Easter Freedom

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Hebrews 2:14-15
Revelation 1:12-18

There are many things that enslave people, but the worst prison is fear, and the most fearful thing is death. But Jesus holds the key to death, and can release us from fear of it forever!

In August of 1985 a Japanese airliner on a domestic flight from Tokyo to Osaka suffered a catastrophic accident. Somewhere in the rear of the plane a piece broke off, severing hydraulic lines and disabling the aircraft’s tail. The pilot, struggling desperately, managed to keep the plane in the air for twenty minutes before it crashed into the side of a mountain, killing all but four of the more than five hundred people on board. During those terrible final minutes, many of the passengers scribbled last notes to loved ones. One message, found next to the body of a 23-year-old woman, said simply this: “Scared, scared, scared. I feel sick. I’m afraid to die.”

She speaks for a great many people today. The Christian writer Malcolm Muggeridge has observed that:

In our post-Christian era, death has recovered its old terrors, becoming unmentionable, as sex has become ever more mentionable. Private parts are public but death is the twentieth century’s dirty little secret.

(Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus, The Man Who Lives)

A World of Despair

It is significant that Muggeridge mentions death’s recovering its old terrors, for the confusion and horror of modern men and women in the face of death reflects exactly the attitude of the ancient pagan world. Some of the clearest evidence of how people viewed death in the time of the New Testament can be seen in the inscriptions they left on their tombs. The pagan Greeks and Romans may have put on a stoic face during their lives but when it came time to die, the words they left behind on their gravestones show nothing but bleak despair. A common Roman epitaph, for example, consisted of three short Latin phrases meaning “I was not, I was, I am not,” to which was added the comment, “That is all.” For them, this was everything that could be said.

Small wonder then that many ancients wished they had never been born, rather than to have to struggle with an existence that was made absurd in the end by death. In one ancient city there is a Greek tomb bearing the following words, “Here lie I, Dionysus of Tarsus, sixty years old, unwed; would that my father had been the same” (quoted by Steven Neill in Christian Faith Today). Contrast that with the attitude of another native of the very same city, the apostle Paul, who near the end of his life said, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Freed from the Slavery of Fear

What produced such a contrast? How is it possible that fear and despair at the prospect of death can be turned into confidence and hope?

Let me first tell you how it does not happen. It does not happen by trying to convince ourselves that death is not so bad after all, by pretending that death is not the awful thing it is, or by imagining death to be really our friend in the end. No, Christians have a very realistic view of this grim event. Death is our enemy, “the last enemy,” according to the Bible. One of the attempts to come to terms with death that strikes me as least convincing is the approach that sees death as a natural and necessary thing. “We must learn to accept death,” this thinking goes, “death is simply nature’s way of bringing life to its close. Death is a part of life, and if we only approach it philosophically, we will find there is nothing to be afraid of.”

It is hard to imagine a view more totally opposed to New Testament teaching. Christians view death, at least human death, not as a natural event but as part of sin’s penalty. It does not belong in our world at all. We were meant to live, not to die, to know God and to share his life forever. All the horror we feel, all our instinctive revulsion whenever we come in contact with death, is right. People fear death because death is a fearful thing; in fact, it is the ultimate thing to be afraid of. Just as every lesser loss is really a hint or foretaste of the final loss which is death, so behind every lesser fear lurks this primal fear of death itself. And we cannot simply explain it away with a philosophical attitude. Our fear of death is more than just the instinctive reaction of creatures that want to live. All animals have a strong survival instinct, but humans are the only ones that are afraid of death. We are the only ones that ought to be afraid of death, because for us physical death is the result of sin and is the prelude to judgment. ur fear of death is fed by our guilt.

Nevertheless, in spite of the very real terrors it holds, Christians are able to face death calmly, even triumphantly. Why is that? It is because we have a Lord who has conquered death and disarmed its power to hurt us. We have a Lord who is stronger than death and has won the victory over it. A short passage from the book of Hebrews makes this clear.

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

(Hebrews 2:14-15, nrsv)

The Conquest of Death

This passage teaches us three crucially important things about Christ’s conquest of death. First, it announces the fact of it. The New Testament rings with the assertion that Jesus Christ has won the victory over death. In fact, it uses an even stronger word. It says he has destroyed death. Christ is the one, writes Paul, who “has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light” (2 Timothy 1:10). Hebrews adds in the passage above that Christ has “destroyed him who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”

This statement calls for some careful comment. In saying that Satan (or the devil) has the power of death, the Bible does not mean that he has the power to inflict death, that he is the final authority over who lives and who dies. Issues of life and death remain firmly in God’s hands. But in a secondary sense, Satan is the Lord of death. He lures people to death by tempting them to sin. His is the kingdom of death and he longs to see it filled. He delights in death of every kind.

Moreover, in saying that Christ has destroyed both Satan and death itself, the Bible does not mean “destroyed” in the sense of completely abolishing or eliminating. Obviously, both Satan and death still exist. Their final destruction is still in the future; it will happen when Christ returns to complete his victory at the Day of Judgment. What Jesus has already done is to destroy death and the devil in the sense of inflicting upon them both a decisive defeat. Historians sometimes speak of an army being “destroyed” in a climactic battle, even though elements of it still remain. What they mean is that its power and effectiveness have been broken, and that is exactly what Christ has done to death. He has already conquered it.

Death by Death

Next, we are told the means by which Christ has overcome death. It was by his own death that he has destroyed the one who has the power of death. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Christ chose to share our humanity, to assume our flesh and blood, so that he could die as a man and by his death overcome the sin that gives death its power to hurt us. According to the Bible, death is the curse due to sin, the just penalty of a righteous God upon all who choose to defy him by violating his holy will. The sentence of death hangs over everyone because everyone has sinned. But the gospel’s wonderful news is this: God chose to become a man himself in order to die for sin in our place and on our behalf, so that we could receive eternal life. Notice the irony: Death itself is destroyed through a death. It is “the death of death in the death of Christ” as the great Puritan John Owen put it. This is the supreme case of “the biter bit”; the devil has been undone by his own weapon, like Haman in the Bible, who was hanged on the gallows he had built for his enemy Mordecai.

What an amazing turnaround! If ever death appeared to be victorious, it was at the moment when Jesus died. If ever it seemed as if all hope was lost, it was on Good Friday afternoon. If ever Satan’s boast that he was the ruler of the world and that evil was stronger than good seemed true, it was at the cross. And yet this was the very place, the very means, by which Christ Jesus overthrew him, stripped him of his power, and brought him to naught. Death is now like a scorpion whose sting has been drawn; like a defeated general without an army left. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). Since Christ, in dying, has paid death’s penalty, death can no longer hurt anyone who is united with him through faith. Now the death of our bodies does not expose us to the terrors of judgment; it ushers us into the experience of life. Death still hurts a little, yes; we still must die. But now in dying we pass into everlasting glory.

Slaves No Longer to Fear

Finally, the writer to the Hebrews shows us the results of Christ’s victory over death. He sets free “those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). Easter freedom, the freedom of those who know that Jesus died and rose again for them, is freedom from fear. Yes, we see death. We know that it is still real and hideous. We don’t love it or long for it. It is still our last enemy, and everything about it smells of its evil lord. But by faith we also see Jesus who is now crowned with glory and honor because by God’s grace he suffered death for everyone (Heb. 2:9).

Near the end of his life, while in exile on the island of Patmos, the apostle John saw a stunning vision of the risen and glorified Jesus Christ. This is how John describes it:

His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

(Revelation 1:14-18)

Jesus has not only conquered death; he now has authority over it. He is the first and the last. He is the living one who was dead and is now alive forever and ever, and his power over death extends to all those whose trust is in him. If you belong to his family, then do not be afraid. He holds the key that will release you from death into life.

“Scared, scared, scared. I feel sick. I’m afraid to die.”

I wish that young woman could have heard about the One who is Lord even over death, who sets us free from sin and from guilt, and from slavery to the fear of death. But what about you? Wouldn’t you like to have Easter freedom from the fear of death? It is the privilege of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ.