Dear children sharing in blood and flesh,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The 2016 movie “Silence” directed by Martin Scorsese depicted Jesuit missionaries to Japan who were coerced into denying the Christian faith, so that the initial successful spread of Christianity would be stopped and the faith eradicated from the island nation. One of the themes explored in the movie is whether or not you can still be a Christian if you outwardly deny the Christian faith, visibly deny that Jesus who suffered and died on the cross is the one true God who rose from the dead to give forgiveness, life, and salvation to all who would believe.
Almost daily, in my Facebook feed, posts appear about Christians throughout the world who are faced with death unless they outwardly deny Jesus. “Three dozen individuals were hacked to death by Islamic extremists with machetes in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Friday, including an Anglican pastor, according to international reports… More than 250 people have been killed in the DRC by [the Islamic group calling themselves] the Allied Democratic Forces” (DISRN, January 31st. 2020 4:05 pm). Sadly, the mainstream media does not report on these faithful brothers and sisters of Christ—not that we want to wallow in gore and hatred, but we do want to be encouraged and strengthened by their example and by their confession in the face of death, the confession that we have in today’s Epistle reading.
“Since therefore the children share in blood and flesh, He Himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
The Son of God became blood and flesh, taking on our human nature, so that He might suffer and die. For it is only through His suffering and death that death is conquered, and the devil, who holds the threat of death over our heads, is defeated. When death is no longer feared, then the devil has lost. He cannot enslave us in fear and coerce us to deny the faith in any way, if death holds no power over us.
God’s Word tells us, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:10). And Jesus Himself said, “Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-34).
This fulfills the prophecy of Simeon in today’s Gospel reading. He warned Mary: “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).
It would be easy to say that we could always secretly believe in our hearts that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and yet preserve our lives or the lives of our family members by outwardly saying that we don’t believe or by doing some outward physical act of denial, like stepping on a crucifix or reciting the Islamic shahada. Perhaps we do that every day, secretly believing in our hearts while the pressure of peers or our society coerce us into denying our Lord and Saviour in any number of seemingly innocent ways. If we find ourselves unable and unwilling to confess with our mouth what we believe in our heart, and thereby deny our Lord Jesus before men in the face of such light pressures, what will we do when faced with death?
Through fear of death many men will consent to do things that nothing else could compel them to do. But by the death of Jesus, death is transformed for the Christian. Jesus suffered and died, but He rose again to die no more. Death has no more dominion over Him (Romans 6:9). Death with Jesus does not mean any kind of horrible emptiness; or standing before God to endure a recitation of all of your sins; or being condemned for each and every one of those sins; or suffering in excruciating torment for eternity; or being imprisoned and forced to do hard labour for endless days. Death with Jesus means that your death is His death, and that means a mere gateway to everlasting bliss and joy; eternal comfort and peace; an end to all pain and sorrow; being declared righteous before God the Father; and receiving His blessed rewards for all the good that you have done.
This is why Jesus became blood and flesh, so that His blood could be shed for you, and His flesh be offered up on the cross for you. He came to be your substitute, and more. He also partook of our human nature in order to fully share your life, so that you might fully share in His. That means that He fully shared our temptations and fears, so that He knows what we face when we are being coerced to deny the faith. He knows how we feel when death is thrown threateningly in our faces.
As a full and true human being, living in this sin-sick world, in the realm of the devil’s power, with a mortal body subject to death, sharing the same blood and flesh as you, Jesus did not only experience general temptations that are common to every man (like the temptation to take something that does not belong to you, or the temptation to belittle someone else in order to make yourself look more important); He also endured specific and pointed temptations, focused on His individual and unique calling in life to be our Saviour. We cannot say that the temptations that came to Him were any less severe or more lightly repelled due to the fact that He was also truly God. That only means that the temptations were able to grow all the more intense and frequent as they never came to an end while He continually resisted them wherein we would fall to them all too soon.
Over and over again the temptation came to give up this mission of God to save ungrateful and rebellious mankind. It came when the devil tempted Him in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11); when He was rejected by His own townsfolk (Matthew 13:54-56); when most of His followers turned away (John 6:66); when His own family tried to stop Him from preaching (Mark 3:31); and in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the reality of death was so close that He prayed, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me” (Matthew 26:39). Pressure came constantly from all directions for Him to take some less costly way, than the way of suffering and death. But steadfastly He set His face to go to the cross for your salvation. He prayed to the heavenly Father, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
Jesus knew the kinds of temptations that His people would face, the kinds of temptations that Christians face where they are persecuted and coerced to deny Him. He knows how powerful these temptations are for those who fear death, who fear ridicule, who fear being cast out. He knew how powerful these temptations would be for the Hebrew Christians living in Rome, under threat of violent, gory, and grotesque persecution if they would not throw a bit of incense on the fire in worship of the emperor. Jesus knows how powerful are the temptations that you face daily to be disloyal to Him, to deny Him, to keep your faith secret, compromised by your outward actions.
He did not endure all temptation just to show you that it could be done and that you should be able to endure it too. No, He endured temptation in order to help you when you are being tempted, and the greatest help He can give is to give you victory over sin, death, and the devil through His own suffering, death, and resurrection. It is a source of strength to know that Jesus, the one who intercedes for us with the heavenly Father, has known temptations similar and worse than the ones we face, and has withstood them. But even more so, it is comforting to know that as He shared our blood and flesh, in suffering and persecution, He did so that we might share in His blood and flesh in victory over death, in forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.
In this way He has delivered you from that life-long slavery, held by the bonds of the fear of death. The devil has kept you chained, restraining your full and free confession of faith with mouth and manner of life, by waving the threat of death in your face. With death conquered in Christ Jesus, the one who has the power of death has no more power over you. You don’t need to fear death at all.
Jesus is merciful toward those who share with Him in blood and flesh, merciful toward those who suffer in temptation, because He Himself has suffered when tempted. He is faithful not only in holding fast to the confession and the purpose for which He came into the world, but faithful to us. And in faithful service He donned the priestly blood and flesh so that He might make the sacrifice of atonement for all of our sins. He sacrificed the very blood and flesh that He took up at His birth, sprinkling His cleansing blood upon the heavenly altar and upon us, that we might be forgiven for all of our denials and compromises and public apostasies.
The infant Jesus was presented at the temple and redeemed with the sacrifice of two young pigeons (Luke 2:22-24). He was redeemed as the firstborn, holy to the Lord, that He Himself might become the Passover Lamb, sacrificed in order to redeem us all (1 Corinthians 5:7). He shared in our blood and flesh, so that through his death he could give us a share in His own blood and flesh, a share which we receive now in the Lord’s Supper, in which Christ shares His assumed, crucified, and risen human body and blood to commune with us and set us free from the fear of death.
Set free from that fear of death, even in times of persecution and temptation, we join in the confession of Simeon: “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to your Word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
“Grace be with all of you” (Hebrews 13:25).