Much Rather Better!1
When we left off in the last article we were considering how Paul regards dying as gain. This is highlighted yet again in Philippians 1:23b with his use of the word “depart” – “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
It’s interesting that he doesn’t say “die,” but “depart.” This word was often used of an army striking camp and moving on into battle; they would fold up their tents and continue their march. More relevant here, though, is its use to describe a ship as it was released from its moorings. As a ship would weigh anchor and sail off into the sea, so Paul envisioned death. It is as if he envisioned the duties and responsibilities of this life as a rope that kept him securely fastened to the dock. The gentle but firm tug or pull which he feels from the waves of the sea is the inclination of his heart calling him home to be with Christ. He says: “Lord would that you might release me from the restraints of this life and guide my ship into heaven’s ocean!”
But Paul doesn’t desire death for the same reason many pagans did in that day. They viewed it as a way of escaping the prison house of the body. Paul, on the other hand, sees it as the way in which a believer enters into a deeper and more intense fellowship with Christ.
Look at the words translated “far better” in v. 23b, literally, “much rather better!” There is implied here what we might call a triple comparative! It is “better.” No, it is “rather better.” No, it is “much rather better!” It is by far the best. Nothing can top it. Clearly this rules out “soul sleep,” for how could entrance into a state of unconsciousness be “far better” than the present state of being physically alive? At least in the latter he experienced conscious fellowship with Jesus.
Thus, when he says “to live is Christ” he means that to continue living brings new opportunities to magnify Christ, to serve Christ, to make Christ known. When he says “to die is gain” he means that whatever of Christ life might give him, death brings him more! It’s as if he says to the Philippians, “Earth knows no love such as I have for you. But I must confess, I love Christ more!”
Adolphe Monod put it this way:
“The Apostle is asking here which is most worthwhile for him, to live or to die. Often has that question presented itself to us, and perhaps we like the Apostle, have answered that 'we are in a strait' [or, we are hard pressed]. But I fear we may have used the words in a sense far different from St. Paul's. When we have wished for death, we meant to say, 'I know not which alternative I ought most to dread, the afflictions of life, from which death would release me, or the terrors of death, from which life protects me.' In other words, life and death look to us like two evils of which we know not which is the less. As for the Apostle, they look to him like two immense blessings of which he knows not which is the better.”
Thus the way you glorify God in your death is by regarding it as “gain” over life. That doesn’t mean you disregard life or that you fail to embrace it as a wonderful blessing from God or that you waste your time on earth. You live it fully and fruitfully. It simply means that you so value and treasure and prize Jesus Christ that life on this earth in his absence is regarded as less appealing than death which brings you into heaven and his presence.
Here’s a challenge for us all. On one side of the scales of balance pile up all the losses that you will endure should you die. Add up what death will cost you, whether that be your family, your career, your wealth, your friends, your hobbies, together with all your unfinished plans and dreams and personal projects. Now, on the other side of the scales of balance put being “with Christ” (v. 23). If you can look on the latter and sincerely and joyfully say, Gain! then Jesus is magnified in your dying.
Paul, as well as you and I, honor Christ in our deaths only if we are so utterly satisfied with him and so completely enthralled with his beauty that losing everything in this life in order to be with him is considered ‘gain.’ As Piper has put it, “Christ is glorified in you when he is more precious to you than all that life can give or death can take.”
So, whether we live or die, may we at all times and in every way honor Christ!