“According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith; That your rejoicing may be more abundant in Jesus Christ for me by my coming to you again” (Philippians 1:20-26).
We have learned that the apostle Paul was in prison and facing the death penalty for crimes he had not committed, but rather than buckling under the pressure, he reveals that he has the strength that only God can give. He was able to turn his focus away from his personal problems and fix his attention on what really mattered, which is, to magnify Christ in every possible way. He may have to stand before Nero, but Paul knew that he had to appear before a greater King than the emperor of Rome. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10). This “earnest expectation” includes the salvation of the body at the end of the ages. “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:19-23).
The Philippians were earnestly praying for Paul’s release and he earnestly desired to serve the Lord no matter what was going to happen to him. “Earnest expectation” means ‘to gaze into the future with hope’, for the Greek can be translated as ‘expectation with uplifted head’ – “And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh” (Luke 21:28) and ‘outstretched neck’ – “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). Persecution, prison and the prospect of death did not weaken his faith or stop him glorifying God. While he hoped and prayed for release, he did not as yet know if it was the Lord’s will for him to die there. “For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:20). “Ashamed” refers to the fact that Paul had nothing to be ashamed of in his work for the Lord. “As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed” (Romans 9:33). His “boldness” is the very antithesis of shame and embarrassment.
Both his life and death were wrapped up in Christ, and either way, since he belonged to the Lord, he knew that he could not be separated from Him. “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain” is Paul’s philosophy in a nutshell and is a good motto for all believers to have, because He can be magnified through our lives no matter what dire circumstances we find ourselves in. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). “To die is gain” does not refer to the death of the body as such but, as the Greek implies, to the immediate state of existence after it.
We should take time to understand the apostle’s teaching here. For him, living meant completely committing his life as a living sacrifice to God. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1) rather than yielding to sin, “Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God” (Romans 6:13). He had given his whole life, every moment of it, to the service of Christ and was determined to reach as many souls as possible with the gospel of salvation. In other words, Paul had a purpose for living, and because of this he had a glorious view of death. “For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). Physical death held no fears for him because he knew that through it he would see his Saviour face to face. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).
Life is meaningless without Christ. Our lives are less than worthless if we do not follow Jesus the way we ought to, especially considering that the Holy Spirit enables believers to live above the hardships and terrors of the world. “Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Romans 8:37). Death? Well that is just a doorway into the presence of God, therefore “to die is gain” for the Christian that is living in the centre of His will. Like Paul, we can face an uncertain future with the courage only Christ can give us. “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
If he was permitted to live, then Paul had already decided to keep on preaching the gospel. He was not going to spend his days worrying about the outcome of his trial, instead he was determined to glorify the Lord to the highest degree he could. “Wot not” is not ‘I cannot decide’ as some modern teachers would have us believe. He already knew that to be with Christ was gain, so he was convinced what the best choice was. “Depart” refers to being loosed from the confines, pains and limitations of the flesh. We may see something of his meaning here in 2 Timothy 4:6 where he writes, “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand”. In both cases it means ‘to loose anchor’ or ‘set sail’. Paul is simply stating that he did not know yet know what God’s will was on the matter, therefore he was leaving the choice up to Christ. His own desire was to be with the Lord, which was “far better”, for death would be a blessed release from all his suffering and pain. Notice that Paul did not believe the cultic doctrines of soul-sleep and purgatory, for how could the dormancy or the torment of the soul be more preferable to remaining alive?. The flesh (body) is only a temporary home for the soul and spirit. “Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8) … “And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). If we were given a choice to go to Heaven or stay on earth today, what would we choose? While we live let us be eager to live according God’s will. “For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (James 4:15).
Deep down Paul knew that it was best for the church that he remained alive a bit longer. He knew what was going to happen as soon as he passed away. “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). He would, after his release, ministered to people for “two whole years in his own hired house” and preached “the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him” (Acts 28:30-31), and would continue to spread the good news until the day he died.
We have to be impressed by Paul’s sacrificial service and selfless attitude in all of this. He was willing to ignore his very real problems for the sake of Christ and His church. No wonder he was a trailblazer for Christ. Sadly we see very few believers today who come even halfway to the measure of the Christianity Paul lived and preached. Did God really mean for such faithfulness to die out when the apostle did?