In Philippians 1:20-24, we read Paul’s reflections on which would be better – to remain on the earth and labor in the Kingdom, or to leave this world to be united with the Christ. It is a section in which we come face to face with the realities of both life and death. What do we learn in this passage about Paul’s life and mental outlook? Let us take a look together.
Paul’s Task – After speaking about the possibility of being delivered (from prison), Paul wrote of his “hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20). Whether Paul remained alive physically or died, his duty to the Christ was to magnify Him. In every age of man’s existence, the number one task of humans has been to reverence the Lord and keep His commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13). The Bible’s message for all Christians everywhere is: “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Regardless of what any other person does, or does not do, the major focus of every child of God ought to be to magnify or glorify the Lord in his body. That was Paul’s number one concern. Our physical body is more than a majestic arrangement of cells and organs. It is to be used “for the Lord,” not for self-centered desires and fleshly lusts (1 Corinthians 6:13).
Paul’s Life – “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (1:21). The one word that Paul used to describe his life was “Christ.” Paul was certainly not claiming to be the Anointed One. Rather, his whole being, his very purpose, his daily walk, was so closely bound to the Lord Jesus that he could honestly say that “Christ” was his life. If a person is so devoted to and gives his all to his job, we might say that his job is his life. If one is so dedicated to and gives his entire heart and soul to his family, then we could say that his family is his life. What one word would best describe your life on earth? Again, Paul was so committed to Jesus and His Cause that the Christ – He was the apostle’s life, his whole reason for living. Hear what else Paul said about his earthly life: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Is that what the world and our God see in us? Do they see that our lives are centered in the Christ?
Paul’s Potential Gain – “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (1:21). Paul does not deny the reality of death. Unless we are alive when Jesus comes again, we all will exit this world through physical death (Hebrews 9:27). Let us be clear: death is not a “gain” for every single person. When one dies, that ends any earthly suffering that he might have endured due to disease or other physical infirmities. that ends any earthly suffering that he might have endured due to disease or other physical infirmities. Yet, if he does not die “in the Lord” (Revelation 14:13), then there is no real gain. If he does not die in the Lord, then he must face a never-ending suffering known as “everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46). On the encouraging side, though, is the reality of enjoying eternal life in the world to come (Mark 10:30). That blessing, also described as “the crown of life,” is reserved for those that love the Lord (James 1:12). Or, as we have seen in Philippians 1, the true, spiritual “gain” is for those who magnify the Lord (1:20) and whose life can be called “Christ” (1:21).
Paul’s Labor – “But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor . . .” (1:22). If Paul could have sung “I want to be a worker for the Lord . . . I will work, I will pray, I will labor every day, in the vineyard of the Lord,” would there have been any evidence in his life that he really did work for the Master? Without doubt! Paul was not interested in receiving the praises of men. He simply wanted to be a servant of the Christ (Galatians 1:10). He taught the lost, he edified the saints, he lifted the spirits of the downhearted, he served those in need, and so much more. Those that glorify God are those that bear much fruit. Jesus said so (John 15:8). Where there is no labor, there can be no fruit. You and I will never be apostles. So what?! We can still work for the Lord! Yes, we must work for Him. There was a part of Paul that wanted to remain on the earth and work with and for the church (1:24).
Paul’s Desire – There was a choice, though, that Paul said was far better. What is that? “For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (1:23). From Luke 16:19-31 we learn that after death, one (one’s spirit) goes to a place known as “Hades.” There, those that have been faithful to the Lord will be “comforted” (Luke 16:25) and are said to be “present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). While heaven is our ultimate hope and final place of rest (1 Peter 1:3,4), there is a sense in which departed saints are “with Christ” (1:23) in Hades. My brother or sister, what is your greatest desire in life? If it is anything other than living in such a way that you will be able to depart to be with the Lord, then do not expect your death to be a “gain,” because it will not be.
We will never write inspired letters like Paul did. Hopefully we will never be in bonds as he was when he wrote the Book of Philippians. But, we can emulate his attitude and work ethic. We can imitate his devotion to our Lord. Think on these things.
—Roger D. Campbell
TRUTH is published monthly by the Klang church of Christ in order to help educate, edify, encourage, and equip the saints of God.