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VII THE DEATH OF DEATH
"Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them, who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage." HEBREWS ii. 14, 15.
WE fear death with a double fear. There is, first, the instinctive fear shared also by the animal creation; for the very brutes tremble as the moment of death draws near. Surely this fear is not wrong. It is often congenital and involuntary, and afflicts some of God's noblest saints: though doubtless these will some day confess that it was most unwarrantable, and that the moment of dissolution was calm and sweet and blessed.
It is a growing opinion among thoughtful men that the moment of death, when the spirit passes from its earthly tabernacle, is probably the most painless and the happiest moment of its whole earthly story. And if this be so generally, how much more must it be the case with those on whose sight are breaking the glories of Paradise! The child whose eyes feast upon a glowing vista of flower and fruit, beckoning it through the garden-gate, hardly notices the rough woodwork of the gate itself as it bounds through; and probably the soul, becoming aware of the beauty of the King and the glories of its home, is too absorbed to notice the act of death, till it suddenly finds itself free to mount and soar and revel in the dawning light.
But there is another fear of death, which is spiritual. dread its mystery. What is it? Whither does it lead? Why does it come just now? What is the nature of the life beyond? We see the movements on the other side of the thick curtain which sways to and fro; but we can distinguish no form. The dying ones are conscious of sights and sounds for which we strain eye and ear in vain.
We dread its leave-taking. The heathen poet sang sadly of leaving earth and home and family. Long habit endears the homeliest lot and the roughest comrades: how much more the true-hearted and congenial-it is hard to part from them. If only we could all go together, there would be nothing in it. But this separate dropping-off, this departing one by one, this drift from the anchorage alone! Who can deny that it is a lonesome thing?
Men dread the after-death. " The sting of death is sin." The sinner dreads to die, because he knows that, on the other side of death, he must meet the God against whom he has sinned, and stand at his bar to give an account and receive the due reward of his deeds. How can he face that burning glory? How can he answer for one of a thousand? How can mortal man be just with God? How can he escape hell, and find his place amid the happy festal throngs of the Golden City?
Many of man's fears were known to Christ. And he knew that they would be felt by many who were to be closely related to him as brethren. If, then, he was prompted by ordinary feelings of compassion to the great masses of mankind, he would be especially moved to relieve those with whom he had so close an affinity, as these marvelous verses unfold. He and they are all of one (ver. 11). He calls them brethren through the lips of psalmist and prophet (ver. 12). He takes his stand in the assembled Church, and sings his Father's praise in its company (ver. I 2). He even associates himself with them in their humble childlike trust (ver. 13). He dares to accost the gaze of all worlds, as he comes forward leading them by the hand (ver. 13). Oh, marvelous identification! Oh, rapturous association! More wondrous far than if a seraph should cherish friendship with a worm! But the preciousness of this relationship lies in the fact that Jesus will do all he can to alleviate that fear of death, which is more or less common to us all.
But in order to do it, he must die. He could not be the death of death unless he had personally tasted death. He needed to fulfill the law of death by dying, before he could abolish death. Our David must go into the valley of Elah, and grapple with our giant foe, and wrest from him his power, and slay him with his own sword. As in the old fable Prometheus could not slay the Minotaur unless he accompanied the yearly freight of victims, so must Jesus go with the myriads of our race into the dark confines of the tomb, that death might do its worst in vain; that the grave might lose its victory; and that the grim gaoler might be shown powerless to hold the Resurrection and the Life. Had Christ not died, it might have been affirmed that, in one place at least, death and sin, chaos and darkness, were supreme. "It behooved him, therefore, to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day." And, like another Samson, carrying the gates of his prison-house, he came forth, demonstrating forever that light is stronger than darkness, salvation than sin, life than death. Hear his triumphant cry, as thrice the risen and ascended Master exclaims, "I died, and lo, I am alive forevermore, and have the keys of Hades and of death." Death and hell chose their own battleground, their strongest; and there, in the hour of his weakness, our King defeated them, and now carries the trophy of victory at his girdle forevermore. Hallelujah!
But he could only have died by becoming man. Perhaps there is no race in the universe that can die but our own. So there may be no other spot in the wide universe of God seamed with graves, shadowed by the outspread wings of the angel of death, or marked by the plague-spot of sin. "Sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all." In order then to die, Christ must take on himself our human nature. Others die because they are born; Christ was born that he might die. It is as if he said: "Of thee, human mother, must I be born; and I must suffer the aches and pains and sorrows of mortal life; and I must hasten quickly to the destined goal of human life; I have come into the world to die." "Forasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same, in order that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil: and deliver them, who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage."
BY DEATH CHRIST DESTROYED HIM THAT HAD THE POWER OF DEATH. Scripture has no doubt as to the existence of the devil. And those who know much of their own inner life, and of the sudden assaults of evil to which we are liable, cannot but realize his terrible power. And from this passage we infer that that power was even greater before Jesus died. "He had the power of death." It was a chief weapon in his infernal armory. The dread of it was so great as to drive men to yield to any demands made by the priests of false religions, with their dark impurities and hideous rites. Thus timid sheep are scared by horrid shouts and blows into the butcher's shambles.
But since Jesus died, the devil and his power are destroyed. Brought to naught, not made extinct. Still he assails the Christian warrior, though armed from head to foot; and goes about seeking whom he may devour, and deceives men to ruin. Satan is not impotent though chained. He has received the wound which annuls his power, but it has not yet been effectual to destroy him.
His power was broken at the cross and grave of Jesus. The hour of Gethsemane was the hour and power of darkness. And Satan must have seen the Resurrection in despair. It was the knell of his destiny. It sealed his doom. The prince of this world was judged and cast out from the seat of power (John xii. 31 ; xvi. ii). The serpent's head was bruised beyond remedy.
Fear not the devil, child of God; nor death! These make much noise, but they have no power. The Breaker has gone before thee, clearing thy way. Only keep close behind him. Hark ! He gives thee power over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt thee (Luke x. 9). No robber shall pluck thee from thy Shepherd's hand.
By DEATH CHRIST DELIVERS FROM THE FEAR OF DEATH. A child was in the habit of playing in a large and beautiful garden, with sunny lawns; but there was one part of it, a long and winding path, down which he never ventured; indeed, he dreaded to go near it, because some silly nurse had told him that ogres and goblins dwelt within its darksome gloom. At last his eldest brother heard of his fear, and, after playing one day with him, took him to the embowered entrance of the grove, and, leaving him there terror-stricken, went singing through its length, and returned, and reasoned with the child, proving that his fears were groundless. At last he took the lad's hand, and they went through it together, and from that moment the fear which had haunted the place fled. And the memory of that brother's presence took its place. So has Jesus done for us!
Fear not the mystery Of death! Jesus has died, and has shown us that it is the gateway into another life, more fair and blessed than this-a life in which human words are understood, and human faces smile, and human affections linger still. The forty days of his resurrection life have solved many of the problems, and illumined most of the mystery. To die is to go at once to be with him. No chasm, no interval, no weary delay in purgatory. Absent from the body, present with the Lord, One moment here in conditions of mortality; the next beyond the stars.
Fear not the loneliness of death! The soul in the dark valley becomes aware of another at its side, "Thou art with me." Death cannot separate us, even for a moment, from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. In the hour of death Jesus fulfills his own promise, "I will come again and take you unto myself." And on the other side we step into a vast circle of loving spirits, who welcome the new-comer with festal songs (2 Peter i. 11)
Fear not the after-death! The curse and penalty of sin have been borne by him. Death, the supreme sentence on sinners, has been suffered for us by our Substitute. In him we have indeed passed on to the other side of the doom, which is justly ours, as members of a sinful race. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea, rather, that is risen again."
Death! How shall they die who have already died in Christ? That which others call death, we call sleep. We dread it no more than sleep. Our bodies lie down exhausted with the long working-day, to awake in the fresh energy of the eternal morning; but in the meanwhile the spirit is presented faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy.
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