Last month we reflected on death and how our society and our churches have been freshly challenged about its reality and power. We began to think about how we need to learn how to face the challenge of our last enemy. Paul uses this language in 1 Corinthians 15:26 for our Lord Christ’s conquest of all his opponents, the last one being death. But death is our last enemy too, isn’t it?
Each Christian follows Jesus Christ, undergoing the same sort of challenges, including ultimately facing death as our personal final enemy (unless our Saviour returns first, of course). The Bible has much to say on this important subject and here we simply reflect on two complementary themes of New Testament teaching which can help us prepare to meet our last enemy.
The fight of faith
If death is our last enemy, then this implies we have faced other enemies before, doesn’t it? Paul exhorted Timothy to ‘fight the good fight of faith’ (1 Timothy 6:12) and later, when himself languishing in prison, his own death imminent, he declared ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ (2 Timothy 4:7). And probably the most well-known text on this theme is Ephesians 6:10-20, where Paul tells us to put on the whole armour of God available to us in our fight of faith. Less well known is 1 Thessalonians 5:8 where Paul again talks of Christian armour and Romans 13:12 where Paul exhorts the Roman Christians to put on the armour of light.
It is important to note that in Thessalonians the pieces of armour correspond to different truths than those they relate to in Ephesians 6. This warns us against trying to make too much of the specific items listed and how they might relate to specific pieces of armour — why truth is a belt (Ephesians 6:14) and a breastplate is righteousness (in Thessalonians it is faith). The point rather is that we are to dress ourselves with all this armour, all these fundamental truths about our salvation, to fight the fight of faith.
But who are our enemies? Against what are we fighting? Well, at one level, everything bad in this world. In heaven there will be no fighting because all crying and suffering and sinning will be past. But here below in this fallen world we encounter opposition constantly. We war against the myriad temptations to sin which arise from our fallen, fleshly desires and our creaturely weaknesses. We battle against the enormous range and number of sicknesses and losses and stresses that are the warp and woof of a fallen world. Every ache and every pain we suffer is a fight to keep trusting and keep faithful, isn’t it? Every angry word shouted at us, every joke laughed at us, every complaint made against us, all are parts of our whole fight of faith, aren’t they?
But enemies are persons, aren’t they? Our fight is not against abstractions or impersonal events. Rather our fight is against personal opponents. This is the main thrust of Ephesians 6:10-20, isn’t it? ‘Put on the whole armour of God….to stand against the schemes of the devil’ (v. 11) and ‘we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ (v. 12).
Behind every tear, every pain, every conflict, every miserable experience, every sickness, every temptation, every actual sin, lies Satan and his demonic hordes of tempters. And it is against them that we are fighting. We need God’s armour and the power of the Spirit because it is spiritual warfare. And so we prepare best to fight our last enemy when we practise in fight after fight along the way, becoming battle-hardened veterans ready to overcome in our last battle.
A second relevant theme is that of the Christian life as a pilgrimage, a journey through the wilderness of this world to a goal beyond this fallen cosmos. Perhaps we don’t hear much today on our lives here below as a pilgrimage. Perhaps only when reading The Pilgrim’s Progress are we reminded that this is how we should live in this world. In John 17:16 Jesus prayed for his disciples as those who are not of this world, even as he is not of this world, and so he asked his Father to protect us from the evil one. Elsewhere we read of ourselves here as sojourners and exiles (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11) whose citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). Paul refers to our earthly existence as one of living in tents, compared with our permanent future in resurrection bodies: ‘For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.’ (2 Corinthians 5:1) And in Hebrews a refrain in chapter 11 is that saints are those whose view is fixed on our heavenly future: ‘For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God’ (11:10); ‘they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city’ (11:16).
Learning to face our last enemy, death, means living our whole lives as on pilgrimage now. When we find ourselves dying then we will be continuing to live as we always have done, with the knowledge that each day in this world is a step nearer our home in heaven. We need to detach ourselves from worldly concerns, to distance our minds from such everyday concerns by constantly reminding ourselves that all this is transient and will pass away. In contrast, our permanent home is beyond death with Christ in heaven where he has gone to prepare a home for us. So as we face our last enemy as seasoned soldiers, we do so strong in the Lord, with our eyes looking beyond death (as they have been throughout our lives here below) to our final permanent dwelling place with Christ.
Alan Thomas is Professor and Consultant in Psychiatry. Elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.