Freedom from Slavery to the Fear of Death

“Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.” 

-Hebrews 2:14-15

The Coronavirus pandemic has brought the reality of death—something largely absent from Western culture at large—back into the center of our field of vision.  Hospitals running out of room to store dead bodies will do that to us.  Our default has often been to distract ourselves from the topic of death, even as we seek to defer it through medicine.  But like previous generations who faced disease or war, we are now looking our mortality right in the eye, and people are scared.

Ever since sin entered the world humanity has been enslaved to the fear of death, but the gospel of Jesus changes this.  The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus shared our flesh and blood existence in the incarnation so that he could die for us and therefore free us from the fear of death.  Christians have been freed from slavery to the fear of death.  

So what?  How does this help us when we struggle with the fear of death?  Let me offer three applications, one objection, and one example as encouragement to live free from the fear of death:

Three Applications

  1. We can be at peace in the midst of trials.  When we face the possibility of death, we can be at peace.  This peace comes through an acceptance of God’s sovereignty, through prayerfully submitting our circumstances to his care, and via the sure work of Jesus for us (see Philippians 4:6-7).  The opposite of peace is a state of agitation—being worked up.  We don’t have to fret when we get sick.
  2. We have hope in the midst of hype.  When others around us, including the media, go into a frenzy because of coronavirus, or the next disease, we need not follow their lead.  We can act with faith-based prudence rather than fear-based panic.  As we encounter a crisis (or a perceived crisis), we must let faith dictate our response.  When we focus on the steadfast, immovable character of God, hope in him will sustain us.  “In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid.” -Psalm 56:4 
  3. We have confidence to move forward in faith.  This is the hardest part, but trusting in God we can take steps of obedience.  This means moving forward is not primarily about faith in ourselves, or governments, or heath care experts, or medical professionals.  It’s never about guarantees of safety.   So whether we’re going to a dangerous unreached people group to translate the Bible or we’re simply going outside, we can do so by faith.   

One Objection

But shouldn’t we be as safe as possible?  Yes and no.  Faith-driven prudence means we make wise decisions as long as those decision do not prevent us from God-glorifying obedience.  This is why the great missionaries of 18th & 19th centuries were right to risk their lives for the advancement of the gospel.  It would have been safer to stay home, but it would also have been wrong.  This leads us to an example of living and dying free from the fear of death.

One Example

David Brainerd was a missionary to Native Americans in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey from 1743-46.  He died from tuberculosis at only 29 years old.  His mentor Jonathan Edwards published the account of his life because he felt we could learn much from the example of Brainerd, including how to die.  He wrote in his introduction,

The reader “will also see, how all ended at last, in his sentiments, frame, and behaviour, during a long season of the gradual and sensible approach of death, under a lingering illness; and what were the effects of his religion in dying circumstances, or in the last stages of his illness.”

-Jonathan Edwards

Edwards’ analysis is that Brainerd’s life was well lived, and his attitude towards death commendable.  Brainerd was in significant pain, but he was not afraid of death.  On the contrary, as his sickness worsened he wrote,

“I had little expectation of my living the night through, nor indeed had any about me: and I longed for the finishing moment! …My soul breathed after God, ‘When shall I come to God, even to God, my exceeding joy?’ Oh for his blessed likeness!”

-David Brainerd

A few days later he wrote,

“I am almost in eternity. I long to be there. My work is done: I have done with all my friends: all the world is nothing to me. I long to be in heaven, praising and glorifying God with the holy angels. All my desire is to glorify God.”

-David Brainer, emphasis Jonathan Edwards

Brainerd wasn’t a retired missionary dying at 95 years old.  He was 29 years old, seemingly with decades ahead of him to serve the Lord.  His faith in God prevented him from becoming bitter at the occasion of his early death.  Edwards said, 

“He also expressed much satisfaction in the disposals of Providence, with regard to the circumstances of his deathHe also mentioned it as what he accounted a merciful circumstance of his death, that he should diehere (in Northampton, MA).”

-Jonathan Edwards re: David Brainerd’s death

Brainerd was not only at peace dying young, he was at peace with where on earth God ordained for him to die.  He was no slave to the fear of death, because Jesus died for him and rose from the dead.  If you are reading this and you have put your faith in Jesus, you are free from slavery to the fear of death.  We are free indeed.

Responding in Love

As events have unfolded over the past few weeks, like many I have struggled with how to respond. The problems seem hopelessly complicated and, in my world at least, very far away.  In my day-to-day I don’t worry about being pulled over or arrested. I don’t worry about my children not having opportunities because of skin color. I don’t worry about discrimination. Why? Because I’m a part of the majority culture.

As I’ve seen and read all the news and responses and critiques I keep coming back to the question: what can I do? Perhaps it’s best to start with the basics: God calls us to faith-driven obedience in loving him with all that we are and loving our neighbors as much as ourselves. In light of the biblical emphasis on loving others and caring for the marginalized, here are a few ways we can respond in love:

  1. Listen—This is often the hardest part, because others’ struggles are often not my struggles. There is great wisdom is hearing the concerns of others before we jump to conclusions. For a start, check out this article by Shai Linne.
  2. Look for opportunities to love and care—We must learn to be on the lookout for people who are marginalized or in the minority. The reality is we have minorities around us all the time, not just ethnic minorities. Those who are outside the majority will alway struggle to be accepted, valued, and heard. You can’t change that everywhere, but you can change it where you are.
  3. Be willing to think critically about actual solutions—For most of us writing laws and/or making policies isn’t in our job description, but it may be for some (elected officials, community leaders, employers, etc.). Even so, we can ask questions and participate in the process where we have opportunity. You may not feel the need to protest, but you may be able to help improve flaws in our society. What we shouldn’t do is just accept the status quo because it doesn’t negatively impact us. In this regard check out a helpful article in this direction by Denny Burk.
  4. Accept that we will always struggle—Even as we work to address problems in our laws and communities, we must do so with biblically informed expectations. The stubborn fact that we still live with the presence of sin in the world means that there is no ultimate solution outside of Christ.
  5. Hold the sanctification line—No matter what, we must refuse to allow emotions and knee-jerk reactions to justify sinful behavior and attitudes.  This means withholding judgment, it means refusing to engage in violent and illegal rioting, and it means not tearing down others with our speech. Sin breeds sin, and we need to careful here.

In Luke 10 a very religious person asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus prompted him to answer his own question, and he rightly said that he should love God with all that he is and love his neighbor as much as he loves himself. What comes next is brutal:

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

-Luke 10:29, emphasis mine

Jesus proceeded to tell the story of the Good Samaritan, a minority who showed the majority what it means to love your neighbor. I fear the greatest struggle of the majority right now is seeking to justify ourselves rather than love our neighbors.

Worship In Person June 14 at GPBC

We are thrilled to announce that we will be gathering in person for worship this Sunday, June 14th, at 10:10am at Green Pond Bible Chapel.  We will be worshipping outside in the church courtyard, so here are the details you need:

  1. Please register—We need to know how many are coming to make sure we have adequate space for social distancing.  Please register by clicking here no later than Friday at 5pm.  If you have trouble with the link just call the church office at 973-697-0990 and we’ll get you registered.
  2. Bring your own chair and Bible—Make sure you’ve got what you need for an outdoor worship service. 
  3. Come early—Plan to arrive a few extra minutes early so you have time to get settled.  Greeters will direct you when you arrive, and you’ll be able to pick up your own bulletin, lyric sheet, and elements for the Lord’s Table.
  4. Please maintain social distancing—We have a variety of perspectives on social distancing, but let’s honor one another by not shaking hands or hugging (even though we want to!).
  5. Kingdoms Kids—We’re not ready to offer childcare and Kingdom Kids yet, but stay tuned as we hope to do so in the near future.  Parents feel free to bring activities for kids, as being outside will give us more room to maneuver.
  6. Livestream will be available—We know not everyone is ready to worship together in person just yet.  We love you all, miss you, and can’t wait to see you when the time is right.  In the meantime we ask those who are at risk or not comfortable gathering to participate via our livestream.

In Acts 2:42 we read this about those first believers in Jerusalem:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.  

I personally am ecstatic about being able to do all of that in person.  It’s been a long 3 months, but we’re ready to take our first steps of being together again.   Please pray for our service this weekend as we seek to glorify God by making and maturing disciples of Jesus.

A More Glorious Vision

“He did this so that he might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross by which he put the hostility to death.”

-Ephesians 2:16

The only foundation for lasting peace between people groups in conflict is the cross of Jesus Christ.  

Like you, I watched with horror as a modern lynching was captured on film.  Like you, I watched in horror as yet another black man was killed by law enforcement using excessive force.  Like you, I watched in horror as protests turned into riots and city streets devolved into burning chaos.  Like you, I watched in horror as stores were looted, often harming the very people the demonstrators claimed to be championing.  Like you, I watched in horror as my social media feeds turned into litmus tests for purity and morality—if you don’t say this, then you must be that.

We are watching compounding sin wreak havoc on our nation.  It is painful to witness.  Even so, the question will eventually come around to practical matters: what should we do?  How can we pursue justice?  How can we reconcile?  How can we move from hostility to peace?

Considering these questions from a biblical perspective, there is only one answer: we must preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The apostle Paul says this explicitly in Ephesians 2.  He boldly states that Jesus is the peace between Jews and Gentiles.  He goes on to say that Jesus died “so that he might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross by which he put the hostility to death.”  Jesus put hostility—hostility between ethnic groups—to death on the cross.  Let that sink in for a moment.

In the cross there is no risk of one people group asserting themselves over another, because through the cross Jesus has made a new people group from every tribe, tongue, and nation.  In the cross there is no risk of injustice, because he died to provide forgiveness for our sins, including sins motivated by hatred or indifference to other ethnic groups.  In the cross there is no risk of conflict, because all scores have been settled.  In the cross Babel was reversed.  

Remember the story of Babel, the pinnacle of human civilization in Genesis 11:1-9?  Mankind sought to build a glamorous city and tower for their glory: “Let us make a name for ourselves,” they said (Gen. 11:4).  But God recognized this for what it was—idolatry of humanity, and he judged them by separating them into linguistic (later ethnic) groups.  They scattered, and due to sin conflict between people groups has been the norm ever since.  Why?  Because each group is still seeking to make a name for themselves.  (It is a tragic irony that the current iteration of conflict between people groups has been so destructive for cities).  

This is not as much one people group waging war against another as it is all people groups waging war with God. As one commentator put it, “the multiplicity of languages and man’s dispersal across the globe points to the futility of man setting himself against his creator.” What has Jesus done to solve this problem? He has made a new humanity—the church, made up of people from every tribe. This new people is a people who are not seeking a name for themselves; they are seeking to glorify the name of God.

The work of eliminating hostility between people groups and uniting us for the glory of God is literally a miracle.  In Revelation 5:9-10 Jesus’ worthiness to open the scrolls is seen by the multi-national nature of his redeeming work,

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slaughtered, and you purchased people for God by your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation.

You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

Thus the unified body of Christ, where no tribe is more prominent than another, is built upon the level ground at the foot of cross.  Paul said it in Ephesians 2:14, “He himself is our peace.”  If we want peace, we must keep our eyes on the greater glory of God’s work in the church and proclaim his gospel.  

When we focus on any other kingdom, we are focusing on a lesser glory and seeking to make a name for ourselves.  Think of it, a world where people aren’t suspicious of other people because of their pigmentation.  A world free from inequality.  A world free of violence.  A world free of bullying.  A world free of theft.  A world where justice is always upheld.  A world of genuine peace between people.  This world is the new creation in Christ, and it is coming.  

Yes, we must take faith-driven steps of obedience now—we need accountability for law enforcement, we need community leaders who refuse to lead violent protests, etc.  But those important steps, and others like them, are only temporary measures; they cannot solve the problem. 

When we are distracted from the more glorious vision of God’s kingdom, we will focus on what is less glorious.  We will focus on judgment we are not qualified to give.  We will hope in earthly institutions in vain.  We will allow righteous anger to devolve into sinful rage.  We will accept the status quo without qualification.  In short, we will build a city for our name.  

But Jesus has given us something much greater: the actual way to actual peace between all peoples.  The only foundation for lasting peace between people groups in conflict is the cross of Jesus Christ.  May his kingdom come.

Getting Ready to Go Outside for the Sake of the Gospel

“So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

-2 Cor. 4:18

At some point the stay at home mandates will be lifted, and it will be time to leave our homes. While part of me is thrilled at that prospect, another part of me—the fearful part—is not. As a culture we’ve been focused on the fact that going outside and being around other people is risky. What if we just didn’t? Wouldn’t it be safer to just not be around people? While God is doing a work in these unusual times (watch for a post from pastor Jesse on that next week), we need to think ahead a little and consider re-entry.

In the coming days we will need to battle our fear with faith. We will need to leave our homes, but not just to go to work or school. We will need to leave our homes to fulfill the great commission, because the gospel of Jesus Christ matters more than our lives.

Of all the problems that have accompanied the coronavirus, one that may linger with tragic consequences is we will neglect risking our lives to make and mature disciples of Jesus because we have adopted the earthly perspective that longevity/quality of life matters most. In short, we want to live long, full lives instead of risk our lives for the gospel.

Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario #1– Should Christians travel to high risk countries to make and mature disciples?

Let’s say God has given me the desire, passion, and means to make disciples in a middle eastern country generally hostile to Christianity. Given that the risk of persecution including imprisonment and/or death is relatively higher than in other nations, should I go?

Most Christians would answer this question with a sober affirmative. Jesus calls us to make disciples of all nations, and in certain times and places that mission is high risk. Even so, it is crucial that we go because people’s eternal fate is dependent on the feet of those who bring good news.

This does not mean that we shouldn’t be wise and prudent in our endeavors to make disciples of all nations. Sometimes we have to temporarily suspend ministry in an area due to extraordinary circumstances like terrorist activity or outbreak of severe illness, but those are not reasons to abandon the mission entirely. Why? Because the unseen is eternal.

Scenario #2– Should Christians leave their homes at all to make and mature disciples?

Let’s say the government removes all stay at home mandates, which they eventually will. No one will be able to promise you will not get the coronavirus (or influenza, or cancer, etc.). Should you stay at home until the risk is zero? Of course not.

But at what point do we embrace risk for the sake of the gospel? Maybe we’ll use a concept like “acceptable risk” to help us weigh the decision—as in, “I’ll come out again when the risk is acceptable.” Here’s where I think we’ve drunk the cultural Koolaid—we’ll always be able to find ways to justify our fears. When we look honestly at the Scriptures and face eternal realities, we will be hard pressed to find any unacceptable risk for the sake of the gospel.

Here are some problems with the “stay home and be safe” worldview:

1. It produces mission laziness. Consider Proverbs 22:13, “ The slacker says, “There’s a lion outside! I’ll be killed in the public square!” Note the line of thinking—I might die, albeit by a statistically implausible means, therefore I’ll stay home and be safe. But the unseen is eternal.

2. It forgets that for Christians death is gain. Paul didn’t say “Live long and prosper.” He said, “To live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Paul knew full well that his living for Christ might result in his death. He made peace with that fact. The vast majority of us will never face anything close to such a decision.

3. It does not account for the sovereignty of God. God has appointed the day of every person’s death, and because he is good and trustworthy we need not let fear of death prevent us from faith-driven obedience.

I believe we should comply with our government to temporarily suspend church gatherings and observe the stay at home mandate, but we cannot do so indefinitely. At some point we must, for the sake of the gospel, leave our homes. We can’t fulfill the great commission digitally (I don’t mean fruitful ministry can’t happen via technology, I mean we can’t make, baptize, and mature disciples exclusively over the internet).

People will object to this way of thinking. They’ll say, “We shouldn’t be reckless with our lives.” But what is worth risking our lives for? This is the crux of the issue; the unseen is eternal. Have we lost the Biblical view that an eternity with Christ is worth risk, loss, and sacrifice now? Consider the worldview of 19th century Scottish missionary John Paton when surrounded by hostile natives who wanted to kill him,

“I… assured them that I was not afraid to die, for at death my Savior would take me to be with Himself in Heaven, and to be far happier than I had ever been on Earth. I then lifted up my hands and eyes to the Heavens, and prayed aloud for Jesus… either to protect me or take me home to Glory as He saw to be for the best.”

I think we need a lot more of that.

People might say, “We should love our neighbor by not exposing them to disease.” Of course… but to a point. When we seek to make and mature disciples of Jesus we value the souls of the lost and their eternal state. We are not hating them by possibly exposing them to a disease we may or may not have; we are loving them by sharing the gospel.

For some who have health complications the situation is more nuanced. We must prayerfully consider the specifics of our own situation and what opportunities we have to engage in the mission. We must ask God for wisdom who gives generously.

So the day will come when the stay at home mandate is lifted, and we’ll have to decide: will we stay or go? I encourage you to spiritually prepare to leave your home to make and mature disciples of Jesus, whether in your community or on the other side of the world. When the time comes, let us go to work in faith, let us gather with the church in faith, let us meet our neighbors in faith. Our safety and longevity of life never trump the mission of the church. The unseen is eternal.