Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15 and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. 16 For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. 17 Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.
"You Were Born to Live Forever"
On Wednesday night at the Metrodome Billy Graham took his text from John 3:16 and began to talk about God from the two words, "For God." But what struck me in that message was how often he spoke of death. He was very blunt and forthright and looked us all in the face and said something like, "In fifty or seventy years you will all be dead." But then he made clear that he meant we would all be in heaven or in hell. He said, "When you were born, you were born to live forever, and you will—either in heaven or in hell." Then he went on to tell us how to reach heaven and escape hell through faith in Jesus Christ.
It seems to me that this was exactly the right way to start his crusade: talking about God and death. If there were no God, then death would be sad for most people, but it wouldn't be terrifying. It would be sad because life is the basis of all our pleasures—family, friends, work, leisure, food, sex, music—if we lose life, we lose everything that makes us happy—if there is not God. So death would be sad. But not terrifying. Falling asleep and going unconscious and never waking up into consciousness again is a sad farewell to contemplate. The ending of a long, beautiful summer is sad.
But if there is God, if we are created in the image of God, as the Bible teaches, and as Billy Graham preaches, and if he is just and holy and worthy of our love and devotion and worship and obedience, and justly angry at our indifference and distrust and our preference for other things, and if we are going to give an account to this infinite, holy God and be sentenced to heaven or to hell, then death is terrifying if things are not right with God. And written on every heart, the Bible says (Romans 2:15), is the law of God testifying to our conscience that we will all give an account to God.
Slavery to the Fear of Death
Therefore even for people who deny the reality of such a God, death is terrifying. This doesn't mean that most unbelieving people lead consciously terrified lives. It means that they are enslaved by the fear of death to find ways not to feel the intolerable fear that they have. That is, fear of dying is so natural for sinful people who are not ready to meet God, that it rules them like a silent master who takes many forms. The main form is the dream world of denial. Most people simply do not let themselves think about what is absolutely inevitable, namely, their own death. They are driven, consciously or unconsciously, to shut their eyes and close their ears and blank their minds to every thought that they are going to die and give an account to God.
And this is a form of slavery to the fear of death. They would say they are not afraid. But the fact is, the fear has gone underground and enslaves from the subconscious. It's like your car's cruise control. The cruise control of your soul gets set at the 55 mph of contentment and peace of mind, and if your soul begins to slow down and become pensive and thoughtful and reflective about God and the things of eternity and the reality of dying, the cruise control kicks in and quickly pushes the speed back up to where you won't think about all that. That's the power of the fear of death functioning subconsciously like a slave master over what you can feel and think. Or if your soul becomes energetic and active and speeds up to a new level of study and inquiry and pursuit of truth and ultimate values and you feel yourself driven toward some new height of discovery about the meaning of life and death and eternity, then the cruise control kicks in and takes the acceleration away and makes you coast back down to the safe, blind contentment of 55 mph enslavement.
My point is that the fear of death enslaves everybody into a dream world of denial or escape or narcotic numbness or frenzied distraction or philosophic negation or paralyzing panic—unless something happens that deals with the reality of death and God and the devil and sin as they really are with no evasions or distortions or denials.
Now that is what this text is about. And what I want to do with it is very limited. One of the great limitations of preaching in this brief life we have to live is that almost every word in a book like Hebrews is worthy of several sermons. But if I followed that procedure, I would preach on Hebrews for the rest of my life. Which would be unduly neglectful of other portions of equally worthy Scripture. So I have to choose which aspects of any given text to highlight and focus on. And we need to pray as a people that I be sensitive to God's leading and that your hearts be prepared by the Holy Spirit for the focus he gives me.
Deliverance from the Fear of Death
I want us to see the flow of thought in verses 14 and 15 about how Christ came to deliver you from the fear of death and make you free, by rendering the devil powerless in his destructive use of death. Then I want to compare that flow of thought with verse 17 to see how the death of Christ defeats the power of the devil in death. And then finally to close by asking: what about all the threats to our faith leading up to death—the suffering and the lost relationships?
Look with me at verses 14 and 15 and walk with me through the five steps that are here in your deliverance from bondage to the fear of death.
Step One (Verse 14a)
You are human. "Since the children share in flesh and blood . . . " The "children" is a reference back to verse 13 where it refers to the people that God calls to himself and gives to his Son, Jesus. So he says in verse 14 that these "children" share in flesh and blood, that is, they are simply human. They have a human nature. They are not angels or gods.
Step Two (Verse 14b)
Christ became human. "Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same." The Son of God, we saw back in Hebrews 1:2, did not come into being when Jesus was born. He existed before creation, indeed, from eternity as the very image of God (1:3) and was himself God (1:8). But since the children whom he loved and wanted to save were human, he took on the same human nature. So Jesus was actual God and actual man. It is a great mystery, but this is what God tells us about his Son.
Step Three (Verse 14c)
Christ did this so that he could die. "Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death . . . " In his divine nature alone Christ's life was indestructible (Hebrews 7:16). He could not die. But a death was necessary to deal with guilt and the punishment of sin. So Christ became human precisely so that he could die. This is what love does. It embraces suffering and death for the life of others.
Step Four (Verse 14d)
In dying, Christ rendered powerless the one who has the power of death, the devil. " . . . that through death He might render powerless him who has the power of death, that is, the devil." In dying, Christ defeated, in some profound way, the power of the devil and took away his ability to destroy by death. How did Christ do that? That's what we will see when we look at verse 17. But for right now it just says that's what Christ willingly died to do. The apparent defeat of death was a knockout blow to Satan. How? Hold on, and we will see.
Step Five (Verse 15)
The effect of defeating the devil in this way is that we are delivered from slavery to the fear of death. " . . . to render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15 and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives." We are freed from the dream world of denial and escape and distraction. We can live now in the full stare of death and not be afraid or self-deluding.
That's the flow of thought in verses 14–15. Five steps:
- you are human;
- therefore Christ became human;
- so that he might die for you;
- to nullify the deadly power of the devil;
- so that you might be freed from slavery to fear and live in freedom the rest of eternity.
How Does the Death of Christ Defeat the Power of the Devil in Death?
Now the question: How does the death of Christ defeat the power of the devil in death? And to see that, let's compare the flow of thought in verses 14–15 with verse 17. I'm passing over verse 16, not because it's unimportant but because there isn't time. In a word, it highlights again that our great salvation (2:3) is great in large measure because it shows God's willingness to deal with humans and not just focus on angels.
Verse 17 says now that since Christ is aiming to deliver humans (children of Abraham) and not angels, "Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people." Now what stands out immediately when you compare this verse with the flow of thought in verses 14 and 15 is that both of them speak of Christ having to become like us. Verse 17 says, "He had to be made like His brethren in all things." Verse 14 says, "Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same." So we know we are dealing here in verse 17 with the same basic flow of thought: in order to accomplish something Christ had to become one of us.
But the rest of verse 17 is different from verses 14 and 15, and the differences show us how it is that Christ defeated the devil by dying for us. Verse 14 says that Christ became like us so that he could die and render powerless the one who has the power of death, the devil. Verse 17 says that Christ became like us so that he might become a high priest to make propitiation for our sins. So my conclusion is that Christ rendered the devil powerless in death by his high priestly work of making a propitiation for our sins.
Those are some big words and big ideas. Let me try to explain. This is not over your head. Verse 17 says Jesus became like us so that he could be our high priest. Now what the high priest did in the Old Testament was make sin offerings for the people so that their sins could be forgiven. So why did Jesus have to become a human—like us—in order to be a high priest for us? Because the offering he had to give was the offering of himself. He needed to be a human high priest, so that he could lay down his life not only as the priest who makes the offering, but also as the offering that he makes. (See 7:27; 9:14, 25f.)
The writer says this at least four times. For example, in Hebrews 9:26 he says, "Now once at the consummation of the ages [Christ] has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself." So Christ became human like us in his work as high priest so that the offering he made could be himself. It's the same as verse 14: he needed to be human in order to die.
But now notice that in verse 17 the aim of the death of Christ—the work of the high priest—was "to make propitiation for the sins of the people," while in verse 14 the aim of the death of Christ is "to render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil." Seeing this is the key to how the death of Christ strips the devil of his power in death.
Christ strips the devil of his power in death by making propitiation for our sins. How does this work? That big word "propitiation" simply means Christ takes away God's anger at us for our sins. When Christ dies, he is perfectly innocent (Hebrews 4:15). His death is to bear the guilt and punishment of our sins, not his own. And when our punishment falls on him, it is taken away from us. That's what propitiation means. God's justice is satisfied. He loved us enough to put his own Son forward to absorb the punishment we deserved so that he could demonstrate that he is just and faithful in dealing with sin and merciful in dealing with sinners. This is the great gospel. This is our great salvation. Christ dying in our place, and propitiating God—removing his righteous anger from us. So in him there is now no condemnation.
The Only Lethal Weapon the Devil Has
Now how does that render powerless the one who had the power of death, the devil? It doesn't mean Christians don't die a physical death—sometimes very painful ones. Nor does it mean that Satan can't kill us (see Revelation 2:10). What it means is that the only weapon the devil can use to destroy us in death is our sin. Nobody goes to hell because they are oppressed by the devil or even possessed by the devil. Nobody goes to hell because they are harassed by the devil or get shot at by the devil or given hallucinations by the devil. These are all smoke screens to hide the one deadly power in Satan's artillery, namely, unforgiven sin. The only reason anybody goes to hell is because of their own sin. And all Satan can do is fight like hell to keep you sinning and to keep you away from the one who forgives sin.
Because if your sin is forgiven, and the wrath of God Almighty is turned away from you, then the devil is disarmed. The one deadly, lethal tactic he has is to accuse you of sin and keep you sinning and to keep you away from Christ who forgives sin and removes the wrath of God. If your sins are forgiven and the wrath of God is removed from you, and you stand righteous before God in Jesus Christ by faith, and God is for you and not against you, then the devil is rendered powerless: he cannot destroy you.
So in sum, the connection between verses 14 and 17 shows that the way Christ renders powerless the devil is by making propitiation for our sins. Which shows that the only lethal weapon in the artillery of Satan is our own sin. If that is covered by the blood of Jesus, if that is forgiven, and if the anger of God against it is gone and in its place is omnipotent grace working for our good, then we can cry out to any human or demonic manslayer: "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:54–55). The body they may kill, but that is all. Instantly we are at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).
What About all the Threats to our Faith Leading Up to Death?
Which leaves one last very brief observation from verse 18. Granted that the fear of death is taken away and we are freed. But what about the pain and the losses that lead up to death? I heard R.C. Sproul say in Memphis last spring: "It's not death I'm afraid of, it's dying." It's the degeneration, the loss of our powers, the humiliation of senility, the pain, the breaking away of loved ones. What about all the trials and temptations to give up and despair in these things?
I think verse 18 is meant to encourage us here. It says, "For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted." In other words, Christ took on weak, vulnerable human nature not only so that he could experience death, but also that he could experience dying, and then sympathize with the temptations that come with suffering and dying. It says he was tempted in that which he suffered—this isn't the temptation of lust or greed. This is the temptation to get angry and to be resentful and sullen and self-pitying and despairing and unbelieving in the goodness of God. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me" is a hair's breadth from blasphemy.
The point is this: not only do you have the Word of God this morning proclaiming that you are free from slavery to the fear of death. You also have a word from God this morning that when the trial comes in your dying, when you are tempted to despair or self-pity or resentment or anger or unbelief, Christ will come to help you. And he will come as one who knows, from his own agonizing experience, just what you are experiencing. And he will give you what you need to endure to the end.
He is merciful and faithful high priest, and he will do it.