Before knowing God, Jonathan Edwards had a fear of thunderstorms. “I used to be a person uncommonly terrified with thunder: and it used to strike me with terror, when I saw a thunderstorm rising.” But after his conversion, Edwards writes:
“Now, on the contrary, [thunderstorms] rejoiced me. I felt God at the first appearance of a thunderstorm. And used to take the opportunity at such times, to fix myself to view the clouds, and see the lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunder: which often times was exceeding entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God.”
Charles Spurgeon reflected upon a similar kind of fear of God as Creator:
“Standing in a thunderstorm, watching, as best you can, the flashes of lightning, and listening to the thunder of Jehovah’s voice, have you not often shrunk into yourself, and said, “Great God, how terrible art thou!”—not afraid, but full of delight, like a child who rejoices to see his father’s wealth, his father’s wisdom, his father’s power,—happy, and at home, but feeling oh, so little.”
One of the themes of Michael Reeve’s book, Rejoice and Tremble, is that there is a fear of God that causes unbelievers to flee from him, and a fear of God that causes believers to fall before him in worship. Scripture uses the same word, but the reaction makes all the difference. Either way, fear is a controlling emotion. We’re compelled to react according to some deeply held concern.
If the original audience feared temporal persecution for their faith, they likely feared eternal consequences to an even greater degree. If they were tempted to return to the Jewish synagogue for relief, did they understand that meant forfeiting everything Christ had accomplished? In other words, they would be choosing to alleviate a lesser fear by elevating a greater fear.
Reeves notes, “When your culture is hedonistic, your religion therapeutic, and your goal a feeling of personal well-being, fear will be the ever-present headache.”
In our fallen nature we fear all sorts of things, but the primary fear for most people seems to be dying.
The antidote to the fear of death is to mediate upon the death of death.
Read Hebrews 2:14-18.
Delivered from the Wages of Sin (14-16)
Jesus became man, taking upon himself “flesh and blood”, so that he “partook of the same things” that united all of humanity. What they shared by creation, he participated in by choice. “Flesh and blood” implies more than merely a physical body; it entails all that it means to be human. Jesus had a soul and a spirit like every other human. He was “made like his brothers in every respect” (v.17), yet without sin (Heb 4:15).
The only way Jesus could destroy death—which is the wages of sin—was by becoming fully human and experiencing a real death. He didn’t seem to be human; he was human. Nor did he appear to die; he actually died. He was truly human and he genuinely died upon the cross. Jesus became human, not because he had to, but “that (ἵνα = purpose) through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” Jesus was born in order to die.
Delitzsch points out that the word translated “destroy”:
“…here implies not only passive endurance and suffering, but at the same time an active fight and struggle: the death by which Death was overcome was a mortal combat with him that had the power of death, with life and death for its issues, a decisive termination of the war declared against Satan at the Lord’s first entrance into the world.”
The crucifixion of Jesus ended the war that began at his birth. Through his own death he finally defeated the devil. However, before moving on, we should recognize the significant power the devil is acknowledged to possess by the author of Hebrews. Of course, the emphasis is upon the superiority of Christ’s power—in that he destroyed the devil—but the devil’s power is superior to humans.
In what sense does the devil have the power of death?
• The devil instigated the fall, which brought sin and death into the world. That estate of sin and misery was passed on from Adam to “all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation…” (WSC 16).
• The devil prowls about like a roaring lion seeking to devour and destroy us with faith-shattering temptation (1 Pt 5:8).
• The devil constantly seeks to accuse believers of their guilt. The law demands they die. Satan accuses the brothers day and night before God (Rev 12:9-10).
› In light of this, it is no wonder humanity suffers under…
The Enslaving Fear of Death
I can distinctly remember nights in my childhood when I cried myself to sleep filled with the terrifying fear of dying. I wondered if it was something I would simply have to deal with throughout my life. If I had the internet back then, I might have come across something about “death anxiety.” One article I read opens with the following sympathy:
“Death scares us all, and it’s likely that the people who say otherwise are lying. Death anxiety is real. Religious, spiritual or otherwise, we’ve all got questions about the big unknown, and what happens after we die — that’s part of life.
If fear of death is normal, however, being crippled or paralyzed by that fear (read: having anxiety) is not necessarily normal — nor a good thing.”
In other words, this article says we should expect to fear death and experience anxious thoughts about the afterlife—but hopefully that fear doesn’t prevent you from living your life. The authors are quite confident that there is ultimately no way to eliminate the fear of death entirely.
There is certainly some truth to this. Every human has this knowledge written on their hearts and witnessed by their conscience. According to Rom 2:14-15 it is a binding law that is oftentimes at odds with their “conflicting thoughts”. No matter how much they try to suppress this truth, they will continually come up against the accusations of the devil.
But, let me be clear. The notion that we need to learn to manage this lifelong fear, is at odds with what the author of Hebrews says. Jesus’ death on the cross actually delivers people from their enslavement to the fear of death. It frees them to see death differently.
The suggestion that we will not ultimately overcome this fear is also at odds with my own experience. They can call me a liar, but I no longer go to sleep with anxious thoughts about death. The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism provides us with a tremendously helpful meditation.
What is thy only comfort in life and in death? That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior 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.
Believers, place your trust in these gospel truths, memorize it as a faithful summary of Christian doctrine, and may the Holy Spirit grant to you the assurance and comfort that only comes from him. Do you rest in the comfort that the gospel provides? When you are faced with fearful temptations on every side, do you cling to the promise that Christ has delivered you from the power of death? It is only through our union with Christ that anyone can overcome the devil’s death threats and repeated temptations.
Something else I learned from Reeves’ book was the suffering that John Owen experienced.
“Owen was a man painfully familiar with heartbreak. In the second half of his life, not only was he hampered in ministry and harassed by the government; he also had to witness the burial of all eleven of his children, as well as his wife, Mary. Yet, after the death of the first ten children, he wrote these words:
“A due contemplation of the glory of Christ will restore and compose the mind…[It] will lift the minds and hearts of believers above all the troubles of this life, and is the sovereign antidote that will expel all the poison that is in them; which otherwise might perplex and enslave their souls.”
What makes Christ so glorious to the believer is that he took upon himself the penalty that we deserved. He took upon himself our shame and our guilt, and he gave us his righteousness. This great exchange is what transforms our outlook upon everything—including the fear of death.
The Death of Death in the Death of Christ
Jesus was able to deliver his children from enslavement to the fear of death, by himself dying upon the cross.
This passage is one of John Owen’s favorite texts from which to make his argument regarding limited or effectual atonement. It seems to be where he got the inspiration for the title of his book as well. The Death of Death in the Death of Christ is a classic work on the atonement. Regarding Hebrews 2:14, Owen’s writes:
“It was the children that he considered, the ‘children whom the Lord gave him,’ verse 13. Their participation in flesh and blood moved him to partake of the same,–not because all the world, all the posterity of Adam, but because the children were in that condition; for their sakes he sanctified himself.”
This “deliverance” does not belong to all those who bear the image of God—irrespective of their relationship with God. These are “the children” who were given to him by the Father (v.13). Compare this language with the language in Jesus’ high priestly prayer (John 17:2, 6, 9, 11). He did not pray this prayer for everyone indiscriminately, but for those the Father had given to him—namely, the elect (Rom 8:33). Jesus specifically delivered, or as he says in Heb 2:16, “helped” those who were “the offspring of Abraham.”
Connecting this argument to the larger case (Jesus is superior to angels), the author points out that the deliverance Jesus accomplished did not provide any help to angels. They were not enslaved to the fear of death like humanity.
But, for humans who are “subject to lifelong slavery,” our only hope is to place our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is able to deliver us from the fear of death. He alone satisfied the righteous demands of the law. He alone endured the wrath of God against sin—on behalf of those he came to save.
2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
We will come back to this notion of “propitiation” next week, but we can meditate upon the gospel this morning and appreciate the deliverance we enjoy!
Come behold the wondrous mystery, Christ the Lord upon the tree, in the stead of ruined sinners, hangs the Lamb in victory.