READ : Hebrews 2:14-15
Jesus Christ has come to deliver you and me from the fear of death and the lifelong bondage which it brings.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature,that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.
Hebrews 2:14,15 RSV
“I sought the Lord and he heard me and delivered me from all my fears.” What if that witness of an old, much-loved Psalm could be yours today? What if you could be set free from all your fears?
THE GREATEST FEAR
People are afraid, aren’t they, of all sorts of things, real and imaginary? We’re afraid of high places and small spaces. We’re afraid of being alone in the dark or of a crowd in the light. We fear war, inflation, and old age. Many of us are afraid to walk in our neighborhoods or even to sleep in our homes lest we be robbed or assaulted. It’s hard to believe, but some people are actually afraid of good news! They even find happiness frightening.
How do we make sense of all that? Is there one dread, one supreme fear that lurks behind all the others? Yes. Here, the psychologists and the Bible agree. Those who explore the human psyche and those who search the Scriptures together conclude that the worst and most persistent of our anxieties spring from the fear of death. An expert in counseling puts it this way: “Anxiety about death is both the prototype and the wellspring of all other anxiety.” A contemporary philosopher agrees: “Our knowledge that we must die is the background music that plays faintly in the distance all during our lives.” A modern authority on death and dying writes, “Man has not basically changed. Death is still a fearful, frightening happening, and the fear of death is a universal fear, even if we think we have mastered it on many levels.” And the Bible, in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, chapter 2, verse 15 speaks of the fact that all of us, because we fear death, are throughout our lifetime subject to bondage.
Why do we fear death so much? Some reasons lie on the surface. Perhaps we fear its accompanying pain or shrink from the idea that the bodies in which we have lived all our years must disintegrate. For many, death is dreadful because it means leaving everything behind. The poet urges us, “Look thy last on all things lovely, every hour,” because one day the sights and sounds, the myriad experiences of life in this world will be inaccessible to us. Death means that every precious human relationship, at least in the form that we know it now, comes suddenly to an end. To all the persons, places, possessions that have made our lives meaningful, rich and pleasant, we must say goodbye.
For some, death seems to be the end of everything and thus threatens our whole life with meaninglessness. A famous screen actor was once asked, “Do you believe in a life after death?” His reply was, “Truthfully, no. If I did, life would be more noble, more interesting, because it would have an ultimate goal — that of continuing. If … I believed in the afterlife … I’d be a man of greater force and more clear-minded because I’d have a precise purpose to prepare myself for. But since I fear everything will end in death, I say, `What do I care?’” Who wouldn’t fear that which makes all the wonder of human existence end in a total blank? Yesterday you were nothing; today you are; tomorrow you cease to be. What thought could be more melancholy, more finally dreadful, than that one?
But there is a kind of fear of death which is even more painful: it’s the torment of a guilty conscience. Some fear that death may not end everything, that a day of reckoning is near. Hidden away at unrecognized depths within us is a dread that the God we have ignored and disobeyed will summon us on the other side of death to judgment.
That awareness is so profoundly disturbing that most of us can’t face it directly. We search for means to drown it out or dull its impact. Sometimes we block it completely, denying that death exists. We won’t talk about the subject or let ourselves be reminded of it. We’ll live with the illusion that it happens only to others. American culture for a number of years seemed to put a kind of taboo on the mere mention of death.
But that only heightens the fear. What we leave in the shadows, unfaced, unexamined, becomes all the more dreadful. Further, when we don’t acknowledge death ourselves, we cannot empathize with the terminally ill or with those cast into grief. We may turn to the occult, or create our own sense of mystery through escapes like mind-expanding drugs or bizarre forms of religion. We may succumb to mental illness or to suicide. Death, you see, conditions every part of life and we cannot be fully human, fully whole, if we blind ourselves to its reality.
Many in our time have recommended a very different way of coping. “Look on death,” they say, “as a purely natural event, a part of life.” We have death experts, death courses in colleges, and death seminars to show us how to die with dignity, serenity, even gusto.
But when we make death a trifle in that way, we trivialize life. How significant can our living be if its absolute end is a minor event to be yawned about or taken for granted? Along that road of hollow cheerfulness, banal indifference, lies utter despair.
Is there another answer, a better way than pretending or empty bravado? Can we really be delivered from the fear of death? Listen again to this biblical passage from the second chapter of Hebrews, verse 14. It’s a word about Jesus Christ.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him that has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.
There it is – Jesus Christ has come to deliver you and me from the fear of death and the lifelong bondage which it brings.
How did He do it? First, by sharing our life. Since we are flesh and blood human beings, God in the person of His Son took on human life for us. That’s the story of Christmas – incarnation. The Son of the blessed, the Word of the Father, was made flesh and dwelt among us. The eternal entered into time. The Lord of glory humbled Himself to be born as a baby and to live as a man. Jesus is our brother, made like us in every respect, exposed to all the limitations and hazards, all the temptation and suffering, which make up our human lot. That’s the most astounding news that ever broke upon the world. God Almighty has visited our planet. The Lord of all creation has entered the human race as a tiny baby. Since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself partook of the same nature.
But He didn’t come simply to sample what human life is like or to display His condescension. He went all the way with this unheard-of experiment. He came to die! “We see Jesus,” says this New Testament writer, “who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” God came into the world not just to live among us but to die for us. In one way, the death He died was like ours – the same sensations, the same symptoms. But in other ways it was unique. He somehow tasted death for everyone. He died a representative death. He took us with Him in what He went through.
It isn’t spelled out for us in this passage of Scripture just how that could be. How can one man’s death in a small subject country, on the other side of the world from many of us, hundreds of years ago, have any effect on you and me, here and now? One clue to the mystery is the link between sin and death. Remember the word spoken long ago to our first parents? “In the day you eat thereof you shall die.” Death is more than a physical phenomenon. The decay of the body is a sign, a pointer to something deeper. Death means the breaking of our fellowship with God, separation from Him who is the source of life. When sin came, we did die. We forfeited fellowship with the living One. We were all gathered up in one great rebellion and came together under the power of death. “The wages of sin is death.” Because all have sinned, all have died, and all face the physical death which is its grim emblem.
But Jesus – how shall I say it? Jesus came as the firstborn of a new humanity. He came to create a fresh beginning for us. He partook of our nature, entered into our experience, but with one all-important difference. He was without sin. He never had wrongs to confess. Even His enemies could find in Him nothing to accuse. He did always those things that please the Father. He was obedient all the way to death. And when He died, it was not a sinful man paying the debt for his own misdeeds, but the innocent bearing the load of the guilty. He was the spotless Lamb who took away the sin of the world, who drank our cup of woe, who stepped under the stroke of judgment due to us. The heart of the gospel is in this tiny sentence: “Christ died for our sins.”
Now you must know that none of Jesus’ disciples could possibly have believed that if His death had ended everything. When He was crucified on Good Friday, His followers were men without hope. They had expected Him to be the liberator of Israel, but He had died in evident weakness and disgrace. It seemed that death and the powers of evil had totally overwhelmed Him. And yet a short while later, these same men were preaching the crucified Jesus as the Conqueror of death. They claimed that by dying He had made the prince of darkness powerless. They said that the keys of death, of life, of destiny, were now held in His strong hand. Why? Because He rose from the dead. God set His seal on that sin-bearing death by raising Jesus to life again.
How does all that free us from the fear of death? Another New Testament writer, Paul, puts it this way:
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 6:56,57
Sin is the sting of death. Sin makes it dreadful. The consciousness of disobedience, the tension of unresolved guilt, the pangs of a troubled conscience, the haunting fear that we are not right with God – that’s what makes death the king of terrors. But what if sin, all sin, can be forgiven? What if its debt can be fully paid, its stain washed away, its burden lifted? What if those who believe in the crucified and risen Jesus are freely justified, completely accepted, made right with God once and forever?
That, dear friends, is the good news. That is the sure promise of God. And that is the real deliverance from our worst fears. We may still feel apprehensive about death’s approach; we may still shrink from the prospect of passing through it. But nothing on the other side of the dark river will ever frighten us again. To depart is to be with Christ, which is far better.
And that means that we don’t need to make believe, to deny the cruel reality of death. Nor need we despair as if it destroyed hope and robbed life of meaning. Not denial of death or despair is the Christian mood, but defiance. Anchored in Christ, we fling down the gauntlet. “Oh, death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory?” The preacher-poet John Donne speaks for all who believe:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so, for those whom thou thinkest thou dost overthrow, die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me. One short sleep past, we wake eternally and death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die!
Everything depends, you see, on our relationship to Jesus Christ and the death He died for us. If you will confess yourself to be one of the sinful people for whom He died, one of the captives He came to liberate, if you will call on Him today as your Savior and Lord, you can walk in a new freedom from the age-old fear of death. You can sing the old song that’s always new: “I sought the Lord and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.”
PRAYER: Father, we confess that we are fearful people, afraid to die. But we praise You for Jesus Christ who by His dying has set us free from the fear of death. In His name. Amen.