21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
Perhaps one of the most profound and powerful statements in Christian history is written almost as an afterthought to Paul. Since the words were penned, Christians have labored to discern the deep spiritual meaning behind life being Christ and death being gain. Yet, for Paul, this seems to be a logical afterthought. He is in prison and knows he will either be released or die. Trusting in the Lord’s sovereign hand, Paul asserts that he is in prison by the hand of God for the purpose of advancing the truth of the gospel. He thereby validates the truth that his suffering serves a purpose in the Kingdom and is designed by God’s hand for the sake of the gospel. So, verse 21 makes perfect sense. No one should be surprised by such a statement, and still the bold rejection of material gain leaves us baffled.
Why are modern Christians so confused and befuddled when we read this? There are a few different reasons for such a struggle:
- Our modern conception of God attempts to deny that He would do anything that would harm our physical and material well-being. Paul does not suffer this particular false understanding of God. For Paul and Timothy, God directs, plans, and even causes suffering at times. God uses struggle and trial to advance the gospel. Thus, for Paul circumstance does not matter, only the Kingdom and the advancement of the gospel message is of paramount importance.
- We cannot imagine death as better than some things in this life. Modern Christians tend to treat heaven as the place you go once you’ve done on the fun things on this earth. This is a common thread of thought in western minds. Somehow the truth that heaven is exponentially better than earth has escaped us. We believe that we want to go to heaven but not until we travel here, or have this experience, or meet that person. As if the things of this earth could compare with the perfect, infinite God and his continuous creation that we are going to engage for eternity.
- We do not believe that life is satisfied in Christ or that death brings reward. This is the most difficult truth for modern Christians to recognize. It is the reason this passage is often reduced to a trite explanations or sayings of half-hearted dedication. When Paul says that life is found in Christ, that is precisely what he means. Further, when he explains that he gains in death, that is precisely what he means. This statement is an afterthought for Paul. It is assumed that you will be satisfied in Christ and knowing Him fully. It is also assumed that Heaven is better than earth and leaving earth to be in perfect communion with the Lord is preferable to any other circumstance no matter how great that circumstance may be.
The implications of this brief assumption of Paul’s are explained in verse 22-26. His heart is rightly torn between Heaven and earth. Note the reason that he is pulled between these two places. It is not because he feels as though he will have a comfortable existence on this earth. It is because there is work to be done that could benefit Heaven. The tension Paul feels is between labor that could enable others to see his Christ to greater measure and being with Christ. The press is great between the two hopes. One hope: that he would honor The Master here on earth. The other hope: that he would be physically with The Master in Heaven.
Verses 24-26 introduce us to the first of a few statements Paul is going to make throughout this letter that have an odd encouraging condescension. He recognizes that he will be denied his Heavenly hopes for a little while longer, because the Philippians have not yet fully grasped Christ. It is necessary for Paul to stay on earth until they see more of Jesus. To what end does he stay? For their “progress and joy.” Paul knows that these brothers and sisters need him so that they can see Christ.
Consider for a moment the joy of this perspective. Can you bring yourself to recognize that God is sovereign, ruling over all things and that your joy is truly complete solely in Him? Rejoice in the truth that it is not in the gifts He gives us that satisfaction is gained but in knowing Him. Once we assimilate this truth into our lives, the struggles and trials that beset us will fade.