19 For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, 20 according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. 25 And convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again. [NASB ‘77]
After explaining how his commitment to the gospel enables him to rejoice in the midst of his imprisonment, Paul takes it a step further and says that even if he’s executed it’s OK, because both life and death are all about Christ. His mission in life is the defense of the gospel and the promise of death is the presence of Christ, thus no matter what happens Christ will be exalted in his body and he will be enormously blessed. Paul’s words in this text give us the pattern for how we should view both the remainder and the end of our lives.
Paul rejoices in prison because the gospel goes out as a result of his situation (as he just explained in vss 12-18). But he also rejoices because of what his circumstances mean for him personally. He knows his current hardship is God’s way of perfecting him. He says he knows that this shall turn out for my deliverance. There is disagreement among commentators over whether he means his deliverance from prison or his ultimate salvation. Since he seems to refer to his current situation as what will turn out for his deliverance, and since he’s about to talk about life and death, it seems to make sense that he refers to his ultimate salvation either at Christ’s return or his own death. This goes right along with 1:6 – God uses his imprisonment to complete him until the day of Christ Jesus.
What’s revealing for us is what he says next. He says his deliverance will take place as a result of your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. This gives us another element to the truth of 1:6. Along with using circumstances, God will complete the work He starts in every believer through the prayers of the saints and the work of His Spirit. That God will work through His Spirit is no surprise, but it’s somewhat amazing that Paul sets as equally important the prayers of the saints. This significantly raises the importance of prayer within the community of faith and adds prayer to the list of responsibilities we have to each other (praying for others isn’t optional). We must stimulate one another to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24), encourage each other with the hope of eternal glory (I Thess 5:9-11), and pray continually for each other’s sanctification and perseverance (Eph 6:18 – see also how Paul prays in Col 1:9-14 and I Thess 3:11-13 & 5:23). This points to why Paul prays specifically for their love (1:9-11); their love for one another will motivate their prayers for one another. So Paul both prays for their love and sanctification and depends on their prayers for his love and sanctification.
In verse 20 he completes the thought regarding his ability to rejoice and his salvation. Because God works to perfect him and because the gospel continues to go out, Paul expects that even in the midst of humiliating imprisonment he won’t be put to shame and his work will not be in vain. On the contrary, Christ will be exalted whether he lives or dies. If he continues to live in prison, the gospel will continue to spread as he’s already explained. If he’s executed in prison, it will be because of the gospel, which will bring focus on it as well. He will boldly witness either in life or in death. No matter what happens, his mission will go forward.
He reaches the crescendo of his reasoning in verse 21. The ultimate and concise explanation for his confidence regardless of whether he lives or dies is this – no matter what happens, he wins. If he continues to live, he continues a life that is all about Christ. If he dies, he immediately is with Christ. And there aren’t any other options. Live – Christ. Die – Christ. Since he loves living for Christ and not himself, life is wonderful. And since he has the promise that after he dies he’ll be in Christ’s presence, he knows death will be wonderful too. We could paraphrase and extend his thought by saying, ‘Life means Christ to me, as I more fully know and love and serve Him day by day; death means Christ to me, when I shall finally possess and eternally enjoy Him.’ (JA Motyer, The Message of Philippians; The Bible Speaks Today; 87-88.) [Paul has seen Christ, remember? So he longs to see Him again. We may say that that gives him an advantage over us in his view of eternity. That may be true. But it’s also true that he doesn’t have the whole New Testament like we do. And it’s there that we ‘see’ Christ too. Saturating ourselves with the word will make us long for Christ just as Paul does. It’s the only way to develop a hunger for eternity to match his.]
This goes right along with his words earlier that his life is dedicated to the defense and progress of the gospel (1:12,16). If his life is all about the gospel, it’s all about Christ. So he can say without reservation that if he continues to live, Christ will be exalted in his body. And that’s what drives him. It’s not his happiness or success or comfort – as we see in vss 12-18. It’s the gospel and the exaltation of Christ. Christ is life; life is Christ.
How do we know if our life is Christ? The one whose life is Christ will look more and more like Him the longer he lives. He will see people and circumstances as Christ does. Love will more and more become the dominant characteristic of his life. Love for God will motivate obedience, and love for others will motivate concern for the progress of the gospel. And as he looks more and more like Christ, he’ll look less and less like a resident of the world. He’ll stop living for himself and say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20a). He will see EVERYTHING in light of one question: “What can I do right now to honor Christ and further His message?”
Notice the conjunction he uses in the verse. Life is Christ AND death is Christ. The center of both is the same. We aren’t to focus on one at the expense of the other. We have Christ either way. If we live right, it’s all about Christ. And if our lives are all about Christ, then we will long for the day when we’ll be with Him (we should think about death a lot). Living for Christ is therefore a life of mission and longing: a mission of furthering the gospel to a lost and devolving world that isn’t our true home, and a longing to be home with Christ in a world without sin.
The other aspect to the conjunction is that there is no gain in death if there isn’t Christ in life. If we don’t live for Christ we don’t have any gain to look forward to. To live is Christ AND to die is gain. One goes with the other. And even for the believer, less Christ in this world seems to result in something less in the next (I Jn 2:28, I Cor 4:5, II Cor 5:10).
He discusses the advantages of both life and death in the remainder of the text. Which one is better? He says honestly that he’s not sure which to choose (spoken rhetorically as he obviously doesn’t actually get to choose). If he lives, he knows his life will continue to be made up of fruitful labor. That’s an amazing way to summarize a life. He can say this because of the truth of what he said earlier – he’s appointed for the defense of the gospel. If he lives, the focus of his life will continue to be labor on its behalf – fruitful labor.
There is no way to make the statement Paul makes in verse 22 without first making and meaning the statement he makes in verse 21. If our lives aren’t about Christ, they aren’t made up of fruitful labor. If our lives aren’t about the progress and defense of the gospel, they aren’t made up of fruitful labor. Do we want to characterize our lives this way? Then we must stop loving the world. Stop thinking as the world thinks. Stop spending time as the world spends time. Stop prioritizing what the world prioritizes. We must instead fill our minds with the gospel.
While life means fruitful labor, death means entering the presence of Christ. And that is – truthfully – very much better. If it were up to Paul and he thought only of himself, he’d depart for the presence of Christ immediately. As we mentioned above, living for Christ causes us to want to be with Him. If we never long for the next life, we should take a serious look at how we’re living in this one. The believer committed to Christ grows more homesick year by year.
But Paul knows there’s more to do before he’s gone. Thus he has confidence that God will spare his life and enable him to come to the Philippians (there is no way to know if this happens). Paul will live because it’s best for the gospel. Once again, he knows his mission and therefore looks at everything in life – including its existence – through the lens of what furthers that mission. Does his life benefit the gospel? Then he wants to live and is confident he will. But if his death could help the gospel? Then he’s willing to die. Either way, through life or death, Christ is exalted in his body.
So what do we do with this? The first half of verse 21 is the key. We must aspire to a life that is Christ. That’s what ensures the gain after death. And we have to pray for this life not only for ourselves, but also for our fellow believers. God will complete His work in us through His Spirit, the prayers of the saints, circumstances, and people. And the prayers must come not only from us on our own behalf, but from others for us and from us for others. TO LIVE IS CHRIST. That this be true of us is the single most important aspect of living. We cannot afford to live as if our personal verse 21 reads, “For to me, to live is ME.”
Our goal is to greet every person and circumstance with the question, “What can I do in this instance or with this person that honors Christ and furthers His message?” Sound unrealistic? Perhaps – but only because we’re so conditioned to seeing people and circumstances in light of how they affect us. Regardless of how it sounds, it should be what we pray toward – both for ourselves and for others. And if we live this way we’ll find more joy in this world AND have true gain in the next as we enter the presence of the One we’ve lived for. If we live all our days for Him, what better reward can we gain than Him?
And that points to another truth that is vital to remember. To live is Christ means more than devoting our lives to Him. It also means we walk with Him and enjoy Him. We know Him more and more with each passing day. And that results in a life of continual joy (not a life of continual ease and happiness, but of continual joy). Yes, we gain from death because we enter His presence. But we gain in life, too, as we walk before Him and experience Him every day. To live is Christ is a responsibility, but it’s also a privilege. As we strive for one, we enjoy the other. In the end it’s why no matter what happens the believer wins.
What is true of him is true of others, and here in this statement we are faced with the most searching and thorough test which we can ever apply to ourselves. Can we say honestly with this man that to us living means Christ? Is that true of us? I have no doubt at all but that the greatest thing in the Church and therefore in the world today is that Christian people should be able to say that. It is when they have spoken like this that they have counted in this world; it is when they have been consumed by this passion for their Lord that their very lives are radiant and the whole world has known that something has happened to them. (D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Life of Joy and Peace; 87)