Hamlet: “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 wish’d. To die- to sleep.”
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet experiences deep feelings of grief following the death of his father. He confesses his uncertainty—in responding to his troubles–as to whether it is better to go on living, or to die.
In our passage the Apostle Paul addresses the “to be or not to be” question. But his perspective is entirely different. He knows Jesus Christ. And in his relationship with Christ he does not deal with the matter from a negative or sorrowful standpoint. The passage is summarized in verse 21, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” In Christ, he acknowledges that there are advantages in either case, “whether by life or by death” (verse 20).
Remember the context…Paul was used by God to found the church in Philippi on his second missionary journey. A decade or so later, he was in jail in Rome on trial for his life. In those intervening years, the church in Philippi had supported Paul in his ministry. They loved Paul and Paul loved them. When they found out that he was in jail, on trial for his life, they sent Epaphroditus with gifts to support him. In response Paul wrote to them regarding his situation. His purpose was to instruct and encourage them. And that’s the context of what we read here.
Paul is uncertain to what the future holds. Some five years later he will write, in his letter to Timothy, “The time for my departure has come” (2 Timothy 4:6). But as he writes to the Philippians, with a decision regarding his case still pending, he doesn’t know for sure what will happen.
So, there is this question before Paul. He wants for Christ to be exalted in his body, “BY LIFE OR BY DEATH” (verse 20). He says, “FOR ME TO LIVE IS CHRIST, AND TO DIE IS GAIN” (verse 21). He speaks of how he is “HARD PRESSED FROM BOTH DIRECTIONS” (verse 23).
So, it’s as if Paul puts the two things on either side of a balance scale. He weighs the advantages of both. What is the advantage if he were to go on living? What is gained if he is to die?
You know we give special attention to the last words of a person. In the face of death people sometimes bare their souls and speak to what lies deep in their hearts. Now Paul here is not immediately facing death, but he’s contemplating it. And as he speaks of it we are given insight into his perspective on life and death. On what truly mattered to him. We have his perspective on life or death. It’s as if he has weighed both alternative on a balance scale. And as he does so he considers the advantages of each.
1. TO LIVE IS CHRIST
Paul said, “To live is Christ” (verse 21).
Now this statement stands out in that it is not something that is typical in this world. Few would say “For to me, to live is Christ.” They might say, “For to me, to live is to accumulate wealth.” Or, they might say, “For to me, to live is to pursue fame and power.” Or, they might say, “For to me, to live is to be happy and experience pleasure.” They would fill in that statement in a host of ways that express the wide variety of sinful pursuits that are common to man in his rebellion against God.
But this statement of Paul’s is not something that is or should be exclusive to Paul. This statement should express the belief and understanding of every born-again believer. We should all say the same.
What did Paul mean by what he said? F. B. Meyer wrote of the various ways this is true of the believer.
- To live is Christ, because He is the Origin of our Life (Ephesians 2:10, “Created in Christ Jesus”).
- To live is Christ, because He is the Essence of our Life (Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”).
- To live is Christ, because He is the Model of our Life (1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ”).
- To live is Christ, because He is the Aim of our Life (Philippians 3:10, “That I may know Him”).
- To live is Christ, because He is the Solace of our Life (Hebrews 4:15, 7:25, 13:5; He sympathizes with us, He intercedes for us, He will never leave us nor forsake us).
- To live is Christ, because He is the Reward of our Life (Colossians 3:4, “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.”).
So, in all these ways, and more, Christ is the life of the believer. Think of it this way—people who were around Paul would have had a hard time discerning any separation between Paul and the Lord Jesus. His relationship with Jesus was such that it was hard to discern where Paul stopped, and Jesus began. His thoughts, deeds, and words were Christ-like and nothing mattered more to Paul than knowing Jesus better.
Paul understood that to die and be with Christ was something that was “very much better,” but he understood also the value of remaining on in the flesh. What were the advantageous of doing that?
To glorify Christ. “But that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (verse 20).
Paul’s chief concern in life was that Christ might be glorified. He lived his life to this end. We were created to glorify God. That is the purpose for which we were made. Sin debilitates in this sense—it prevents us from doing that which we were created to do. But Christ died for sins and rose from the dead that he might save us and transform us and equip and enable us to fulfill our God-given purpose. We’ve been saved to glorify our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To glorify Christ is our eternal destiny. So, as Paul considered his circumstances, not knowing for certain what might happen, his concern was that no matter what happened that he would not be put to shame in anything, but that Christ would be exalted. You read of the testimonies of our persecuted brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. And you hear how they plead for us to pray for them, and chief amongst their concerns? That they might remain bold in their testimony regarding Christ.
There was a Norwegian theologian, Ole Hallesby that prayed: “Lord, if it will be to your glory, heal suddenly. If it will glorify you more, heal gradually; if it will glorify you even more, may your servant remain sick awhile; and if it will glorify your name still more, take me to yourself in heaven.”
To serve Christ. Paul knew that to depart and be with Christ was very much better, but to remain on would mean “fruitful labor” for him (verse 22). He was speaking of serving Christ. If he were to remain on he would continue to do that which he was given already to do, serve Christ. Remember how Paul began his epistle? “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:1). By choice he was a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. He understood that life on earth is but for a short time.
2 Corinthians 5:7-10, “For we walk by faith, not by sight—we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and present with the Lord. Therefore, also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
C. T. Studd was a missionary who devoted his life to serving Christ in difficult regions. He once wrote a poem entitled “Only One Life.” This is a part of that:
Only One Life
By C.T. Studd
“Two little lines I heard one day,
Traveling along life’s busy way;
Bringing conviction to my heart,
And from my mind would not depart;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
Only one life, yes only one,
Soon will its fleeting hours be done;
Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet,
And stand before His Judgement seat;
Only one life,’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
To serve Christ by serving others.
“Yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. And convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith” (verses 24-25).
What’s Paul saying? He would prefer to depart and be with Christ, but if he is to remain on living this is all that matters to him—to serve Christ by serving others, and especially his Christian brothers and sisters.
He understood that God had called him and equipped him to serve the body of Christ so that they might grow in Christ and experience joy in Him.
Later is this epistle, in chapter 2, Paul speaks of the example of Christ. Thou He is the Divine Son of God, He left the glory of heaven and came to this earth as a servant. The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. And we are to follow in His example. Paul lived his life in this manner.
Now modern Christianity has this turned all around. Our self-centered culture looks at life from the opposite perspective. We are taught from childhood that our lives have meaning to the extent that we are made happy by others. We are here to be served. But the high calling of the believer is not to be served, it is to serve Jesus. And we serve Jesus by serving others.
The Virginia Tech massacre took place in April 2007—almost 10 years ago. Tragically, 32 people were killed and 17 were wounded. Among those who were killed was a freshman girl by the name of Lauren McCain. Lauren was a believer in Christ. Shortly before her murder she had written the following prayer in her diary: “Show me your purpose for me at Tech, and on this earth. But, if you choose not to, I will still praise you and walk where you lead, not because I am selfless, or holy, or ‘determined to sacrifice myself to do what is right’ but because you are the delight of my heart and I cannot live without you.”
Lauren didn’t realize when she wrote that prayer that God would soon be calling her home. But she was likely aware of our text in Philippians. Perhaps she had read it and thought about it. She certainly shared in Paul’s Christ-centered approach to his life. His concern was that Christ would be exalted in his body “whether by life of by death.” That was the case for Paul. That was the case for Lauren. God would have the same to be true of all of us, as believers in Jesus Christ.
2. TO DIE IS GAIN
I want to draw your attention to a word that we find in verse 19, the word “deliverance.” The word translates the term that is usually translated “salvation.” Paul is not speaking, of course, of salvation in the sense in which we commonly use the term (i.e. salvation from sin). And we should recall that salvation is in three tenses—past (justification), present (sanctification; i.e. growth in Christ), and future (glorification).
It would be fair to say that in this sense, the believer in Christ has been delivered, is being delivered, and will be delivered. The term is used in various texts in reference to every tense of salvation. Now deliverance in any of those ways is founded in Christ and His finished work on the cross. By faith in Christ the believer in Christ experiences a salvation “to the uttermost,” or literally, “to save completely” (Hebrews 7:25). So, Paul has no doubt as to his “deliverance,” the only question is whether that will be in his life or by his death. This is in keeping with what Paul wrote to the Romans: “But in all these things (tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword) we overwhelming conquer through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).
Note the term Paul uses the term “depart” to describe death. In secular Greek the term described the loosing of the anchor or mooring of a ship, so it could depart port and set sail. It was also used of striking one’s tent as one would do in the military when “breaking camp.” The same term is used in 2 Timothy 4:6, “The time of my departure has come.”
The death of a believer may be a cause of sorrow for those who love that person. But that person is not lost. The body which is their earthly tent is torn down, but then they have a building from God in the heavenly places (Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:1).
Gone From My Sight
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone.”
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me — not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”
And that is dying…
A desirable thing.
“To die is gain” (verse 21).
“Having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better” (verse 23).
The word gain means simply “gain or profit.” Paul’s saying that death would be advantageous for him.
The phrase “very much better” might literally be translated “very much indeed more better.”
Not just better. But much better. No just much better. But very much better.
Paul viewed his own death in this manner. Why?
We sometimes think of heaven in terms of the “no longers.” Revelation 21:4 tells us that in heaven there will no longer be any death, or mourning, or crying, or pain. 2 Peter 3:13 speaks of heaven as the place where there will “no longer” be any sin.
And all of this is true. And we can weigh that on the balance scale and consider that death (or the rapture) will be an escape from all that is wrong in our lives now. There is truth in that. As believers we will depart from this earth either through our death or the rapture—“I know not when my Lord will come at night or noon day fair, or if I’ll cross the veil with Him or meet Him in the air.” We don’t know whether it will be in the one way or the other, but we do know that on that day we will escape this sin-cursed place. And, as I’ve said, the rapture (or a person’s death for that matter) is the ultimate answer to every prayer request. Because when we are brought into Christ’s presence there will be nothing left to pray about.
But that’s looking at the matter from the negative side. Paul was thinking in the positive.
This is part conjecture on my part, but I think there is good reason to believe it. Paul had an experience where he was caught up to the “third heaven” and heard and saw inexpressible things. He saw something of what God has prepared for us in heaven. So great was this vision, Paul was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble (Cf. 2 Corinthians 12:1f).
But, apart from that, we can see in Scripture the reason that Paul viewed death as he did.
His preeminent desire was to know Jesus (Philippians 3:10). In death, that desire would be perfectly fulfilled. 1 John 3:2, “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.”
He had written elsewhere: 2 Corinthians 5:8, “We are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.”
And a marvelous thing will take place on that day. A glorious transformation! Look past this dark night to the morning of Christ’s revelation to you. By faith imagine what it will be when God erases all that’s wrong and restores completely, in you, all that was lost to man in the fall. God has something incredible planned for you. It is a thing that is exceeding, abundantly beyond all that we can ask or think. Paul writes of it in Philippians 3:19-21. And we need to make note of it. We are not of those who set their minds on earthly things. Our citizenship is in heaven. We are eagerly waiting for the Lord Jesus Christ. There will come a day when He will do a remarkable thing. By His incomparable power He is going to take your humble body and transform into conformity with the body of His glory. He’s going to do that!
Now, if you are like me, you might be dismayed as you consider the Apostle Paul’s approach to life and death. You see in your own life too many times where you find yourself serving self instead of serving Christ. You are too prone to fall back into “setting your mind on earthly things” way of thinking.
Now if that’s the case, I’ve got some good news for you. Paul had some things going for him that helped to keep pointed in the right direction. And you have these same things.
Paul’s confidence regarding his future deliverance was sourced in two things—“your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (verse 19).
Paul valued the prayers of the believers in Philippi. He saw the need for them. He understood that such prayers, in a mysterious way that we cannot fully understand, played a role in that which God was doing in Paul’s life. Paul elsewhere wrote, “Brethren, pray for us” (1 Thessalonians 5:25). Now if Paul coveted the prayers of his fellow believers, that he might fulfill God’s purpose and will in his own life, how much do we need the prayers of our fellow believers? Ephesians 6:18 speaks to the need for us to prayer for one another. Obviously, this is an important thing for us to do.
Paul’s confidence was founded on another reality. “The Spirit of Jesus Christ” (verse 19). That’s simply another title given to the Holy Spirit. The word provision translates a term which means to lavishly provision or furnish. Paul was indwelt and filled by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was leading and instructing and transforming and working in Paul in a host of ways. We’ve said it before, if we compare the Christian life to a journey, then the Holy Spirit is our well-qualified guide to lead us to our heavenly destination. It would be impossible for us to get there apart from Him. But, because the Helper indwells us, we can be confident that God is going to work to finish what He started in us.
While walking through the forest one day, a man found a young eagle who had fallen out of his nest. He took it home and put it in his barnyard where it soon learned to eat and behave like the chickens. One day a naturalist passed by the farm and asked why it was that the king of all birds should be confined to live in the barnyard with the chickens. The farmer replied that since he had given it chicken feed and trained it to be a chicken, it had never learned to fly. Since it now behaved as the chickens, it was no longer an eagle.
“Still it has the heart of an eagle,” replied the naturalist, “and can surely be taught to fly.” He lifted the eagle toward the sky and said, “You belong to the sky and not to the earth. Stretch forth your wings and fly.” The eagle, however, was confused. He did not know who he was, and seeing the chickens eating their food, he jumped down to be with them again. The naturalist took the bird to the roof of the house and urged him again, saying, “You are an eagle. Stretch forth your wings and fly.”
But the eagle was afraid of his unknown self and world and jumped down once more for the chicken food. Finally, the naturalist took the eagle out of the barnyard to a high mountain. There he held the king of the birds high above him and encouraged him again, saying, “You are an eagle. You belong to the sky. Stretch forth your wings and fly.” The eagle looked around, back towards the barnyard and up to the sky. Then the naturalist lifted him straight towards the sun and it happened that the eagle began to tremble. Slowly he stretched his wings, and with a triumphant cry, soared away into the heavens.
You, believer in Christ, were “created in Christ Jesus” to fly. God has not saved you so that you could muddle around in the chicken yard fighting over scraps in your own selfishness. He has created you in Christ Jesus so that you might live in Christ Jesus—exalting Him, serving Him, serving Him by serving others. Your destiny is not to have your head chopped off and be diced up for chicken soup. Your destiny is to fly away and to be with Christ in the heavenly places forever more. Paul lived that kind of heavenly life on earth as he waited for the time when God would take him home. God has called us to do the same.