Freedom from Our Slavery to Death

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Nathan Pickup

In Hebrews 2:14-15, the author states that Christ took on flesh and blood so that by dying in the flesh “he might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” Humanity is an enslaved people who have been gloriously delivered by God through the work of Jesus of Nazareth. But to appreciate the amazing deliverance Christ has performed, we must reflect on the cruelty of the slavery under which we currently suffer.

The Hebrews author’s statement reveals two things about death: it is our enslaver and, without Christ, it is to be feared. Like the Pharaoh of Egypt who enslaved God’s people, death reigns over us.[1] From the moment we’re born we are vulnerable to its decrees, which can at any time infiltrate our existence by claiming our life or the life of a loved one. Death doesn’t even wait for humans to be born to exercise its power, for it has no qualms taking human lives still in the womb. The cruelty of this overlord who’s enslaved us was poignantly illustrated to me last year when I witnessed my grandfather die. I watched as he lay unconscious, his body slowly shutting down. As night fell, each labored breath was separated by an increasingly lengthy gap where no breath was taken. It was like watching a torch whose flame was slowly going out. Finally, when his last breath was taken, his body stiffened and his head rose while out of his mouth came fluid that had been trapped in his chest. After this final exertion, his body relaxed and took on that look of lifelessness which so unnaturally betokens a body whose spirit has departed. It was a terrifying event, not only because of the horrific scene but because I knew I had witnessed the inevitable end for myself and the rest of my family. In this moment, I witnessed death as the cruel overlord it is—a power against which we are all entirely powerless.

But while witnessing the death of my grandfather, I was also struck by the relief of God’s deliverance from this enslaver. Even while watching death slowly claim my grandfather, I knew that the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwelled in him, and thus he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead would also give life to my grandfather’s mortal body (Rom. 8:11). This deliverance from death is part of the good news that God has announced to creation through Jesus of Nazareth. Because of Christ’s obedience to the point of death, God has exalted him in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, and abolished death for all mankind bringing life and immortality to all (Phil. 2:8; Rom. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:10). Truly, God has declared “liberty to the captives” in what he has done through Jesus (Lk. 4:16-21). In Christ, death is no longer a cruel despot to be feared but a defeated foe who will be taunted by the victorious people of God. “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:52-57). The joy of God’s good news is that death has been defeated and thus no longer reigns over us. We get to live every day with the certainty that Christ will restore to us whoever death has plundered from our lives, for Christ will himself plunder death and take back everything it confiscated. Once death is thus humiliated and shown to be impotent in the face of God’s power, it will be abolished to the lake of fire (Rev. 20:13-14; 1 Cor. 15:25-26).

The fear of death is a powerful enslaver. While our culture offers us many distractions from pondering the power and cruelty of death, we will all experience death’s viciousness when it claims our loved ones and reminds us how helpless we are in its grip. How can one ponder the frailty of life in the shadow of death’s power and not be paralyzed by fear? But God intervened—he took on flesh and subjected himself to death so that he could defeat the ultimate enemy of his people. “He remembers that we are dust” and, because of his unfathomable compassion, delivered us from the slavery in which we would otherwise have eternally languished (Ps. 103:14). “Yahweh is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him…Your right hand, O Yahweh, glorious in power, your right hand, O Yahweh, shatters the enemy. In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries; you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble… Yahweh will reign forever and ever” (Ex. 15:2, 6-7, 18).

[1] The points in this article could just as easily be applied to the devil, who has the power of death and thus is the ultimate being responsible for the enslavement of humanity (Heb. 2:14).