For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; (Philippians 1:21-23)
[This is part 3 of the series Standing Firm on Philippians 1:21-30]
Paul told the Philippian Christians that “I desire to depart to be with Christ.” This is surprising language coming from Paul, who generally has no interest in “dropping his body” or escaping from this world. Paul’s standard schema involves Christ’s appearing at the end of the age, resurrection from the dead and the transformation of creation. The same schema is present in Philippians. See, for example, Philippians 1:6 and Philippians 3:21.
If you want to know Paul’s theology of life after death, this is not the place to look. This is Paul being brave in front of the Philippians.
Paul wrote Philippians in a state of confinement. In the ancient world, prison is where one waited for trial, not where one served a sentence after being found guilty. Paul’s imprisonment meant that he would someday face trial for charges that could result in his death.
In at least in once sense, “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21) because Paul has the opportunity to exalt Christ (Philippians 1:20) in death as he does in life. His manner of death will show the world what he truly believes. Paul expects and hopes that he won’t be ashamed of his actions in this time of trial., and he wants the Philippians to have that same joyful confidence (Philippians 1:20).
Paul, in fact, is surprisingly joyful for a person in prison facing the possibility of his own violent demise. He uses the words “joy” and “rejoice” at least 16 times in the space of 4 chapters.
The association of joy, confidence and imprisonment should have been a familiar story to the Philippians. At least as Luke tells the story, Paul had once been imprisoned in Philippi. Paul’s hymn singing had caught the jailor’s attention. Then, when a nighttime earthquake offered Paul the chance to escape and the jailor became afraid for his own life, Paul said, “We’re all right here.” The jailor and his family became Christians that night (Acts 16:25-33).
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul rejoices that that his bad situation is once again resulting in good effects. People hearing about Jesus. Christians are becoming bolder. If Paul is released (delivered) from imprisonment, that will be good – he can continue to spread the gospel and strengthen the church. If the imprisonment ends in Paul’s death, his death can show the world his faith in Christ.
To my ears, all of this sounds like a practical application of Romans 8:28:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Paul has the opportunity to put his money where his mouth is. He had said that God worked for good in all circumstances. That’s easy to say when things are going well. It’s much harder to say from a prison in the shadow of a gallows.
In the letter to the Romans, Paul followed his assertion that God was working in every situation for the good of his people with the belief that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That’s what I hear Paul saying in this part of the letter. He’s not giving the Philippians a theory about how life after death; he’s expressing his confidence that not even death can separate him from God’s love in Christ. Christ is so real to him that the resurrection from the dead is not a distant hope for “someday” but a reality that death cannot rob from him for one minute.
To live is Christ, to die is gain, to live in the flesh means fruitful work, to depart means to be with Christ as well. All of this gives Paul courage in the face of his adversaries, and he wants it to give the Philippians courage as well.
[As a little aside, I might note that contemporary physics understands time to be a component of the created universe, no less than space, matter or energy. God “exists” outside of time and space. I exist in this world on a timeline. To the left is the past which cannot be changed; to the right is the future which does yet exist. I am present at only point on that line. But God, who lives apart from his creation, is immediately present to all of them at once. If that is true, then “to be with Christ” immediately upon one’s death may be linguistically distinct from “waiting for the resurrection,” but they are not necessarily contradictory ideas. One expresses the truth in a space-time perspective; the other in God’s eternal perspective. Of course, Paul wouldn’t have been thinking along these lines.]