O, Death

O, Death

Won’t you spare me over til another year?

Those are the opening lyrics of the Appalachian dirge, “O Death.” They will be familiar if you have seen the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? or at least heard its soundtrack. Bluegrass great Ralph Stanley received the 2002 Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his a capella rendition of it. It evokes the fear of death that the author of Hebrews alludes to when he writes about “those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews: 2:15). It speaks of death’s “ice cold hands”; how, in the face of death “time and mercy are out of your reach” because it “runs the life right out of your soul”; and it doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, rich or poor, because nothing satisfies death but your soul. Like the man in Ralph Stanley’s song, most people want death to “spare them over til another year.”

The Pall of Fear

Many people do their best to distract themselves from the thought of death, but ultimately you can’t escape it. As we read in the first part of Hebrews 9:27, “it is appointed for men to die.” Those icy cold hands of death reach out to all humanity, and humanity is enslaved to it.

But the enslavement is not to death itself, but to the fear. It is the anticipation of death that enslaves. For some it is the fear of judgment. As the full text of Hebrews 9:27 says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Many are afraid of what that judgment will hold. They haven’t paid much attention to God, and they’ve done things they know are wrong. They thought those things would be more fun and make them a lot happier. Now they know what they deserve at God’s hand.

Others deny that God even exists. They fear death too, but the thing that frightens them is oblivion. They fear that in the moment of death, they will simply be snuffed out like a candle, and their lives will be shown to have been meaningless. The famous atheist Bertrand Russell expressed this fear when he wrote: “Brief and powerless is man’s life; on his and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark.” For the atheist unbeliever or for the person who believes in God but goes his own way, the fear of death can be overpowering. Human beings can’t escape death, and left to themselves they can’t escape the fear of death.

As Christians, we more than anyone should realize how tragic human death is. We know where it came from. Romans 5:12 tells us “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin.” You hear the echo Genesis 3 in that verse, when our first parents did the only thing God told them not to do. God had already explained the consequences of disobeying His command: they would surely die (Genesis. 2:17). Thus death entered human history to overshadow the way we live.

Who Holds the Power of Death?

Hebrews 2:14 tells us who holds the power of death — the devil. He can’t mean that the devil determines the moment of death; as the psalmist tells us it is the LORD who writes every day of our lives in His book before one of them comes to be (Psalm: 139:16). God decides what dates go on your tombstone.

When the author of Hebrews tells us the devil holds the power of death, he is reminding us that death is uniquely the devil’s realm, it is his home turf. Much as the head of a powerful gang can make himself a king in the prison where he serves his term, so Satan has made himself king of the prison of death. Satan was an angel who rebelled against God, but the all-powerful God easily put down his rebellion and consigned him and the angels who followed him to eternity in hell. Satan, seething with hatred, enticed Eve to entice Adam into the sin — thus provoking the Fall of all mankind. Apparently he reasoned that when the death sentence fell on humanity, they would die estranged from God and would join him in hell. Not that Satan longed for our company. As we were made in the image of God and intended for glorious things, he sought to ruin us, and thereby express his spite for God. The power of death that Satan holds is the power to lock us in hell forever. And that is the greatest fear death holds, a fear all of us once faced, and would still face were it not for Jesus, who delivered us from death’s slavery.

Jesus Brings Satan to Naught

Hebrews 2 tells us “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews: 2:14-15). Notice how important it was for Jesus Christ to be a flesh and blood human being. Paul elaborates in Romans 5: “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” (Romans: 5:15). If death came by a man, only a man could reverse it. But the man who could reverse it would have to be no ordinary man, for an ordinary man would be born under the sentence of death.

Paul goes on to say “in this way [that is, through the sin of Adam] death came to all men” (Romans: 5:12). We inherit Adam’s sinful nature and thus his sentence to death and hell. So the one to reverse the power of death would be one who was not born under the sentence of death; as the catechism puts it, one who did not descend from Adam by ordinary generation (WSC Q16). It would have to be a perfect man, and only God is perfect. So God Himself had to become a man, He had to share in our humanity, to reverse the power of death. And He would have to become a man by something other than the way of ordinary generation, thus requiring a virgin birth. That is exactly what God did in Jesus.

But just becoming a man wasn’t enough. This perfect and therefore innocent man would have to take the sentence of the guilty in order to save them from the power of death that casts them into hell. That’s what Hebrews 2:10 means when it says that God made the author of our salvation perfect through suffering. That word “perfect” can just as easily be translated “complete.” Jesus completed His work by suffering our death sentence on Good Friday. And in doing so, as Heb. 2:14 tells us, he snatched the weapon of death from Satan’s grasp.

Most English versions of Hebrews: 2:14 say that by doing that Jesus destroyed the devil, but events in the world around us certainly don’t suggest his destruction! However, the word translated “destroyed” can be understood another way, reflected in the old American Standard Version translation of Hebrews: 2:14 which tells us that by His death on the Cross, Jesus “brought Satan to naught.” He made him a nothing. Can you imagine any more fitting punishment? Satan thought he had won a great victory through using the power of sin and death to shepherd all humanity into hell. He thought he had the last laugh. But Jesus snatched death from his hands, showing Satan to be the nothing that he is.

And Rescues His People

More importantly, he rescued us in the process. He saved us from the hell our sins had earned. But as wonderful as that is, it is not enough to free us from the fear of death. Death no longer has the power to send us to hell, but we still die. And that’s where Hebrews: 2:15 takes us another step. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

We are freed from the fear of death because on the first Easter morning Jesus Christ was released from the bonds of death. His resurrection was our liberation from the grave. In I Corinthians 15:20, Paul tells us that when Jesus rose from the dead, He rose as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. The idea is drawn from Leviticus in the Old Testament. The people of Israel were called to offer the firstfruits of their harvest to God as a way of expressing trust that just as God had provided the firstfruits, so He would provide the rest of the harvest. Jesus is the firstfruits of the dead. Since He has returned from the dead, the rest of the harvest, all who belong to Him, will also rise. He affirms that later in the chapter with these famous words: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting.” (I Corinthians: 15:51-55).

We used to cower before death in fear — now we taunt it! What makes the difference? Not what, but Who! Our Lord Jesus Christ by dying on the cross and rising from the tomb has wrested death from Satan’s evil grasp. He has broken down the bars to Satan’s prison and set captives free. The world may be enslaved to the fear of death, but that slavery is trumped by Jesus. He has delivered His people from death’s slavery.

Ralph Stanley, joined by his brother Carter, closed O Brother Where Art Thou? with another song on death, but the contrast in content and tone with “O Death” could hardly be greater:

My latest sun is sinking fast

My race is nearly run

My strongest trials now are past

My triumph has begun

O, come, angel band

Come, and around me stand

O bear me away on your snow white wings

To my immortal home

O bear me away on you snow white wings

To my immortal home

The second verse explains the difference:

O bear my longing heart to Him

Who bled and died for me;

Whose blood now cleanses from all sin,

And gives me victory.