To live is Christ, to die is Gain!
Paul’s reference to “life” and “death” at the close of Philippians 1:20 triggers in him an urge to comment on the attitude he has toward both. It can be summed up in 8 powerful words: “To live is Christ. To die is gain.”
The options before us all are clear: either “to depart and be with Christ” (v. 23) or “to remain in the flesh” (v. 24). On the one hand, “to remain in the flesh” or to continue living on this earth means the opportunity to serve and love and minister to others in a way that bears great fruit in their lives and brings great glory to God. On the other hand, to die means to enter immediately into the presence of Jesus himself, to live with him, to see him, touch him, hear him, and to enjoy the intimacy of unbroken fellowship with him and to worship him together with all others who have died before us in faith.
This perspective on life and death creates for Paul something of a dilemma, highlighted by the term he uses in v. 23. He says, “I am hard pressed” (ESV) or “I am torn” (NIV) or “I am in a strait betwixt the two” (KJV). This word has an interesting history in the NT. It is often used to describe a person who is hemmed in on every side, without a way of escape. No room is left to move or maneuver. See Luke 8:37, 45; 19:43; and especially 2 Corinthians 5:14.
The only way we can fully appreciate this dilemma is to pause briefly and address the question of what happens when a Christian dies.
The NT is crystal clear that when a believer dies physically, his/her life continues instantly and immediately and consciously in the presence of Jesus. Several passages bear this out, such as Matthew 17:1-8; Luke 16:19-31; 23:42-43; 2 Corinthians 5:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 4:14; Hebrews 12:22-24; Revelation 6:9-11. Theologians refer to this as the intermediate state because it is the condition of Christians in between their life here on earth and the day of Christ’s second coming when their bodies will be physically raised and glorified. Every born-again child of God who has died physically is at this very moment in the presence of Jesus: conscious, filled with joy, vibrant and excited as they celebrate continuously the glory of their Savior.
These many passages are the basis for my consistent declaration at the funeral service of every Christian: This brother or sister in Christ, though dead, is alive! He/she is at this very moment more alive than he ever was while he walked this earth. She is more alert, more knowledgeable, more conscious, more vibrant in her affections and feelings and thoughts than she ever could have hoped to be during her many years on earth. The believer in Jesus is more alive than any of you here today who still walk this earth and breathe its air.
After the death of Lazarus, Jesus spoke to his sister Martha and said: “’Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die’” (John 11:23-26).
When Jesus said that everyone who believes in him “shall never die” he wasn’t denying the reality of physical death. He was denying that physical death is the termination of human existence. For the believer in Jesus Christ, physical death is but a momentary transition into true and eternal life.
The Apostle Paul said much the same thing in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8. There he declared that “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
If the Christian is not physically alive, he/she is with Jesus Christ.
If the Christian is physically alive, he/she is away from Jesus Christ.
For the Christian, there are two and only two possibilities.
You are either physically alive and therefore apart from Christ, or you are physically dead and therefore present with Christ. There is no third option.
Some of you may be wondering to yourselves: “But Sam, if the Christian enters into the conscious presence of Christ immediately upon death, why does the NT so often refer to physical death as ‘falling asleep’?” (See Mt. 27:52; Luke 8:52; Jn. 11:11-13; Acts 7:60; 1 Cor. 7:39; 11:30; 15:6,18; 1 Thess. 4:13.)
There are several reasons for this. For example, sleep implies rest from earthly toil, the cessation of activity in this realm. Thus one is asleep to this world, but alive and very much “awake” in the next. The imagery of sleep is also used to describe death because the body does sleep, in a manner of speaking. In other words, the body is at rest, without activity or life. But nowhere does the Bible say that the “soul” or “spirit” sleeps or is unconscious. Finally, sleep is used to illustrate that the pain of death as a penalty for sin is gone for the Christian. Death for the believer, rather than something to be feared, is utterly lacking in spiritual trauma and is rather like dozing off for a nap.
So let’s return to unpack Paul’s language. What does he mean when he says that “to live is Christ”? He means that for him:
The preaching of Christ is the business of his life. The presence of Christ is the joy of his life. Being conformed to the image of Christ is the aim of his life. The Spirit of Christ is the strength of his life. The love of Christ is the encouragement of his life. The will of Christ is the moral compass of his life. The death and resurrection of Christ are the hope of his life. The glory of Christ is the purpose of his life.
Jesus Christ is the all-consuming passion, the singular focus, the foundation and goal, of all he is and does.
If he traveled, it was on Christ’s errand. If he suffered, it was in Christ’s service. If he spoke, Christ was his theme. Whatever he wrote, Christ filled his words. “The person and work of Christ are the foundation rock upon which the Christian religion is built. . . . Take Christ from Christianity and you disembowel it; there is practically nothing left. Christ is the center of Christianity; all else is circumference” (John Stott).
When did Paul utter this statement? It wasn’t when he traveled the Damascus Road and witnessed firsthand the blazing and blinding glory of the risen Christ. It wasn’t as he sat in solitude in the Arabian desert while the Spirit spoke to him and unveiled to him the majestic truths of the gospel. It wasn’t during a time of robust health and physical safety. It was during his imprisonment, his bondage, his captivity in chains, after a lifetime of persecution, beatings, and rejection.
Can you and I say this? Can we sincerely examine our lives and how we speak and act and spend our money and time and walk away saying: “For me, to live is Christ”?
So, what can he possibly mean when he says “to die is gain”? We’ll explore this in the next article.