Jesus, God’s Son, became a man so he could die.
Amazing … but why that extreme?
The writer of Hebrews answered, “[T]hat through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” [Heb. 2:14-15].
Let’s distinguish three separate points of view here. Jesus entered human life and died with an aim to defeat death at its source. The devil, as a slave-master, aims to dominate humanity through death. And “all those” are humans afraid of death and dying. Their ambition is to live.
It’s a conflicted collection of aims. It also raises questions about how we view death today; about how the Scriptures as a whole portray death; and what the book of Hebrews, in particular, teaches about Jesus dying.
The author’s summary of God’s plan in Hebrews is a broad portrayal of death. Death is more, for instance, than the cessation of physical life. There would be no victory in Jesus dying and staying dead. The devil’s ambition was to devour him, and God’s response was a resurrection. As Jesus defeated death all of humanity is invited to join him, thus breaking the devil’s power.
But isn’t death the cessation of physical life?
No. It’s much more.
The Bible reminds us that only God has life in himself, and physical life is distinct from his Spirit-based life. The writer of Hebrews spoke of the Son’s “indestructible life” as a quality of his divinity. And as the only God-man Jesus is a bridge—a mediating priest—who can bring humans into God’s eternal life.
The discussion of death in Hebrews offers more content because the twin identities of Jesus needed to be emphasized for the readers. The mainly Jewish audience needed to be reminded of the Old Testament. Their synagogue-school training days were inadequate. And while they now followed Jesus in a Christian house church, they were weighing a return to their old non-messianic synagogue. Even though it would amount to a return to the temple-based worship still being practiced in Jerusalem … where Jesus had been crucified.
It wouldn’t work.
The audience understood the key premise of Jerusalem temple worship. It relied on blood-based sacrifices: “the life of every creature is its blood.” And, “it is the blood that makes atonement by the life [it represents]” [Leviticus 17:14&11]. The broader premise was that every soul that sins must die—both then and now.
An even broader and unspoken premise is that God will never allow unconfronted sin in heaven. He is a “consuming fire” who confronts evil if it comes near him. So, God set out a plan to have animals—representing humans—spill their blood and then have their bodies consumed by fire or consumed by priests as food. The culmination of the system came in animal sacrifices once a year with blood sprinkled in the Holy of Holies on behalf of repentant humans.
The writer of Hebrews grasped the much bigger issue here. Animal sacrifices are hardly the same thing as a human’s “shed blood.” The Jerusalem temple sacrifices were only emblematic. A temporary arrangement. Real humans face real death for real sins. Bulls and goats won’t do, but a sinless, indestructible, and unbounded human life does. For the Father only his own sinless Son fit the requirement.
So—as promised in Isaiah 53—the Son of God supplied his human body and offered his blood to his Father in the heavenly temple on behalf of all his children. It was done under a new covenant, a new priesthood, and represented a proper sacrifice. The Son’s sinless and infinite life swallowed death, once for all, on behalf of all in his family.
A second issue is that the devil—the ruler of death—seems to be “alive.” But it’s a lie. Physical life, or even an angelic life, is not what constitutes true life. Thus the debate in Eden—“you shall surely die” versus “you will not surely die”—was the devil’s ploy to fog over what Jesus later told Nicodemus in John 3. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. And after Adam’s fall the Spirit was no longer present in human souls. The Spirit’s return calls for a work of reconciliation.
We now realize that only the Spirit gives eternal life as he lives in a soul. But for him to do this there must be shed blood. Whether viewed proleptically in the Old era, or viewed after the fact in the New, the Son’s death gives life to all who are united to him by faith.
So Hebrews tells us how Jesus defeated death. And now we can relax, certain that death is dead, once and for all. Amen! And enjoy the rest it provides.