“The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (I Corinthians 15:26). The devil, the world, and the flesh are traditionally the three enemies of God and of God’s people, but death is also an enemy. Some people try to be philosophical about death, treating it as an inevitable part of life, but the Bible clearly states that death is an enemy, albeit an enemy already conquered by Jesus Christ and forced to serve God’s purposes.
Usually when we speak of death, we mean the physical death of a living body. In a broader sense, every unpleasant separation is a death. Christians speak of spiritual death–separation of a person from God, physical death–separation of the soul from the body, and eternal death–being spiritually dead when also physically dead. In a similar sense, divorce can be regarded as the death of a marriage. Friendships can die, careers can die, and hopes can die. Every unwanted ending is a sort of death and also a reminder of the reality of our enemy, death.
God told Adam that, when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he would die. Adam lived another 930 years after eating that fruit, but he and Eve experienced spiritual death in the garden, as is shown by their desire to hide from God. When Lazarus was sick, Jesus told his disciples that the sickness would not end in death. Lazarus physically died, but because of his trust in Jesus he was not in jeopardy of eternal death. In fact, to show his power over death, Jesus called Lazarus back to life.
“The wages of sin is death,” Paul wrote. Every sin is part of spiritual death, separating the sinner from God. Physical death is likewise a result of sin; had Adam and Eve never sinned, they would have lived forever. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus before raising Lazarus, because Jesus was facing an enemy, one he would soon battle and defeat on the cross. Christians are right to be saddened by death, although we are reminded not to grieve like people who have no hope. We have hope for ourselves and for our fellow believers in Christ. We are guaranteed the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
While Jesus was on the cross, the thief being crucified next to Jesus confessed his faith, declaring that Jesus was innocent of any crime and asking that Jesus would remember him when he came into his Kingdom. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Later, facing his own death, Jesus prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” From these words of Jesus, we know what happens at the death of a Christian. The soul leaves the body and is with Jesus in Paradise, in the hands of the Father. This is a spiritual existence; it is not yet the new creation with pearly gates and streets of gold. While it is better to leave the body and be with the Lord, the best is still to come.
On a Day known only to God, Jesus will suddenly appear. The spirits of all believers who have died will be with him. At the command of Jesus all dead bodies will rise for judgment. The spirits of Christians will be united with their bodies, which will have been raised and healed. Even birth defects will be healed at this time. All eyes and ears and legs and minds will work properly, and Jesus will welcome all those who trusted in him to their new home, a re-created Earth that will be as good as it was when God first made it.
How can sinners hope to have that eternal life when their sins have separated them from God? Jesus paid the necessary price to cancel that separation and to reconcile sinners to the Lord. He lived a sinless life, but he transferred the rewards earned by that life to everyone who trusts his promises. In that exchange, Jesus paid for every sinner, enduring spiritual death on the cross. In the darkness of that separation, Jesus prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He knew that the answer to his question was that he was bearing on himself all the sins of the world; but his prayer (a quote from Psalm 22) demonstrates his agony at the separation from his Father that was caused by sin.
Having defeated the devil and the world and the flesh and death itself, Jesus physically died. On the Sabbath he rested–his body in a grave, his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. On Sunday morning, Jesus rose, body and soul reunited. His resurrection promises our resurrection on the Day Jesus appears in glory. Death, the enemy, has been defeated. It must now serve God’s purposes as Jesus–the Good Shepherd–leads his people through the valley of the shadow of death so they can dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.