By Christopher VanDusen
Do you define “living” as “Christ”? The apostle Paul did. In his letter to the Philippians, he explains how this impacted his attitude toward the possibilities of both staying alive and dying.
Paul wrote Philippians to the church in the Roman city of Philippi, which supported him financially in his missionary endeavors. He did this in response to their sending of one of their leaders to see how he was doing, and to give him some more money to support him. The representative, Epaphroditus, found him imprisoned in some sort of facility, since he was under “house arrest” while awaiting a hearing before Caesar, the emperor of the Roman Empire. His Jewish countrymen had made many false accusations against him, since he was preaching the gospel, and converting both Jews and Gentiles to Christ.
While he was awaiting this hearing to ask for release from Caesar, he wrote Philippians to explain his situation, and to instruct the Philippians in Christian living, and how to respond to some problems they faced.
He begins the letter by expressing his joyful thankfulness for the Philippians’ partnership with him in his missionary work, and by explaining how he prays for them. Then, he explains how his imprisonment has actually led to the spread of the gospel, and has resulted in his rejoicing because of it.
Since he’s on the subject of his joy, he then gives another reason for his rejoicing in the next paragraph, in which he explains how his love for Christ gives him Christian hope — certainty about the future — as he awaits his hearing before Caesar, and the emperor’s decision on his fate:
“Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.” – Phil. 1:18b-26 (ESV)
In this passage, Paul explains six things about his hope in Christ in the face of uncertainty:
- He’s Happy About Escaping His Chains (vss. 18b-19)
- He’s Hopeful that He’ll Exalt Christ (v. 20)
- His Heaven is Enjoying Christ (v. 21)
- He’s Hard-Pressed to Expire or Continue (vss. 22-24)
- He’ll Hang Around to Encourage Their Christlikeness (v. 25)
- He’ll Head for Them to Explode Their Celebration (v. 26)
He’s Happy About Escaping His Chains
First, Paul explains that he’ll continue to rejoice because he knows that he’ll escape his imprisonment:
“Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance . . .”
How do I know that Paul means release from house arrest when he uses the word “deliverance”? Because he says he knows he’ll be released in the last two verses:
“Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.”
But how will Paul be “delivered” from his imprisonment? First, through the “prayers” of the Philippians. Second, through “the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ”. This second means includes God the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit whom Jesus Christ — the christos, or God’s anointed Prophet, High Priest, and King — has sent to live inside of all believers, and to “help” them. Notice the types of means that God will use to save Paul from his house arrest — first, the prayers of His children, and second, the work of His Spirit.
But Paul goes further in his explanation of how he’ll be released. He says that “this will turn out for my deliverance”. What’s “this”? The whole situation that he’s in — awaiting his hearing with Caesar, while some are preaching the gospel to hurt him, and some to encourage him. God, through Jesus Christ, and Christ through the Spirit, will cause all of the circumstances of Paul’s imprisonment to result in his release.
He’s Hopeful that He’ll Exalt Christ
The second aspect of Paul’s hope, or confident expectation, is his hope that he’ll exalt Christ, or make Him known to people, through his release from prison. He says he knows this,
“. . . as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”
First, he calls this hope his “eager expectation”. That is, he’s fully willing to exalt Christ, whatever Caesar decides to do with him. Why? Because he won’t be “ashamed”, or disappointed in Christ’s use of him.
How is he so confident? Because he has “full courage”, or “boldness”, to “honor” Christ in his “body”. The Greek word translated “honor” in the ESV could also be translated “exalt”. The idea is to make Christ known in truth, and in a way that displays love for Him, and worship of Him.
But why does Paul say that he’ll exalt Christ in his “body”? This is one way that Paul speaks of a person’s whole life, such as when he urges the Romans to “present” their “bodies as a living sacrifice” in Romans 12:1 (ESV). He doesn’t mean that they’re to literally sacrifice their bodies, but that they’re to yield up their whole selves, or lives, to God in worship and service of Him. So, Paul’s saying in Philippians that he’s confident that, as always, Christ will be exalted through his behavior and life.
Finally, Paul’s hope of exalting Christ includes both life and death, since he says he’ll do this “whether by life or by death”. He knows he’ll exalt Christ by living, and he knows that he’ll exalt Christ by dying.
His Heaven is Enjoying Christ
In verse 21, Paul explains why he’s confident that he’ll exalt Christ whether he continues living, or dies at the hands of men:
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
First, he defines “living” as “Christ”. That is, being obsessed with Christ is the essence of his life. He lives for Christ — to know Him, to worship Him, to please Him, to delight in Him.
But why is Christ true living to him? Because Christ is the christos — the “anointed one” of God. God the Father anointed Him — or appointed, and equipped with the Holy Spirit — to be His ultimate Prophet, High Priest, and King. As God’s Prophet, He is the ultimate Revelation of who God is to humanity. Through Him, we know who God is, and what He wants us to do. As God’s High Priest, He sacrificed Himself on the cross to satisfy God’s wrath and justice that His people deserve, and entered into God’s presence to pray for their salvation. As God’s King, He is in heaven, controlling all things, ruling over His church, and anticipating the time when God sends Him to earth to judge all people, and to establish the new heavens and earth. In these three offices, Christ satisfies all of Paul’s spiritual needs, including the knowledge of God, harmony with God, and direction from God.
The second reason that Paul is confident he’ll exalt Christ through living or dying is that he believes that “to die is gain”. That is, if he dies, he gains more than he loses. Why? Because he’ll be immediately ushered into the presence of Christ, and know Christ more than he’s ever known Him before. Therefore, whether Paul lives or dies, he gets to know Christ increasingly.
He’s Hard-Pressed to Expire or Continue
In verses 22-24, Paul explains the fourth aspect of his hope for his release, which is his competing thoughts about Caesar’s possible decisions about him:
“If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”
First, he considers what will happen if Caesar lets him live: “. . . that means fruitful labor for me”. In other words, if he escapes punishment, then he’ll continue to labor in preaching and teaching, and will contribute to the spiritual fruit of people’s salvation and Christlikeness.
Second, he describes the conflict within him as he considers the possibilities of staying alive and dying. He doesn’t know which he “shall choose”, given the choice. Why? Because he’s “hard pressed between the two”. That is, he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place — he’s under the pressure of both possibilities.
On the one hand, his “desire” is to “depart and be with Christ, for that is far better”. So, that’s his deepest desire — to leave this life and be with Christ. However, on the other hand, to stay on earth is “more necessary on [their] account”. On who’s account? The Philippians. In other words, he knows that they need him to stay more than anyone needs him to die.
He’ll Hang Around to Encourage Their Christlikeness
In verse 25, Paul makes clear his belief about Caesar’s decision — that he’ll be released from prison — and explains how it will help the Philippians:
“Convinced of this [that it’s necessary for him to stay alive longer], I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith . . .”
He begins his conclusion about his hope by describing himself as “convinced”. That is, after careful consideration of the Philippians’ needs, and his relationship with them, he’s been persuaded that he’ll be released from prison, and continue his missionary work.
How does he express his future? In terms of his partnership with the Philippians. He’ll “continue with [them] all”.
And what will result from his continued ministry? First, the Philippians’ “progress . . . in the faith”. In other words, they’ll grow in their belief in God’s Word, and in their trust in Christ, and consequently will become more like Christ. The second result will be their “joy in the faith”. One might be tempted to think that Paul’s referring to their rejoicing when they learn of the dismissal of his legal case by Caesar, but he uses the word “joy” instead of “rejoicing”, and he says this joy is “in the faith”, or in the teaching and practice of Christ and His apostles. Hence, this result of Paul’s continued ministry to the Philippians is the maintenance and growth of their joy in general. Here, Paul implies that one of the purposes of growth in Christlikeness is an increase in joy.
He’ll Head for Them to Explode Their Celebrating
The sixth and final aspect of Paul’s hope for his release is that it’ll result in the increase of their glorying, or boasting, in Christ. He says that he’ll continue with them,
“. . . so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.”
The Greek word translated “ample” might be better translated “abounding”, since Paul is speaking of an overflowing abundance. And what does Paul want them to abound in? In “glorying”, or “boasting”, in Christ Jesus. The Greek word translated “glory” literally means “to boast”, or to praise something or someone, so others hear it. In this case, the Philippians will abound in boasting in Christ Jesus.
And why will they do this? Because of Paul’s “coming to [them] again”. That is, they’ll praise Christ because He saved Paul from both his imprisonment and from a death sentence from Caesar, and because He caused him to make it safely back to them. Not only that, but they’ll have even more reason to praise Christ because He used Paul’s imprisonment to spread the gospel, and to encourage them, as well as other believers.
Living and Dying
So, is it your “eager expectation and hope” that you won’t be ashamed, but that “with full courage” Christ will be exalted in your body, whether by your life or your death? The only way you can have this hope is if to you, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain”. So, can you define the essence of your life as “Christ”, and the essence of your possible death as “gain”?
Like Paul, are you laboring productively for Christ? If so, is it your desire “to depart and be with Christ”, and do you consider that to be “far better” than continuing on this earth?
Can you say, with Paul, that you’re a necessary help for your brothers and sisters in Christ? Have you partnered with a church family for their “progress and joy in the faith”? Have you been growing in joy, and in your trust in God’s Word and in Christ? Are you a reason for your brothers and sisters in Christ to boast in Christ Jesus because of what He’s doing through your life? Finally, do you boast in Christ when you find out what He’s been doing in the lives of your brothers and sisters?
This passage calls us who live for Christ to rejoice in our futures, to pray for our brethren, to trust in the Spirit, to eagerly expect to exalt Christ, to count death as gain, to labor for Christ, to desire to be with Christ, to continue with our brethren for their progress and joy in the faith, and to boast in Christ Jesus because of them.
If you don’t exalt Christ, live to know Christ, desire to be with Christ, have joy in the faith, and don’t boast in Christ Jesus, then you don’t truly believe in the true Christ. If you aren’t living for Christ, then you’re living against Him, and are one of His enemies. God sent Him to this earth to die for His enemies on the cross. God made Him suffer there for our rebellion against Him. Then, He raised Him from the dead and took Him into heaven as our King and Judge. He commands everyone to change their minds about Him, and to trust in Him as their Substitute on the cross and King in heaven to receive His forgiveness and mercy because He’s going to judge everyone perfectly through Jesus, and send His enemies to a place of eternal punishment. Please make sure you’ve changed your mind about Christ and yourself, and you’re trusting in Him alone as your God, King, and Savior to have God’s forgiveness and peace with Him. He promises to completely forgive and have mercy on everyone who repents and trusts in Christ alone.
All Scripture is taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.