To Live Is Christ

This blog has been neglected for some time. I recently logged in and discovered several drafts that I wrote and never published. Why I never published them I do not know. Below is an article I wrote in August of 2021 while I was preaching through the book of Philippians. I lightly edited it and am publishing it now.

Some time ago I preached through the book of Philippians, and it was a tremendous study. We saw the beauty and glory of Christ as he promises to finish the good work He started (1:6); we see him at work, despite our hardships (1:12-18); and we see him as the humble servant highly exalted (2:9-11) the one for whom it is worth suffering the loss of all things that we might know him (3:8).

Philippians contains several verses and passages that are beloved by believers are common to commit to memory, and very well worth the effort! As we worked through chapter one, however, we came across a passage that is very well known but I became convinced often receives misplaced emphasis.

The familiar passage "to live is Christ and to die is gain" is a passage that many Christians love to quote when discussing the possibility of death, and rightfully so! It brings comfort knowing that death is gain for the believer because we will be with Christ! While this is indeed a glorious truth, stressing that side of the coin to the neglect of the other runs the risk of missing Paul's overall point.

At the time of writing, Paul is in prison waiting to hear back regarding his fate. He may be released, or he may be condemned to death. In either case, as far as he is concerned, he says he simply desires that  Christ would be honored in His body, whether by life or by death (vs 20).

Thus, Paul is presenting two possibilities for how Christ might be honored in his body:

1. In life. 

2. In death. 

In either outcome, his goal is to honor Christ. If he must be martyred at the hands of his captors he is determined to do so for the honor and glory of Christ. Furthermore, he's not worried about it nor concerned about his fate because he is convinced that he would be better off for it anyway. He says to die is gain! In fact, he says that he really would prefer death! "My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better" (vs 22). 

I praise God for these verses. Knowing that death is not the end and seeing the confidence of Paul brings courage to our hearts. We see a man who is in prison, who literally does not know if he will live to see another day, calmly facing his fate. He desires to honor Christ in His death, holding fast the faith firm to the end. And when the end comes, it's just the beginning, for then He will behold Christ. His redeemer. Savior. Friend. May we be found as faithful.

If we stop there, however, we miss the overall emphasis Paul had in that text. 

It is my observation from hearing people discuss and apply this text over the years is that our conclusion is, given the choice, we would and should choose to depart and be with Christ. We act like it would be an easy decision. After all, it might be argued, Paul himself says that it is to his gain to die and that to be with Christ for that is far better! In conversations where death and dying come up, we shrug and say "well, to die is gain so..." and we nod and say amen.

But when we have that mindset, we fail to see Paul's genuine dilemma. This is not how Paul presents the issue; it's not an easy choice. It's not like he's hoping to die--he says he doesn't even know what to choose! Though dying is gain and it is his desire is to be with Christ, he still has a desire to be of benefit to the church:

"For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard-pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account" (ESV, emphasis added)

Sure, dying would be great because that means the glories of Christ, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary! While admitting the personal benefit that he would receive from death, his primary focus is not on what he stands to gain if he dies, but rather on the present benefit that he can be to the church if he lives.

Paul goes on to explain how being present would benefit the church. He plans to labor on in three specific things:

"Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again." --Phil 1:25-26

This might be summarized as:

1. He works for their progress in the faith

2. He works for their joy in the faith

3. He works to see them glory in Christ

While Paul acknowledges the possibility of death and the personal benefit that would bring, his primary emphasis is not on himself and his own benefit, but on the opportunities to serve others while he lives. He is willing to set aside his own benefit for the benefit of others (a theme expanded upon with his instructions and examples that come in chapter 2). He wants to benefit them by stirring them to maturity and joy in the faith so that they may glory in Christ and what Christ has done.

How backward we usually get this text! We confidently say "hey, to die is gain" but can we with equal conviction say that "to live is Christ"? I fear we spend so much time discussing the benefit of death and how great it would be to depart and be with Christ that we miss out on the true emphasis and point of the passage: while I am in this body on this earth, I make it my aim to honor Christ in my body by serving others, laboring to see them grow in maturity and joy for the glory of Christ. 

So I'd like to challenge you: Do you have an unbalanced mindset that has you itching to be free of this life as quickly as possible? Are you just biding your time until the day that God takes you home, either through death or rapture? You may be missing out on the tremendous blessing it is to serve others and labor for their progress in the faith. 

Personally, this passage convicts me and causes me to consider how can I further the faith and joy of those around me. May God grant us all the grace to live that we might honor Christ in our bodies as long as we draw breath. Because to live is Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria