The Lord's Day Morning
June 3, 2007
“Life = Christ, Death = Gain”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Philippians , as we continue making our way through this great letter of the Apostle Paul. Now our passage today is Philippians 1:21, a passage that no doubt many of you have memorized and used as a life verse; but before we get to that passage I'd like you to allow your eyes to scan verses 12-20 to remind us what brought Paul to make this statement in Philippians 1:21 in the first place.
In Philippians 1:12-20, Paul is giving a missionary report, but it's an unusual missionary report in that it has a pastoral purpose of ministering to the Philippians as they worry about the Apostle Paul. Paul is in prison. He's awaiting sentencing, and that sentence may be death or it may be something else.
The Philippians are deeply concerned about the Apostle Paul. He is “their man.” They have invested themselves financially and personally in Paul's ministry. They rightly see him as the most significant evangelist, missionary, church planter, in the early church anywhere in the world. It deeply concerns them that he is in prison. They are thinking to themselves, ‘Lord, of all the people that You would allow to be in prison, why Paul? He is the A-Team! He is the best player we have! Why in the world would You sideline him, and why would there be a possibility that he would be taken from us through execution at the hands of an unjust, over-powerful Roman Empire?’
Now it's in answering that question that Paul gives his missionary report, and his answer to them is based upon three factors that color his outlook about everything: the providence of God; the progress of the gospel; and, the purpose of his life.
If you look at verses 12-14, you’ll see that he puts his present difficult circumstances in the larger context of the building of the kingdom. He says, ‘You know, it may look like my circumstances are bad, but God has used my circumstances for the progress of the gospel.’ And so he sees his difficulties in light of the bigger picture of the kingdom of God, and the providence of God using his circumstances for the advance of the kingdom of God.
Secondly, if you look at verses 15-18, in what is almost an aside, he helps the Philippians know how they are supposed to think about the fact that he's in prison, and there are other people out there sharing the gospel where he would be sharing the gospel. And there are two different groups. One of them is faithfully trying to step into Paul's place with this kind of rationale: ‘Well, Lord, You put Paul is prison. And we're not much, but we're going to do our best to spread the gospel and to lift up the name of Christ. We know that we've got to step up to the plate since Paul is in prison.’ But another group is saying, ‘You know, we would like nothing more than to discourage the Apostle Paul by having him look through the prison bars and see us out preaching the gospel, winning converts and gaining more fame and proclaim than he.’
And so the Apostle Paul in verses 15-18, says, ‘Philippians, I know I'm your guy. I'm your missionary. You support me, you love me, you care about me, you pray for me. And on the one hand, it kind of hurts your feelings that there are other people out there sharing the gospel and winning men and women and boys and girls to Christ, and it definitely hurts you that some of the people that are out there are doing this because they think that by winning converts and preaching the gospel that it's somehow going to discourage me. So here's how I want you to think about it. I want you to think about it this way: As long as Christ is truly preached, as long as my gospel, the biblical gospel–the gospel that God has revealed in His Son Jesus Christ and set down in the teaching of the apostles and the prophets–as long as Christ is preached, even if it is out of envy of me, it does not discourage me. In fact, I say, praise God! As long as people are truly being won to Christ, I don't care who does it. And I want you to think about it that way, as well,’ he says to the Philippians.
And then, thirdly, notice there his concern for the progress of the gospel, the providence of God. Now if you look at verses 19-20, he tells you the purpose of his life: ‘My hope,’ he says, is that Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.’ Paul, in other words, is saying ‘The reason I am able to have hope and be confident, even though I am in prison awaiting sentencing, is because my meaning, my purpose in life is to exalt Christ in my body, whether it means me living or dying.’ Now it is this that ramps him into the statement that we find in Philippians 1:21, and that passage is virtually a life motto for the Apostle Paul.
Now, some of you have memorized this verse (and even if you haven't memorized this verse, it will be very easy for you to have memorized this verse by the time the sermon is over today), and so there is a danger lurking that we will overlook something of the riches and the glory of this tiny little verse, so let's pray and ask God to help us as we hear it.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word, and in this little verse are truths of such great power that they are capable of completely changing the lives of those who embrace them and are embraced by them. So help us, Lord, to hear them as well as we can, and that despite their familiarity that we would carefully attend them and understand them, and then, in some measure, live them. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear God's word:
“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
I. To live is Christ.
Paul, in his state of imprisonment, has been thinking about his life and about death–his death. And, thank God, the Lord had him write down his profound, inspired reflection upon the meaning of his life and the benefit of death. If you look at verses 21-24, you can see what's going on in Paul's heart.
Look at verse 21, the first half: “For to me, to live…” He's thinking about life.
The second half: “…To die is gain.” He's thinking about death.
Then look at verse 22: “But if I am to live on in the flesh…” He's back to life again.
Now look at verse 23: “But I'm hard pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart…” He's back to death.
Now verse 24: “…Yet to remain on in the flesh…” He's back to life.
Life — death…life — death — life. You see the struggle that's going on in the Apostle Paul as he thinks about his life and his death: ‘Lord, is it better for me to live and minister for many years to come, or is it better to die?’ And as he's thought it through, Paul's come to this conclusion: ‘Christ is going to be glorified whether I live or die. I am not going to be put to shame, whether I live or I die. I'm going to be closer to Christ when I die, so no matter what the verdict is against me, whether I am released and I can go preach the gospel and see men and women, and boys and girls coming to saving faith in Jesus Christ from every tribe, and tongue, and people and nation, or whether I die and go immediately into the presence of my Savior, I win! This is a no-lose scenario! Life is mine because of Christ, and all I get by death is more of Christ, which means more of life.’ And the Apostle Paul wants the Philippians, and he wants you and me, to understand this, because his experience is not unique.
The Apostle Paul is not saying ‘I alone among all Christians of the world can say ‘For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’ No, the Apostle Paul wants the Philippians to approach their persecution with the same biblical confidence, hope, promise and truth, and he wants you, and you, and you, to approach your circumstances — the most difficult of them, the most disheartening of them, the most discouraging of them — with the same gospel hope. And so I want you to see two things today. [And by the way, I don't know how long we're going to be in Philippians 1:21. This is just the introduction, because all I want you today to understand is what exactly Paul means by “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Because let's face it, as beautiful as that sentence is, it's pretty dense.]
What does that mean, that to live is Christ? I don't understand what you’re saying, Paul. Well, I want to try and answer that question. It may be a little clearer — “to die is gain” — because of what Paul says around the verse, but all I want us to concentrate on today is understanding what Paul means when he says, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” We’ll get to some more detailed application as we continue in this verse.
Here's the first thing: “To live is Christ….” What does Paul mean by that? This is what he means. Real life, real life…is… [Doesn't that kind of get your juices going, when the Apostle Paul is about to tell you what real life is? Here it is.] …knowing, loving, serving, glorifying, enjoying, communing, and fellowshipping with Jesus Christ–that is real life. Knowing, loving, serving, glorifying, enjoying, fellowshipping and communing with Christ is real life. In other words, the Apostle Paul is saying to you, to the Philippians, to me, he is saying: ‘My total life meaning and fulfillment is in knowing Christ, in loving Christ, in serving Christ, in glorifying Christ, in enjoying Christ, in fellowshipping with Christ, in communing with Christ. That is the whole thing!’
Let me say that over several different ways, just to try and drive that deep into our hearts, into our understandings and our affections. Paul is saying that anything worthy of the name life is caught up with an intoxication with fellowship with Christ, with serving Christ, with favor from Christ. This is why the old gospel song writer wrote, “Jesus is all the world to me: my life, my joy, my all.” That is exactly what the Apostle Paul is getting at when he says, “For to me, to live is Christ….” He's saying that the joy of life is wrapped up in the presence and enjoyment and service of Jesus. Paul's life finds its total meaning in Christ. In a sense, Paul's words here are simply confirming that Jesus was not lying when He said to His disciples — what? — “I came to give you life, and that abundantly.” The Apostle Paul is saying, ‘Let me stand up and testify. He did! He is the total package. He has given me real life : to know Him, to love Him, to be loved by Him, to fellowship with Him, to be able to glorify Him, to praise Him, to exalt Him — the One who shed His own blood.’
Paul was on his way to take the lives of Christians when Christ came and gave him life. You don't think the Apostle Paul wants to give Him praise for what the Savior has given to Him? He's given him life! And that's what Paul is talking about here. Paul is saying, ‘I live to glorify Christ,’ just as Christ would say, “It is My food, My meat, to be able to do the will of Him who sent Me.” This is what Jesus is saying: ‘It's like putting a seven-course meal before Me for Me to get to be able to do the will of My heavenly Father.’ And just like that, the Apostle Paul is saying, ‘It is the stuff of life for me to be able to know and love, and glorify and enjoy, and serve and commune with, and fellowship with Jesus Christ. Christ alone gives me meaning and satisfaction. Christ alone is my greatest delight. My life,’ the Apostle Paul is saying, ‘has no meaning apart from Christ. He is the object of all my affections. He's the goal of all my ministry. He's the motive. He's why I get up in the morning. He's my inspiration.’ The Apostle Paul is saying, ‘My life has no meaning apart from Christ.’
You understand that the Apostle Paul is not saying that nothing else in life is to be enjoyed by Christians but Christ, but what he is saying is this: that as we enjoy all the gifts of God, they are subordinated to and related to our prime delight in, love for, satisfaction in, fulfillment in, love of Jesus Christ. And if any of those good things that we have compete with Him for first place, what have we become? Idolaters…worshiping the blessing rather than the Bless-er…worshiping the lesser blessing rather than the One greater blessing. And the Apostle Paul is saying, ‘From every delight that God has given me in this life, whether it is a cup of cool, refreshing, good tasting water, or that seven-course meal, or friends who stick with me through thick and thin, and love me despite my sin and the way I let them down, or whether it's seeing a child come to faith in Christ, or an enemy of the gospel come to love the Savior, or watching a sunset, or contemplating that God flung the stars into space–all of those things are subsumed under and related to this one overarching thing: that for me, to live is Christ–so that if you took all of my ability to see and enjoy those things away, you could not take Christ away from me. But if you take Christ away from me, none of those other things matter.’ The Apostle Paul is saying that Christ has given him life, and that to know real life is to know Jesus Christ, and that his life is all about loving and knowing and serving and glorifying and enjoying, fellowshipping with and communing with Christ.
My friends, the Apostle Paul is not just saying that ‘that's for me, a super-Christian.’ He's saying that's the way it is with every Christian, that life is caught up with God in Christ.
II. To die is gain.
And it is that that enables Paul to say a second thing, and the second thing is this: “…and to die is gain.” You understand that the Apostle Paul is not saying for everybody in the world life is good and death is better. No, no! He is saying that only of those who have rested and trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel. He is saying that only of those…as he says in Galatians 2:20 and Philippians 3:8-10, only for those for whom this is true (that Christ is our life) can we say that real life is Christ, and death is even better. That is something as far as the Apostle Paul is concerned that is universally true, but it is particularly experienced and it is only experienced by those who have placed their faith in Christ. And so this word of assurance, “…to die is gain…” is only for Christians. Paul is saying, ‘Because Christ is my life, because to live is Christ–because of that–death is even better.’ Paul is saying that he looks for a fuller experience of the knowledge and love, and glory and enjoyment, and communion and fellowship of Christ immediately upon his death.
And notice that Paul is not struggling between heaven and hell. Now think about it. Anybody who believes in hell…nobody is out there saying, ‘You know, I think I’ll choose hell. Everybody in this line, choose hell. Everybody over here, choose heaven.’ This isn't a struggle between heaven and hell, nor is it a struggle between hard, hard life…and some respite from that.
The struggle that Paul is having is between full life now and immediately fuller life upon death. Let me expand that. Paul is wrestling between abundant life and fruitful, Christ-exalting ministry amidst sufferings and struggles and dangers and pain here on earth — that's on the one side — and even more abundant life because of immediate enjoyment of Christ in His nearer presence, with none of the suffering and pain and struggle and toil and disappointment, in death. That's what Paul is wrestling with, because he's come to realize this: ‘Whether I live or I die, no one can take Christ from me. No one can put me to shame; and if I die, I'm just going to be closer to Christ.’
Now, my friends, this is revolutionary! It may not be revolutionary to you if you've grown up hearing this in Christian churches from faithful pulpits proclaiming the gospel. But I want you to consider how radical this is both from the standpoint of the Old Testament and Paul's culture…and frankly, from our own.
In the Old Testament–and by the way, did you notice that in Psalm 118 this morning? (Go ahead and peek…Billy read it…Psalm 118:17-18.) You see this pattern that emerges in the Old Testament that to die is to be put to shame. The idea is this. One of the ways that God vindicates His Old Testament people against their enemies is He causes His people to live and His enemies to die. And so the psalmist will say in Psalm 118:17-18,
“I shall not die, but live, and declare [or tell] the mighty works of God.”
In other words, he's saying, ‘Lord, one of the ways You’re going to vindicate me is that my enemies are going to die, and I'm going to live to be able to tell the story of it.’ And go home and do your homework! Look at Psalm 22:5 and Psalm 31:17, and you’ll see this same theme playing itself out in the Old Testament: to die is to be put to shame. That equation is made.
But here is the Apostle Paul, and he has come to the point where he's said, ‘If I die, I'm not going to be put to shame, because to live or to die is Christ. The equation I face is not life with Christ and death without Him–life with honor and death with shame. It's life with Christ, and in death more of Him. No shame, all glory, all Christ-exaltation…and this is extraordinary. The Greeks in Paul's day very often would talk about people who had had a hard life: ‘Oh, they've gotten rest in death. Their life was hard, but now they've got some rest in death.’ That's not what the Apostle Paul is saying. What he's saying is better than that. Paul is not…as he goes through this life-death-life-death-life thing…Philippians 1:21-24 is not doing the same thing that Hamlet was doing in his famous soliloquy. You know, the one that you had to memorize in high school or college:
“To be, or not to be–that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. To die, to sleep–no more, and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–perchance to dream. Aye, there's the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause. There's the respect that makes calamity of so long life.”
I won't go on with it…you have enough nightmares remembering it in the first place! But the point is this. He thinks, ‘Well, maybe death will give me relief from the torture that I'm experiencing in life. But what's death going to be like? Maybe, maybe,’ he says, ‘death is going to be worse than life!’
That's not what the Apostle Paul is doing here. Paul is doing something entirely different. He's saying, ‘My deliverance does not depend on whether I live or die. In fact, death is advantageous to me. Christ is going to be glorified, no matter what the verdict is against me, and I am going to get the profit. I am going to get the gain, no matter what the verdict is against me, because death simply ushers me into the gain.’ What is the gain? It's the personal benefit of being in the Lord's presence. If for the Apostle Paul this life is Christ, death is simply going to usher him into the presence of the One who is his life! That's not a loss. It's a gain.
And you see, there's the key: If…if to live is to know and to love and to glorify and enjoy Christ, then and only then is to die, gain.
And of course, my friends, it is only a gain for those who believe on Christ. What Paul is saying is universally true. The only people who know real life are those who have been granted it by Jesus, because what is it that He said? “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” And then what does He say? “No man comes to the Father, but by Me.” So these words of comfort are lost on those who cannot say, “For to me, to live is Christ….” The first part of the sentence is necessary for the comfort of the second part of the sentence.
And I want you to feel the force of what I'm saying, my friends. When we wrestle with this verse, we are wrestling with eternal matters. Life is short. Hell is real. And eternity is long. And your knowing the life of which Paul speaks in the first half of this verse is going to determine your experience of life here and hereafter. God grant that we would accept no substitute for the only One who can give us life.
Lord God, it is my prayer that as we sing this next hymn that we would believe it, as it expounds for us the truth of the word from Your word that we have just read and heard. This I ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
[Congregational hymn: Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken]
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.