To Live Is Christ
Key Verse 1:21
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
The last passage we looked at, verses 12-18a, Paul talked about his imprisonment for preaching the gospel. He called his “imprisonment” his “chains”. He talked about the outcome of his chains within the church community at large as well as a struggle that went on in his own heart. We observed a man in chains for the gospel, and how this man viewed his chains. We saw that he accepted them as the sovereignty of God and viewed them as a means to further spread the gospel. And because of that he rejoiced. He saw that through his chains Christ was being preached, and that’s what matters— that’s what’s important, he says. That then, was his view of his chains, his imprisonment, his suffering! It’s how he viewed them.
Now in verses18b-26 which we want to look at today, Paul talks about another would be result of his imprisonment, that is, about life or death, whether he will live or die. He reveals in these verses what his views are on life and death. He shows us how he views his own life and how he views his own death. He reflects his attitude towards life and death. His attitude towards life and death seem to be as clear as his attitude towards his chains in the previous passage. In the previous passage he rejoices as long as Christ is preached. In this passage he rejoices as long as Christ is exalted in his body, whether he is to live or to die. How could Paul think and act like this? I believe his secret is in our key verse, 21, which tells us much about Paul’s faith. So, let’s think about this passage for a while.
Read verse 18. “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.” We talked about this in the last passage. There were those who were preaching Christ from false motives, slandering Paul in the process and making him appear as if he deserved those chains he was wearing. It was painful to Paul to hear this. It was the right thing to do to defend himself in this letter. It was the right thing for him to right the wrong. But let’s learn from him what matters and what does not matter. What is the important thing and what is not. “What does it matter”, he said, “the important thing is that Christ is preached”. This was what really mattered to him. This was what was really important to him. There are things that matter in life and things that matter less, and then there are things that don’t matter at all. People live and die holding grudges. Grudges don’t matter. Paul understood what the important thing is. It is not important that he right the wrong, nor to defend his honor. He understood what really mattered. What mattered more than his own pride and honor was Christ and the gospel. Because of that he rejoiced. He was able to rejoice when in fact he had every reason to be miserable. Yet he rejoiced.
Verse 18b says: “Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.” And he tells us why. Read verse 19. “For I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.” So, what he is saying here is that he will continue to rejoice for a very good reason. He will continue to rejoice because he knows that what has happened to him, that is, his imprisonment and chains will somehow turn out for his deliverance. Actually historically, we know that Paul was eventually released from this particular imprisonment and set free for a period of time before he was taken prisoner again. But he was delivered. The question is how did Paul know that his imprisonment will end in deliverance? There were two things he mentions in this verse that hint at that. “For I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.” Paul mentions two things here that were working together to lend him such assurance. He first mentions their prayers. And next, he mentions the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul always thanked God for their prayers. He always recognized their prayers and rejoiced in them. The prayers of the saints are most powerful agents of deliverance for each other. Paul knew this and he knew that they were praying for him. God never overlooks the prayers of his people for each other. In fact, he encourages them. Paul depended on their prayers. Paul also knew that unless God himself intervenes, he could not be delivered. This deliverance which Paul talks about is a little unclear. It could be a deliverance from his present chains or the eternal deliverance promised to all the saints of the Lord. Either way, it does not matter. Anyway, all deliverance comes from God. And blessed are those who have the assurance of God’s deliverance whether in this world or in the next. Paul had the assurance of deliverance because God provided him with the Spirit of the Lord Jesus in his heart, the Holy Spirit who filled his heart with God’s assurances. When God’s Spirit filled his heart, Paul could rejoice. He could say “I will continue to rejoice”.
Most people have no joy in their hearts nor peace sometimes because they have no one praying for them, but mostly because they don’t have the assurance of salvation. This assurance comes from the Spirit of Jesus Christ who lives in the hearts of those who belong to the family of God. You are blessed if, like Paul, others are praying for you, but mostly because the Spirit of the Lord Jesus assures you that you have nothing to worry about on the day of judgment. If you don’t, then even now you have no reason not have that assurance because the Lord’s love is everywhere and in abundance and all you have to do is reach out and receive it with gratitude. Paul rejoiced because he knew he would be delivered.
Read verse 20. “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” What Paul actually hopes for and expects is that Christ be honored in his body one way or another— in life or even in death. Christ has always been exalted in Paul’s body. He has always used his body to go wherever the Lord sent him. He has always used his body to serve the Lord’s purpose. He had been a good servant to the Lord. He had been a faithful steward of the body and soul the Lord had entrusted to him. Ever since the Lord had redeemed him when he was on his way to Damascus to kill Christians, Paul had mended his ways, and given his life over to Christ. He had totally given himself to serve Jesus in his body. Now he was put in chains, and was suddenly restricted by prison. He may even have to be sentenced to death. He knows they are praying for him. His heart tells him he will be delivered. But he wants to be clear about something. He wants to be clear about his hopes and expectations. He now hopes and expects that things won’t change at all because of his difficult situation. He wants to continue exalting and honoring Christ in his body. He hopes that his situation won’t in anyway give him cause to be ashamed but in fact give him courage to surrender himself to life or to death.
“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” Either way! Who has this level of commitment— Either way in death or life! And why this attitude? Because as we said earlier in verse 18, he said it didn’t matter! And what mattered was what’s important! And what’s important is this— that the gospel is preached! In verses 20-26 Paul seems to be saying almost the same thing. What does it matter! The important thing is that Christ is exalted in my body, whether in life or in death! He wanted nothing more in life or in death other than to honor Christ Jesus. He wanted to honor Christ in his life. And he wanted to honor Christ in his death. He certainly doesn’t want to be ashamed of that. That’s the last thing he wants to be ashamed of— Christ— Christ in his life and the witness of Christ in his life. He doesn’t want to be ashamed of him— rather he wants him exalted in his life. More than that! Not only in his life but also in his death. Whatever it takes to exalt Christ. If it takes his life, let it then be in life that Christ is exalted. But if it takes Paul’s death, then Paul is not ashamed to surrender to death if it might only exalt and honor the Lord Jesus.
What a commitment that in life or in death one is to exalt and honor the Lord Jesus! But before we get into the secret of Paul’s view of life and death we ought to look at his words “I will in no way be ashamed.” Paul didn’t want to be ashamed of his witness of Christ while he was in this world. Nor did Paul want to be ashamed when he came into the presence of the Lord Jesus in the world to come. This is not the first time shame is spoken of in the gospels. Jesus warned us against being ashamed of him. He said he’d be ashamed of us if we’re ashamed of him in this world. (Mk 8:38) Many seemed to have been ashamed to proclaim the name of Jesus in Paul’s day. They were ashamed to proclaim the true King in his glory in a world overrun by the prince of darkness. They were ashamed to speak of Jesus’ love on the cross to a society of intellectuals whose gods were science and technology. Paul knew the dangers of the shame that comes on men’s hearts when the devil frightens them and binds their mouths so that they cannot speak the truth. Paul understood that a man in chains like himself might be in danger of being ashamed of proclaiming victory and salvation. Yet he didn’t want to be ashamed to declare the gospel truth boldly and courageously to those who otherwise might perish in their sins. More than that Paul also didn’t want to some day be ashamed to face the Lord of Glory who was not ashamed to redeem his soul from hell and damnation.
What a frightful word is this word “Ashamed” for some Christians. I wonder how many are ashamed to identify as Christians in the world today. I wonder how many will be ashamed at his appearing one day. They will make it to heaven on account of their faith. But will be shamed because their lives in the world do not conform to the gospel. They live lives that are far from the standard which Christ Jesus laid for us in the gospel. Jesus said: “If you love me your will obey my teaching”. These were the Lord’s words to you and me. If we’re not living in obedience to them, then we have a love problem with him. We’re loving something else more than were loving him. Let’s not be ashamed to be his people and servants in this life. Let us, like Paul, be eager to exalt him in our body in life or even in death.
What does this tell us about him? It tells us that Paul viewed his life and death in light of the Lord Jesus Christ. Read verse 21. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” “The question is how to define life. Is life money or riches or success or children or comfort or peace or power or glory? Every human being defines life in a way that best exemplified what’s in their heart, what they perceive life to be. Ask a child what life is and he might say life is toys; a student might say life is no homework. A starving man might say life is food. So what is life and what is it to live? Paul said to live is Christ. He defined life in the same context as Christ. His life was in Christ. To live is Christ. A relationship with Christ. If you cut off Christ from Paul’s life there is no living for him. Paul lived in Christ and for Christ. In a few words Paul defined the whole meaning of human life in one word. As Jesus had once said “I am the life”. Surely then Christ is the meaning and purpose of our lives. Apart from him we have no life. Therefore we must all live for him. I must live for him. Therefore, to me to live is Christ.
If we live for ourselves we do not really live at all. So many people think they are living when they are not. They are more dead than alive. Paul himself was once as dead when he lived for himself. He was dead on the inside. He lived a glorious life on the outside but on the inside he was a dead man grabbing for the dead things of the world. Then he met Christ personally. Suddenly everything changed for him. Christ entered his heart and Christ became his life and Christ became everything for him. He began to serve Jesus. He began to live— really live. He no longer lived for himself, but began to live for God and for others. His soul lived— really lived. He could now love others and love God— and could also be loved, really loved. Once he couldn’t imagine how dreadful and frightful death would be because he didn’t really know what waited for him on the other side. He could only think of judgment and condemnation and the wrath of God and hell. But now he was sure if he died he’d go to Jesus. The thought of death didn’t alarm him anymore. Death was welcome. It was gain because he’d be with the Lord he loved and served. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Read verses 22-26. “If I am 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; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.” In these verses Paul describes 2 things very clearly. First, he describes his personal struggle with choosing life or death (yes according to his words, he seems to have had a choice), and second, he thoroughly explains to us more practically what he meant by his words in verse 21.
These verses reveal to us that Paul had a terrible dilemma going on in his heart. To die and go to heaven or to remain and continue serving the church. Indeed, Paul had a dilemma. He had an earnest struggle going on in his heart. He really did want to stay. Most people can understand that! But he also did really want to go! And that’s very odd for the people of the world to understand because they cannot understand spiritual things. Most people really want to stay in this world as long as possible. Most people want to hang on to life for as long as they can. And in a sense that is not so strange, since the word of God tells us that God has “set eternity in the hearts of men”, (Ecc 3:11) meaning that God has planted a sense of the eternal in men’s heart such that every human being longs to live forever. But they cannot live forever in this world, even though they desperately try to. But Paul, like most genuine Christians honestly understood the glory of death. He was not afraid of it. Some Christians are afraid of death because they are still unsure of their eternal destiny. Other Christians are afraid of death because they are unbelieving. Other Christians are afraid of death because they are afraid of the unknown. But a genuine born again Christian who has tasted the grace of God and partook of the Holy Spirit knows that there is nothing to be afraid of. Rather death is the doorway to the Father, to the kingdom, to the bosom of the Master, to the very side of our Lord Jesus, where the Christian can finally be at home forever. What is there to be afraid of? Nothing! Rather there is much to gain in death. And that is exactly why Paul genuinely struggled with the dilemma to stay or to go. He really did want to go. In his heart of hearts he wanted to go. He said: “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” Paul knew that it was by far better to go and be with the Lord.
Yet there was another side to his dilemma, to his sincere struggle. He really wanted to stay behind as well. In other words, he really wanted to live. He said: “What shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two.” He was genuinely torn between the two. As much as he wanted to depart to be with the Lord, he also wanted to stay. But we must clearly understand that this desire to live— to stay— to want to remain alive a while longer— is absolutely not rooted in selfishness nor in the survival instinct of the human nature. It was a battle for him, a battle that took place in the heart. To go or to stay. To live or to die. It is strange to even think of such a struggle going on in the heart of a servant of God. But it is necessary for us to consider this because for Paul it was a real struggle! In other words, he struggled to remain or to go, and finally decided to remain. This outcome of his inner struggle is edifying. Why then did he choose to remain? I want you to think on these words of his: “But it is more necessary for you that I remain… For your progress and joy in the faith… So that your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.”
Love seems to have convinced and compelled him to choose this path. Love is a powerful force that always drives the shepherd to do what is right in the sight of God. Paul made a personal decision in his heart to stay. Now, of course, life in God’s hands, so whether God would have chosen to take him or not, is God’s will. But Paul did not know what God would do. Yet Paul, in his heart, if it had been his choice had decided to stay for their sake. And his words in this passage do indicate very clearly that he there was a choice that he had which in the end he did make. God’s wisdom leads us to believe that. Anyway, it is clear that through his struggle he had been thinking of them, and not of himself. Had he been thinking of himself, he would have chosen to go. But he was thinking of them. He was their father, he was their shepherd, he was their friend. He knew how much they still needed him, and how devastated they would be if he were to die at this time. He knew they still needed to grow in faith and to learn how to rejoice in all circumstances. They needed him. He loved them. He sacrificed himself for them. This is the kind of shepherds we must ask God to raise for our generation, shepherds who in love, would consider the welfare of others over and above the welfare of themselves.