THE LAST ENEMY
Rev. Murdoch Campbell, M.A.*
A famous preacher once said that there were golden hours in the lives of many of God’s people when they could, without fear, look beyond the trials of this life, the grave, and even their final judgment before God, to the day when they would see their Lord face to face. Perfect love casts out fear and makes little of these awesome events which stand between it and the One on whom it rests. Like Moses on the top of Pisgah, there are days when, by a clearer faith, they see the King in His beauty in the land of far distances. In such seasons they look, without fear, beyond the narrow stream which all must cross. These hours, however, do not last. The old fears may often return.
There are many, indeed, who through fear of death are all their lifetime subject to bondage. For one thing, “nature has an instinctive dread of its own dissolution.” There is also that deeper characteristic of our mind whereby we cannot as creatures made in the image of God, and partakers of His breath, conceive of ourselves as not being in existence.
But the Lord’s people stand in awe of death for deeper reasons than these. They know that it marks the end of all privilege and of the day of grace, and that time is given to be redeemed in the interests of eternity. God’s Word tells them that “as the tree falleth
so it shall lie,” and that Death bears all who die unprepared down to endless grief. This fills them with concern.
In the Scriptures they read of the spotless purity of those who are in heaven – the place where love is perfected and where holiness is the air which its inhabitants breathe. “There shall in no wise enter in anything that defileth or worketh abomination or maketh a lie.” One evil thought or desire, one sinful stain, one root of resentment or ill-will, would be enough to exclude them from these realms of glory. While they seek to prepare themselves for that holy world, as God commands, they know that they must be prepared by God Himself, and that the imperatives of Heaven cannot be by-passed. Those who are there are born again. They are clothed in the best robe of Emmanuel’s righteousness. They are washed in His blood and perfected by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. When, in the light of all this, they examine their lives and hearts, they bow their heads and say with another, “In me, that is in my flesh, there dwelleth no good thing.” They feel unprepared, but death cannot be delayed.
I am on the brink of Jordan;
Backward shrinks this mortal frame;
Well ’twere now for me to have
The hope that ne’er shall put to shame.
That is not the concern of those whose fears are merely slavish or ‘natural.” On the other hand, it is far removed from the false hope and deceptive peace of “Mr Bad-Man” and “Ignorance.” The one died like a lamb, while the other was ferried across the river by his own Vain Hope. “There were no bands in their death.”
God’s people differ from such in that all their hope is centred in Christ. Their hope and interest rest in what He is, on what He has promised, on what He did and on what He is yet to do. He is the eternal Son of God who died in their nature to redeem them. It is derived from the knowledge and assurance that they are identified with Him in His redemptive work. His death was their death. His life is the abiding guarantee of their everlasting salvation. On the Cross of Calvary death left its sting in His soul. He died that they might live. The power which wrought in Him when God raised Him from the dead is the same power that is exerted in their salvation. That power lies behind their spiritual resurrection, their preservation and their appearance in His presence. “I give them eternal life and they shall never perish neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand.” “They are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed at the last time.” To experience God’s saving and keeping power in our own lives should provide us with the assurance that neither death nor life is able to
separate us from His love. Our union with Him is untouched by whatever may happen. The grave is but one of the chambers where Christ’s Bride, in her mortal frame, sleeps for a while. At His coming again she shall awake satisfied in His likeness.
On his death-bed Jacob speaks of his desire to be with God. “The God of Bethel” was the Angel who fed him, who kept him and who led him, all his days. Now as the end of his earthly pilgrimage draws near he expresses the longing that had been, we believe, in his heart ever since that wistful morning when, on the slope of Bethel, God blessed him. “I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord.” Having said this, “he was gathered to his people.” He was not really to die but to live. The God of Jacob – as our Lord reminds us – is not the God of the dead but of the living. God was Jacob’s Friend in the house of his pilgrimage. Now he was to be gathered to His God in the Home above. “Gather my saints together unto me, those who have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.” Death to God’s people is, therefore, a moving out of this tabernacle into “the house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
A few nights ago I read the words of a young Scottish sailor who was lost in the Second World War. The Lord, by His Word, had been striving with this lad’s soul, reminding him of the uncertainty of life and his need of salvation in Christ. This led him to seek the Lord at the Throne of Grace, and the Lord whom he sought heard his prayer. Shortly afterwards, he wrote to a friend telling him of the night his soul entered into peace. “One night, when on the look-out, I heard the Lord’s voice speaking to me with power. ‘Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.’ For the rest of the night I felt as if I were talking to my Saviour face to face. Two hours on the look-out after that, in the middle of the night, passed too quickly … I have a small room to which I go for secret prayer and many a happy meeting I have with Him there. Indeed, I can often say in this room ‘A day in thy courts is better than a thousand.'” The words through which this lad of twenty years was led into a state of grace had another and a higher meaning. In a few days the ship was struck down and he was gathered into the presence of the One whose Word had healed him. This, then, is the meaning of death. We are “gathered” Home.
Not only are the spirits of just men gathered to God, but their flesh rests in hope. Our bodies rest in the grave till the resurrection day. A mother, for example, puts her child to bed, kisses it goodnight, and gently withdraws the light. Sleep takes over, and nothing more is remembered till the same loved voice is heard in the morning. In the same way the Lord “gives His beloved sleep,” till by he touch of His power and the sound of His voice they awake to see Him face to face. In that bed he lay Himself, and He left it warm and
fragrant for all His loved ones. In the stillness of the grave their bodies are as near to Him as their souls before the Throne. He died to redeem both. He has the keys to death. When He broke through the gates of death He took possession of its keys. Death can never, therefore, retain any of those for whom He died and for whom He lives.
In the light of all this how significant are the words of David:
I will both lay me down in peace
and quiet sleep will take;
Because thou only me to dwell
in safety, Lord, dost make.
A man once said that if, like Enoch and Elijah, he had the choice of entering heaven without seeing death or to enter it by way of the grave, he would rather choose the latter. He would choose this way because by it the Lord Himself and all the rest of the redeemed came and shall come to their everlasting rest and reward.
But however much we may reassure ourselves that “to die is gain” we still fear the day when we must leave this world. Although all our desire is before God, we are still conscious of “the plague of our heart.” Therefore we fear that Death may find us unprepared. A true man of God was asked on his death bed how he felt, now that he was about to leave this world. His answer was “I can say that I was never more satisfied with God than I am now, and never was I less satisfied with myself.” By these words he carried the earnest of eternal holiness in his heart.
The good Doctor Love of Greenock had a Christian lady in his congregation whose growing sense of sin often brought her into the depth of discouragement. Heaven, she would say, was not for her. Then the Lord took her Home. When her friend heard of the news of her departure, he remarked on the surprise she must have felt when she found herself in heaven! He knew that her constant cry after a clean heart was but the earnest of the glorious liberty of God’s children. “The Lord,” said David, “will perfect that which concerneth me.” A famous preacher once said that God’s child would carry in his bosom a sense of sin to the very last second of his life here; but that a billow of God’s holiness would, in the moment of his departure, bear away for ever every stain and every remnant of corruption in his soul. Death shall then be swallowed up in life, and night in day.
The fear of death was often very real to an elderly Christian lady I once knew. Before she died she had her sister write me what must have been, I believe, her last letter. She wanted to tell me of an experience she had had a few nights before when she felt Death coming toward her on silent feet. As she stood in his presence she quoted the words of a Psalm:
Before me still the Lord I set;
Sith it is so that he
Doth ever stand at my right hand
I shall not moved be.
Because of this my heart is glad
And joy shall be exprest
Ev’n by my glory; and my flesh
In confidence shall rest.
As these words fell from her lips her adversary seemed to retire. All fear left her for ever, for Christ was so near her. Death was given her to conquer. In a few days she was taken Home.
Many of God’s people have been known to have lost all fear just when death knocked at their door. God’s love and presence were then so real to them that their fears were banished. In this land of Beulah they enjoyed the beginnings of an endless day. They were conscious of a final detachment from “things seen.”
Not long ago, in the north of Scotland, there was a young woman to whom the Lord had revealed that her season of illness would coincide with her departure out of this world. Her bands were untied. Her hope of seeing her Lord face to face filled her with deep consolation. But her illness seemed to pass away, and she wondered whether she had mistaken God’s time and promise. One day she stood in the door of her home deep in thought. The raw edge of a cold wind penetrated her lungs and within a few hours she was in the land of her desire – “with Christ which is far better.”
Another young Highland girl, “Cathie” Macrae – whose brief, broken but fragrant life is told in the book My Beloved, – had a visit from a friend some time before she died. In conversation she mentioned that the last fond link between her and everything here below had now been dissolved. Then she quoted the famous stanza:
In peace let me resign my breath
And Thy salvation see,
My sins deserve eternal death,
But Jesus died for me.
When we die our souls immediately pass into glory. “Absent from the body we are present with the Lord.”
Some of God’s people have been able to tell a little of what they saw, and what took possession of their consciousness, in the hour of their departure. Stephen, Doctor Payson, Samuel Rutherford, and many others, have spoken of the bliss of Heaven while they were still breathing here. This, however, is the exception rather than the rule. The glories and the joys which embrace the soul then are so astonishing that the mind, in the enfeeblement of our earthly frame,
cannot go into reverse to relate what it enjoys and sees. It is carried forward by all the amazing wonders which open before it. The soul is then utterly detached from all that is earth-bound. It has, as it were, taken a forward leap into the dimension of eternity. To speak, therefore – even if we could – of what we see and enjoy becomes a spiritual impossibility. We are wholly and eternally embraced. The same holds true of the lost. The fearful terrors which then engulf Christless souls carry them beyond the possibility of any further contact with this world. Many of those have, indeed, spoken of the terrors which held them. Those who speak flippantly about the fact that the dying are often silent, as a proof that death ends all, should take these solemn reflections into consideration. The rare testimonies of the dying with regard to eternal realities are consistent with God’s Word in every case. In the mouth of such witnesses the Truth of God is established.
This is the hour in which we take leave of all our earthly friends. But for God’s people there is no loneliness in death – others take the place of the friends who accompany us so far on this side. “But He is with us still.” He is very near to us then. “This God is our God for ever and ever; He will be our Guide even unto death.” These words, in their original meaning, assure us that He will not only guide us to death, but over death, and into the place where death is unknown.
Are there not others with us then also? Those ministering spirits who keep watch over us in all our ways here, accompanying us to the portals of bliss. These, as we have said before, are the heavenly guardians who surround the Bride of Christ, in all her members till she reaches her Home above. But the best of all is that we are in the arms of our Beloved and our Friend.
Yea though I walk in death’s dark vale
Yet will I fear none ill,
For Thou art with me and Thy rod
And staff me comfort still.
*Extracted from ‘In All Their Afflictions’.