The Lord's Day Morning
June 17, 2007
“Living Out Philippians 1:21”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Philippians, chapter one, as we continue to work through this book together. When we were last in Philippians together, we looked at Philippians 1:21. We’re going to be there again today–and now I can tell you we're going to be there again next week, because I got exactly half way through the message during the 8:30 service! So I can tell you ahead of time, it's going to be a one-point sermon.
When we were last together in Philippians 1:21, we said that this verse, which is virtually a “life verse” for the Apostle Paul, is not something which Paul intends to be an expression of something that is unique to him, but the reason that he says to the Philippians, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” is not that he wants them to think of him as a super-Christian on a level to which they can never attain. He does not say that to them simply as a testimony: “Well, in my case, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He tells them this not only because he wants them to know how he looks at the possibility of his being sentenced to death and dying, but he also tells it to them because he wants them to share the same fundamental belief, attitude, and outlook. In other words, the Apostle Paul, when he says, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” is not uttering something which is utterly unique to him. It is something which is true of all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. If you are a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, then for you to live is Christ, and to die is gain. And so Paul wants the Philippians to understand that.
And as we looked at this passage last week, really we only did two things. We asked ourselves, “What does it mean, to live is Christ? And what does it mean, to die is gain?”
It's a beautiful verse. It's a verse that many of us have memorized. It's a verse that many of us have used as a life verse. It is a verse that often has come to mind when believers faced the valley of the shadow of death; and yet, it's pretty dense, isn't it? “For to me, to live is Christ….” Paul's packing a lot of punch, a lot of meaning, into a few words. What does it mean, that to live is Christ?
Well, we said that when Paul says to live is Christ, he means that real life is knowing, loving, serving, glorifying, enjoying, and communing with Christ. The Apostle Paul is affirming that anything that is worthy of the name life is caught up in fellowship with Christ, in the favor of Christ, in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ. In effect, when he says, “For me, to live is Christ,” Paul is affirming that Jesus has done for him what He said to His disciples that He had come to do. You remember when Jesus said to His disciples, “I have come that you may have life, and that abundantly.” And the Apostle Paul is virtually testifying, “Yes, Lord. The Lord Jesus Christ has done that for me. He is to me life. He has given me life. My life is hid with Christ in God. There is nothing that I long for more than to know Christ. I have determined to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified.” And Paul, in a hundred different ways, certifies that what Jesus said (“I have come that you may have life, and that abundantly”) has been realized in his own experience, and it is his desire that all Christians will realize that to its fullness, because it's a life-transforming realization. And so Paul is saying, when he says to live is Christ, that real life is knowing, loving, serving, glorifying, enjoying, and communing with Christ.
Paul, in other words, finds his total life meaning and fulfillment in Christ. He's not looking for fulfillment out there somewhere. He's not looking to fill the God-shaped void in his soul with any old stuff that you can stuff in there. He has found satisfaction only in Jesus Christ. As Augustine said in his Confession, “Lord, You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” In other words, Augustine is indicating that God did not build us to be satisfied with anything less than Himself, and that our hearts are never in fact filled, fulfilled, satisfied, delighted in this life, until we find our delight, our satisfaction, our desire, in God through Jesus Christ. And the Apostle Paul is confessing that his total life meaning and fulfillment is found in Jesus Christ.
And then, this leads him to say a second thing, in the second half of the verse: “…To die is gain.” And last week, even as we said real life is knowing, loving, serving, glorifying, enjoying, and communing with Christ (that's what “to live is Christ” means), we also said that when Paul says “to die is gain,” he means that because of the first part of that sentence (because that's true, because real life is found in saving relationship to Jesus Christ), it is also true that to die is gain; because death is even better than life for the believer, with regard to the experience of fellowship with the Savior. Elsewhere the Apostle Paul puts it this way: “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” And if your great life goal has been to know Christ, to fellowship with Christ, to serve Christ, to glorify Christ, to commune with Christ, to enjoy Christ, then the Apostle Paul is saying, ‘When you die, believer, there's only more. Not less, but more. Death is even better than life for the believer.’
For Paul, this life is bound up with knowing and glorifying Christ, and this will only increase in the life to come; thus, death is gain. The gain that Paul is talking about is the personal benefit of being in the Lord's presence. If to live is to glorify and enjoy Christ, to die is to glorify and enjoy Him more, because the Apostle Paul looks for an immediate and fuller experience of all that Christ is in death. That's why he was not afraid to die. That's why no Christian [as we've already heard this morning] ought to be afraid to die. Death simply becomes the portal into the immediate experience of the fullness of Christ and fellowship with Him.
Now, having looked at the meaning of the two parts of this verse, all we're going to do today is application. And since I only got through Point One, I'm just going to tell you the first of two questions that we're going to be studying this week and next. And the first question that we're going to be studying as an aid to applying this passage is simply this:
What does it mean to live as if to live is Christ?
Let's pray before we read God's word.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for the truth of Your word. We thank You that Your true word sanctifies us. It makes us to be more like Christ. But we also acknowledge that our hearts are tugged in many directions and our desires are not always set on You. So, by Your Spirit, illumine our minds, that we might behold wonderful things in Your word. Grant that we would believe what You want us to believe, think like You want us to think, embrace what You want us to embrace, and desire what You would have us desire; and this morning, especially, that we would understand and by Your grace live out the truth of this, Your word. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Philippians 1:21. Hear the word of God:
“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
One question I want to ask you this morning…another next week, Lord willing…one question I want to ask you this morning by way of aiding your application of this great passage to your own heart, and that question is:
“What does it mean for us to live as if to live is Christ?”
In other words, what does it mean to live out Philippians 1:21 when it says “To live is Christ”? What does it mean to live as if you really understand and really believe that to live is Christ?
As we apply this truth to our own hearts, I hope that that question will help you focus on what the Apostle Paul is saying ought to be true of everyone who professes the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. And the answer to that question–what does it mean for us to live as if to live is Christ?–is very simple. It is this: Our first and central aim in living is to know, glorify, and enjoy Jesus Christ.
What does it mean for us to live as if to live is Christ?
It means that we live with our first and central aim in life being to know, glorify, and enjoy Christ. You need to ask yourself this morning, “What is my first and central aim in life?” Not what do I say what my purpose is in life when I am in a room full of people in Sunday School, who know the answer that they want to hear me give them when I ask them; not what do I say when I'm with a religious crowd on certain occasions and I need to give a spiritual answer; but, in my heart of hearts, what is my first and central aim in life? What am I really after? What is my great ambition? What is my great desire? What is my great delight, my great satisfaction? What is the thing that gives me fulfillment? What is first and central as far as my aim in living? And the Apostle Paul said the answer to that question for every true Christian is the same. And the answer is, “My first and central aim in life is to know, glorify, and enjoy the living God through Jesus Christ.”
Now in one sense, you see, that is just playing out, it's just filling out, the first commandment, because the first commandment is that we are to have no other gods before our gracious, loving, one true triune God. There is to be no one on the same level with Him competing with our allegiance to Him, our loyalty to Him, our love for Him, our worship of Him. There is to be no one above Him, before Him, ahead of Him in our list of priorities or loyalty or allegiance, or worship, in life. He is to be sole and singular in getting the great and ultimate worship of our life.
And so, in a sense, saying that to live is Christ, and living out living to Christ, is simply saying that Christ is the One that I worship. Christ is the One that I value. Christ is the One that I desire. Christ is the One in whom I am satisfied. Christ is the One who is my fulfillment, above and beyond everyone and everything else. He is first; He is central. For to me, to live is Christ.
And of course we said that there has been a battle precisely at this point from the very beginning of human history. In the Garden, it is the battle between the supremacy of God and the supremacy of our desires from the very point of Satan's temptation of Adam and Eve through the serpent. Now you've perhaps had a teacher in school, or a professor, mock the story of Genesis 3 and say something like this: “How can you possibly believe that God would judge human beings and condemn them, and curse them and punish them, for merely taking a piece of fruit from a tree? That is unreasonable; it is unjust — and, frankly, it's ridiculous. How can you believe such a thing?”
Well, of course there's a whole lot more to that story than the mere plucking of a piece of fruit from a tree. First and foremost, it is a rejection of the word of God. God has said to Adam and Eve, ‘I made you. I've given you all things and one another. I've given you all the fruit of the trees in the garden but one, and out of love for Me and loyalty to Me, I am telling you: Do not eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the Garden, for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.’ And so when Eve takes and Adam eats that fruit, they are saying to God, ‘No, sir! We are not going to follow Your word. We’re going to do it our way. Around here, we're Number One. We do what we want to do.’ So at one level it is a fundamental rejection of the word of God and a rebellion against His kind and sovereign rule. But you understand that under that is something even deeper.
What has happened is you have God, who has made Adam and Eve…everything that they are comes from God…and you have God, who has made them to be vice-regents with Him over the whole creation. In God's great kindness, He has said, ‘You’re going to be My stewards on earth. Everything in the world is going to be given by My hand into your keeping. You’re going to rule it for Me, and you’re going to be My image in ruling it, so that the creation will be able to look at you and say, ‘You know, that's kind of what God is like’–in the way that you rule creation. And not only that, I'm going to fellowship and commune with you, and in the cool of the day we're going to walk in the Garden and we're going to talk with one another, and we're going to get to know one another, and you’re going to get to know how much I love you and how much I want to give you, and what a glorious God I am.’
And all of that has been given into Adam and Eve's hands. And then a serpent comes along, and he says, ‘He's lying. If you really want to have knowledge, if you really want to have power, if you really want to be free, take the fruit!” And so suddenly Adam and Eve are struggling with a choice: God…or a piece of fruit. The God who made them, who loves them, who is generous to them, who cared for them, who gave them everything that they are and have…or a piece of fruit. I mean, it's just that ridiculous! That's what's ridiculous about the choice! The ridiculousness is not the judgment of God; it's the ridiculousness that Adam and Eve could even have paused for a nanosecond to think about their choice. And yet, my friends, they did. And they went, “God…piece of fruit; God…piece of fruit. Piece of fruit wins!” And my friends, that is a picture of what we do every time we allow our desires to take us away from God: “God…piece of fruit; God…piece of fruit.” And you get what you want, and it does not equal in any way what you lose.
And we can stand back and say, “We would never have done that, had we been there. We would have been loyal.” And yet, my friends, ten thousand times ten thousand times a day, that same story is played out in human experience, where we set our desires on something other than the one true and living God in Jesus Christ. And what do we do? We say, “To live is_’ and you fill in the blank, and it's not Christ, it's something else. To live is to experience this sensual pleasure that God tells me, don't do this. And yet our hearts are pulled to it, and we do it. And what has just happened? We have chosen that pleasure over God. Or, we're sitting in the test. We've been working hard for five years. We've got to get this score on the GRE, or on whatever standardized test we're taking, and we think, “If I don't cheat, I'm not going to achieve my desires. I know I shouldn't, but I'm going to.” What has just won? Self has just won over God. We have just chosen ourselves over the living God. And this story plays out over and over again.
It plays out in relationships. “Lord, I'm a Christian, and I know You've told me that I am not to be unequally yoked. I'm not to marry outside of the Lord. I'm not to marry a man (I'm not to marry a woman) who doesn't love the Lord God through Jesus Christ. And yet…he's so kind…and she's so attractive. She's not a believer. Lord, I desire to marry her! I desire to be engaged to him…to her.” And we make that choice: Yes, I’ll do that!
We've just chosen ourselves over God. This battle plays out over and over. And what the Apostle Paul is saying in this passage is for him, to live is Christ. Christ is first and foremost, and no desire and no wealth, and no ambition and no status, and no power in the world can substitute for knowing and serving, and loving and fellowshipping, and glorifying and enjoying Christ.
So, how do we know that we are living as if to live is Christ? Four quick things.
First, those for whom it is true that to live is Christ purpose to know as much of Christ as possible.
Those who know that to live is Christ want to know as much of Christ as possible. They cannot get enough. They want to know about His rank. They want to know about His character. They want to know about His plans. They want to know about how the Persons of the Trinity relate to Him. They want to know all about His claims, all about His powers. They want to know about His words. They want to know about His works. They want to know about His ways. They want to know about His character. They want to know about His person. They want to know about the meaning of His death–His saving, redeeming work–and they cannot get enough!
You know when you fall in love with a person, you want to both know about that person and you want to know that person. You want to know the tendencies of that person, the likes and dislikes of that person, the character of that person, the things that make him or her laugh or cry. You want to know the heartbeat of that person. You want to know about the background. You want to know about the experiences. You want to know all about him…all about her. That's the way it is for those for whom it is true that to live is Christ. They want to know all about Jesus Christ.
And yet, my friends, when you look around at churches all over today, you wonder, “What kind of people are coming to these churches? Because there's not a whole lot about Christ being taught in those churches. So I wonder what those people are coming back for, because they’re not getting a lot of Christ. There may be a lot of other stuff–maybe good stuff–but they’re not getting a lot of Christ, not a lot of gospel, not a lot of the Cross.” And yet those for whom it is true that to live is Christ can't get enough of Christ: “Preacher, tell me more about Jesus! Tell me more about who He is. Tell me more about His nature. Tell me how He relates to the Father and the Son. Tell me how He redeemed me. Tell me about what His Cross meant, what it accomplished, what it did. Preach about that over and over! Tell me everything in the word that you can tell me about Jesus, because that's the thing that I'm here for; for to me, to live is Christ.” But if people are crowding into churches to hear something else other than Christ and His word, what is it that they’re desiring? No, those who want to live, and who do live, as if to live is Christ purpose to know as much of Christ as it is possible to know.
Secondly, those who live as if to live is Christ want to be like Christ.
They’re not satisfied with just knowing about Him. They’re not satisfied with just standing back and admiring what He's like. They themselves want to be conformed in their character to His image. They want to think like He thinks. They want to believe like He believes. They want to hate what He hates. They want to love what He loves. They want to do what He does. They want their life goal to be His life goal.
If you've ever been around friends whose character is such an encouragement to you that when you parted their company you think to yourself, “I wish I could be like him…I wish I could be like her. What God has done in his life (her life) is such an encouragement to me; it motivates me to want to be like that.” That's what it's like to be around the Lord Jesus Christ. You say, “Yes, Lord. Thank You for Your free and full pardon for sin. Thank You that You did not base that on anything in me or anything that I would do; but, Lord, don't leave me like I was. I want to be like You. Mold me; make me; fill me; change me.”
And on the Last Day, when we stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, one of the interesting things will be that though we will be accepted–not because we deserved it, not because we earned it, not because we did anything before or after our conversion that fitted us for life with God in heaven–yet we’ll stand back and we’ll look at the multitude that no man can number, and we’ll say, “You know what? They’re like Jesus! They believe like Him. They think like Him. They love like Him. They act like Him. They love what He loves. They've become like Him, and He's accepted them, not because of those things, but only for Jesus Christ. And yet He's transformed them so that in their character they have become like Him who is the image of the living God.” Those who really live as if to live is Christ want to be like Christ.
Thirdly, those who live as if to live is Christ purpose to make Him known as far as possible to all humanity.
The Apostle Paul thought that God's purpose for him in life was to stamp out the name of Christ, to crush the religion of Christianity, and to jail and kill as many Christians as possible. And he thought that the one true God would take great delight in this. And then, one day the Lord Jesus Christ met him on the way to Damascus and changed his heart, and turned him into a dynamic missions-evangelist-pastor-theologian. And when He did, because Paul understood the greatness of Christ in that encounter, he wanted everyone else within earshot to know the greatness of Christ, and he was ready to cross land and sea so that others might experience the grace and the greatness of Christ in the way that he did.
And, my friends, that's the way that it is with everyone who has tasted the grace of Christ. They want a multitude that no man can number from every tribe and tongue and people and nation…men and women and boys and girls from around the world…red, yellow, black and white…to come into the enjoyment of the goodness and greatness and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so many of us go and tell, and all of us pray and give to support the spreading of the name of Christ around the world. Why? Because to live is Christ. And this is a truth that you can't keep to yourself. Once you have experienced the love and the mercy and the grace of Christ, you want everyone to experience that same love and mercy and grace of Christ. So, “To live is Christ” means to purpose to make His name known as far as possible to all humanity. That's why we engage in missions. That's why we give away Gideon Bibles. That's why we send missionaries. That's why we do evangelism. All of these things we do, because to live is Christ.
One last thing. To live as if to live is Christ means to purpose to enjoy Christ, to draw our comforts from Him, to find our happiness in communion with Him.
In other words, He and He alone is our first, our central, our greatest enjoyment, delight, and satisfaction.
It is not that we don't enjoy many of the good things — all of the good things — that God has given us in this life. But even when we're enjoying those good things, we know that we have them only because of Jesus Christ, and we can enjoy them only in fellowship with Jesus Christ. And their enjoyment would be lost to us, their tastes would become tasteless in our mouths if it were not for the grace of God in Jesus Christ. And we never forget that those gifts came from the Giver, and so our hearts are not pulled away from Him when we enjoy them; and yet we say to ourselves, ‘As good as these things are, they would mean nothing to us apart from Jesus Christ.’
Samuel Rutherford once said that if his Lord was not in heaven, he wouldn't want to go there. Give him all the benefits of glory and then just take away Christ, and he says, ‘I wouldn't want to be there, because my first and my central joy and delight in this life is Christ. That's who I want above everything else.’ And it will mean sometimes that there are pleasures that we have enjoyed in this life that we forego, because those pleasures are inconsistent with Jesus Christ; and there will be some of them that we will give up that we could rightly enjoy, because we want more people to know Jesus Christ. But right at the center of our life, and the focal point of who we are and our purpose in this world, and at the very center of our satisfaction and enjoyment and delight, is Christ: knowing Him, glorifying Him, enjoying Him.
This is what it is…to live is Christ. And if this is to live, then this also says to us something very important about death, and we’ll talk about that together next week. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, if our hearts are set on something, someone, anything, anyone equal to, more than, or above, or other than Jesus Christ, show us deep in our hearts today that we have made the choice of Adam and Eve. We are choosing a piece of fruit over the everlasting enjoyment of Jesus Christ. Lord, our hearts are so tricky that we need You to make this as clear as day–black and white. And if that's where we are — loving anything, anyone besides or above the Lord Jesus Christ — change our hearts; and grant that by faith we would receive Him. And having received Him, Lord God, grant that we would never ever again be satisfied with anything, anyone else apart from Him. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
[Congregational Hymn: How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds]