New Horizons

Death: The Last Great Enemy

Jack W. Sawyer

It was one of the founding fathers of America, Benjamin Franklin, who is reputed to have coined the saying, "The only things certain in life are death and taxes." These days we hear plenty about taxes, especially as election times draw near. Every person and every politician has an opinion about taxes. But people are much less inclined to speak of the other certainty—death. We prefer to block it out of our minds as much as possible, perhaps hoping it will go away and somehow pass us by.

Thankfully, the Bible, the Word of God, does not shrink from the subject. According to the Scriptures, death is the enemy. Death is not the natural end of all living beings, as deluded romantic notions would have it. Rather, death is a great evil, an unnatural force that finally, inevitably, unstoppably defeats all men and women. In the face of this enemy, the Bible says that all mankind groans in slavish fear and dread. Our own experience, and indeed history itself, graphically confirms the plain affirmations of God's Word. Death, therefore, is the last great enemy for each of us.

Death Is Inevitable

Why is death inevitable? Is it simply a normal part of life itself, as some would have us believe? No indeed. Death is inevitable because it is the sad, bitter fruit of sin. Yes, sin.

Contrary to the views of modernists, atheists, and agnostics alike, at the dawn of history, man recklessly revolted against his Creator. Adam and Eve defied their Maker's command and ate the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The result, as God had warned, was death. Thus, sin came into the world, and through sin, death spread to all mankind because all sinned.

The apostle Paul would sum it up by saying that now, because of this historical tragedy, the wages of sin is death. These are the wages that all the guilty, corrupted posterity of Adam and Eve earn and will receive. No wonder drug, no genetic engineering, no miraculous cure, will be found. There is no escape. The Bible, history, and experience all tell us that we will die.

Death Is Dreadful

Death, therefore, is dreadful. That is why the Bible says that Christians also groan at the prospect of death. Even our Lord Jesus wept at the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus. Further, he was in agony, alone in the garden of Gethsemane the night before the prospect of his own death on the cross.

In our case, as we grow older, we literally feel the principle of death working within us. Bones become brittle, breath shortens, muscles stiffen, teeth fall out, memory fades, and disease wracks mind and body. Then, finally, comes the moment when soul and body are separated. The soul leaves the body and returns to God who gave it, and the body is committed to the grave.

As we ponder these prospects, we must conclude that death is not a nice subject. It fills us with revulsion, even dread and terror. And no wonder. The Bible tells us that we are enslaved by nature to the fear of death. None of us likes to be reminded of these things, yet they are indelibly etched in our minds. Consequently, death is an odious and taboo subject, which most people would rather not hear discussed. They prefer to hide from the horror of it all and pretend that it is just not so, that somehow the last great enemy will pass them by.

Death Itself Will Be Destroyed

Thank God the believer does not have to pretend. Yes, death is inevitable. Yes, death is dreadful. But death itself will be destroyed. So there is hope—hope, that is, for the true Christian. There is hope because the Lord Jesus Christ tasted death for his people on the cross.

Jesus refused wine mixed with myrrh, a type of sedative, in order that he might fully and consciously experience the wrath of God against the sins of the world, and, yes, so that he might fully experience and receive in our place the wages of sin, death itself. He died and was buried.

The power of sin, the power of death, however, could not hold him captive. By the power of God, he was raised from the dead, victorious! Death was defeated, and when Jesus returns again, death will be swallowed up forever.

In Jesus' death, the sting of death was removed for God's people. This means that, although death for the believer remains the wages of sin, it also becomes our passage to eternal life. As a seed dies only to live as a new plant, as a caterpillar dies only to become a beautiful, soaring butterfly, as a baby struggles forth from its mother's womb to a new life in this world, so we will pass through the portal of death, our entryway to eternal life, into the blessed presence of God.

Therefore, although we still groan, not wanting to die, we may have confidence as we face what lies beyond death. Because we walk by faith and not by sight, we are able to say with the apostle Paul that we prefer to be absent from the body, so as to be present with the Lord. For to depart and be with Christ is far better. It is better to be with him before the throne of God, serving him day and night, neither hungering nor thirsting, shepherded by the Lamb of God, who will guide us to the fountains of living waters, and who will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Thank God that even though the wages of sin is death, the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Yes, death is still the last great enemy. Death is inevitable. Death is dreadful. But death cannot harm the children of God. They are privileged to live in hope and in anticipation. Even in this sad world, which is itself nothing but a constant death, they experience the only true comfort in life and death because they belong, body and soul, to their faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

Mr. Sawyer is a minister in the OPC. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2000.

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