Friday, April 6, 2012

Considering Death in the Abyss



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A THANATOPSIS ON HEBREWS 2:14-18

Keeping the Thought of Death Alive: The Most Essential of All Works

Why do so many ideologies throughout the world fail to ponder the significance of human death? Why are people so afraid to look closely at their own impending deaths before they arrive at its doorstep? Why do we plan to the minutest detail the small, miniscule moments of life, yet neglect to consider the eternity that awaits us at the door to our deaths? And this, In light of the fact that our deaths are for such a very long time!

Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, gave one of his slaves a strange standing order. Every morning this slave was to march into the king's chamber, and no matter what the king was doing, announce in a loud voice, "You must die!" I doubt if many of us would appreciate that kind of daily reminder of the inevitability of our own death, much less order it.

In truth, the person who has not confronted their looming death has not adequately prepared themselves to confront one of the greatest challenges that life presents: what are we to make of death? I am, by no means, suggesting that this confrontation is any easy task. It takes more than a fair amount of courage to engage one’s mind in a thanatopsis, a meditation upon the subject of death. Yet, like all disciplines, there is much to be gained by a deep reflection on this serious topic.

From the moment that Christ entered His last three years of ministry, the fact of His imminent personal death as the final culmination in His life of ministry and service was ever before Him. Ironically, the Apostle John declares that our eternal life is found in Christ’s death. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men (John 1:5).” “For the bread of God is He Who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (John 6:32).” “And I give them [My sheep] eternal life and they shall never perish .... (John 10:28).”

All that the Scriptures promise in Christ are true for us because of what took place at Christ’s death. All of the significance of His life and that which we believe to be true for us in eternity became a fact not only because of His perfect life, but through His atoning death. Christ’s death has a very practical theological side too it as well. Because of Christ’s death, the Scriptures say that we have forgiveness of sins. We are justified before a holy God. We have Christ’s righteousness added to our account, and therefore we now exist in a peaceful relationship with the Father.

The kind of life that is presented to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ is an eternal life. That eternal life exists, oddly enough, because of Christ’s sacrificial death. Without His death on our behalf there is no good news regarding either this life, or a life to come. It seems all the more wonderful and fitting then that Christ’s work regarding our salvation commenced in the moment of His death. As Christians we of all persons have the greatest reason to be hopeful in the face of death, because God himself has shown us that, though so much about the subject is shrouded in mystery, it is, in the final analysis, a most blessed hope.

George Kennan became the United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952. As a thoughtful and devout Christian man, he was one day greatly moved and impressed by the dreariness of a Soviet Marxist funeral. It was there that he was first awakened to the very real Marxist misunderstanding of the meaning and purpose of life. Oddly, for Kennan, this meaninglessness of life was captured and expounded in Marxist idealogy, when he witnessed their failure to attach any significance to the meaning and purpose of death.

Kennan’s disdain for the doctrine of Marxism stemmed from a careful look at how shallow its doctrinal probe reached for satisfactory answers to the questions raised by the phenomenon of death. More than any other reason, Marxism, (as with any religious ideology that proposes to influence the lives of human beings), must be abandoned because it fails to recognize that the total individual human condition must also embrace elements of tragedy. He wrote:

“As an adequate and enduring personal philosophy Marxism has many deficiencies; but the greatest of them is that it has, in contrast to Christianity, no answer to the phenomenon of death. This is why there is nothing more pathetic than a Marxist funeral; for to the Marxist this formality celebrates nothing more than an inexplicable, unpreventable, and profoundly discouraging event in the human experience. Unable to give meaning to death, Marxism is unable to give meaning to life. This helplessness is the guarantee of its impermanence and ultimate failure as a personal and political ideology.”

As Vice President, George Bush represented the United States at the funeral of Leonid Brezhnev. Bush was deeply moved by something that Brezhnev’s widow did at the funeral.
She had been standing motionless next to her dead husband’s coffin during the entire ceremony. Seconds before the coffin was to be closed in finality by the Russian soldiers, Brezhnev’s wife committed an act not only of great faith and courage, but at the same time, an act of profound ideological and civil disobedience. In those final seconds before her husband’s memory was sealed shut by the coffin lid, she quickly reached down and made the sign of a cross on her dead husband’s chest.

There, in that singular simple fleeting movement, she had expressed the hope that Breshniv and the atheistic philosophy he had for so long paraded before the entire world, had, in the final analysis, been an empty inevitable tragedy in itself, that offered no answers to the questions men had concerning death.

The entire world was left to wonder in that fleeting gesture, had she not hoped there was indeed something more than an inexplicable emptiness at the end of the road of life? Wasn’t Breshniv’s wife suggesting by the sign of a cross, that Jesus Christ, so vehemently denied in that atheistic culture, might be the truth that her husband’s philosophy had for so long rejected?

John Climicas, a seventh-century ascetic, wrote: “You cannot pass a day devoutly, unless you think of it as your last.” He called the very thought of death the “most essential of all works”, and a gift from God. “The man who lives daily with the thought of death is to be admired, and the man who gives himself to it by the hour is surely a saint.”

The Context of the Stunning Truth About Death in Hebrews 2:14-18

Hebrews 2:14 begins by teaching that

“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. 16 For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham.
17 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (NKJ).

Hebrews 2:14-15 are perhaps two of the most astounding verses in all of Scripture. They are rife with the larger focus and depth of purpose of Christ’s life. These verses, which we will examine more closely, are located within the larger context of the author of Hebrew’s explanation of the purpose and function of Christ’s humanity.

It seems that the recipients of this letter had been wrestling with two theological issues, which the author of the epistle is clarifying. The first issue that apparently troubled their theology was that they could not understand how the human being Jesus Christ could have been a more accurate revelation of the character of God than the Angel of the Lord had been in the Old Testament. Repeated references to the Angel of the Lord appearing to men when God desired to communicate to the Hebrews had probably made them wonder why that accepted means of revelation had now been set aside for an apparently more superior revelation in the person of Christ.

Secondly, they were obviously struggling with the implications of Christ’s suffering in death. If Christ was indeed the Incarnate One, how could He die? And what was the value of Him suffering in death the way that He did? How could His death on a cross be anything more than dreadful? How does Christ’s foreordained suffering in death demonstrate any kind of goodness of God the Father toward humanity?

The author states that God found it “fitting” that Christ would be made perfect in suffering (2:10). He affirms that Christ’s suffering death does indeed serve men, the seed of Abraham, by redeeming them (2:16). He concludes chapter two by saying that Christ’s suffering propitiated sin and enabled Him to aid those who suffer.

The author of Hebrews seems to make an astounding connection here in verse 14 that we must not miss. He began by telling the reader in the opening verses of the Epistle, that God, who had once spoken through the Angel of the Lord, now speaks to us “in” His Son Jesus. He was the One through Whom the worlds have been made. Indeed, Christ is the “brightness of God’s glory” and represents the very character of God Himself (1:3). Chapter two verse one begins by reasoning that because these things are true about Christ, we must pay heed to that truth about Christ’s superiority, and not drift away from Him doctrinally, substituting some inferior understanding about Him for the truth.

The author explains further that all things have been “put under Him”, even the things that we cannot now see that are being put under Christ’s authority, namely, death itself (2:9). Man, in spite of all his many supposed triumphs in life, is ultimately defeated in death because in death we face judgment for sin. But the full magnitude of God’s graciousness to us is seen when we comprehend that His eternal Son is the only human, who unlike us, conquers death. Where there is only ever defeat in our own deaths, there is great glory in Christ’s death. Because of the suffering of Christ’s death as a man, we see Jesus already crowned “with glory and honor” in his defeat of the enemy that had defeated us all, death.

Christ’s death is said here to be, in some sense, on behalf of everyone (2:9)! Not in an “atoning” or “substitutionary” sense of dying “for them”, but in the sense that Christ’s death was a statement of all of humanities inability to overcome and destroy the cause of death, sin.
Death had been the enemy and foe of every man. Death was a foe which ultimately brought every human being defeat, and yet, had at last, been defeated by a man! The grace and glory of God are abundantly expressed in the fact that the motive for Christ’s incarnation was to defeat death at the cross. He was indeed “born to die.”

In Christ’s defeat of death, He experienced the death that had bitterly defeated all men, only to finally triumph over it in grace and power. In that defeat, Christ defeated that which had subjected all men to the fear of death.

And so the author of Hebrews suggests that rather than looking at Christ’s humanness as being a cause for theological concern as to the validity of God’s true revelation, Christ’s humanity should rather be seen as a remarkable evidence of God’s divine goodness towards us.

In an almost stunning view into the seriousness and true meaning behind the significance of human death, the author reveals, without any apparent compulsion to clarify for the reader the bare bones theology of death, that there are three purposes to Christ’s death.

III. Three of God’s Purposes in Christ’s Death

a) Christ destroyed him who had the power of death (2:14)

We must ask two questions of the text here. “In what way is the Devil understood to be destroyed” in this text? And, “in what way does the author of Hebrews mean that the Devil had the power of death?” The Devil still exists, tempting and enslaving men to sin. It is in this ability to tempt and enslave to sin that the Devil is said to have “the power of death.” In no way then can we say that in Christ’s coming “to destroy him who had the power of death” are we freed from anything more than the Devil’s ultimate power which prevailed against us in death. Christ’s death has served to deliver us from the tyranny of the devil’s reign over both our lives and our death. In Christ, we are rendered safe from the bondage of sin to which the Devil introduced us, and Christ has so redeemed us from the death due to sinners, that death is no longer to be dreaded.

Surely, the words of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God must have been written after reflecting on this very passage!

“...For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great; and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.

“And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can
endure, for lo! his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.”

When the writer of Hebrews speaks of the Devil’s “power of death” he refers to the Fall of man in Genesis 3:15, where Satan’s temptation in the garden of Eden introduced death by enticing Adam and Eve to transgress the will and commandment of God which had promised death for disobedience (Genesis 2:17). The Lord refers to the devil’s introduction of sin in John 8:44, where He calls “the devil a murderer from the beginning.” It was there, in the beginning, at the garden, that the devil became the author of sin, and then perhaps immediately, the author of death also (death having been introduced because sin had been introduced) -- and it was there that the Devil figuratively is assumed to have gained the power of death over us.

Wonderfully, it was in the death of our Lord that God did also destroy the cause of death, sin. One commentator said, “by bringing life and immortality to light, Christ delivered those whose continual fear of death placed them as it were in a state of slavery to a relentless tyrant.”

b) Christ released those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (2:15)

What an amazing statement this is. It asserts that there is a fear of death that holds men to bondage for a lifetime, from which Christ releases us. I don’t think that the author of Hebrews is saying that Christ released us from the fear of the way that we might die. He is concerned with our fear of death at a much deeper level. It is not simply the ceasing to be that men fear in their conscience. It is not simply “the shuffling off of the outer covering” that alarms men.
Dr. Bernard Seltzer, an outstanding surgeon, wrote a book entitled, "Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery." In it he suggests that as a culture, Amebicans have failed to learn to contemplate death. Our more natural reaction is to try to disguise death by acting as if is of no concern to us. He says, "He who shrinks from this contemplation is like an Elizabethan 'dandy' who breathes through a handkerchief that has been soaked in vinegar in order to avoid the rank whiff of the poor." It is a striking illustration of our utter neglect as a society to contemplate death. It may be safe to say that we are the most death-denying culture in all of human history. Yet, ironically, the fear of death is the most prevalent among those who avoid its contemplation.

This fear of death is as Shakespeare said, “.... the dread of something after death.” Lord Bacon remarked that “Conscience does indeed make cowards of us all. Men fear death as children fear the dark.” All children fear the dark. But it is not that children fear for what is there necessarily, but for what they imagine to be there, for what their conscience suggests may be lurking.

G. K. Chesterton, the British author and theologian wrote:
“The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it— because it is a fact.”

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard understood the fear of death. He saw the fear of death as an anxiety which pursued men their whole lives, from the time of their birth till the day that they died. This fear is based upon a conscious fear for unforgiven sin which is brought into effect by the work of the law which is written in men’s hearts (Rom. 2:15). This fear is represented in Adam’s fearful response when he first sinned (Gen. 3:10); in Felix’s response to Paul’s preaching (Acts 24:25); and here in the book of Hebrews by men who reject the preaching of the gospel of salvation (Hebrews 10:27-31).

The great sting of death that Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians 15:56 is sin. “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is to the ensuing results of sins, i.e., death, that men have been bound all their lives. And the only deliverance from that bondage to sin is genuine faith in the finished work of Christ, a faith the Paul tells us can “liberate” us from that fear.

How strange it seems that we no longer express the urgency of possessing the kind of faith that frees men from the fear of the horrible bondage of death, as was once owned by the Puritans. Matthew Poole, the great Puritan divine, wrote

“The fear of death is a painful and wasting horror, working the saddest apprehensions and tumultuous workings of the soul, from its apprehended danger of death spiritual, temporal, and eternal, when the wrath of God does not only dissolve the natural frame, but makes an everlasting separation from Himself, shutting them up with the worst company, in the worst place and state that is possible for the human mind to imagine, and that forever.”

This verse expresses in a striking manner how miserable the bondage of those who fear death. And they live in that dread because they look at death apart from the grace of Christ, for then, nothing but a curse appears in it.

The question that Scripture implores each one of it’s readers to consider is worthy indeed: “Why do we die except for God’s wrath against sin?”

Death here does not only mean the departure of the soul from the body, but also the punishment which is inflicted on us by an angry God. Death here includes the idea so prevalent in Scripture of eternal ruin. As one Puritan commentator said, “Where there is guilt before God, there immediately hell shows itself.” How many of us have never read John 3:36? “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

Calvin said that “through a consciousness of sin the judgment of God is ever presented to the view. From this fear Christ has delivered us, who by undergoing our curse has taken away what is dreadful in death.” It is a Christian duty to live in light of the fact that Christ has empowered us to be free from the fear of eternal ruin that comes with sin. “If any one cannot pacify his mind by disregarding death, let him know that he has made as yet but very little proficiency in the faith of Christ; for as extreme fear is owing to ignorance as to the grace of Christ, so it is a certain evidence of unbelief.”

From the following statement by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart it would appear that it is our duty to become intimately acquainted with our death. Mozart wrote

“As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling! And I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity of learning that [meditating upon my] death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness.”

Charles Spurgeon suggested that we become so familiar with death that we die, in a sense, every day! He wrote that

“No man would find it difficult to die that died every day. He would have practiced it so often, that he would only have to die but once more; like the singer who has been through his rehearsals, and is perfect in his part, and has but to pour forth the notes once for all, and have done.”

c) The turning away of the wrath of God

Hebrews 2: 17 says, “Wherefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”

The sentence He had to be made like His brethren is an imperfect active indicative verb. It means that in time past, it was always true that God had intended that Christ was under obligation and bound by necessity, to become like one of us. And herein is the motive or purpose of His being made like one of us, “To make propitiation for the sins of the people.” The verb to make propitiation is an aorist infinitive. It implies motive or purpose. If we were to take a photograph of what God was purposing to do in Christ’s death, it could be summarized in the statement “God, in offering Christ as a sacrifice, was intending to make propitiation for sins.” That was His purpose in the Incarnation of Christ. That was His intended result. Christ’s work is to bring God and sinner together in reconciliation, to make the One propitious and gracious to the other by sacrifice.

This propitious work of Christ’s includes the idea of turning away God’s wrath toward sin by an offering. “Propitiation” appears four times in the New Testament: Heb. 2:17; Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2, 4:10. Note the difference between expiation and propitiation. The intent here in the passage in Hebrews is not simply to describe some blanket expiation, or cancellation of sin for all people. God did not simply cancel all sin and it’s penalties once and for all in Christ’s sacrifice. If that were the case, then no one would ever need to have any fear of death at all, because the guilt and punishment associated with sin and death would be non-existent!

Rather, Christ, by the sacrifice of Himself, satisfied God’s justice by placating God’s wrath toward all those who have genuine faith in Christ, and procured their pardon for each and every sin of omission and commission they had accrued in their entire lifetime.

The wonderful truth found in Christ’s suffering and death is that the cross is God’s ordained means of removing the condemnation toward sin which His justice required. Death entered the world because of sin. And because of sin, men have all their lives been bound to the penalty of sin, death. And in death, men rightly find fear and judgment from a holy and righteous Judge.

This is the true testimony of God’s love toward sinners. The love of God which is poured out towards us in the merciful offering of Christ for sin cannot be known and apprehended apart from the fact that Christ’s death averted the wrath of God due us by our sin.

The death of the soul is very different. It is the judgment of God, the weight of which the wretched soul cannot bear without being wholly confounded, crushed, and desperate, as both the Scriptures teach us, and experience has taught those whom God has once smitten with his terrors. To begin with Adam, who first received the fatal wages, what do we think his feelings must have been when he heard the dreadful question, “Adam, where art thou?” It is easier to imagine than to express it, though imagination must fall far short of the reality. As the sublime majesty of God cannot be expressed in words, so neither can his dreadful anger on those on whom he inflicts it be expressed. They see the power of the Almighty actually present: to escape it, they would plunge themselves into a thousand abysses; but escape they cannot. Who does not confess that this is very death? (John Calvin, Vol. 3, Selected Works, 416).

May God be praised for His wonderful work in Christ!

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