How Jesus Frees Us from the Fear of Death (commentary on Hebrews 2:14-18)

Death is a reality that we all face. Over a year ago, on May 1, 2011, I preached a message at my church called “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” You can listen to it or read a transcript of the sermon below.

. . . .

Can You Unplug?

In June 2010 the New York Times published a short article titled “Unplugged: Take the Challenge.” The article was an invitation to readers to give up some kind of technology for a brief period of time. Volunteers were asked to create their own custom-tailored challenge, perhaps turning off their cellphone for a weekend, or disconnecting from the Internet for a week, or not watching TV, or not logging on Facebook for a while. When the challenge was over, volunteers were asked to record short video testimonies describing how the experiment affected them or what they learned.

For instance, 28-year-old technology journalist Aura López decided to cut herself off from her iPhone for a whole week—this meant no cell phone calls, no remote access Gmail, Twitter, text messages, or her Google Calendar. Keep in mind Aura is the kind of girl who is glued to her iPhone: on her wedding day, read her vows from her iPhone. (No joke.) In her video testimony she said the whole experience was a huge stretch for her, but she had learned a few valuable lessons. She learned—and these are her words—just how dependent she had become on the “immediateness of things”—always plugged in, always able to get the information she needed right away.

Many others who took the unplugged challenge said they learned just how jittery and stressed they became without the constant companion of the Internet or their cell phone. One person said how they felt they might go “insane” after just a few hours of silence. She even likened it to a drug addiction. Some people became acutely aware of how often they use their cell phone or computer just to check the time of day—slaves to the clock.

On the other hand, many participants noted how much more engaged they felt with their close friends and their families. Many said they discovered the lost art of face-to-face conversations or sitting down to write a handwritten letter to someone. Others said their wives and kids were surprised and grateful for the fast from technology.

Secular and Christian cultural analysts are all recognizing the trend: this age is unlike any other before it. We have an amazing ability to surround ourselves with diversion and distraction.

We Live in a Culture of Diversion

The reason the New York Times posed this Unplugged Challenge is because of a series of stories they had been running about how the abundance of technology in our world is impacting us mentally and socially. Many of us can identify with this, even if you aren’t a part of the so called Internet Generation.

Today, the church is often more concerned about the content of media: the language of music and movies, sensuality, and violence. Of course the concern about these things is justified. These things impact what we think about. But we should be paying just as much attention to how the very presence of these media forms shape the way we think, our ability to focus, our ability to concentrate, our ability to think deeply.

What Kenneth Myers wrote over 20 years ago is true even more today: “Modern pop culture is not just the latest in a series of diversions. It is rather a culture of diversion.”

Technology is Not the Enemy

Of course, we need to give credit where credit is due. After all, technology has enormous benefits to offer society. Technology has sped up communication in astounding ways. Technology used with godly intentions and values can do amazing things. Technology gives us widespread and nearly instant communication enabling people to respond immediately to problems and situations in a way past generations have only dreamed about. Most importantly technology also helps us to advance the gospel message. Technology is not really the enemy.

Well-made technology, made by creative and bright human minds, is actually a sign of that drive still inside us from the beginning of the human race: that drive God gave us to rule the earth and subdue it, to cultivate it and turn it from a small garden paradise into a universal and glorious city.

Technology is not the enemy. New technologies have not made us into easily distracted people. Rather, new technologies have exposed just how distractible we are.

Leisure Cultures are Distracted Cultures

Ever since the beginning of time the pattern is easy to spot. Whenever a society begins to get a measure of financial security and wealth, they find they have the means for more leisure. And more times than not, a leisure culture means a distracted culture.

And today’s leisure culture is the best example of this. Compared to most people who’ve ever lived, we live in one of the wealthiest places and times on earth, and I don’t just mean wealthy in terms of how much money we have in the bank. For all intensive purposes we should be one of the most time-wealthy cultures ever. Think how much time we should save because of modern inventions and conveniences like washing machines, refrigerators, microwaves, grocery stores, and 40-hour work weeks, not to mention cars, computers, and cell phones. We should have more time on our hands than ever before, but we don’t.

It is different for each of us in our own homes and lifestyles, but the pattern is the same. The more leisure time we get, the more distractable we seem to be.

Diversion from What?

The crucial question is this: What are we distracting ourselves from?

Post-modern counselor Scott Schwenk, a writer for the Huffington Post, says this about his own addiction to distraction.

I will say that I’ve gotten better at asking really good questions. Questions that don’t just have me re-arranging familiar facts into new stories that make it easier to sleep for a night or two. Questions that point at what’s been sitting under the surface of the mind stimulating distraction.

Distraction from what?

From what you’re here to do. You know, that sense of something more that when the lights are low, there’s no one around, TV’s off, and you feel it? Yeah, that voice that says something like, “Is this it? Is this all there is?”

“This” would be referring to the circular dance of: feel something missing, reach somewhere outside for something or someone more than what’s here now to fill the void, notice that it didn’t work, and look for the next thing…All the ways you and I distract ourselves knowingly and mostly unconsciously from having to feel that there’s something more to step into that’s not a new handbag, a better drug combination…or a tastier latte.

Here’s a guy who has just touched something of eternity and he doesn’t even know it. He finds in those silent moments, when the TV’s off, the iPhone is charging, you’re waiting for your next Netflix movie to come in the mail, no one’s written on your Facebook wall, you’re not Googling something, the lights are low, all is quiet—he has that nagging thought. “Is this all there is?

Could it be that underlying our distractableness is that there is something we’re avoiding, something we don’t want to think about, something we are driven to keep our minds off of?

The Fear of Death Leads to Slavery

Hebrews 2:14-15 says, “Since the children [of God] have flesh and blood, he [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

The thought contained here is so subtle we are likely to miss it. The text speaks of the fear of death. It also says we are held in slavery by this fear. It is not saying we are enslaved to the fear of death. It is not saying we are all walking around with a constant, nagging awareness of our fear of dying. Rather, it says we are held in slavery by the fear of death or because of the fear of death. This fear is what drives—it is what under-girds—our slavery to other things.

Pastor John Piper comments on these verses and I think it’s worth noting:

Have you ever asked yourself how much addiction and personality dysfunction and disordered lifestyle may originate in the repressed fear of death? Very few people live their daily lives with the conscious fear of death in their minds. Yet this text says that Christ came to die for people “who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” There is something profound here. The point is not that people are enslaved to a constant, conscious fear of dying, but that they are enslaved to a thousand ways of avoiding this fear. (Future Grace)

We are enslaved to the thousand ways we choose to avoid thinking about death. Piper is saying that much of our tendency to diversion comes from this deeply ingrained fear. He likens it to cruise control in your car. Your soul gets up to a comfortable speed where you can watch life zoom by, bouncing your eyes from one thing to another along the roadside. Then your soul turns off onto side-streets and you begin to slow down. You start to reflect on more eternal things. You start to think about what your life has amounted to, what it has all meant, and where you’re going when it’s all over. Unable to face these thoughts, the cruise control kicks back in and gets back up to a comfortable speed where you can divert your attention forget about all of that.

John Piper is certainly not the first person to make this connection between the fear of death and our slavery to diversion. More than 350 years ago the brilliant mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal made the same observation. He was fascinated with the question: Why is it so many people are so driven to jump from one amusement to the next? Why are we enslaved to our need for entertainment?

This is what Pascal wrote:

The only good thing for men, therefore, is to be diverted from thinking of what they are [i.e. mortal], either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion…What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, not the dangers of war, not the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us. That is why we prefer the hunt to the capture. That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle; that is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible.

Pascal puts his finger on the greatest anxiety of life: the knowledge that one day our frail life will end. We would rather busy ourselves so we don’t have to think about it.

Reckoning with Death

Our death is something we must reckon with. James the brother of Jesus put it this way: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).

Consider the words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). These are strange words, but important to understand. He is saying we can actually learn more about what is really important in life at a funeral than at a party. You’ve probably experienced this feeling at a funeral: there is a sobriety that comes over us, a moment where we slow down and take a look at someone’s life that is now over, and suddenly we are face to face the really big questions of life. How much longer do I have on this earth? What will my life amount to? What am I living for? Where do we go from here?

King David also saw the importance of facing his mortality: “O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!” (Psalm 39:4-5). Notice the heart of David’s prayer: O God, help me understand just how fleeting my life is because I’m so prone to forget it. It isn’t that David or the rest of us are incompetent to remember something as basic as death. Rather the author of Hebrews says, we are so terrified of death, we are enslaved to a thousand ways to avoid thinking about it.

So why do people fear death?

  1. For one, there is the fear of the unknown. What comes after this life? Without a voice from beyond the grave, and without some rock solid trust in that voice, death is like a curtain that hides from us our fate. People don’t know what to expect beyond death and this is justifiably terrifying.
  2. For many people there’s the fear of the loss of all we have and all our lives stand for. When we don’t know what comes after death, the now becomes all important. It is easy to see how the temporal things of this world can become idols to us. We spend our lives investing in our businesses, our jobs, our hobbies, our children, our grandchildren—all good things—but we are prone to cling to all of these things and worship them if we think they are all we have. Think of all the ways we seek immortality. We don’t know what’s beyond death, so we try desperately to make sure we at least live on in the memories of others. We seek to make ourselves memorable through our achievements or through our personality or through leaving behind remnants of our existence. All of this is driven by this fear of loss in death.
  3. There’s also the fear of judgment after death. The apostle Paul made an interesting observation in his letter to the Christian in Rome. He spoke of this universal human faculty known as conscience. Where does it come from? Why do we have it? You can go into cultures untouched by the Bible or Judeo-Christian morality and still people seem to have this instinct of right and wrong. Paul says conscience is God’s moral law written on our hearts, a law to which we will all be held accountable some day. In our heart of hearts, everyone knows judgment is coming. And the knowledge that we will face judgment after death is, again, a justifiably terrifying thing.

All these fears are what drive people to a life of diversion, and we become slaves to those diversions.

Jesus: the Perfect High Priest

Coming back to our passage in Hebrews, we read God’s solution to the fear of death.

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:14-18)

The key idea expressed here is this: Jesus is our faithful high priest. Many people don’t often resonate with the idea of priests because the cultural mentality isn’t the same today as it was when this letter was written. As the Oxford scholar CS Lewis once wrote, one of the main differences between ancient man and modern man is that ancient man knew the gods were his judges. He knew he was at the mercy of supernatural powers. No one approached a deity nonchalantly. If you approached a god at all, you did it on that god’s terms, not your own.

This is where the idea of priesthood comes in. Because you know you should approach God on his terms, you must rely on others who have been designated by God who know how to approach him. This text is saying Jesus is the Christian’s faithful high priest. Jesus does was a good priest is meant to do: he is our representative before Almighty God. Notice why Jesus is such a perfect priest:

  1. Christ became a man. This passage says it several ways: he shared in our humanity; he was fully human in every way; he was made one of Abraham’s descendants. The eternal Son of God laid aside his crown of glory and entered the human bloodline. One of the reasons why he is such a perfect priest for us is because he became one of us, and as a fellow human being, he is the perfect sympathizer with our weak condition. The author of Hebrews says, “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Right now, sitting at the right hand of God in heaven is someone who completely gets our human weaknesses and frailties. He grew up as a peasant among peasants. He worked for years as a skilled laborer, dealing with sweat and pain and callous hands. He became exhausted. He got hungry. He experienced thirst. He experienced the full range of human emotions. He knew joy and sadness. And when it was his time to die, his divine privilege did not shield him from that human experience either.
  2. Christ made perfect atonement. This is what priests of from the Old Testament would do: they would be the one’s responsible for overseeing the slaughter of animals in the temple. Only Jesus did not slay some animal in a ritual sacrifice: he was the sacrifice.

Depending on what translation of the Bible you are reading from, Hebrews 2:17 might say that Jesus came to make “atonement,” or several translations say he came “to make propitiation.” Propitiation is an older English word that isn’t used very often today, but it really does capture the full meaning of the original word. The term is a technical word used in priestly circles to refer to how someone appeased a god. The word means using a sacrifice to turn away a god’s anger in an attempt to gain that god’s good favor.

The word refers to the yearly Day of Atonement ritual from the Old Testament. On this very important day, the high priest of the nation would enter the innermost chamber of the temple and stand before the Ark of the Covenant, sprinkling the blood of animals on the top of it. Over the Ark was the place where God would manifest his bright and shining presence; the Ark was like his earthly throne. Inside the Ark were the Ten Commandments, written on slabs of stone, God’s holy law that His people had not obeyed. Resting between the broken law and the shining presence of God was the seat of the Ark: the Mercy Seat. That term in the Greek language is the same term used here: Jesus was the ultimate Mercy Seat, the ultimate atoning sacrifice.

Jesus Bore the Wrath of God

The reason why “propitiation” gets lost on so many people today is because modern man simply does not resonate with the idea that God is our Judge. We first have to understand that God is a just God. He is full of honorable wrath. He hates of sin because at its root, all sin is offensive to Him. Sin is that drive in all of us, that drive toward selfishness and idolatry. Sin is ugly not only because it pollutes how we treat each other, it ultimately determines how we treat God. This sinful drive inside us aims at nothing less than total autonomy from God. It is a ruthless desire to not be ruled by Him. But as a result, it means we are ruled by it. This is why God hates it.

But the good news is that Jesus is the Mercy Seat: Jesus actually bore God’s wrath against sin on the cross. All the aspects of His sufferings were actually manifestations of God’s anger against our sin: His physical sufferings, social sufferings, and the spiritual sufferings.

Jesus’ Physical Sufferings

Crucifixion is one of the worst forms of human torture ever devised. In the century before Christ, the philosopher Cicero said crucifixion is altogether so disgusting and shameful that a good Roman or Greek should not even speak about it. Every aspect of this torture was meant to drag out the experience of dying in the most humiliating and painful way possible.

On the morning of his execution, Jesus was taken to the Roman courts where He was stripped naked and scourged. The guards shackled His arms above His head and tenderized His back with their cat o’nines. Hooks from these whips ripped into His flesh, sinking in deep enough to expose and tear His ligaments and muscles, ripping His back and legs to shreds. Isaiah prophesied that Jesus would be marred to the point of being unrecognizable, and this exactly what happened.

A hundred-pound cross was laid on His tenderized back so he could carry it to the hill known as Skull Hill, but even Jesus, in the prime of His life, was too weakened by His torture to walk the full distance unaided. Then He was laid on the splintery wood of this crossbeam and 7-inch spikes, like railroad spikes, were driven through the sensitive nerve centers on His hands and feet. He was lifted up for everyone to see and hung like a ragged scarecrow for 6 hours. And amidst all the pain and blood and ripped muscles, as we wince at his pain, we are meant to ask ourselves, “Why is God letting this happen to his own Son?”

Jesus’ Social Sufferings

Think what it was like, as a Jew, to die at the hands of Roman soldiers. To a Jew, to be executed was shameful enough, but to be handed over to unclean Gentiles to die was the worst of curses.

One of the worst punishments in the Old Testament was to be cast outside the camp of Israel, to be turned out into the cruel wilderness away from God’s people where you were at the mercy of the world and death was certain. This is exactly what Jesus went through: His people had utterly rejected Him. His own nation counted him less than worthless. He hung for hours on the cross, and almost everyone who came to see him were either His enemies or the dregs of society who thought executions were a form of entertainment.

Jesus, instead of cursing the crowds, which was typical of someone being crucified, He prays to his Father, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The Gospel of Luke tells us how the soldiers mocked Him. They took a long stick with a sponge on it filled with sour wine, and pushed it up in Jesus’ face. Do you know what a sea sponge on a long stick was used for back then? Slaves used them in the public restrooms to like toilet paper, to wipe those who used the bathroom, and then they would try to sanitize the sponge in—guess what?—sour wine. That’s the kind of mocking Jesus endured.

Jesus’ Spiritually Sufferings

This is the Jesus who said that the Father in heaven is so good, He makes the sun to shine on both the evil and the righteous. This same Jesus strains his head up into the sky at high noon, and even the sun refuses to shine on him. A mysterious darkness falls over the land and Jesus knows God had turned his face away. This was the same Jesus who lived His entire life and all eternity past in perfect fellowship with the heavenly Father, but on the cross that fellowship was severed.

Remember how Jesus had described hell: “outer darkness,” a cursed dark world away from the brightness of God’s beauty and glory. There on the cross Jesus experienced that kind of hell.

And finally when the work was done, when the fire of God’s anger was extinguished, he breathed his last breath and died.

The Cross Overcomes Our Fear of Death

This is God’s answer to the fear of death. He doesn’t overcome our fear by trying to get us to deny the reality of death, or by trying to help us forget about it, or by downplaying the fact that we deserve death for our sin. Instead, he overcomes our fear by sending His Son to face all scariest things about death in our place.

When the devil stands between you and God and sees your sin, he acts like a prosecuting attorney and says, “Death, God! They deserve death!” And if you are one of those people who have the Spirit of Christ in you, Jesus stands there before God and wholeheartedly agrees with the devil saying, “Yes, they do deserve death . . . But the penalty has been served.”

For Some: Fear of Death is Still Justified

For some of you the fear is justified.  If you were to ask yourself right now whether you have ever reconciled yourself to God, you would have to say no.

Or perhaps you think you have reconciled yourself to God because of some spiritual or religious experiences in your past, but in your heart of hearts you know: you have never really experienced that life-changing trust in God that totally transforms you on the inside.

You live your life, for all intensive purposes, as if God does not care much about how you live or what you do. Thoughts of what God wants have no bearing on your day to day decisions.

If this is you, then the fear of death is still very appropriate for all the reasons I mentioned before. If you were to die today, right now is the closest to heaven you will ever be, and all that awaits you is outer darkness.

For Some: Fear of Death Exposes Our Shallow Faith

For some of us, our fear of death exposes the shallowness of our faith. If we are really honest with ourselves, the reasons we don’t want to think about death is, deep down, we are still very much in love with this world. We love its distractions. We love its diversions. We love its comforts. Thinking too much about death exposes our real desires for what they really are. We fear death because we know the reality of death exposes the sin in our own hearts.

Let me briefly say, if this is you—and from time to time, this is me—one of the best medicines to take is a fast from all the diversions. Take time to turn off the diversion and tune into your own hearts to see what’s really driving you.

For Some: Fear of Death is an Invader

For some of us, we really have been reconciled to God but we have never really shaken the fear of death. No, this fear isn’t a nagging fear or a chronic fear, but it is something that bubbles up in us from time to time.

This might be called a natural fear of death. No matter what we know theologically about death, there is something still very unnatural about it. It is an invader in our world. It is a part of the curse of sin. As such, there is something in us that should naturally revolt at the idea.

If this fear still clings to you like a wet blanket, then this passage is most relevant to you. Jesus came to set you free from this fear.

Some think they can only get rid of the fear by engaging in endless introspection, constantly testing the authenticity of their faith, constantly doubting their salvation, wondering if their faith is real. Let me suggest to you that that kind of introspection is misguided. Remember, you are not saved by faith. You are saved by grace through faith. It is not the strength of you faith that saves you. It is the strength of the One your faith is in that saves you.

Of course we should test our own hearts to see if we are in the faith, but we do that not by looking endlessly at our own hearts, but by gazing on Him. We have to go back to the event of the cross.

Let me give you an example about how this works.

Joni Eareckson Tada has a very power description of our sins being placed on Christ on the cross. I want to quote it in full. Here’s what she writes:

From Heaven the Father now rouses himself like a lion disturbed, shakes his mane, and roars against the shriveling remnant of a man hanging on a cross. Never has the Son seen the Father look at him so, never felt even the least of his hot breath. But the roar shakes the unseen world and darkens the visible sky. The Son does not recognize these eyes.

“Son of Man! Why have you behaved so? You have cheated, lusted, stolen, gossiped—murdered, envied, hated, lied. You have cursed, robbed, overspent, overeaten—fornicated, disobeyed, embezzled, and blasphemed. Oh, the duties you have shirked, the children you have abandoned! Who has ever so ignored the poor, so played the coward, so belittled my name? Have you ever held your razor tongue? What a self-righteous, pitiful drunk—you, who molest young boys, peddle killer drugs, travel in cliques, and mock your parents. Who gave you the boldness to rig elections, foment revolutions, torture animals, and worship demons? Does the list never end! Splitting families, raping virgins, acting smugly, playing the pimp—buying pornography, accepting bribes. You have burned down buildings, perfected terrorist tactics, founded false religions, traded in slaves—relishing each morsel and bragging about it all. I hate, loathe these things in you! Disgust for everything about you consumes me! Can you not feel my wrath?”

Of course the Son is innocent. He is the model of blamelessness itself. The Father knows this. But the divine pair have an agreement, and the unthinkable must now take place. Jesus will be treated as if personally responsible for every sin ever committed.

The Father watches as his heart’s treasure, the mirror image of himself, sinks drowning into raw, liquid sin. Jehovah’s stored rage against humankind for every century explodes in a single direction.

“Father! Father! Why have you forsaken me?!”

But heaven stops its ears. The Son stares up at the One who cannot, who will not, reach down or reply.

The Trinity had planned it. The Son endured it. The Spirit enabled him. The Father rejected the Son whom he loved. Jesus, the God-man from Nazareth, perished. The Father accepted his sacrifice for sin and was satisfied. The Rescue was accomplished.

(When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty, p.53-54)

Do you see why the people of God don’t have to fear death anymore? If Jesus drained the cup of God’s wrath dry on our behalf, what more is there to fear? Yes, if the Lord tarries, our physical death is still going to come, but there is nothing more to fear in it.

Think of Who it was on that cross: the eternal Son of God, the one who was the very image of God in heaven. Would God put Jesus through the torture of hell for us if he was holding something back, some leftover anger, some leftover grudge to unleash on his children? Would he let Jesus go through all of that if He did not have the utmost intention of completely saving us? Would he forsake his Son on the cross and then not fulfill His promise to His Son by forsaking us too? It is because God did not hold back His anger that we can rest knowing that beyond death is not nothingness, is not judgment, but an unending life full blessing.

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