Our Savior and Man's Fear of Death (2)

Walton Weaver
Paragould, Arkansas

Why was it necessary that Jesus Christ become man, or enter by incarnation into our mode of existence, when he came into the world? The clear answer according to Hebrews 2:9-13, as we saw in our first article, is that through sufferings and death he might take many sons into glory. This redemptive work was made possible because he shared with us "blood and flesh" (Heb. 2:14a). The passage now before us takes us one step further. It shows that if Christ was to deal adequately with the problem man faced, certain things had to be destroyed. John says, "for this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil" (1 Jn. 3:8). The Hebrew writer uses similar language here. He says that Christ shared "blood and flesh" with his children "that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil" (Heb. 2:14b).

The Devil And The Power Of Death

The word rendered "destroy" (katarge) has a meaning ranging from "make ineffective, powerless, idle" to "abolish, wipe out, set aside" (Arndt-Gingrich, Greek English Lexicon 418). Since the devil still exists and is still active on planet earth, the meaning best suited to this passage is the first possibility, to "bring to nought" (ASV), or render impotent as though no longer existing. "The power of death" that is mentioned here is parallel in expression to the terms "sin reigns in death" in Romans 5:21. The latter means that the sovereignty of sin extended throughout the whole province covered by death. This sovereignty of sin is a sovereignty of the devil just as death is a sovereignty of the devil. They both came into the world through him, and both were realms in which the devil held sway. The devil's power is his empire, and his empire is in the province of both sin and death. For the devil to have sovereignty in the realm of death does not mean that he has the power to inflict death. The Bible nowhere teaches that the devil has this power. He is not an angel of death as many have supposed.

Deliverance From Bondage

To render the devil powerless in the realm of death does not do away with death itself. It was "through death" (i.e., by means of Christ's death) that the devil who had the power of death was made impotent. It was the death of Christ that robbed him of his empire in the realm of death. But death is still with us. After Christ's work on the cross was finished it was still true that "it is appointed for men to die once" (Heb. 9:27). This is not to say that the sting of death has not been removed, for it has (I Cor. 15:55). Death, just as him who has the power of death, has been rendered impotent through Christ's death and resurrection (Heb. 2:14; 2 Tim. 1:10; 1 Cor. 15:26; 1 Jn. 3:8f). But the Hebrew writer is making an additional point. Note Hebrews 2:15: "And release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage." When the devil was rendered powerless by Christ's death on the cross man was released from a bondage due to the fear of death.

This helps us understand better what the nature of the devil's empire in the sphere of death is, and what the limits of its exercise are. The two words that best help us in this respect are the words "fear" and "bondage." In some way man's freedom had been up to this point restricted (he was held in bondage) by a fear of death. What is the fear of death that the author has in mind, and when was this so, or what period of time is involved? It seems clear that it is more than the natural shrinking from death brought about by the dread of pain, the misery, and the dissolution which attends it. Most people experience this kind of physical shrinking in the face of death. But such fear does not bring men into bondage. Whatever is meant by the word "bondage" it was something men were under "all their lifetime," and for this reason it was a state of misery from which they desperately needed to be released, Perhaps the key to understanding this passage is to be found in the primary purpose of Christ's death. Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:6), so that he might reconcile man to God (Rom. 5: 10). He offered himself as a sacrifice for sins (Eph. 5:2; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 21). Through his death he became "the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world" (1 Jn. 2:2).

The fear of death that holds men in bondage is fear of the consequences of sin. Paul declares that "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). It is man's sins that separate him from God (Isa. 59:1-2). Man fears this separation. He knows that following death there is judgment where he will be held accountable for his sins (Heb. 9:27). During the Old Testament period this fear of death was more pronounced because "life and immortality" had not yet been fully brought to light as it now is through the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 1:10). In the absence of this fuller knowledge there was in the Old Testament believer this fear that God might reject his person, and visit upon him his sins. There were times when this fear was not present in their minds (cf. Psa. 23:4), but it was never vanquished and wholly laid aside (cf. Job [Bildad called death "the king of terrors," 18:14], Hezekiah, and some of the Psalms). They lived in hope that the day would come when God would no longer remember their sins (Jer. 31:34), and the Hebrew writer assures his readers that that day had indeed arrived (Heb. 8:12-13). Jesus has released us from this fear because death is no longer a sign of the lack of full acceptance with God as it was to those under the old dispensation.

Did Jesus Fear Death?

Those who are in Christ are no longer in bondage to the fear of death. Jesus' victory over the devil is the same thing as victory over the fear of death, since his empire has death as its sphere of operation. If we have been released from this bondage, then surely our Lord who brought us deliverance from it, was not subjected to it himself, was he? Was he who became flesh in order that he might release us from this bondage of the fear of death a subject of that fear himself? Most assuredly not. Without question he passed through all the weakness of fleshly life, but unlike all others before him, he proved himself not only to be exempt from the fear of death, but also to be victorious over "him who had the power of death, that is, the devil."

1. His Death - The Means Of Victory Over Death. Instead of being a thing to dread, death for Jesus was the means by which the victory over death would be accomplished. Death for him was but a step in his divinely appointed vocation. It was not put on him against his will. It was through death that he consciously completed his work on earth as Savior. Every step of the way, including this final step, he did what he did, not for his own sake only, but for the sake of his brethren. It was in their interest, and in order that he might take them with him (see v. 10), that he assumed flesh and blood and passed through sufferings and death.

2. The Meaning Of Hebrews 5:7. But, it will be asked, did not Jesus pray that the Father would save him from death (Heb. 5:7), and this being so, does this not show that Jesus feared death? Whatever the object of the fear mentioned in this verse ("and was heard because of His godly fear," NKJV) might be, it should be clear that it could not be the same fear being discussed in Hebrews 2:15. That fear was based upon one's uncertainty about his full acceptance before God. Jesus could not have had this fear because he had no sins. This fear, as already pointed out, prevented even God's people from enjoying liberty under the Old Testament dispensation, because it had sin at its roots. Not having "sure and certain knowledge of life beyond death," as we now do through the death and resurrection of our Lord; and not yet having been brought to the full assurance of the gospel of the remission of sins, as a rule, at least, death was viewed as a dread (a thing to be feared) rather than as a step into a better life. This does not describe our Savior's attitude in the face of death.

The KJV renders the word at this place (eulabeia) simply "feared," while other versions translate this term "piety" (NASB), "reverent submission" (NIV), or "godly fear" (ASV, RSV, NKJV). This Greek word is found only hear and in Hebrews 12:28 (along with deous, "awe") in the New Testament. The clear meaning of reverence, or godly fear, in the latter passage would indicate that "godly fear" is the preferred meaning in Hebrews 5:7. The Hebrew writer does not say that Jesus feared death, but that he had a reverent fear of God. This godly fear is best seen in Jesus' words, "Not as I will, but as You will" (Matt. 26:39; Mk. 14:36), which follow his request, "If it is possible let this cup pass from Me." Jesus shrank from the "cup" of suffering the wrath of God (note where "cup" is a metaphor of divine judgment in Isa. 51:17, 22; Jer. 25:15, 17; 49:12; Ezek. 23:33) as the bearer of man's guilt. He knew that in his death on the cross he would be forsaken by the Father (Matt. 27:46). He dreaded the prospect. But for his godly fear the Father answered his prayer, yet he did so in full compliance with the Father's will (as Jesus himself had requested) by accepting his death on the cross as the final and complete execution of his own (the Father's) will.

3. If Jesus Feared Death Itself. If this is the meaning of Hebrews 5:7, as we firmly believe it is, then there is no indication in this verse that Jesus feared death itself. To say that he feared death because "he did not have sure and certain knowledge of life beyond death" is to say that he was no more than a man while he was on earth - and, even more, that he was a man who was no better than those under the former dispensation "who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. " But it would also make all those declarations that Jesus made during his lifetime concerning his own death and resurrection meaningless. What, for example, would be the meaning of this statement: "Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself" (Jn. 12:31-32). Could Jesus know that through his death he would "destroy him who had the power of death, that is the devil" (Heb. 2:14), that "the ruler of this world will be cast out," and that he would "draw all peoples to" himself, without having sure and certain knowledge of life beyond death? Surely no one would affirm that Jesus thought this work (a work he had "come to this hour" to accomplish through his death alone, Jn. 12:27) would be accomplished through his death alone, apart from his resurrection from the dead. Can he who spoke words of comfort to Mary and Martha at their brother's tomb, by saying, "I am the resurrection and the life" (Jn. 11:25) fail to have sure and certain knowledge of life beyond death? If Jesus believed in his own resurrection, as surely all must admit that he did (Matt. 16:21; 20:17-20; 26:32; Mk. 8:31; 9:31; Lk. 9:22; 18:31-33; Jn. 2:19-22), then what was there about his death to fear that had to do with life beyond death? Was he fearful of his own standing before God, that perhaps he might be rejected by God? If so, would this not mean that he did not know that he had lived perfectly before God? If this is the case, how explain his challenge, "Which of you convicts Me of sin?" (Jn. 8:46) He had no doubt about life beyond death when he said to the thief, "Today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Lk. 23:43). At an earlier period he spoke with the same confidence, when he said, "I shall be with you a little while longer, and then I go to him who sent Me. You will seek Me, and where I am you cannot come" (Jn. 7:33-34). They could not go where Jesus would be because they had rejected the Father. Sounds like Jesus had sure and certain knowledge of his own life beyond death, doesn't it?

If it is true that Hebrews 5:7 means "fear" (anxiety) and not "godly fear," it still would not necessarily follow that Jesus feared death itself. Some have thought that Jesus feared the possibility of failure, that he might give in to the severe temptations that would accompany the ordeal; others have explained the verse to mean that Jesus feared all the evils to which he was about to be exposed. Neither of these explanations satisfies my own mind on the meaning of the passage, as we have explained above. But whatever is the meaning of this verse, it does not seem possible to my own mind that the passage could mean that Jesus feared death itself because he did not have sure and certain knowledge v of life beyond death.

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 20, pp. 614-616
October 15, 1992