"Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives." - Hebrews 2:14-16
This passage, from the book of Hebrews, used to puzzle me quite a lot. I wondered what it meant that the devil had the power of death. After all, isn't God the one who gives life and who alone has the authority to take it? "The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up." (1 Samuel 2:6) It was because man chose to elevate the gifts of God above God the Giver that led our Creator to place a curse upon this world, including the curse of death. Far from being punitive, the curse was meant by God to help us turn away from sin, the sin of loving created things more than the Creator.
Jesus said, "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple." (Luke 14:28) By "hate", Jesus does not at all mean that we should bear them any malice. Jesus is using hyperbole (rhetorical exaggeration) to get His point across. We are to choose Him above even what is nearest and dearest to us. And what is more near and dear to us than our own lives? David says to God, "Your lovingkindness is better than life…" (Psalm 63:3) In other words, he would rather die and be with God than live on earth without Him.
So the knowledge that our days on earth are limited, that all the created things of this world pass away and that the goodness of created things is greatly limited by decay and death, serves to point us to the only enduring and truly satisfying source of good: God. How, then, is the devil the one who has the power of death? What does this mean? I think it means that the devil uses death to frighten us into sin. "Death" here is not just physical death. It represents every potential loss of happiness or enjoyment. Was this not what he used to induce Adam and Eve to sin? He insinuated that if they obeyed God they would miss out on something wonderful, something God wanted only for Himself, namely, the ability to decide for oneself what is good or evil.
The thoughts of Eve's mind are exposed to us so that we can see how the devil made the forbidden fruit appear so appealing: "When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise…" (Genesis 3:6) There we have it - the "lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life" (1 John 2:16) These are the motives the devil played upon to get our first parents to turn away from God. These were also the motives with which Satan tempted Jesus (Luke 4:1-13) The truth is that God wants us to take care of our bodies, to acquire things that are useful and pleasing and to grow in wisdom and knowledge. But He does not want us to choose anything above our relationship with Him. The fruit the devil was selling was a means to become independent from God because if you ate of it you would be "like God, knowing good and evil" and therefore you would no longer need Him!
The "power of death" is what the devil wields against us. God invites us to die to sin and live to righteousness. (Matthew 16:24-25; 1 Peter 2:24) Satan plays on our fear that if we do die to sin we will also die to real happiness. He wants us to be afraid, constantly. He wants us to fear for our health, fear for our finances, fear for our relationships, in short - he wants us to fear for our lives. It all comes down to fearing the loss of some worldly source of enjoyment. So long as he keeps our eyes on what we suppose will be our loss if we follow God, Satan keeps us under his power. He whispers, "You don't want to do what God says, do you? If you do that you will lose out! Go the easy route, the broad path. Why should you suffer needlessly?" He makes worshiping and serving God appear to be deadly dull or terribly risky. Such is not really the case, but there is enough truth in his lie to make it plausible. It is quite true that we may undergo some short-term loss, some struggle and pain. We may even suffer literal, physical death for our faith in Christ, as Jesus Himself warned, and as some Christians down through the centuries have experienced. But the truth the devil leaves out is that his way will separate us from the only true, lasting and satisfying source of happiness - loving fellowship with God. The cost of sin is infinitely greater than the cost of dying to it.
Jesus tells us that we are to take up our cross daily (Luke 9:23) and Paul said that he died daily (1 Corinthians 15:31). The reason Jesus asks us to do this and the reason Paul was able to do this is because Jesus Himself did it! The devil's goal in bringing Jesus to the cross was not to kill Him. His goal was rather, to induce Jesus to turn away from the cross, to abandon the Father's plan of salvation and to abandon us to the devil and our sins. Remember what Jesus said to Peter when Peter tried to persuade him not to go to the cross. He said, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's." (Matthew 16:23) In other words, Satan used Peter to try to tempt Jesus to turn away from the cross. In fact, all three of Satan's temptations of Jesus in the wilderness were really offers of alternative ways to win the world's allegiance, alternatives, that is, to the way of the cross. Jesus chose the cross (John 12:31-33).
In the Garden, when Peter tried to defend Jesus with his sword, Jesus said, "Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matthew 26:52-54) Even on the cross, Jesus could have done as His enemies sneeringly invited Him to do: "Ha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself, and come down from the cross!" (Mark 15:29-30) The devil would have been delighted had He done that! But as it has been so truly said, it wasn't the nails that kept Jesus on the cross. It was His love for the Father and His love for us.
We are delivered from our bondage to sin by being delivered from our fear of dying to it. It is the Spirit of Jesus who gives us a taste of resurrection joy and says, "Do you want more? Do you want to share in My glory and reign with Me? Death has been conquered. I have taken away its sting. Fear not; I am with thee!" With both the example and the power of our Lord, we can die to sin and live to righteousness and thus inherit that "joy inexpressible and full of glory". (1 Peter 1:8) There, the devil no longer enslaves us for we have seen that we really lose nothing when we die to sin and that instead, we gain more than we ever dreamed or imagined could be ours!