to blessing, no one to sympathize with our weaknesses, and no hope of escape. But because Jesus was victorious over temptation, we have his help.
So Jesus is himself the full and complete answer to the fear of death. We don’t have to ignore or numb ourselves to the reality and tragedy of death because we know the one who walked through it to free us from it. Do we fear judgment? Jesus took it for us. Do we fear hell? Jesus defeated Satan. Do we fear annihilation? Jesus rose alive from death. Do we fear some void of infinite loneliness? Jesus made us his brothers and sisters by dying and rising for us. Do we fear an eternity of disgrace over our failings? Jesus has been crowned with glory and honor and we will share that glory in eternity.
The answer to the fear of death is Jesus. We don’t need to obsess with medicine to find eternal life, because Jesus gives us true life. We don’t need to numb ourselves through entertainment or belittle death by repetition, because Jesus both takes death seriously and rescues us from it. Only Jesus can free those living in the fear of death. This is good news for us, and all those around us.