Philippians 1:21-22 “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am going 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.”
To die is gain. More and more people seem to agree with that statement. So long as they aren’t suffering intensely, life is going well, or there is the potential for it to get better, no one wants to die. But for those coping with pain that can’t be relieved, or facing a future they fear to face, death may seem like escape or relief.
Escape and relief are not what Paul means by “to die is gain.” For the believer in Jesus, he means that there is something positive to be had. It doesn’t lead to nothing. It leads to something. It doesn’t merely end something terrible. It begins something wonderful.
That may seem strange in light of the fact that God originally imposed death as part of the ultimate punishment for our sin. Its original purpose was not to give us something. It was to put us out of God’s presence forever.
Jesus changed all of that by dying instead of us. As our Savior, he was dying for us, in our place, when he gave up his life on the cross. His death served out the death penalty for our sins. It satisfied God’s justice and wiped our record completely clean–not only the felonies, but the misdemeanors and petty sins as well. As a result, God has nothing for which to be angry at us anymore, not even mildly irritated, and we have been reconciled.
Since death has been emptied of its original purpose for the believer, Jesus has invested it with a new one: It is the doorway to eternal life. His own resurrection from the dead assures us that death is not the end of life. It is the beginning of a new life. To die is gain. Death is not a bad choice when Jesus chooses it for me.
Only those who know the whole story of how Jesus has dealt with death for us can be so confident of their future after death that, like Paul, life and death hold equal appeal for them. “Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two…” In fact, death is actually the better alternative. “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” Death leads to life lived in his presence.
If that is the gain Paul has in mind, to be with Christ, to live in his presence, maybe that leads some of us to say, “Hmm. Must be an acquired taste.” We were thinking more along the lines of a heaven that is a garden of eternal delights and pleasures, an endless romp in the lap of luxury. And the Bible does promise us “eternal pleasures at (God’s) right hand,” Psalm 16.
But you know from experience that having things and doing things doesn’t satisfy. Things don’t fill what our hearts are truly seeking. From the time we are children and get that toy we yearned to have, to the time we become adults and we get that coveted tool for Father’s Day, or we can finally afford our dream car, we learn that things make you feel happy and fulfilled for a few days, a few weeks, at most a few months. Then, long before they wear out or become unserviceable, they just don’t have the same effect. Our hearts feel a yearning these things can’t fill.
It is the people we love that fills that spot. We long to be with those who love us, and those we have come to love. A young man in love would sacrifice everything he has to be with the one he loves. Grandparents don’t want things. They want the family they love to come and spend time with them. The more we come to know the incomparable love Christ has for us, the more we come to see that heaven is to be with him. It is life lived in his presence, and it is better by far than any other choice he could make for us.
That is a future worth having. That can make even death the outcome we prefer.