I’ve know since I was 28 that I might die the same way my mother did, at a much-too-young age. For many years, I lived in fear of that, at least simmering somewhere in the back of my mind. I had her disease, and it had been fatal to more members of the family than just her.
When I had a successful kidney transplant, and then passed the age of 50 and four months (the age she died), the world opened up. Of course, I had faith before that God could do whatever he wished, and I would be safe with him whatever the results. I knew this. But the threat still looms when you’ve seen and known what death does.
A few months after the transplant, we went to Disneyworld for the first time. We felt like celebrating.
When people ask me why I love to travel, I know part of the answer is that for me, it’s kind of a victory lap. I’m still alive, so I want to live it.
Jesus’ victory over death and fear of death means that in someway we should all be living in that victory lap.
“Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death.Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.
We also know that the Son did not come to help angels; he came to help the descendants of Abraham.Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people.Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.” (Hebrews 2.14-18, NLT)
Hebrews presents a Jesus who has won, finally and completely. If the theme of Hebrews is”don’t settle,” this is one of the biggest things the writer wants us to never settle for. We don’t serve a Christ who can’t help us, One who just gives us a good example, but not any real power—a God who made some sort of complex legal transaction with God or the devil depending on your theology, but it only affected our guilt or innocence, not our slavery.
The writer implores us—don’t settle for this inferior Jesus. The one we have is so much greater. He’s given us so much more than a “get out of jail free” card.
“For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death.Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.”
Last fall, I directed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the scene where the White Witch gapes dumbfounded at a resurrected Aslan, I note that C. S. Lewis had a more profound understanding of how the crucifixion worked than many theologians.
The powers of darkness owned the power of death. Death is the ultimate worst darkness—the first thing God never intended.
But Satan isn’t all-knowing, and he didn’t know that a perfect innocent self-sacrifice of a human life (that’s why the writer says Jesus had to be human) would turn death backward and destroy it.
Maybe you’re not afraid of death like I was. I’ve known those who were, too recently. But are we really slaves to dying more than we know? Is it possible we hold back, refuse to risk, not follow him all the way to sacrifice because we’re afraid of the little daily deaths we have to make?
Jesus said we have to give up everything to take up our cross and follow him. Paul said, “I die daily.” The cross means sacrifice. There’s no way of getting around that. No one gets to the victory lap on Sunday without going through the sacrifice and death on Friday.
We can’t sing Victory in Jesus until we’ve sung O Sacred Head.
I’m not sure how much sacrifice is in the average western Christian life, mine included. Maybe we are really too afraid of daily deaths. Deaths of our agenda, our peace, our money, our time, our control.
Jesus defeated the power of death and the fear of it.
Now, this doesn’t mean we go walking in front of cars or handling pit vipers. Jesus came to save us, but natural selection is real. Living without fear of death doesn’t mean tempting God.
It means being at peace with loss. It means willingly giving up the things we cling to. What does it profit someone to gain the whole world and lose their soul?
What does it profit me to do what I want with my time and lose my higher calling?
What does it profit me to do what I want with my money and lose the joy of generosity?
What does it profit me to succeed if I’ve lost the thing God really wanted me to do or the person he really wanted me to reach?
Jesus died so that we could say, “I have no fear in my heart—What can any living person do to me?”
When we fear those daily deaths we are called to make, remember the victory lap comes after the death. For the joy before him, Hebrews says later, Jesus faced the cross. There was joy coming, and he knew it. Joy is just on the other side of the cross.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.