Philippians 1:20-21 “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.”
This is a striking statement. When you see pictures of people who have been arrested on TV, rarely do you see them holding their heads high and smiling at the camera. They put their hands over their face, or pull a shirt or jacket up over their heads so that no one can see them. They haven’t been convicted yet, but they are ashamed to have been taken into custody.
Paul had been under arrest for over two years and was facing trial. Yet he was absolutely confident he would not be disgraced by all this. He was following where his Savior led him in life. No matter where that might be, as long as he was trusting in Jesus, there was no shame for him. Even if his only way out of prison was to die there, Paul knew his trust in Jesus was not misplaced. Christ would be glorified. Paul rejoiced to know Jesus would not let him down.
Paul’s words “whether by life or by death” raise another powerful argument for rejoicing. He explains that we gain whether we live or die. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
The apostle could be content with either option. Even more, he could rejoice whether God was going to take his life immediately or let him continue to live for a long time. Look at Paul’s reasoning closely and see if he can help you share in his optimism.
“To live is Christ,” means this: “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.” Paul doesn’t say this because life was easy. It wasn’t. Imprisonment wasn’t even one of the more difficult crosses he bore. His health was poor. He had many enemies. He had more work than one man could handle. He enjoyed none of our modern comforts and conveniences.
But God had given him such a heart for Gospel ministry that, in spite of all this, he could be joyful. Jesus was getting his work done through Paul. Souls were being led to salvation. At times, even Paul’s mission ventures appeared to fail. In almost every city his gospel work started a riot. It never made him popular to the majority. But souls were finding Jesus. Living meant that Paul could still be part of God’s plan to save people from their sin.
If living has become a joyless exercise for us, maybe we are looking for our joy in the wrong place. There is nothing wrong with enjoying our friends, family, hobbies, or possessions. In fact, thankful Christians will praise God for these gifts. But all these things can be taken away. Jesus love for us, the forgiveness he extends us each day, the eternal promises he has made our own are sources of joy that no one can ever take away. Only the work we do to share those gifts with others has truly eternal value. That joy is available to us as long as we have bodies with which to serve. It is a joy we can find no matter what life is serving.
The other possibility confronting Paul was death. Paul considered this the more “appealing” option. “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far…” Because the world can see no good, no purpose, in suffering, they, too, may desire death. They hope it will bring them relief and escape. For the unbelieving, nothing could be farther from the truth. Death is still punishment. The author of Hebrews reminds us, “Man is destined once to die, and after that to face judgment.” Without Jesus, death only makes things worse.
Paul desired more than mere departure. He desired “to depart and be with Christ.” Jesus’ death and resurrection makes us absolutely certain of forgiveness. It guarantees that death is our gateway to a new and better life as well. We die to live–to live with Jesus and live in love. That means that we can rejoice even when life itself is about to be taken from us.
There are no bad options for those whose life is Jesus. Imprisonment, life, death—they are all occasions for hope and joy. May God give us eyes like Paul’s to see it.