A Study of Philippians 1:21
Introduction: Last week we plunged into Philippians 1:21—as for me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. This is a verse of Scripture that many have taken as both their life verse and their life motto. It was written by the apostle Paul when he wasn’t certain if he would be set free or executed in his upcoming legal hearing in Rome. The important thing, he said, is not whether I live or die, but that Christ is exalted whatever happens.
Here is what he wrote:
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 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; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.
The motto in verse 21 summarized Paul’s philosophy and all of his thoughts and actions. It summarized all of his aspirations and ambitions.
Today let’s look at those two options.
1. To Live is Christ
First, Paul said,
“To live is Christ.”
What did he mean by that? He explained this statement over in chapter 3, when he wrote:
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ (verses 7-8).
Here and now, the risen Christ, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, wants to be your Lord and your life, your Creator and your Sustainer, your first thought upon awakening and your last thought before retiring.
He should be the captivator of every motive and the motivator of every deed.
He is a Friend closer than a brother, richer than a trillionaire, wiser than a scholar, greater than a ruler. He came to give us life and to give it more abundantly. Paul said, “I want to know Him! He is my life!”
Like a wheel spinning around an axis, our lives must rotate around Him.
Second Corinthians 5:15 says,
And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again.
It seems from this overall paragraph Paul was optimistic about his potential release. I think the charges were probably dropped. After all, they were nothing but accusations made by some Jewish leaders five years earlier back in Jerusalem.
So living for Christ, to him, meant fruitful labor and serving the church for their progress and joy in the faith. From every early church tradition we have, this is exactly what happened. But what about you?
Can you say: For to me, to live is Christ? Nothing else even comes close.
Can you say: Take the world, but give me Jesus?
Can you say: Jesus, the name that charms my fears, that bids my sorrows cease; ‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears, ‘tis life and health and peace.
2. To Die is Gain
The rest of the verse says,
“…and to die is gain.”
Recently a friend of mine told me about her brother’s death. He had been battling cancer without knowing he also had serious heart problems. He went into a rapid decline and passed away. But untold comfort came to the family from what he said shortly before he died. He looked up from his bed and suddenly said: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
What does Paul mean by this? Well, he told us. Verse 23 said:
I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.
He wanted to say, “Goodbye, crazy world, with all your pain and problems. Goodbye, stress and strain. Goodbye, worry and weariness. Hello Heaven! Hello, all my friends who have preceded me! Hello, Jesus!
I want you to notice four terms here, which tell us a great deal about the biblical view of Christian death.
- First, the word gain in verse 21: “To die is gain”—kerdos. This word is sometimes used in the sense of financial gain. A man invests a thousand dollars, and within a couple of years he has made a hundred thousand on his investment. He invests that hundred thousand, he makes a million. This word means to make a large profit. When we die, we come into an eternal life of divine dividends. Remember, Paul had been caught up to heaven as he explained in 2 Corinthians 12, and so he had gotten a glimpse of what was awaiting him. It was a heavenly inheritance beyond description.
- Second, the word depart in verse 23: “I desire to depart.” This was a nautical term. The Greeks used it to indicate raising the anchor and sailing from the harbor. Katrina and I took a cruise once. We flew to San Juan, showed up at the port, and I rolled her onto the ship. We had a wonderful room, and we heard the loud whistle blow, felt the ship move, and we sat on the balcony and watched San Juan disappear as we traveled into the open sea, bound for some island. This is the way Paul looked at death.
- Third, notice the phrase be with Christ. He wanted to depart and be with Christ. While we serve on earth, Christ lives within and around us by His Holy Spirit, but He Himself resides in Heaven. The moment we depart for Heaven, we are transported into the very presence of Jesus Himself, and we will see Him face to face, talk with Him person to person, enjoy Him friend to friend, worship Him servant to Master. He told the Corinthians that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord.
- Fourth, there is the phrase far better—”I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.” It isn’t just better. It is better by far. Suppose you came to see me in the hospital where I was in constant pain and had a temperature of 104. You would say, “How are you?” I would say, “I am languishing.” A month later, you call and ask how I am. I say, “I’m better. I’m at home. My fever and pain are gone, and I’m regaining my strength.” A month later you call and ask how I am. I say, “My family and I are driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in California and looking for a place to have supper while we watch the sunset. I am healed. I am well. I am vacationing. I am far better.” That’s the language Paul was using. There is no superlative superlative enough to describe that!
And that’s why we can adopt as our motto: To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain!
This week, I spoke to a very dear woman named Betty Bird. She and her husband Cecil had served the Lord in Africa for many years until the night of January 20, 2000. They had their teenagers living with them plus a visiting intern. After a game of monopoly, they headed toward their beds. It seemed like just another ordinary night in Mozambique. Suddenly their son, Daniel, burst into the bedroom saying, “Mom, mom, did you hear those gunshots?” Four bandits with AK-47s came toward the house, entered, and then shot Cecil in the chest, killing him, before forcing Daniel to escort them from the area. Thankfully they let Daniel live.
Betty recalled that in the days to come this verse held fresh meaning to her. She told me, “I claimed Philippians 1:21: ‘For to me to live is Christ; to die is gain.’ The death part was for my husband; I knew he had gained. While he was on earth, he very much said, ‘To live is Christ.’ But the Lord took him and that was his gain. The living part was now for me; and I was determined to make life worth living. Christ was and is my motivation. God would not let me give up.”
As I researched her story a bit more, I found a transcript of a podcast that featured her testimony. I learned Betty feels she is not the same person she was before her husband died. She’s stronger. Braver. And even more joyful.
“I think I am more outspoken. I have a little bit more courage,” Betty reflected. “I don’t even know how to say this, in some ways I have more joy. I’ve always been a happy person and felt the peace and joy of Jesus in my life, but I just feel my joy growing and growing and growing even in these 17 years since Cecil’s death.”
One day while speaking at a convention in Atlanta, Betty was praying about her grief. She had her Bible open and noticed the verse in Nehemiah that said, “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” But then she noticed something she hadn’t seen before.
“Just before it says, ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength’, it says, ‘Do not grieve.’ I had never thought about that before. From that day forth I thought, ‘Okay, there is a time to grieve, but now is the time for grieving to be ended and let the joy of the Lord be my strength.’ He just keeps increasing it.”
Let’s have a relationship with Christ like that! One so meaningful and real that we can say with all our hearts:
If I live, well, praise the Lord.
If I die, well, praise the Lord.
If I live or die, my only cry will be:
“Jesus in me, praise the Lord!”