But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9)
In addition to depicting the glorious coronation that resulted from the suffering of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, Hebrews 2:9 alludes to two other notions that resonate in Scripture: mediation and substitution. These concepts are implicated in the phrase, "that [...] He might taste death for everyone" (Hebrews 2:9). Significantly, Christ's death is no cruel punishment meted out by a malevolent diety. Rather, through His voluntary and propitiatory sacrifice we see absolute benevolence, for we see manifest the love of God toward His creation in that "by the grace of God" the only begotten Son entered death, both for our sake and "for the praise of the glory" of the Triune God (to borrow and oft-repeated phrase from Ephesians 1). Furthermore, though the death of Jesus is an integral aspect of God's plan for salvation and redemption, we must bear in mind that death itself is not the end, but life and, in a very real sense, life in death. Jesus entered death to conquer death, as the ancient hymn proclaims "trampling down death by death." But the paschal mystery is not merely passion and death, for it necessarily includes or is intimately related to Christ's resurrection, anscension, and glorification. Jesus Christ "taste[d] death for everyone," so that we who partake of His death might also rise again to the newness of life everlasting in Him.
I don't know how common this is across denominations, but in various Protestant circles I hear repeatedly evoked the truth that "Jesus died for me" (and, yes, the expression is typically focused on the individual). Similarly, we might say frequently, "Jesus tasted death so that we do not have to," but what does this really mean? This concept is also typically the locus of evangelism within much of the Protestant church. For example, one might say to a nonbeliever (as I have either said or heard something similar in times past), "You should belive in Jesus because He died for you." In saying this, however, we assume that an understanding of Christ's death is presupposed when, in actuality, it can be very foreign to someone who holds a non-Christian belief system.
The constant evocation of this reality illustrates its central place in the Christian worldview. Nevertheless, two undesirable consequences may incidentally become prevalent: 1) we treat death as either the end itself, or the sole climax of Christ's work, and 2) we perpetuate a use of this concept that assumes (or presumes) automatic comprehension. For these reasons, I wish to take a moment to expound on Hebrews 2:9 by first developing an understanding of the origins of death, as well as the biblical conceptualizations of mediation and substitution, in the hopes that this venture will inform the meaning of Christ's having "taste[d] death for everyone" "by the grace of God."
While on the one hand, we may refer to death as "natural," since it is something that every human being inevitably experiences, it is not entirely "natural" according the to Christian framework. That is, if by 'natural' we mean, "according to original intention" or "conforming the initial circumstances of and plans for creation," then death is by no means natural. Death entered into the created realm through sin, as Paul writes, "just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12, emphasis mine). This is but one ontological difference between Christianity and secular views that prevail in Western culture, and between Christianity and many other worldviews: Christianity maintains that death is a consequence brought about by willfull disobedience to the Creator, rather than a built-in attribute among the fabric of creation.
Recall that prior to the event when Adam and Eve fell by disobeying the loving commands of the Creator, God explicitly stated the results of such an action. Particularly relevant to our discussion is the fact that God spoke to Adam regarding the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" saying that, if he ate from it, "in the day that you eat from it you will surely die" (Genesis 2:17). After Adam and Eve did eat from this tree, though they hid, God as the Great Initiator actively sought them out to effect reconciliation. Accordingly, in this account (and others), it is of utmost importance for us to not only focus on the perspective gained from isolating humanity, but to focus on deity, that is, what God is revealing about Himself. Adam and Eve incurred a variety of consequences through their act of disobedience, including the implicit consequence of death, in accordance with Genesis 2:17. Significantly, though, we do not see a distant God standing afar in the process; instead we find God immanent, working directly and intimately as the sole agent responsible for effectualizing redemption.
Interestingly, though, Adam and Eve (as recorded in Scripture) lived for quite some time after the event of the fall. Does this then nullify the word of God, who declared that they would die in that very day? We find that the answer is no, for the death that they died has both physical and spiritual components, both of which began to be realized immediately. So, not only would humanity (and other created beings in the domain of earth) experience physical death, but this act of disobedience brought about spiritual death wherein the intimate relationship between God and His creation had been damaged, leaving a seemingly indelible mark on all of humankind. But, as we have begun to highlight, the will of a sovereign God could not be impeded, for "[God's] works were finished from the foundation of the world" (Hebrews 4:3; see also Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8; 17:8). God Himself directly began redemption by actively working to reconcile the broken relationship. The death and sin that passes to us all preconditions us to need Christ (Behr 2006:85), who is the antitype of Adam, since Adam was "a type of of Him who was to come," through whom the grace of God, and life, would "abound to many" (Romans 5:14-15).
It is this aforementioned conceptualization of death that undergirds Paul's argumentation in Romans 5. There we see the fullness of God's redemption found exclusively in Christ, the Second Adam. But, before touching on that glorious truth that is the substance of our salvation, I will return to another passage in Genesis that informs the content behind Christ's sacrificial death. Specifically, most of us are quite familiar with the so-called "sacrifice" of Isaac, known in Judaism as the akedah, or the "binding" of Isaac, to emphasize the fact that God never intended for him to be killed. Abraham, by faith, had at least some rudimentary understanding of this, for when Isaac inquires of the burnt offering, Abraham responds with confidence that "God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering" (Genesis 22:8, emphasis added; see also Genesis 22:5; Hebrews 11:17-19). Assuredly then, as God restrains Abraham from sacrificing his son, "Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him caught in the thicket by his thorns; and Abraham went and offered him up for a burnt offereing in the place of his son" (Genesis 22:13, emphasis added).
Again, as in the story of Adam and Eve, we find God mediating and mending the broken relationship between Himself and creation. Additionally, though, in the akedah we encounter the notion of a substitute offered on behalf of, or "in the place of," another. These events are among those that were clearly foundational to the development of an understanding of the origins of death and the need for atonement as means of reconciliation. Not surprisingly, then, we see the notions of mediation and substitution clearly embedded into the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system of ancient Israel that foreshadowed Jesus Christ, the eternal High Priest, and the pure and spotless lamb. With these conceptualizations in mind, we are prepared to return to Hebrews 2:9.
To repeat the statement found there, we read that "Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone" (Hebrews 2:9). Jesus did not taste death for His own sake, nor did He do so as a result of or to remedy His own needs. The need is ours, and we are those on whom culpability rests. Our sin is so devastating, though, that we are in no position to enact reconciliation and forgiveness. We may recognize the gravity of our cirumstance and, like Adam and Eve, sew fig leaves to "cover" our sin, but God alone can be and is the agent that truly purifies us, not merely providing a superficial cover (that isn't even really a temporary fix, as it is no "fix" at all). So, Jesus Christ, both fully God and fully human, serves as both our Mediator and our substitute. He bridges the gap (so to speak) between fallen humanity and perfect divinity. He stood in our place and bore the weight of our sin. He suffered and died on our behalf, receiving the punishment that we alone deserve. He is the Lamb which God provided "for Himself" as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. This is what is meant by "He tasted death so that we do not have to."
Yet, all of the above discussion additionally needs to be considered in the context of our lives, wherein it would be ridiculous to deny that we eventually die a physical death. Far from negating what we have already established, we are brought to a point where we find need to interpret again death in light of Jesus Christ. This brings us to a further question, what death(s), if at all, do we participate in? To answer this question, I will briefly allude to repsonses that pertain exclusively to persons in Christ, knowing that these realizations are available to all who will but believe in Him.
Through Christ, the death that we will never fully experience is the spiritual death that He undertook for us, causing Him to cry out on the cross before voluntarily giving up His life, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34; see also Psalm 22:1). Neither will we really fully experience physical death: Through Christ, the physical death that we experience has no finality, for He has truly "trampl[ed] down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestow[ed] life." Also, through and in Christ, we die to the flesh in the present life; in a sense, we participate in His death through baptism, not to taste death as did He (which He did on our behalf), but to overcome death by means of the life that Jesus now lives. Again, turning to Paul's writings we encounter the question, "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?" (Romans 6:3). Moreover, through Christ we encounter life in death, for in baptism we become united to Him not only in His death, but also in His resurrection, and these realities sustain us now and evermore:
Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so, consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:4-11)
Accordingly, we have hope both in this present life as we are liberated from the bondage of sin, and in the life to come as we are liberated from the weak grip of death, which is overpowered by the strength of the risen and glorified Jesus Christ. In all of this, we rightfully exalt Christ the conqueror of death and hell, through whom death has no sustainable hold on us. "So," as the Protestant Reformer and priest Martin Luther exclaims in the movie Luther, "when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: 'I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!'" (Till 2003).
Behr, John. (2006). The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death. Crestwook, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
Till, Eric. (Director). (2003). Luther [Motion Picture]. Germany: Bavaria Studios.