The Last Enemy
by R.C. Sproul
“HALT! WHO GOES THERE?”
Such might be the words of a sentry who confronts a mysterious stranger in the darkness. The sentry must discern the identity of the trespasser to determine whether he is a friend or foe. Armed to protect his territory, the vigilant guard wants to avoid two evils: 1) the entrance into the compound of an enemy bent on destruction and 2) the mistaken shooting of an ally stumbling about in the dark.
There is an intruder in our garden—the one called death. Our task is to determine whether his grin is the fiendish mask of a mortal enemy or the benign smile of a friend come to rescue us from this vale of tears. Should we greet him with strident protests or with open arms?
The Bible describes death as an enemy. It is not the only enemy of the Christian, but it is described as the “last enemy.” In 1 Corinthians, Paul affirms that Christ will reign until He has put all enemies under His feet, and the last of those enemies will be death (15:25–26). It should be a great comfort to the believer to know that the one in whom he places his trust is Christus Victor. We see this clearly in Hebrews, where the author describes Jesus as our archegos, or the “supreme champion” of His people.
The champion motif is central not only to Hebrews but to the entire Bible. We think of the famous episode of the match between David and Goliath. The Israelites and Philistines had agreed that the outcome of their war would be determined not by a full confrontation of the armies but by a contest between champions who would represent each side. Goliath, the gigantic champion of the Philistines, struck terror into the hearts of the Jewish soldiers because he appeared invincible. No one volunteered to go up against him until the shepherd boy, David, stepped forward to assume the task. His conquest of Goliath was astonishing, but it pales into insignificance when placed alongside the victory of David’s greater Son, who was also David’s Lord and David’s champion. As David went up against the power of Goliath, Jesus went up against the power of Satan himself.
Notice the link between Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15 and that found in Hebrews 2.
First Corinthians 15:26–28 says, “The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For ‘He has put all things under His feet.’ But when He says ‘all things are put under Him,’ it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.”
Now note Hebrews 2:8ff: “For in that He put all in subjection under Him, He left nothing that is not put under Him. But now we do not yet see all things put under Him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”
Both 1 Corinthians and Hebrews harken back to Psalm 8, in which the “son of man” fulfills the destiny of the Second Adam and receives from me Father dominion over creation. This placing of all things in or under subjection to Christ has both a present and a future dimension. In His ascension, Christ was invested as the King of kings and Lord of lords. He is already at the right hand of the Father and reigns over all creation. But the whole of creation is not yet in willing submission or subjection to Him. In short, Christ has rebellious subjects. Satan himself is still in rebellion.
The connection between Satan and death is important: “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14–15).
Here it is declared that the devil had the power of death until that power was wrenched away from him by Christ. We must remember that any power or authority Satan ever has is a delegated authority, as the ultimate authority over death and everything else is God. But Satan’s delegated authority over death is taken from him by Christ. The irony is that Christ’s victory over the devil and the power of death is accomplished by means of death. In His death, Jesus is victorious over death. Death cannot hold Him.
Yet there is still a future dimension to this victory, for Paul says that the last enemy that will be destroyed is death. He writes this years after the Cross. Thus, even though Christ dealt a mortal blow to Satan and death in His own death, there still remained a victory to be won.
Something glorious and decisive did take place on the cross with respect to death. The sting of death was removed by the captain of our salvation. Paul writes: “So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’ The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54–57).
Here is our “Champion Christology.” God gives to us a victory that we have not achieved for ourselves. It is won for us by another. Victory over Goliath is not worthy to be compared to victory over death.
So is death now our friend? Or is it still our foe? For believers, death is a friend insofar as it ushers us into the immediate presence of Christ. But insofar as it is still coupled with much suffering, it remains the last enemy that must be totally vanquished. However, our problem with death is not with death itself but with the process that leads up to it. It is dying that is still feared by Christians. What Christian would be afraid of death if we could just shut our eyes and wake up in heaven? We know that the other side of death is glory and that death is but the portal or threshold to that glory.
Paul knew the glory of death, as evidenced by his anguish and ambivalence regarding his possible departure from this life. He wrote: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Phil. 1:21–24).
Paul here makes a comparison between life and death. It is not a contrast between the good and the bad. Neither is it a comparison between the good and the better. It is a comparison between the good and the far better.
Because of Christ’s conquest of death, we are called “hyper-conquerors” by Paul: “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). “All these things” include life and death, and everything in between. Dominion over the curse of death is sealed for those who are beloved of Christ.
In this same passage, Paul answers his own question about what shall separate us from the love of Christ: nothing can do that, not even death. Those of us who are approaching that deadly day have nothing to fear but God Himself.