I can understand Paul saying that for him and for us “to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21a). But how is it that death can be viewed as anything but a horrible end to a wonderful life? How can death be anything other than the shattering of hopes and dreams and the end of one’s life work? How can it possibly be viewed as “gain” (Phil. 1:21b) over life?
Be assured of this: Paul is not saying he is dissatisfied with life or that he desires to be done with the troubles of earthly existence. Far less is Paul suggesting that he is contemplating suicide. As he will later declare, if I had a choice in the matter I’d probably prefer to be executed and immediately enter into the presence of Jesus. But in point of literal fact I don’t have a choice. God alone is the one who determines and decides whether we live or die. It is not our right to make that decision. But if I had my “druthers,” I’d choose to be with Jesus!
Paul can say “to die is gain” because in death he lays hold of more of Christ than he could ever experience in life.
Now, he is only present in spirit; then in person. In dying he trades earth for heaven. In dying he transitions from toil to rest. In dying he moves from imperfection to perfection. In dying he no longer lives by faith alone but also by sight. In dying he moves from tears, sorrow, grief, pain, and persecution to the bliss of unbroken, unending intimacy and communion with Jesus.
The reason the Christian can confidently declare that death is “gain” boils down to a simple, two-word prepositional phrase in Philippians 1:23: “with Christ”! For all the glory and opportunities and blessings that life may bring, death brings one that trumps them all: we get to be “with Christ”!
Paul saw all of life as an opportunity to magnify Jesus, to show him great and good and worthy of his trust. His life was energized by his beauty and empowered by his grace. Even the smallest of his daily tasks, the most routine of his responsibilities were undertaken for the glory of his Savior. Everything in his life served his purpose and praise.
But having said all that, “to die is gain”! I know some of you are wondering how a sane person can say that death is “gain” over life. For a Christian, it’s easy. Death is gain over life simply because death provides the Christian with more of Christ than life ever could!