We shall look at our texts this morning under a double aspect: First--With regard to spiritual death; and second--With regard to nature's death.
I. It is quite clear, with reference to spiritual death, that man is not now in the condition in which he was created. God did not create man dead in trespasses and sins. Here, I think, there is a great and almost universal mistake made with regard to the penalty that was connected with the command which was given to Adam,--"Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." (Gen. 2:16,17)
I know almost all commentators say, that in the day Adam ate of the forbidden tree he began to die. But let us compare with the penalty what the Holy Ghost says of man's condition. Eph. 2:1-3: "And you hath he quickened who were dead in trespasses and sins; wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience."
Had the devil power to work in Adam before he fell? No; but the Spirit of God dwelt in him. He was a spiritually living man. It was not eternal life that he possessed, though it was a spiritual life. It was a life that could be lost, and which he did lose. "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shall surely die." It was a life that enabled him to hold spiritual intercourse with God, therefore he was not dead in trespasses and sins.
"Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others."
Now we apply our text to the condition of man as he is thus dead in trespasses and sins. "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." When is it destroyed? When we are taken out of spiritual death, and put into spiritual life in Christ.
If you read the verses that precede our text, you will see that though the apostle is there speaking of Christ as the resurrection and the life, referring more particularly to the resurrection of the body at the last day, yet that we are not to suppose there is no reference to the spiritual resurrection by which we are made new creatures in Christ Jesus; therefore I conclude it will bear this double meaning: "For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead." (1 Cor. 15:21)
Now, as I remarked before, the first resurrection that takes place is, when we are taken out of spiritual death, and put into spiritual life; and this life being eternal life, it can never die. Satan can never reach that life so as to destroy it, for it is hid with Christ in God. "For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ is God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory." (Col. 3:3,4)
This is the blessedness of the Church, "For as in Adam all die, even so [or in like manner] in Christ shall all be made alive." (1 Cor. 15:22) That is, as all Adam's posterity died spiritually in him, so all Christ's posterity shall be made alive spiritually in him. "But every man in his own order: Christ the fruitfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming." (1 Cor. 15:23) Whether it be his coming at regeneration, or whether it refer to the end of the world, this is the double sense in which we view our text. "Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign till he hath put all enemies under his feet." (1 Cor. 15:24,25) "The head cannot say to the feet, I have no need of thee." (1 Cor. 12:21) Are they not the dear children of God?
Look again, dear brother, at the condition by nature of every man: "That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world." (Eph. 2:12) This is the condition of every man by nature. He is an "enemy to God by wicked works." But Christ must reign till he hath put all enemies under his feet. "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." This is done spiritually when the sinner is created anew in Christ. This second creation makes him more glorious than Adam was in his innocency. Christ has destroyed all other enemies of the child of God, therefore the last enemy that is put under his feet is spiritual death. He destroyed sin, that great enemy, and put it away once and for ever by the sacrifice of himself. He destroyed the curse due to the broken law, which must have been an eternal enemy to the peace of the children of God, unless they had found a surety in Christ, who took upon himself all the curse and condemnation which belonged to his Church through the broken law.
Moreover, he destroyed the hell of his Church, which was another great enemy. He swallowed it up in his own sufferings. And not only so, but by his glorious death and resurrection he destroyed the works of the devil, so far as his power to injure the children of God is concerned. He has no power now over that eternal life which they possess in Christ. These are the enemies he has already destroyed; and "the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."
How blessed is it when we can realize that this great change has taken place in us! that our spiritual death has been destroyed, and that we are living in resurrection-life and acceptance in Christ. "Ah!" says Little faith, "I am continually doubting and fearing lest this should not be the case with me. It must be so great a change to be taken out of spiritual death, and put into spiritual and eternal life!"
It is a wonderful change, doubtless, dear brother; "Ye must be born again." (John 3:7) You know, when a child is born into the world it brings with it a multitude of needs, all of which prove that it is a living child. A dead child has no needs. Then the question is, have you these needs which flow from the fact that you are born again from above? translated out of the kingdom of Satan into the kingdom of God's dear Son? (Col. 1:13) that the last enemy, death, has been destroyed in you? that you are begotten again to a living hope, (1 Pet. 1:3) which hope is an anchor to your soul, both sure and steadfast; and which entereth into that within the vail? (Heb. 6:19) I ask you, dear Little faith, have you the daily need? Do you know what it is to hunger and thirst after righteousness?
"Yes," say you, "I do know what it is to hunger and thirst thus every hour!" Then you cannot be dead in sin! No man that is dead in sin ever yet hungered and thirsted after righteousness. Moreover, you have spiritual eyesight to see the condition in which you were by nature! You have a spiritual understanding to know the blessedness of those who are partakers of the fullness of Christ! You have spiritual ears to hear, and you can listen with delight when a dear child of God goes over his experience, and tells you what the Lord has done for his soul! Does not your heart respond when another is praying? Does not the prayer often express the very breathings of your soul? so that you can put your amen to it, and say, Bless the Lord, these are the only things that can satisfy my soul! All these things are true tokens that you are alive from the dead; that you are in eternal life-union with our most glorious Christ. Therefore your last deadly spiritual enemy is destroyed, which is spiritual death.
II. But we come now, secondly, to look at our text with reference to NATURE'S death. And here we shall see that it is a terrible enemy to the peace of many of the children of God. How large a number of the Lord's children are subject to bondage through the fear of death! As we read in Heb. 2:15, "Who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage." When they think of the last struggle, there is something in nature that begins to shrink from it. But it is only the flesh that shrinks; for the child of God is brought sweetly to realize, that even death itself is no longer an enemy to him, but that he is changed into one of his best friends.
It is clear that the apostle was looking forward to the resurrection of the body; for he says, "If the dead rise not, we are of all men most miserable." (1 Cor. 15:19) Why? Because we are daily subject to bondage through the fear of death. There is a secret fear working in the heart of every man. But it is especially so with a child of God; for Satan comes with a thousand questionings. Suppose after all you should be making a mistake? Suppose you should prove nothing but a hypocrite after all? Such insinuations as these bring the child of God into bondage through the fear of death; thus death is an enemy to him.
Now let us observe the order in which this enemy came into the camp. First of all the devil began his work of temptation: then through the power and cunning of Satan sin entered; then death by sin; and "so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned." (Rom. 5:12) Not only spiritual death, but temporal death also passed upon all men. Death is universal. One thing we know is certain, and it is the only thing we do know as certain, that we must die; and we know not how soon.
Moreover, death is an unseen enemy. It may be lurking, perhaps, unobserved in some disease. It is said that there are no less than sixty diseases to which the eye alone is subject. Then how many hundreds of thousands of diseases and sources of decay may there be working, we know not with what progress, in our wonderfully constituted bodies, and in our very veins.
Again, there is something in connection with the separation of the soul and the body which makes death a terrible thing. No two things are so closely allied to each other as the soul and the body. No union, no relationship can be conceived so dear, as that which exists throughout the whole life-time of a person, between the soul and the body. The soul is dear to the body; and the body is dear to the soul. When the messenger death comes, he comes to fetch the soul; and the body will soon, very soon, be sent for to join the soul again. For as sure as death shall find every human being out naturally, so sure shall death be once and for ever destroyed at the resurrection. The wicked dead shall be raised as well as the righteous. The one to eternal misery, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched;" (Mark 9:44) the other to eternal blessedness, to an inheritance prepared for them before the foundation of the world, "an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away." (1 Pet. 1:4)
How does this cut away the ground from under the feet of those who talk about there being no eternal punishment! If death is to be destroyed at the resurrection, and if the wicked are to be raised, and their bodies and souls joined again, it is to eternal misery and banishment from God, since there can be no more death if it be eternally destroyed. It is thus while we contemplate the solemnity of the subject, that the child of God is led to inquire--
Moreover, as we have already seen, since death is universal, we carry it about with us continually. It is ever present with us. Man's life has been well compared to a candle,--the moment it is lighted it begins to waste away. So we are dying daily, though thousands know nothing about it. Oh, poor careless sinner, if there be any such here today, remember that "the king of terrors" is marching on with rapid strides; you will soon have to meet him, and if he find you still unconcerned he will be a terrible enemy to you!
One thought I would impress upon your minds, with reference to man's life being compared to the burning of a candle. We know that the candle is subject to various circumstances which hurry its wasting, such as draughts, which may be compared to the onsets of the enemy of souls in temptations and the power of worldly pleasures. What is more common than to hear the exclamation, "There is a thief in the candle!" This may represent those habits which destroy health, and accelerate the consumption of the candle, or diseases which rapidly consume the vital powers. As I go on my way, how often do I look upon one and another, and inwardly exclaim, "There is a thief in the candle!"
But should the child of God, who has the witness that he is passed from death unto life, be terrified at the approach of death? We know that the flesh trembles and shrinks, and in some of the children of God more than in others; but, realizing the blessedness that death will come to him as a friend, he "leaps over to the end" with joy and delight. He looks forward to the moment when the candle shall have burnt down into the socket, and nothing shall have remained but the little snuff of life, which shall be put out in a moment. Then the soul will take its flight once and for ever to the bosom of Jesus; and the body shall soon be raised up to join the soul again, thus to be for ever with the Lord.
Again, the life of man may be compared to an hour glass. The moment you turn the glass, the little grains of sand begin to run through. So is it with every man. The moment he is born the sands of his life begin to run out. And how soon do some run out! And in how many different shapes does death come? Sometimes like a lion he darts at his victim, and takes away his life in a moment. Sometimes he comes quietly and imperceptibly, like a moth, working away at the thread of life until the last fiber is gone!
The Lord help each one earnestly to look into these things, and to make sure that he has the witness in his heart that he is born again from above; so that, in whatever way death may come, he may be found ready, knowing that all his enemies are destroyed. "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."
Moreover, there is another point with reference to death which often troubles the child of God, and that is the condition of the body in the grave. When he thinks of the cold grave, where the worms are to be his companions, it makes him shudder. As we read in Isaiah 14:11, "Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee." What a bed! The worms for a mattress! the worms for a coverlid! And again, Job says, "I have said to corruption, Thou art my father: to the worm, Thou art my mother, and my sister." (Job 17:14)
What were Hezekiah's lamentations in the prospect of the coming of this enemy? "I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave; I am deprived of the residue of my years. I said, I shall not see the Lord, even the Lord in the land of the living." I believe in my heart that Hezekiah was almost in despair at this time with reference to his spiritual condition; he was fearing that he had not the witness in his heart that he was a living child of God. He was afraid of spiritual death as well as temporal death; for as we go on we shall see how changed his mind was with reference to his condition. "I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world. Mine age is departed, and is removed from me as a shepherd's tent: I have cut off like a weaver my life: he will cut me off with pining sickness: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me. I reckoned till morning, that, as a lion, so will he break all my bones: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me. Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward: O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me." Are not these the very breathings of a poor sinner under conviction of sin, and with death staring him in the face? "O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me!" "What shall I say? he hath both spoken unto me, and himself hath done it." He kills, and his own hands make whole. He brings the poor sinner down into the dust, so that he trembles at the thought of dying, until he can get the pardon of his sins sealed home upon his heart. "I shall go softly all my years in the bitterness of my soul. O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these things is the life of my spirit: so wilt thou recover me, and make me to live. Behold, for peace I had great bitterness: but thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption: for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back." Now he could look forward to death with triumph. Now he knew, by witnessing of the Spirit in his soul, that he should go on blessedly through the fifteen years that were added to his life, and then he would be enabled willingly to resign it, because he knew that God had "cast all his sins behind his back." "For the grave cannot praise thee; death cannot celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father to the children shall make known thy truth." (Isa. 38:10-19)
Now it is as we can thus sweetly realize in our hearts that we are living members of the mystical body of Christ, that we can quietly wait for the approach of death: knowing that at the last the king of terrors will change his countenance towards us, and become a friend instead of an enemy. Nevertheless, there are moments after pardon and peace have been sealed home upon the heart of the child of God, when death appears like an enemy to him. When fresh guilt is contracted, and presses on the conscience, Satan will come in like a flood, and say to the child of God, "You have deceived yourself and others. What will you do in the swellings of Jordan?" Then doubts and fears prevail, and the poor devil-hunted one shudders at the thought of death, and of standing before the judgment-seat of Christ, with Satan standing at his right hand thus to resist him, holding up his filthy garments, and saying, What! you a child of God? We can easily understand, in the contemplation of all these things, why death should be called an enemy.
But there is one point more we must look at. It is the last enemy. "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."
What a blessed thing is it to know, that when we have passed the last struggle, then the last enemy is destroyed, and we shall never meet an enemy again. We shall then enter into the joy of the Lord--into the enjoyment of that eternal friendship which has been begun in time.
I often think how continuously that glorious circle of victorious spirits is filling up. It is a large circle already, but it is daily filling up from the ranks of those who are doing battle in the wilderness. Each one has his appointed place in that glorious incorruptible inheritance; and it is my delight to tell you that our dear friend, Mr. H--of whose death I suppose most of you are aware, died rejoicing in the Lord beyond measure. He talked to a friend a little before his death about the blessedness of having a good hope. I believe throughout his life he was much troubled and exercised with reference to death. I can look back to some five years ago when he talked to me about these things. I could see there was not then that full assurance of faith which would enable him to feel that he could meet death without a shudder. But we see that we are not to expect dying faith in a living hour. When the dying hour comes we find God is faithful to his promise. It is then we see the blessedness of that life which is given us in Christ; that "life which is hid with Christ in God," which, since it is eternal life, can never be destroyed.
We have many enemies to contend with in this world. There are the three great enemies--"the world, the flesh, and the devil." An old Puritan calls them three serpents. The worst of the three we carry in our bosoms, which is that crooked serpent, the flesh, which is ever warring against the spirit. The world we carry in our hands, and a slippery serpent it is; while that old serpent, the devil, hisses out of hell against the trembling child of God. But we shall never know what it is to combat with the world, the flesh, and the devil any more when the last enemy, "death," is destroyed.
We know even now, if it were possible for all the tinder to be taken out of us--and the flesh is the tinder in the child of God--all the hellish sparks of Satan would fail to produce their intended effect. He came and cast his sparks upon Christ, but there was no tinder in him for the sparks to take effect upon; but we know we carry about with us this tinder which is ever ready to be "set on fire of hell." Therefore, you must not wonder that you have to combat with these enemies; but every day brings you nearer to the last conflict, and having overcome the last enemy through the power that is given you in our most glorious Christ, you may rejoice in the blessedness that (as we were singing just now)--
"Great was the mystery, truly great,
That hell's designs should hell defeat;
But here eternal wisdom shines,
For Satan works what God designs."
It was through the enmity of Satan that Christ was crucified; and yet, in the act of doing this, Satan defeated himself. So he may come by the side of death, as his last visit to the child of God, but he will find himself defeated; for death will come, not as an enemy, but as a friendly messenger, saying to the dying child of God, "Friend, go up higher." There shall be an end of all conflict then. There shall be no more fighting. As we read in Isa. 40:1,2: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins."
It is very blessed to my soul, and I know, if the Lord carry the Word home with power to your hearts, it will be very blessed to yours, thus to contemplate the coming of this apparent enemy, and to realize that he will be changed into a friend, as he was to our dear brother lately departed.
We may rejoice in the mercy that we have no need to fear putting off our "garments of clay," while we remember that Jesus himself has passed through death, and thus made a way for his people; and that he has swallowed it up in eternal victory.
But to look at the other side of the picture again, when death shall be for ever destroyed at the resurrection of all the human race--when they shall all be brought together at the judgment-seat--what an awful thing will it be for the poor wretch who is out of Christ! He will then say, Oh, that I could but feel that I should die again! Oh, that death would come and destroy the worm that dieth not, and put out the fire that cannot be quenched! But there shall be no more death; it shall be once and for ever destroyed, and he must live on in eternal misery. But the living child of God, being delivered from all that he is in the creature, and made perfect in all the perfection of our most glorious Christ, shall ever live to be a monument to the praise of the glory of that grace which hath made him "accepted in the beloved." (Eph. 1:6)
The Lord grant to you all that you may be able to look at death thus, and not to be terrified at the thought of his approach on account of what you discover in yourselves, although I know it is not in the power of any words of mine to persuade the child of God not to tremble, who is all his lifetime subject to bondage through the fear of death. Nevertheless, it is blessed to go over these things, and to know that, though death may make us tremble, nothing can alter the glorious truth, that
"To die in the Lord is a covenant blessing,
Since Jesus through death for his Church made a way."
May the Lord seal these things upon your hearts this morning, and to his name shall be the praise.