In what sense did the devil have “the power of death” (Heb. 2:14)?
The first chapters of Job show that the devil doesn’t have authority over death. Satan was capable of ending Job’s life, but only if so permitted by God (Job 2:6). This word for “power” here in Hebrews is not exousia, translated power or authority. God alone has absolute authority in giving (John 1:4), sustaining (1Ti 4:10), and terminating (Dan 5:23) life.
In this verse, “power” is the translation of the Greek word kratos, which emphasizes “manifested power” (W. E. Vine). Of its 12 NT occurrences, it is translated “dominion” four times in the KJV, each time in a doxology.
Earlier in the passage (v 9), Christ tasted “death for every man” (or “everything,” JND). In order for the Son of Man to bring creation into its intended order and purpose, He must experience the full bitterness of death. Adam brought death into creation (Rom 5:12) and destroyed – for these many centuries – God’s intended order (Heb 2:6-8). The exalted Last Adam, having tasted death, is the guarantor that creation will be subject to a man.
Paul tells us that death reigns as a result of Adam’s sin (Rom 5:17). By dying in obedience (v 19) to God’s will (Phi 2:8), Christ secured a present righteous standing for individuals (Rom 5:19) and an eventual deliverance for creation (8:21).
In his disobedience to God, however, Adam ceded his dominion to “that old serpent, called the Devil.” He is the “prince (or ruler, ESV) of this world” (John 12:31). The pall of death extends over his entire realm.
Through his treachery, the devil has exerted this power of death over all of God’s creatures and creation. The “power of death” is the devil’s destructive impact on creation as a result of the Fall.
Does the devil still have this power of death?
The devil still has this power of death. The passage does not say that Christ destroyed the power of death or took that from the devil. Christ destroyed the devil or, more accurately, rendered him ineffective (Arndt & Gingrich). He is still the ruler of this world; the blight of sin and death still reigns. He is still active and mighty, and his activity will yet increase (Rev 12:12). However, as a result of the death of the Lord Jesus, the devil will not and cannot thwart God’s plan. In creation, God had more in mind for Earth than making it a peaceful realm. In Eden, the devil had more in mind than ruining creation or making it his dominion.
Is the “fear of death” no longer satanic in its origin?
Satan used Adam to bring death into God’s creation. In that sense, death is satanic in its origin. The fear of death, though, is more likely human in its origin, but can certainly be used as a tool by Satan.
The passage, if the above suggestions are correct, is not drawing a contrast between people before the cross and after the cross, as though believers or unbelievers before the cross had a greater fear of death. It is true that we have received a clearer revelation of the afterlife than Old Testament believers had. We therefore should look forward with greater delight to our eternal home.
The point of the passage, though, seems to be building toward the statement of verse 16, connected to verses 14 and 15 by “for.” Verse 16 gives the logic of what precedes it.
What is the significance of “fear of death” in this passage?
At least three explanations are possible for the statement in verse 16, “takes hold of the seed of Abraham” (JND). One is that it is just a way of stating for Hebrew readers that He became a man (wouldn’t everyone want to be a child of Abraham?). That would seem to merely repeat the truth of the earlier verses (vv 6-8) and also slight the accuracy of the Spirit’s inspiration. Second, some take it to refer to Abraham’s spiritual seed, all believers. That seems to be out of context with Abraham’s importance in the rest of Hebrews (6:13-18; 11:8-10) and it is truth from Galatians, rather than Hebrews.
The third possibility, taking it to mean that in becoming a man, Christ undertook to meet the need of the literal seed of Abraham, seems more consistent with the thrust of Hebrews. Abraham’s posterity possessed covenant promises from God. It was an everlasting covenant that promised them both the Land for an everlasting possession (Gen 17:4-8) and an Heir (“Thy Seed,” singular) to possess it (13:15). But how could an heir claim an everlasting possession in a realm under the bondage of corruption (Rom 8:21) and death? The devil, who stands opposed to every purpose God has for His Son, accomplished a masterful stroke in Eden. All things might have been committed to the Son (John 3:35), but how could that work out in a creation where Satan held authority (Luke 4:6) and exerted the power of death? All the seed of Abraham lived with the “fear of death” in a realm of bondage under a ruler more fearsome than a Pharoah. None of them could claim the Land for an everlasting possession.
The expression “takes hold of” occurs one other time in Hebrews. “I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt” (8:9, quoting Jer 31:32). That redemption from Egypt prefigures another greater redemption when the Lord will bring them into their land for an everlasting inheritance. How?
There was One Who “took part” of flesh and blood with the children of Abraham’s line (Mat 1:1), Who would – by dying and breaking the power of death – nullify him that had the power of death. Now living and exalted, He waits for the day when His people willingly turn to Him and He will bring them into their promised rest.