Life and Death
Life and death… are a definition of opposites. They are two spheres we will all traverse, should the Lord tarry. It’s also true that while we will navigate both, we have only experienced one of which at this point in time. Life is present. Death is the future. Since death is the future, shouldn’t it affect life at present?
I imagine that everyone would agree here, that it should. ‘Yes, since death is coming, that should inform how I live at present.’ Sadly, I think at times unbelievers do a better job here (in a negative way) than we do––in living in light of the future. What I mean is this, since death is coming, unbelievers seek to enjoy their fill of the world to the full, indulging in sins and all sorts of evils, throwing caution to the wind with their souls. For the unbeliever, death often motivates unholy living at present, it fuels the fire, so to speak.
If that is the case, how much more so should Christians be sold out to live for the Lord at present, particularly in light of what death brings? If death motivates unholiness for the unbeliever, how much more should it motivate holy living for the believer, out of a love for the Lord? In Phil 1:21, Paul writes, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” That verse is a spiritual thermometer of sorts, it shows how you’re doing. The way you live your life at present testifies to what you believe about what is to come in the future.
I know we are well on our way into 2023. It’s a bit late for new years resolutions. I am generally not one for new years resolutions, given the world’s flippant commitments. However, I am for them in the Jonathan Edward’s sense. Edwards composed 70 resolutions for his life in being a follower of Christ. The first of his resolutions is undergirded with Paul’s words in Phil 1:21. Edwards wrote,
“Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriad’s of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.”
That is a grand statement. Our aim and practice as believers should be to live to glorify the God who saves, with all that we are, all the time. As I write that, which I firmly believe, I recognize that I do not live up to that statement perfectly, and I imagine that you do not either. Our God is awesome, in the truest sense of the word, because of what the future holds, we should live fully for Him at present… but we don’t. Despite how great our God is we can forget our purpose and call in life, at least in practice.
Again, Paul writes, clear, unambiguous teaching that summarizes the life of a Christian. He says, “for to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” At first glance, it might be easy for someone to assume that Paul writes a statement like this one when everything’s going his way in life. That’s not the setting. Paul makes that statement while imprisoned, not from the Ritz. He wrote in verses 7, 13, 14, and 17 of the chains that he wore. But the reality that he was imprisoned did not change or alter his perspective on his purpose in life. In fact, he wrote in Phil 4:11–13, “Not that I speak from want, for I learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in abundance; in any and all things I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” At which point, we can see that “going Paul’s way in life” wasn’t what mattered most to him.
So here Paul is, this man who is heavenly-minded and therefore of the most earthly good, and he says to the Philippian church that his desire is for Christ to always be magnified in him. He says in verses 18–20, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my salvation through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.” This is Paul’s focus in life. When Paul wakes up, his day is about Christ being magnified. When he goes to bed, the same is true. This is what he breathes, eats, drinks, and dreams. His life isn’t like a shotgun with many different pellets in a general direction, but rather like a rifle with a single bullet and precise aim. His focus is clear. He knows his purpose in life.
At this point, Paul has likely been walking with the Lord for around 26 years or so. If anything, he has only become more crystalized in his focus and resolve to live for Christ. Shortly after he was saved by the Lord Jesus, in Acts 9:19b–20 we read, “Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’” Upon being saved, Paul knew he was to proclaim Jesus Christ. He knew that he was to live for Him, and he continued to grow in this knowledge over time.
As we read on in Acts and in learning about Paul through his letters, around 16 years later we see a fuller picture of Paul’s heart for the Lord. We read him say in Gal 2:20, a statement that is so direct concerning the Christian life, that it only amplifies Phil 1:21. “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” Paul’s life aim is that Jesus would be magnified in him and that he would not detract from the Lord with the way he conducts his life. He wanted people to see Jesus when they saw him.
Paul didn’t view his life, the moments of the day, the possessions he had, the people he met, or the messages he taught as his own, per se. He viewed them as being from the Lord and for Him. Jesus Christ was the lens through which He viewed His life. Jesus gave perspective and defined the moments of his life. Paul taught in 1 Cor 10:31, “whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” If that was Paul’s desire, it should be ours as well. Practically, it means that we send emails to the glory of God; we meet with people to the glory of God; we change diapers to the glory of God; we eat food to the glory of God; we drive to the glory of God; we watch sunsets to the glory of God. We live for the glory of God. In Col 3:17, he writes, “and whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” Everything that we do is to be for the Lord.
That presupposes something, doesn’t it? It presupposes that we are fixed upon the Lord with our minds. In the same chapter in verses 1–4, Paul states, “Therefore, if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you died and your life has been hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is manifested, then you also will be manifested with Him in glory.” In Heb 12:1–2 we read, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, laying aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” As the hymn by Helen Lemmel begins, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus Look full in His wonderful face.” That’s the idea. The mind that is focused on honoring Christ will be the one that lives most closely to Him.
After speaking about Christ being magnified in his body Paul says “for me to live, Christ and to die, gain.” The verbs are infinitives. The helping verb “is” is not there in Greek, which makes the statement even stronger. Life equals Christ. Death equals gain. This is our calling in life.
Paul’s words in Phil 1:21 are antithetical to the world. Most people would say, “to live is for me, and to die is the greatest loss.” Again, that’s how the future informs their present in pursuing sin. That’s how the world lives, but it’s not how we were designed to live. Paul gives us the proper formula.
For the Christian, living life is Christ. Christ defines and orients everything that we do. Our ambition should be to have Christ magnified in everything. As Kate Wilkinson says, “May the mind of Christ, my Savior, live in me from day to day, by his love and pow'r controlling, all I do and say.” That’s what we want. That’s what we desire. Having said that, as has been stated, it isn’t always the case. So why not?
Of course, sin is the short answer. So then how do we battle against sin in this area? The antidote is found in remembering. It’s that simple. It’s found in remembering the Lord Jesus, the One we are to be dwelling upon. How do we do that? We call to mind His word. We dwell upon the Scriptures.
Here are some suggestions for you to this end. Have the Scriptures throughout your home and talk about them with your family (cf. Deut 6:4–9; 11:18–20). Be intentional about regularly looking at and speaking about the Scriptures. As you eat your daily bread, have a scheduled time or times where you are spending time in God’s word yourself (cf. Matt 4:4). Have Scripture in your workspace, in your car, and even on your phone (stickers and wallpapers available). Be a Ps 119:11 person. “Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You.” The time that you spend reading God’s word, listening to it, praying it back to Him, and singing it, is proportionate to the amount of time you will be dwelling on the reality that your life is Christ.
The non-believer, Benjamin Franklin, once said, “a failure to plan is a plan to fail.” Paul didn’t live as Christ by being passive. No, his ambition was to know Christ. He went on in Phil 3:8–11 to say, “More than that, I count all things to be loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own which is from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God upon faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Paul’s objective was to know Christ more and more. That was his longing in life, to know Jesus and live for Him.
Paul wasn’t trying to write his own story in life, he was seeking to have the Lord write His story through his life. The people of the world are so bent on leaving their mark on society as displayed through accolades, their name on a building, or at least their name spoken of highly by others. Paul didn’t want that. He didn’t care about that. He wanted people to talk about and think about Jesus, that’s the mark he wanted to leave, a mark for Christ. His heart was for the Philippian church to see how glorious a calling this was for them and how it should affect everything that they do.
And of course, Paul takes it one step further. Since we live for Christ, the King of Kings, and we are His representatives on the earth with the highest of callings, when it is our time to go to be with the Lord, our death is gain. That truth is liberating. Our highest aim isn’t preserving our life in the world, it’s living faithfully for Jesus. When we die, things only get better than they are now. “Better” has a context. In this life, we have suffering, hardship, loss, and external and internal hindrance from sin (cf. John 16:33; Gal 5:17). All the while, we have joy in Christ (cf. John 15:11). We are becoming more like Him, and in turn, enjoy Him more (cf. 2 Cor 3:18; Rom 8:29–30; Phil 1:6).
For the world, death only means your life ending, and with it, your friendships, family relationships, work, possessions, awards, and money. The idols of one’s heart and life are gone and that’s terrifying. But for the Christian, when you die, you get Christ forevermore. Paul says in 2 Cor 5:8 that “to be absent from the body [is] to be at home with the Lord.”* Death is gain for the Christian because you get to be with your Savior without sin. You will see the hands that bled for you. You will see the face that dawned the crown of thorns for you. You’ll see the One who has risen from the dead and secured your salvation. You’ll do all of this with no more pain or suffering, instead, filled to the brim and overflowing with joy and happiness. Death is gain, hallelujah! That motivates how we live at present. Since our death is gain, since we have been freed up to live for Jesus… we should do so unashamedly.
Phil 1:21 isn’t just a 2023 verse. It’s a life verse. It’s a verse that describes the Christian life. My hope and my prayer for you, and for me, is that we would live in it well. There is no higher calling in this world than to live for Christ. When you wake up tomorrow morning, using this verse or others, actively seek to dawn this mentality. Live for Jesus, display Jesus to others, tell others about Jesus, being reminded that this life is a vapor that is here and then vanishes. Make the most of the time God has granted us on earth. As CT Studd once said, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last. And when I am dying, how happy I’ll be, If the lamp of my life has been burned out for Thee.”
*In Greek “and” is there, but I have substituted it with “is” simply for cohesion.