According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death.
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labor: yet what I shall choose I wot not.
For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ;
which is far better:
Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is
more needful of you. — Philippians 1:20-24
If our faith is real, it dictates our understanding of more than our eternal destiny. Our faith must be the context in which we live, of our thinking, attitudes, and actions. It must give us a perspective on both life and death.
There is, in fact, a serious deficiency in the Christian who has trouble dealing with death. I speak here in terms of death as a state, not as an event. As an event, death is the most heart-rending experience we face. The loss of a loved one is indeed a traumatic event. We must find no fault with grief. But a failure to put death and its inevitability into the context of our faith reveals an immaturity of faith, because life and death, mortality and immortality, time and eternity are at the heart of our faith. A mature faith comes to terms with both the physical pain of death and the sadness of loss by its understanding of God's greater grace and promise of resurrection and life.
When Paul wrote to the Philippian church, he had languished in prison for, perhaps, five years. The Philippian church had sent Paul help on several occasions. Now, they had again sent him help, delivered by Epaphroditus. This messenger had, no doubt, told Paul of his church's concern that their co-founder, their apostle, languished in prison when they so desperately desired him to have an active ministry. Paul thus addressed the issue of his imprisonment and the physical limitations it represented. Paul assured them that the gospel was being preached because of his case, and was, in fact, "manifest" or famous in the imperial palace.
Paul's friends in Philippi, no doubt, would have liked to see the apostle traveling, preaching, and promoting the Faith in a manner more encouraging to the believers. Paul, however, though confident that his imprisonment had been helpful to his ministry, did not know what his own fate would be. He was determined to magnify Christ "whether it be by life, or by death." He then stated those amazing words that all Christians of all eras must understand and confess: "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." Not even the apostle relished dying, but he did see life as service and eternal presence with God beyond the passage death represents.
The Appeal of Paradise
In a very tender confession to good, supportive friends in Philippi, Paul said he was not sure which was most desirable, life or heaven. Paul, a prisoner who had suffered beatings, shipwreck, and false accusations desired to live and serve, yet he confessed a real desire "to depart, and to be with Christ: which is far better." The persecuted, weary Paul sees the appeal of paradise.
It is wrong to see life here and now as ultimate. If we see our earthly life as ultimate, we tend to make ourselves ultimate, and we fool ourselves into thinking we are indispensable. Our goals become primary and our circumstances dictate our understanding. We are then upset when death inevitably intrudes on life. When our life is ultimate, then aging and loss of what was once familiar sours us. Many literary references to time inveigh against it as an enemy. Yet Scripture speaks of youth, of life itself, as fleeting. When we see life as ultimate, we are sure to become embittered. Men without hope of eternity must eternalize time. They have no alternative. If we do not see, like Paul, the issue as serving Christ versus seeing Christ, our alternatives are life versus death. Those without hope in death must cling to life. This must not be the Christian's perspective.
Though eternalizing time is wrong, Christians can go to the other extreme of emphasizing eternity to the point of neglecting their duties here and now. This life is not a holding pattern and God's demands do not wait until eternity. Many people avoid faithfulness, responsibility, and duty by thinking "We'll sort it all out in heaven." That is a very presumptuous attitude. When God speaks, we are not given the option of waiting until heaven to confirm our obligation. That is to presume that God owes us the reward of heaven, but that we can wait until we get there to find out what He wanted us to do here on earth.
Paul did not eternalize his earthly life, nor did he ignore his responsibilities in it by deferring faithfulness until eternity. Paul did not say, "The church needs me. I have work to do; I'm not ready to die." Neither did Paul say, "I'm tired. I'm done, I want to go to my reward." Paul struck an honest balance, as must we all. Paul said he did not know if he would live or die or which he desired most. Paul admitted that dying and being with Christ had its real allure. It was, he said, a "far better" thing.
Paul, however, came down on the side of life. The reason is quite simple: choosing life was an option for Paul, choosing death was not. Paul could confide that presence with Christ had a very real appeal, but his duty was to choose to live for Him, to serve Him, to suffer, and endure for Him. Faithful service was Paul's decision to make. Serving God was Paul's decision to make. The time of Paul's death was God's decision to make for Paul.
The apostle could thus come down on the side of life and service, even though he was in prison. He thus turned his attention from himself, his imprisonment, and his understanding of it to the church at Philippi. "Nevertheless, to abide in the flesh is more needful for you," he said. "And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you for all your furtherance and joy of faith" (v. 25). Paul, not controlling the time of his death, plans his life's calling, his work, his service to Christ even from prison.
Believers must love life not because it is ultimate, but because life is God's creation and our life in Jesus Christ is His grace displayed in us. We therefore work willingly and joyfully because we serve God by our calling. We must see time itself as a blessing, a creation of God, which at once constrains us and yet, in its every measured tick, delineates our labors in His service. We can desire heaven, and we would be sorry Christians if we did not, but we must see our duty, our responsibility, and the source of Christ's blessings as in the here and now. We do not reward quitters in life and we should not expect God to do so in eternity.
There are some things for which God gives us assurances — forgiveness of sins, access to God in prayer, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the resurrection of the dead are examples. Some things, however, we must take in faith, and leave in the hands of God. Paul did this with his future, and so has no alternative but to speak of work, life, and ministry. We can see presence with a loving and merciful Savior as our sure reward, and as a source of confidence, but we must never use it as a rationale to neglect our earthly calling. We all desire heaven, but for now our duty is to "get back to work!"