“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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
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.
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 death…He 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.