This theme of “the crucified Lord” scandalized the first-century world. To the Jews, the idea that their Messiah could die, especially a death like crucifixion, was a “stumbling block” (1 Cor. 1:23), an expression of “weakness” (1 Cor. 1:25) that was unworthy of God.
There was nothing about the Teacher from Nazareth to show that he was greater than the angels. Indeed, the reverse was true, for he had undergone humiliating sufferings culminating in a felon’s death.
Yet, as Paul pointed out “the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25) and it was precisely through the cross that Jesus Christ defeated Satan. In 2 Corinthians 2:14 Paul presents the victory of Christ as a “triumphal procession” (cf. Eph. 4:7-10). This reflects a Roman emperor’s custom of leading conquered leaders of hostile forces through the streets in a victory parade.
The apostle John tells us that one of the reasons Jesus came was to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
Here is how our author puts it:
14 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, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.
Have you ever had to face a bully? I remember a guy in third grade. I won’t tell you his name just in case he is a relative of yours. He was head and shoulders above the rest of us…must have been held back two or three years. He looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger to me.
If he had told me to meet him after school on the playground, I would have run the other direction…fast!
If you’ve ever faced a bully you know that the best way to do that is to have a bigger brother you can bring to the fight with you.
Christ came, as our Elder Brother, to defeat out greatest enemy and to make null and void the greatest weapon in his arsenal.
The incarnation was an invasion. Jesus came on a mission to rescue to captive slaves. Jesus came to rout the devil and release His captives. In verses 14-15 we see four actions: (1) incarnation, (2) crucifixion, (3) domination, and (4) liberation.
Christus Victor is the element of the atoning work of Christ that emphasizes the triumph of Christ over the evil powers of the world, through which he rescues his people and establishes a new relationship between God and the world.
Christ, through both His death and His resurrection, conquered Satan and broke the power of death. That victory meant victory over sin and the condemnation of God’s law as well (1 Cor. 15:51–56), for death is the only fair wage for sinning, and God’s condemning law passes its judgment on violations of any kind (Rom. 6:23a).
Martin Luther said: “Christ resisted Satan’s power and won “a victory over the Law, sin, our flesh, the world, the devil, death, hell, and all evils; and this victory of his he has given to us. Even though these tyrants, our enemies, accuse us and terrify us, they cannot drive us into despair or condemn us. For Christ, whom God the Father raised from the dead, is Victor over them, and he is our righteousness” (Luther’s Works, 26:21–22). This victory of the Savior means that he “takes away the law, kills my sin, destroys my death in his body, and in this way empties hell, judges the devil, crucifies him, and throws him down into hell. In other words, everything that once used to torment and oppress me Christ has set aside; he has disarmed it and made a public example of it triumphing over it in himself” (Luther’s Works 26:160–161; cf. Col. 2:15).
According to our passage, one of the primary tools Satan uses to torment and oppress us is death, and the fear of death. Jesus died to free us from death, thus we no longer have to be afraid of death.
We have just lived through a time when many people died of the COVID-19 virus. Many people were frightened. Death has become real and palpable to so many people in ways that it was not before the pandemic. The response, by and large, was not one of confidence and peace, but of anxiety and fear.
As a hospice chaplain for 16 years, I met hundreds of people who were near death. Some of them had a sweet peace, knowing that when they died they would be in the presence of Jesus. They had no fear of death. Like E. H. Hamilton, they thought, “Afraid? Of what? To feel the spirit’s glad release? To pass from pain to perfect peace. The strife and strain of life to cease? Afraid – of that?” They know that the Good Shepherd will walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death.
Do you know that peace?
Others, however, had some fear, not so much of death itself, but of the process of dying. Then there were those few who truly had a fear of dying.
Like Puritan Samuel Bolton said, “Death is the godly man’s wish, the wicked man’s fear.”
Why might we fear death? The reasons are many and of various weight: (1) the fear of pain (though most deaths are, medically speaking, not that painful); (2) the fear of separation from what we know and from the ones we love; (3) the fear of the unknown—launching one’s vessel on an uncharted sea; (4) the fear of non-being—in Bertrand Russell’s words, “Brief and powerless is man’s life; on his and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark”; and then there’s (5) the fear of everlasting punishment.
Maybe we have the same opinion as Woody Allen, “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Death reveals our brevity (Psalm 103:15), exposes our weakness (Job 14:2), taunts us with its suddenness (Job 21:13), and mocks us with its power (Ecclesiastes 8:8). Death is an intrusion into God’s original design (Genesis 1-2). Perhaps the anonymous author captured the power of death best with these striking words:
He is a preacher of the old school, but He speaks as boldly as ever. He is not popular, though the world is his parish and he travels over every part of the globe and speaks in every language. He visits the poor; calls upon the rich and preaches to people of every religion and no religion, and the subject of his sermons is always the same. He is an eloquent preacher and he often stirs the feelings, which no other preacher can stir and brings tears to eyes that seldom weep. His arguments none are able to refute; nor is there any heart that has remained unmoved by the force of his appeals. He shatters life with His message. Most people hate him; everyone fears him. His name? Death. Every tombstone is his pulpit. Every newspaper prints his text. And one day, every one of us will be his message” (As quoted in John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), 441-442).
Linger over that last line, “And one day, every one of us will be his message.” It’s chilling. And true. Life is fleeting and death is real. It is required of us all (Luke 12:20), the appointment we will one day keep (Hebrews 9:27).
Much of our lives we can deny death, pretending it won’t happen. We refuse to think about it. We try to avoid it.
Somerset Maugham told the story of a servant and his master, from Samarra, who were in Baghdad near the market.
The servant said, “Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned I saw that it was death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture.
Now lend me your horse and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.”
The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, dug his spurs in its flanks, and rode as fast as he could.
When the merchant went down to the market he saw Death standing in the crowd and he came to Death and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?”
“That was not a threatening gesture,” Death said, “It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him in Samarra tonight.”
When it is our time, our appointed time, we cannot avoid death.
Thankfully, Jesus didn’t ignore or avoid this problem. Instead, he entered right into it. Our text says that in order to die He had to become like us. He shared our life and died our death, that we might share His life.
His humanity was real. Since we “share in flesh and blood,” Jesus did the same. He was not a ghost, a disembodied spirit, as the Docetists claimed. Jesus added a real human nature, complete with a physical body.
It was the incarnation that was amazing. Paul confesses this mystery, that the “mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body!” (1 Timothy 3:16).
But to fulfill the role of the Elder Brother, He had to become like us. To free the captives, He had to enter the prison. In order to stand in our place He had to become “flesh and blood.”
Humanity shares in “flesh and blood.” It is part of what makes us human. We are unique in many ways, but what unites us is that we have bodies made of flesh and blood.
Since mankind is flesh and blood; he became flesh and blood (cf. Jn 1:14). Men are sinners; he became sin for them that through him they might receive the righteousness of God (cf. 2 Cor 5:21).
Malcolm Muggeridge captured this truth when he wrote: “As man alone, Jesus could not have saved us; as God alone, He would not; Incarnate (God in flesh), he could and did” (Jesus, The Man Who Lives, p. 30).
He came onto enemy turf. Our stronger brother took on flesh to come onto the playground and beat up our bully. Our champion stepped onto the battlefield, made himself vulnerable to death, all to rout our enemy.
If we are careless in our thinking about Jesus, we can slip into a form of Neoapollinarianism, embracing Jesus’ divinity but holding his full humanity at arm’s length. Yet, it is important that we understand the extent to which God went to win our redemption. Through the Incarnation God became an “insider,” not merely acting on our human predicament from without, but transforming it from within. In a famous answer to Apollinarianism in the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus stated, “What has not been assumed cannot be restored,” meaning that for redemption to reach into every darkened corner of human existence, Jesus had to take on that existence in its entirety. He was not merely God encased in flesh, but was truly human, as human he was vulnerable. (George H. Guthrie, The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, 118)
His taking of flesh and blood is an act of total identification for the purpose of our everlasting redemption. Though he had every cause to be ashamed of us and to abandon us to the judgment we justly deserve, he compassionately abased himself in order that we with him might be raised to glory (Phil 2:5ff.; 2 Cor 8:9). It should be emphasized that, as the NT consistently shows, and not least this epistle, our brotherhood with Christ rests not solely on the fact of his incarnation, but much more precisely on the redemption which that incarnation enabled him to accomplish at the cross. (Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 106)
The only way to destroy Satan was to rob him of his weapon, death–physical death, spiritual death, eternal death. Satan knew that God required death for us because of sin. Death had become the most certain fact of life. Satan knew that men, if they remained as they were, would die and go out of God’s presence into hell forever. Satan wants to hold onto men until they die, because once they are dead the opportunity for salvation is gone forever. Men cannot escape after death. So God had to wrest from Satan the power of death. And for just that purpose Jesus came. (John MacArthur Jr., The MacArthur NT Commentary: Hebrews, 69-70)
He did this for the purpose of defeating the power of death and delivering us from the slavery that comes from fearing death.
The fear of death enslaves unbelievers in that this fear leads them to behave in ways that please Satan (e.g., selfishly, living for the present, etc.)
“It is ironical that human beings, destined to rule over the creation (Ps 8:5-7 LXX, cited in vv 6-8), should find themselves in the posture of a slave, paralyzed through the fear of death (Kögel, Sohn, 80). Hopeless subjection to death characterizes earthly existence apart from the intervention of God…” (Lane, p. 61).
Christ’s atoning death effected the destruction of Satan’s power of death and thus freedom from the fear of death. Our glorified Lord commands us, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17, 18).
Satan is described as the one who had the power of death. This does not mean that he has the power to kill people at will. The risen Christ holds the keys of death and Hades (Rev. 1:17, 18). God determines the length of each person’s life (Ps. 139:16) and He alone has final authority in this matter (Job 2:6; Luke 12:5). But Satan tempted Adam and Eve to sin, and through sin, death entered this world. Satan was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). He delights in seeing people die outside of Christ, because they then join him in hell throughout eternity, which is the second death (Rev. 20:14-15).
Sinners are held in “lifelong slavery” because of the “fear of death” (Heb. 2:14). Satan holds the “power of death” insofar as he tempts people to sin, accuses sinners of their sins, and, in God’s providence, wields a certain power over death. Sinners are powerless to free themselves from the enslavement of the fear of death and from the vise grip of the power of death. That bondage can be broken only in one way—through the death of the incarnate Son of God (Heb. 2:14).
The only way we can face death with hope and confidence is if we know Jesus Christ as our Savior.
For His people, Christ brings an end not to the experience of death but to the fear of death. That is to say, death and its terrors no longer hold us in bondage. Why is that? Because Christ died, experiencing death in all its terrors, pains, horrors, and agonies of soul and body. Because Christ, in His death and resurrection, defeated death.
He did this for us. As we approach death, we need to see it through the spectacles of the finished work of Christ. The gospel tells us that Christ has conquered and subdued death. That is the only way that we can face death with hope or confidence.
Christ has conquered death. It is a, for Christians, toothless foe.
Let us have the attitude of Paul. In Philippians 1 he saw death as “gain” (Phil. 1:21) and whereas continuing to live would be advantageous to the Philippians, for him death would be “far better” (Phil. 1:23), not a little better, but incomparably better! So instead of trying to ignore the reality of death, we need to say “Go ahead, death — make my day.” Say, “If you let me live, Christ will be honored on earth in my life. If you take away my life, I just get more of Christ in heaven. I can’t lose.”
I close with the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563):
Question 1: What is thy only comfort in life and death?
Answer: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto him (in The Creeds of Christendom, ed. by Philip Schaff [Baker], 3:307-308).