This blog will be a study of the remarkable passage in Philippians 1:21-26 in which Paul makes his astonishing statement of his commitment to Christ. Read these verses as preparation for this study.
It is one thing to make a claim of commitment to an ideal or an objective, but it is another thing to evidence that commitment in word and deed, especially as time goes on and as the initial excitement that sparked the commitment fades and tarnishes. Sadly, many marriages that began with a vow of lifelong commitment languish or even die when the initial excitement gradually morphs into monotonous work and those vows of commitment prove hollow.
In light of this human tendency, what do we see in Paul regarding his commitment to Jesus Christ? For as he writes the epistle to the Philippians, Paul is now twenty or twenty-five years older than he was as a fire-breathing Pharisee suddenly struck down in the dust of the Damascus road. What has become of his initial zeal for Christ and his powerful boldness? Have the years quenched the fire? Has the effort required dulled the edge of the commitment? It is evident that more than two decades after meeting the risen Lord Jesus Christ, Paul’s commitment to his Savior has only intensified and his focus on the goal has radically sharpened. In the years since the scales fell from his eyes and he professed his faith by baptism, Paul has gradually pared away the excess baggage and the hindrances to service (Hebrews 12:1) to the point where he can state his case: “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Paul, however, does not merely voice these astonishing words, but he manifests the reality of his declaration in his every action and word and deed. Having been forgiven of his sins and having been guaranteed an eternity with the Lord Jesus, he can give himself with focused abandon to his service to Christ. Until the Lord releases him from this life, Paul will pour himself out in fruitful labor (1:22). So then, for the Apostle, existence was fairly simple: Spend all of your earthly energies and resources in joyful proclamation of the gospel and in service to Christ’s church, awaiting the moment when joyful service ends and glorious eternity with Christ begins.
This is the ideal for all disciples of Christ: a life of faithful obedience and fruitful labor poured out in service of Christ, and then an eternity in heaven with our King.
And the next verses of this passage (Philippians 1:22-26) confirm the reality of Paul’s manifesto. The significance of his continued physical life is that physical life gives him more time for “fruitful labor (1:22).” While many people want more time “in the flesh” to indulge in their earthly pleasures, and others long to live because they are terrified to die, Paul equates more heartbeats with more fruitful labor. As long as the Lord gives him breath, he will labor for the Kingdom. In other words, “to live is Christ.”
Verses 1:22b-1:23a allude to a choice that Paul needs to make, but it is not clear from the passage what that specific choice is. What is clear is that one option could result in his death and the other option would result in his ongoing life, and Paul is “hard pressed” by the difficulty of this choice. Why is Paul hard pressed? The choice is difficult because personally, Paul would prefer to die and thus to be with Christ, rather than to continue living and laboring and striving against sin and suffering persecution. Paul prefers his reward (2 Timothy 4:8) to the demands of his assigned mission (2 Cor. 11:23-29). He desires to be home with Christ. (“. . . to die is gain.”) Despite his personal desire, Paul is convinced that he will remain and continue with (the Philippians) for their progress and joy in the faith (1:25).” We see, then, that Paul makes life decisions based on which choice has the greatest impact for the gospel, and not based on his personal preference or benefit. Or, again, “to live is Christ.”
There are several applications of this powerful text. First, there is the need for the disciple of Jesus Christ to clearly and irrevocably make a commitment to Him as unrivaled Lord. The Scriptures are crystal clear that anything less than an absolute bowing of the knee to the Lord is useless. The Third Commandment states, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain (Deut. 5:11).” Make sure that your surrender to the Lord is complete.
Second, we as disciples need to get a vise grip on the truth that “to die is gain.” It has been well-said that a person is only able to fully live when they are ready to die. The gospel gives us the promise that we are guaranteed heaven because of the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and through our faith in Him. Christ has risen victorious and death has lost its sting. Therefore, the believer can live without fear of the grave (1 Corinthians 15:55). No one can snatch us out of His hand (John 10:27-30).
Third, we should strive to live such that our commitment to Jesus Christ is evident. For the apostle Paul, “to live is Christ,” and his entire existence was submitted to his passion for the Lord. As we grow in sanctification and in maturity in Christ, our passion for Jesus should steadily grow as well, and that passion should more and more manifest itself in our lives. John the Baptist said about Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease (John 3:30).” This should also be true of us.
SDG rmb 5/26/2020