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, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. —Hebrews 2:14-15
Let’s begin with the phrase, “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” You and I, all our lives, have been subject to slavery – the fear of death. Not that we’ve ever walked around in a panic with our teeth chattering. That would be uncool. So we submerge it. We even deny it. But every time you see a 59-year-old guy like me ditch his wife for his 25-year-old secretary, there’s a reason. We always have a reason for what we do. Why does a man do something like that? Because he’s afraid. His body isn’t what it used to be, the clock is ticking, and he’s afraid that life is passing him by. So he throws his faithful wife away for another woman. That’s the devil at work, jerking that guy’s chain. He really had no choice. That’s the thing about slaves. They have no choice. And that 59-year-old guy had no choice but to be stupid and shameful, because the devil whispered into his mind the terrifying thought, “Your expiration date is fast approaching. Your wife is holding you back. This girl makes you feel young again. It’s your one chance at happiness, and the door of opportunity is closing. There is no choice to make.” Whatever your age, we know the power of that temptation: “Your chance for happiness is being stolen from you. What are you going to do about it?”
There are other ways to cope with the fear of death. We try to preserve ourselves. We try to intensify our experience. Being a big deal in the community, breaking a record in sports, getting elected to a public office, cutting a hit record, finding a passionate romance – there are many illusions, distractions, repressions, fantasies, compulsions. We manage this fear. We put it off, we shift it around behind other things, even behind other fears. We reassure ourselves by our accomplishments. We get plastic surgery. We go shopping. Flannery O’Connor said that in our time we have domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily. In The New York Times, Ann Patchet wrote, “Staving off our own death is one of our national pastimes. Whether it’s exercise, checking our cholesterol or having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality.” We drive around a serious car wreck and tell ourselves, “Probably a reckless driver,” to distance ourselves mentally. When someone we know does die, we think, “I just saw him last week. I can’t believe it.” But why are we shocked? What were we expecting? We don’t think about it, because we don’t want to think about it, because we’re afraid, because we have no answer to this mega-fear that stalks us every day, and there is nothing we can do about our own death. Think about this. You have a birthday. You also have a deathday. It’s on the calendar, and it’s coming. And then what becomes of all the props you’ve built to make you feel better about yourself? Tom Howard describes it like this: Like a hen before a cobra, we find ourselves incapable of doing anything at all in the presence of the very thing that seems to call for the most drastic and decisive action. The disquieting thought, that stares us in the face with a freezing grin, is that there is in fact nothing we can do. Say what we will, dance how we will, we will soon enough be a heap of ruined feathers and bones, indistinguishable from the rest of the ruins that lie about. It will not appear to matter in the slightest whether we met the enemy with equanimity, shrieks or a trumped-up gaiety – there we will be.
Actually, it gets worse – not when it happens to you but when it happens to someone you love. Here’s what one father wrote: The late morning sun struck me full in the face as I stepped through the door of the hospital. The squint of my eyes, however, was not occasioned by the rays of the sun; it was the visible display of the anguish and despair that wracked my life. I had spent several hours with my sobbing wife. Now I was about to keep an appointment that would prove to be the emotional climax of the day my world collapsed. On my way to the appointment I stopped to have a cup of coffee and bolster my courage. I was oblivious to everything except the appointment that awaited me. Leaving there, I made my way to a large white house. I followed the owner into a large room, where he soon left me alone. I slowly made my way to a table on the far side of the room. Upon that table was a white box. I stood before that white box for endless eternities before I finally summoned the courage to look over the top and down into the box, at the lifeless body of my son. At that sight my world collapsed. I would have given up all my academic and athletic awards. I would have given up the prestigious executive training program I was engaged in with one of the largest international oil companies. I would have given up anything. For the first time in my life, I had come to a hurdle I could not clear. My world collapsed.
What God wants you to know is this. Jesus Christ changed everything for us vulnerable people, so helpless in the face of death. The only Son of God came into this world of death, himself subject to death, he didn’t stay at a safe distance but came near, he didn’t hold his nose but became one of us, he came on a rescue mission for people like us who have so much to live for but all of it ending very soon and there is nothing we can do to spot that. Jesus Christ came to give us something that not even death can destroy, so that we, even we in all our sin and weakness and immaturity, can take his hand and follow him through anything and not freak out but holds our heads high for his glory and find in him eternal reward.
It’s right here in Hebrews 2. This passage in the Bible is greater than the Declaration of Independence, greater than Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech. Those freedoms belong to time and can be taken away. This freedom belongs to time and eternity and lasts forever.
There are two key words in this passage of the Bible that we must understand. The first key word is “deliver” – “that he might deliver.” Jesus came into this world to deliver us, to set us free, to disentangle us from something, to help us get rid of a deep, even unspoken, fear that drives us into places we don’t want to go. And the devil doesn’t want you to know about this deliverance, because if you lose your fear of death he loses his leverage with you. So let’s pay all the more attention to it, and let’s stop giving the devil our business. The second key word is “slavery” – “subject to lifelong slavery.” How can we stop being slaves, how can we be free at heart, when every day is one less day to live? How can we get above the fantasies that cover over fear and the selfishness that’s driven by fear? There is a way. Christ wants to give you that freedom today. Christ came to deliver us from our slave-hearts. Let’s turn to him. What do we have to lose? Let’s think about it, and let’s become decisive about it.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death… —Hebrews 2:14
Who are “the children”? We are. We share mortal, dying flesh and blood. We just don’t last. We all tell the same story. We’re born, we suffer, we die. When we have a wonderful experience along the way, we think, “I’d love this moment to last forever,” but it doesn’t. What isn’t going away is the inevitability of death. Some of us will have died by one year from today. The eternal Son of God saw that and felt compassion. So he entered in. That’s what Christmas is all about – God becoming man in Jesus Christ. When God became man in Jesus, he needed his diapers changed. He learned to talk and walk. He went to school. He played with the kids. He listened to sermons at synagogue. He studied the Bible. He got a job. He met deadlines. He satisfied grumpy customers. He got tired. He needed sleep. He liked some foods and disliked others. But above all else, he died. In fact, unlike us, who are born to live, he was born to die. It was his mission to die. You see the purpose clause here: “. . . that through death.” What then did he accomplish by dying?
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, and deliver those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. – Hebrews 2:14–15
The devil has the power of death in the sense that he uses our fear of death to manipulate us and tempt us and deceive us and jerk us around. We’re weak. We fall for his lies. How? He tells us our lives aren’t worth living, doing the right thing is too costly, it won’t matter if we blow it off, there’s no point in anything anyway, and so forth. And sometimes we believe it, and we act like it, because it’s powerful and following Christ can be scary. So, what did Jesus do for us? He didn’t believe the lies. He didn’t run from death. He ran toward it. He died on purpose. The devil thought he’d won at the cross and that we’d all be his slaves forever with no end to the fiendish things he could do to us and make every Bedford Falls into another Pottersville.
But Jesus turned the tables on him. 1500 years ago Saint Augustine said the cross of Christ was like a mousetrap, the Lord offered himself there as bait, and the devil fell for it. He walked right into the trap, and Jesus sprang it on him – not that he killed the devil, the word “destroy” in this verse doesn’t mean that, the word “destroy” means to neutralize, to disempower. Jesus defeated death by handing himself over to it and then rising again from it, never to die again. That’s how Jesus tricked Satan. And when he rose from the grave on that first Easter Sunday morning, he was in effect saying to the devil, “Was that your best shot? That’s it? That’s all you can do? Well, guess what, devil, you don’t count any more. You sank your fangs deep into me with all your poisonous venom, and now I’m healthier than ever. And I’m made of the same flesh and blood that James Talley’s made of and Suzanne Jackson and Peter Frick. So devil, you’re out of business. You don’t matter any more. My friends are not your pawns and playthings any more. I am their Deliverer, and I’m not going away. You’ve been stripped of your power, because I’m going to raise them too, just like me. See me, devil, your worst nightmare? Well get ready, because pretty soon there’s going to be a great multitude that no one can number from every nation and tribe and people and language who look just like me. So deal with that, you second-rate has-been!” Which is why we shouldn’t focus on the devil but on Jesus.
When Jesus rose from the dead 2000 years ago, all our sin that had sunk him down to death on that Good Friday, all our foolishness, all our weakness, all our bargains with the devil, all our fear and despair and dread – Jesus had borne it all away on his cross and carried it down with him into the tomb, and then he rose up from it all. Nothing could hold him down. He bore it all, and he rose up from it all. And he rose in his same flesh and blood, his same human body, but now immortal, as we who love him will also be. And there is nothing the devil can do about it. He’s powerless to stop it. All we have to do is receive the good news and by faith inhale its freeing powers moment by moment.
So, what are you going to do about it? I want to close by speaking first to those of us who are believers and then I want to speak those of us who are not yet believers. First, to my Christian friends. All the evil of all of history was so defeated at the cross and the empty tomb that you need to see it as a little fleck of dust floating momentarily in the infinite ocean of the glory of Christ. All the sad and guilty stories of your life started coming untrue in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. You have nothing to fear. You certainly have nothing to fear from Jesus. The only things he takes away from you are those things that keep you in fearful slavery. He is not a thief; he’s not even able to be a thief. It isn’t his nature. Jesus Christ is your deliverer, and he can’t be anything but your deliverer, because it’s his nature and his mission and his promise. Jesus Christ is not saying to you, “Forget your happiness and live like you were dying.” He is saying to you, “Stop living like you were dying. Live like you’re not dying. I go to prepare a place for you.” The Bible says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6). Why are you afraid? Nothing will ever separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus your Lord. This mortal life is the merest blink of time before he takes you home to himself forever. He promises to see you safely all the way there. He promises it will be better than all you can ask or think. But right now is your one, brief opportunity to make a difference for him in this terrified world. Right now he is calling you to be living proof of what gospel fearlessness looks like, so that others can be set free too. What do you need to renounce, so that you can stop feeling sorry for yourself? What do you need to rid of, so that you can live all-out for Christ? Maybe you need to get up from here and go serve the Lord in a hard and dangerous place. Maybe you need to do something scary for Christ this very week, just to keep in practice. Maybe you need to renounce the trivilializing distractions you’ve collected in your life, so that you’re free to live with purpose and resolve, like someone with nothing to lose because Christ has promised you everything desirable forever. Where today are the men and women who will live for Christ in simple trust and unconditional surrender? Where are the men and women who love him and this world he died for more than their own reputations and comfort and downtime and houses and life itself? Where are the men and women who value their deliverance so sincerely that they also value the deliverance of others? Where are the risk-takers who are so free at heart that they fling their lives away for the Lord Jesus Christ and his mission into this dying world? Will you be one of them? Will you declare it to him today? Will you offer him your life for his liberating purpose, because with Christ there is no loss, only gain?
If you are not yet a believer in Christ, here’s what I want to say to you. You don’t have to live one heartbeat away from losing everything you love. You can have a long-term happiness so solid that nothing can destroy it, not even your own death. The Bible says that in God’s presence is fullness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). And by his cross and his empty tomb the Lord Jesus Christ opened the way there for you. He is inviting you in, and he deeply desires to share everything with you. He wants to free you from death and the fear of death. He wants to free you from your guilt and your guilt feelings. He is always better to us than he needs to be. Believe it. Let it turn your heart his way. If the Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart, you know I’m telling you the truth, and this is your moment with Christ. Don’t let it pass. And you also know you don’t deserve his goodness. But that isn’t a barrier to Christ. It is his glory and joy to give us better than we deserve when we come to him with our defenses down and say, “Lord, I need so much forgiveness. But now I come to you. Have mercy upon me.” Will you say that to Christ today? If you’re willing to step over the line to him and receive the amnesty of the King, he promises to deliver you from everything you fear. Will you receive Christ today?