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The Advantages of Living and Dying as a Christian
Philippians 1:21 to 26
Have you ever been torn between two choices? Have you opened the door of your fridge and just stared because you couldn’t decide? Or waited in line at the fast food restaurant only to find yourself stymied and tongue-tied with indecision when the gal says, “Can I take your order?” This morning, did you have any difficulty choosing what to wear?
All of us face difficulties between choices all the time. Getting some sleep or staying up till News Year Eve? Drinking Snapple or Sobe, Coke or Pepsi, coffee or tea? Watching a football game or watching an old romantic movie—not. Getting a dog for a pet or . . . getting a bigger dog for a pet. For some it’s visiting relatives or cutting off your fingers, going to the beach or going hunting. Torn between kissing my wife or hugging my wife. Seriously, decisions can be very, very difficult.
Do you remember struggling over what kind of vehicle your children should drive? I wanted a gigantic truck with a foot-wide, three-inch thick steel bumper front and rear, with spare tires tied all the way around the car, like a tug boat. I could go on and on about the difficult choices you and I face us every day.
As you take out the outline or your iPhone and turn to Philippians chapter 1, Paul tells us he too is torn between two choices. But the choice Paul is torn over is one we don’t often think about in our day. Paul is torn up over the choice between to live or to die. Paul is agonizing over remaining here to minister with Christ or going home to Heaven to be with Christ.
Let me paint the canvas of Philippians 1 for you. Paul’s been having a heart-to-heart personal talk with the Philippians. After sharing his great affections for these people, he prays for them, then in verse 12 shares his present situation with them. God’s using his house arrest in Rome to reach the Roman elite for Christ.
And his present circumstances of jail are causing the Christians in Rome to be bold in sharing Christ. Even though some have wrong motives in declaring Christ, Paul rejoices the true Gospel of life transforming grace is being proclaimed. Then Paul shares about his future, starting at the end of verse 18–Paul is rejoicing no matter what, because his purpose is being fulfilled.
Notice what Paul says at the end of verse 20, “Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” I want Christ to be exalted–literally magnified. My purpose in life is a person, and when the One I delight in can be brought into focus for others, the way my glasses bring you all into focus for me, then I rejoice.
Paul says, “It doesn’t matter whether I live or die, if Christ, the One who is my greatest treasure and highest pleasure, is made clear to others through me, then I’ll rejoice.” Both life and death are secondary to the primary goal of exalting Christ and enjoying/glorifying Him. “Come on, Paul–get real. How can you say that?”
Paul will now tell us in verses 21 to 26, raising these questions. Are you afraid to die? Do you struggle over the death of a fellow believer? Are you longing for Heaven and are you being faithful now while you wait? Personally, this passage has changed my understanding of what it means to be faithful now while waiting for Heaven–I hope it changes yours as well.
God’s Word is going to tell every Christian here that only you have incredible privileges in this life, and amazing advantages in death. In fact, Paul considers both life and death as . . .
#1 Two great POSSIBILITIES–Living or Dying Verses 21 to 22a
Read verses 21 to 22a, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me.” Paul says living is Christ, meaning living life is a relationship with, delight of, focus on and faith in Christ. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Christ is life. Even eternal life is not merely living a long time–eternal life is God’s life, which is eternal, in us.
For the Christian, our very life is so much synonymous with Christ Himself, Paul says in Colossians 3:4, “Christ, who is our life”–our purpose is a person. Notice Paul doesn’t say, “For me to live is money and to die is to leave it all behind.” Or, “for me to live is fame and to die is to be quickly forgotten.” Or, “for me to live is power and influence and to die is to lose both.” Or, “for me to live is possessions and to die is to depart with nothing in my hands.”
All those things fall flat, don’t they? When money is our objective, we must live in fear of losing it, which makes us paranoid and suspicious. When fame is our aim, we become competitive lest others upstage us, which makes us envious. When power and influence drive us, we become self-serving and strong-willed which makes us arrogant. When possessions become our god, we become materialistic thinking enough is never enough, which makes us greedy.
All of us battle with those to some degree, but the Christian has a better, higher purpose. Paul doesn’t say, “To live is to serve for Christ, give to Christ, or teach a class for Christ, attend church for Christ or witness for Christ”—no, Paul says, “To live is Christ.” Your purpose at church, at home, at work, at play is to have relationship with, delight of, focus on and faith in Christ. Your purpose is a person.
You’re here to delight in Christ. The conversations you have with His people after the service are for you to enjoy Christ. Your drive home is to delight in Christ. And all you do this day is an opportunity to cherish Christ. Only Christ can satisfy, whether we have or don’t have, whether we are known or unknown, and whether we live or die. And the good news is this–death only sweetens the pie.
When Paul refers to death in verse 21, he’s not talking about the act of dying, but the consequence. He literally says in the Greek, “to have died is gain.” Gain is a banking term meaning to cash in both the principle and interest, telling you you’re getting it all. Paul is saying death is the means to have more of Christ than when we were living–in fact, getting all of Him.
Think about it–death will be a distinct gain because it will be the gateway to clearer knowledge of Christ, more wholehearted service to Christ, more exuberant joy in Christ, and more rapturous adoration of Christ. Death is gain, because it brings more of Christ to Paul and more of Paul to Christ.
Too many Christians have the idea that death is a gain, only over the worst of life–as if when a Christian is suffering or battling a terminal disease or being tortured for Christ, that death is a gain because it means being released from the difficulties of this life. But that is not what Paul says here. Death for the Christian is not merely an escape from the worst of life, but death for the Christian is portrayed as an improvement on the best of life.
Don’t forget, Paul is suffering–he’s been under arrest and in various confinements for almost five years. But he doesn’t long for death to escape his difficult situation. No, his life is full. Christ is being magnified. Christ is his treasure and the delight in life. So death is merely a means of delighting in Christ even more.
Then why live at all, Paul? He introduces his reason for living at the beginning of verse 22, “But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me.” Did you get it, Christian? Paul considered living in this life synonymous with fruitful labor for Christ. “To live on in the flesh” is another way of saying, “as I remain here on earth in this body, it means spiritual work for me.” Paul calls it “fruitful labor”.
You all know what fruit is–fruit is Christ through you. It’s anything done in the power of the Spirit for the glory of God. It is the person of Christ in words, actions, or attitudes through your life to affect other people for the glory of God. And the word “labor” is where we get the word energy. Paul says, “if I am not executed, if I continue to live, then all my energy will be directed toward magnifying Christ in such a way God’s enemies will come to Christ and God’s friends will become more like Christ.” Is that your heart?
So Paul has two great opportunities—dying would’ve ushered Paul into the presence of His Lord, yet living provided more opportunities to magnify Christ so others could be saved or strengthened to be like Christ. Which leads Paul to . . .
#2 The struggle to decide which is BETTER–Living or Dying Verses 22b to 23a
“And I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions.” Verse 22 is difficult to interpret with exactness since the words Paul uses are a little obscure. Paul is saying, “I don’t experientially know which way I myself will choose.” Or he is saying, “I am not telling which way I myself shall choose.”
But either way, Paul is sharing with us his struggle over the preference to be with Christ through death or to live on for Christ in life. And Paul couldn’t decide what to choose. He knew the decision was totally in the Lord’s hands–but given the choice, Paul couldn’t chose either Heaven or Earth, death or life.
Each of you here has an appointment–read it out loud with me from Hebrews 9:27. “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” We are all going to die exactly when God wants us to. But Paul says, “If given the choice, I don’t know which to pick–Earth or Heaven, or here or there.” Here it’s a temporary residence, there it’s a permanent abode. Here it’s suffering mixed with joy, there it’s joy unmixed with suffering. Here it’s being absent from the Lord, there it’s being at home with the Lord. Here it’s the fight, there it’s the feast. It doesn’t sound like it is much of a tension, but the struggle is so intense, Paul says in verse 23 he is hemmed in on both sides, feeling both the pressure to live on and the pressure to go be with Christ.
In one of my old college ministries, at times I was attacked and given what I call “the college hug”. About eight guys would suddenly surround me, lock arms, then give me a hug bordering on pain. It was the college squeeze play. This is how Paul feels about life or death–both alternatives are pressuring him, both options hemming him in. We’d say today, “I am between a rock and a hard place.”
Do I live to proclaim Christ or die to praise Christ? Do I live to enjoy much of Christ or die to enjoy all of Christ? Can you identify with Paul’s struggle at all? You and I ought to feel the strain of desiring to be with Christ, yet also longing to minister for Christ. If the Lord said to me, “Chris, you have five minutes to choose between being in Heaven or Earth,” that’d be tough. I would want to stay for you, for preaching the Word and training men, for my family and my grandsons—and importantly, if I died first my wife will kill me.
For Paul, nothing really mattered except glorifying Christ. When faced with whether to live or die, Paul would say, “I’d be thrilled to magnify Christ in Heaven or on Earth–given the choice I can’t choose.” Because glorifying Christ was his motivation, the place where he glorified Christ was not the issue. That ought to be true for every believer. But like any godly man with two options in front of him, Paul now looks at . . .
#3 The ADVANTAGES of both–Living and Dying Verses 23b to 24
Notice how Paul explains the life and death options facing him as he is under arrest in Rome. Read verse 23b and 24, “Having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.”
So what do you mean you’re hard pressed between living and dying, Paul? How bad is the struggle really? He clarifies his struggle between a healthy desire for death and life by describing the advantages of both paths.
First The advantage of DYING as a Christian
Read verse 23, “Having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better.” Most people are in terror over the idea of death, but not Paul. He views death as an incredible blessing. Death is so much better, Paul actually describes his preference of death over life in four ways.
1 Death is DESIRABLE: having the desire
When Paul says “having the desire” in verse 23, he uses the same word translated elsewhere in the New Testament for “lust”. It’s used in a negative and positive sense in the Bible, and here Paul has a positive passionate desire to depart. Let God’s Word hit you here. Paul in a positive way is lustful about dying. For the Christian, death is desirable.
Remember when you were so tired, you had a passionate desire for sleep? Little kids long for bed. They crave rest, even cry for it. Don’t you secretly wish sometimes, as an adult, you could have a graham cracker, lay down with your blankey and take a nap like you used to? Me too. Paul longs for the doorway of death like a child craves for sleep when exhausted. But why does Paul passionately desire death?
2 Death is a PROMOTION: to depart
The word “depart” paints a vivid picture to the reader of the first century. When we read the word “depart” we think of leaving–but when the Philippians read the word depart they’d think of four truths. How depart was used in Philippi . . .
* Unleashing an animal from a cart
Paul sees death as an unleashing from labor. It is a beautiful picture of rest from carrying a great burden and from experiencing toil. The toil of this life has been burdensome and difficult and the Word of God declares death is the release of that weight. When they read the word depart, they’d also think of . . .
* Loosening the bonds of a prisoner
Death for Paul was a liberation. Not only would he lose the physical pain which he bore so frequently in Roman prisons, but now he’d lose his fallenness and the sin which dwelt in him. He’d exchange the confines of a Roman prison for the glorious liberty of the courts of Heaven. He’d exchange the bondage of his own sin for the glorious liberty of perfect righteousness.
Not only is he free from the penalty of sin and the power of sin, but now because of his faith in Christ, he is completely free from the presence of sin–forever. Wow–free from all sin forever.
* The striking of a tent
Paul was a tentmaker–he made tents and he also knew how to use them. Paul was a nomad of sorts, travelling almost endlessly during his thirty years of ministry. He knew what it was like to strike camp again, to have to take his tent down. And death to Paul is taking his tent down–only this time it would never have to go up again.
Paul’s saying in death, “I’m taking my tent down for the last time. I’m embarking on my greatest journey, and I’ll never need a place to rest from weariness again. I’ll never need to be comforted again, for this road will take me to the house of God. And when I am with Him, I will have perfect rest, total comfort, no more striving, no more transitory journeys, all my wanderings have come to an end.” Finally, to depart would remind the first century reader of . . .
* A ship leaving a harbor
The picture here is the departure of a ship when it’s loosed from the ropes that hold it to the dock, its sails are unfurled to be filled with wind in order to travel to its destination. Paul had many times sailed the Mediterranean and many times felt the ship set free from the dock. To call death a departure, Paul is saying to depart he’d find himself in the harbor called Heaven.
For every genuine Christian here this morning, death is laying down the burden in order to rest, death is laying aside the shackles in order to be free, death is striking camp in order to set up residence in a heavenly place. And death is casting off the ropes of this world and setting sail to end up in the presence of God.
Plus, to Paul death is not merely escaping bodily existence–for in death, Paul was ultimately looking for a new resurrected and glorified body. First Corinthians 15:44 tells us this body now will not be our forever body. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. We’re looking not for release from the burden of a body, but release from all the effects and presence of sin. So death is desirable and a promotion–what else?
3 Death is the door to be with Christ: and be with Christ
Read aloud that phrase in verse 23, “and be with Christ.” I knew it, you can’t help but smile, can you? Paul says death is the door that leads from much of Christ to more of Christ, from living by faith in Christ to living by sight of Christ. Make no mistake, Christian–the moment your spirit leaves your body in death, it goes directly into the Lord’s presence to enjoy personal, intimate, spirit to spirit communion with Christ in total oneness forever.
For the Christian, death is such a comfort–the Bible often calls death “sleep”. Like when the first church martyr, Stephen, was stoned to death. Stephen said in Acts 7:59 and 60, “’Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ 60 And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ And having said this, he fell asleep.”
The biblical writers often described death as falling asleep, in light of the resurrection, which is when the body rises again. But don’t buy into that errant teaching that says your soul sleeps until the return of Christ. The Bible declares in 2 Corinthians 5:8, “to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.”
When we’re absent from the body, which sleeps until the resurrection, our spirit is at home with the Lord. There’s not a time in the life of the believer when he or she will ever be out of the conscious presence of Jesus Christ. That’s why verse 23 of Philippians 1 says an advantage of death is to depart and be with Christ!
The greatest joy of a Christian is Christ, and in Heaven we will enjoy complete and total immersion–one with Christ in perfect love, expressible joy and complete peace forever. This is why Paul says in verse 23 . . .
4 Death is superior to living: for that is very much better
How can you say that Paul? How can you say departing and being with Christ is superior to living? Silly Christian, you forget–Paul’s been there and back. Speaking of himself, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:2, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago–whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows–such a man was caught up to the third heaven.” The third heaven is the place where God specially dwells and Paul is the one who’s been there–he knows what he is talking about.
At the end of verse 23 Paul says death, which leads to being with Christ, is very much better. More than “better”, and more than “much better”, being with Christ so surpasses anything and everything in this life it is very much better—the strongest superlative in Greek. Death is the door to the best there is.
Death is always a separation–even for the Christian. For the unbeliever, death is the separation of spirit and body, and later from God in torment forever. For the Christian, death is the separation of the spirit from their body temporarily and from earthly Christian friends and family temporarily–but unsaved family forever.
There is one aspect where death is no separation at all for those who trust in Christ–which is for the believer, there’s never a time when you’re separate from Christ. Paul’s tension was not a choice between Christ and not Christ, but between Christ much and Christ more, Christ by faith and Christ by sight.
Now if Paul stopped with verse 23, if I were one of the Philippians, I’d be encouraged about my position in Christ–but sad, since it sounds like Paul’s going to be departing for Heaven. So Paul comments about the other side of his struggle, and that’d be . . .
Second The advantage of LIVING as a Christian
Look at verse 24, “yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.” To remain on in the flesh has the idea of to cling to this present life in spite of all its inconveniences. Again, flesh in this context is not sinful, but merely a reference to his physical body–his flesh. So Paul says the advantage of living on in this body is ministry to others–specifically ministry to his beloved Philippians. Paul says it’s more necessary, literally more pressing–it’s imperative.
What is your purpose in life? A person. Another way of saying that is to say, “My purpose is to glorify God.” Where can you glorify God better, Heaven or Earth? Heaven, where you can glorify God perfectly without sin. But if your purpose is to glorify God and you can do it better in Heaven than Earth, why does God leave you here?
To do here what you can’t do in Heaven–to bring God glory by leading others to Christ or help others become like Christ. There is a pressing urgency in this life because eternal souls can’t get saved after death, only before. Therefore, the advantage to living is ministry to others–those who need Christ and those who are Christ’s. This is why Paul models a heart that’s . . .
#4 Deciding to give up personal DESIRE and to live for others Verses 25 to 26
“And convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith.” Paul’s convinced. He’s literally turned this matter over and over in his mind until he’s persuaded–he’s settled on the fact the Philippians need him more than he needs to go to Heaven. Paul’s not saying he had an active choice in the matter of his death–yet Paul does believe this crucial truth. The servant of the Lord is immortal until his work is done.
So Paul models for the Philippians and for us the importance of dying to self. Paul lays aside even legitimate desires in order to minister to others. This is crucial. In the coming verses, Paul is about to command the need for true unity. But before he does, he first models what true unity requires of us. What does it take for true unity to exist in a church? The willingness for the members of a church to die to self–to put aside our wants, even our legitimate needs, in order to minister to the needs of others to show Christ’s love.
Paul’s telling us, if the Lord continues to keep us in this life, then He intends for our lives to be committed to minister to others. Paul believes he’ll remain and come alongside the Philippians in the future for three purposes. Notice verse 25.
First To live for the GROWTH of others
Notice at the end of verse 25, “for your progress.” Progress literally means to cut a trail through the jungle, or to blaze a trail for the advance of an army. Paul will live in order to help others progress in the Lord. Parents, shepherds, disciplers–the reason you are alive, why you are here, is to cut a trail in the jungle of this world in order to help your fellow Christians grow to be like Christ.
Second To live so others experience JOY in Christ
At the end of verse 25, “for your progress and joy in the faith.” Again, you’re left here to bring people to a dependent, joyous intimacy with Christ. How does faith grow? Romans 10:17, ”So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” As you’re dying to self and ministering to others by teaching and living the Word of God, the Bible is going to grow the faith of others. And as their dependent faith grows in Christ, it’ll bring them great joy in Christ.
The secret of joy? J-O-Y–Jesus comes first, others, second, and yourself third. That’s the secret of J-O-Y. I’m convinced the reason there’s so much unhappiness in our culture, with so many discouraged people, is because in our society there’s a total preoccupation with self. What’s best for me? What will make me happy? What will give me pleasure? The “ME” generation.
The only way you’ll experience joy and give joy to others is to live Jesus first, others second, and you third. I don’t know how successful I have been in bringing joy to the people I minister to, but I’m more committed to that than ever. We’re left here to bring joy to one another. To do that, like Paul we’ll give up our legitimate rights and sacrifice our needs in order to minister to others. And Paul will remain in order . . .
Third To live for others to BOAST about Christ
Read verse 26, even though it’s easy to misunderstand—“so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus, through my coming to you again.” The clearer translation in the KJV says, “That your rejoicing may be more abundant in Jesus Christ for me, by my coming to you again.” The key is, the boasting is not in Paul, but in Christ.
As verses 25 and 26 came true, the Philippians would not only shout, “It’s so great to have you back with us Paul,” but they’d also praise Christ for the mercies He bestowed upon Paul and how Christ answered their prayers to release Paul from jail. Their proud confidence or boasting is increasing for Christ on account of what Christ did for Paul in releasing him.
The entire point of verses 25 and 26 is Paul giving up his personal desires and legitimate rights, in order to magnify Christ through his life so the lost will come to Christ and the saved will boast in Christ. Do you get it? Going to Heaven now is selfish for Paul. It’s the more wonderful option, but not the selfless one.
The selfless choice, the Christ-like choice, is to stay to minister and produce the fruit of changed lives for the glory of Christ while he has the opportunity. Is that your heart too?
A The believer’s longing for HEAVEN is to be balanced with faithful ministry now
Paul isn’t suicidal nor depressed. His focus isn’t on himself. Paul merely longs for all of Christ now, but recognizes that the selfless thing to do is to remain and minister. Eternity is his focus, death is merely the doorway, and Paul knows he’ll get there at God’s perfect time. But Paul balances his longing for Heaven by seeking to magnify Christ through faithful ministry.
Paul never put off ministry to others. If I’m not going to Heaven, then I will serve others–how about you? Paul shows us his willingness to give up his own desires in order to serve others–the very attitude required of every Christian for a church body to remain spiritually healthy.
Faithful ministry is why we’re still alive. That’s why Paul describes living as fruitful labor, more necessary to produce progress, joy and boasting about Christ. This life is the only opportunity we’ll have to tell a lost person how Christ can save them. There’ll be no lost people in Heaven to witness to–this is it. Let’s make the most of our lives the way God intended it. Serve others in ministry. Seek to share Christ with the lost–this is why we’re still here.
B Dying for the Christian is great GAIN
These verses describe dying for the Christian as gain, departing, being with Christ and very much better. Why is dying such a great thing for Christians?
1 At the moment of death, your spirit will be made perfect
There’ll be no more sin in us. We’ll be done with the inner war and the heart-rending disappointments of offending the Lord who loves us and died for us.
2 At the moment of death, your PAIN is over
Revelation 21:1 and 4, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth 4 and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain…”
3 At the moment of death, we’re given profound REST in our souls
There’ll be a serenity under the care of God surpassing anything you’ve ever known on Earth. Your best day on Earth is not good enough to rank in Heaven.
4 At the moment of death, you’ll experience a deep “at HOMENESS”
The entire human race is homesick for God without knowing it. When we go home to Christ, there’ll be a contentment beyond any sense of security or peace we’ve ever known. Second Corinthians 5:8, “to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.”
5 At the moment of death, you’ll be with CHRIST
Christ is more wonderful than any person on Earth. He is wiser, stronger, and kinder than anyone you enjoy spending time with. He knows exactly what to do and what to say at every moment. He overflows with love and with infinite insight, wisdom and all power. This is why Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
C A non-Christian life is EMPTY, and their death horrid
For those without Christ, living is not a gain but a loss, filled with fear, the certainty of coming judgment, and separation from God now and forever in torment. Death is the unbeliever’s enemy. Films romanticize death and psychology softens death. But no one can remove death’s certainty nor its terror when it comes knocking at your door, or when death visits a friend or family member.
No wonder those without Christ are grabbing for everything they can. For the non-Christian, this is the only Heaven they will ever know. For the Christian, this is the only Hell they will ever know. Only Christ can remove the sting of death. Make a decision, a choice. If God is working in your heart, turn to and depend on Christ. Submit to Christ and death becomes a door to eternal bliss. Reject Christ and death becomes a door to eternal torment. Cry out for mercy–Christ is your only hope. Let’s pray.