For To Me To Live Is What?

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Philippians 1:18b-26

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called “Partners in the Gospel.” We are working our way through the book of Philippians, and learning how all of us share in the work of the gospel together. Last week we talked about advancing the gospel, and we saw two things: 1) nothing is more important than advancing the gospel, and 2) nothing can stop the gospel from advancing. Paul was in prison, and yet he rejoiced because Christ was being preached. In today’s passage Paul turns his focus to the future and says he will continue to rejoice. So let’s pick up our reading in the second half of verse 18. (Read Philippians 1:18b-26 and pray.)

Do you have a life goal? An overall purpose for living that drives your motivations, determines your plans, and measures your decisions in life? Everyone is living for something. What do you hope to accomplish in life that if left undone you would feel as though your very life were incomplete? I saw a poster a while back that was entitled, “The Secret to Immortality.” It went something like this: “God has put each of us here on earth to accomplish a certain amount of work. Right now I am so far behind that I will never die!”

So what is it that you want to accomplish? What is your major goal in life? And if you did die today, would your life goal be cut short? Most people would rightly say, well, of course it would. A life goal is something that takes a lifetime to achieve; if I die part way there, how could I possibly complete my goals?

But you see, it’s not impossible. The Apostle Paul had discovered a life goal that no one could take away from him. As he wrote these words to the Philippians Paul was in prison, but it did not affect his goal. Not only was he in prison, but he was awaiting a verdict that could possibly end his life. Death by execution was a very real possibility for Paul, but it made no significant difference. He would accomplish his goal regardless. Inconveniences, obstacles, suffering or sickness, imprisonment or death — nothing could stand between Paul and his goal.

You might be wondering what kind of a goal could this possibly be? Well, if you were reading along with the verses a moment ago, it won’t be any big surprise. But let’s take it one step at a time as we examine the verses before us. Our Scripture text this morning reveals to us Paul’s passion, Paul’s purpose, and Paul’s predicament. Verses 18-20 reveal Paul’s passion for Christ’s honor. Verse 21 reveals Paul’s purpose for living, his life goal that could not be denied. And verses 22-26 reveal Paul’s predicament in the face of death, a predicament that in no way threatened his life goal, but simply cast it in two different lights. Let’s take a look at these three things together.

I. Paul’s passion for Christ’s honor (18b-20)

First of all, in verses 18-20 we find Paul’s passion for Christ’s honor. Remember, Paul is in prison facing a possible death sentence. It usually doesn’t get much worse than that. Take whatever problem you may be facing this week — would you want to trade your problem for Paul’s? Probably not. And yet Paul was not worrying or whimpering or whining. Instead Paul was . . . rejoicing, that’s right, rejoicing!

Last week we saw that Paul rejoiced because Christ was being preached. Now we learn that Paul has another reason for rejoicing — he has confidence that he will be delivered in his time of trouble. Look at verses 18-19: “Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.”

Now at first glance you might think that when Paul talks about deliverance, he is talking about freedom from prison, that he is confident that he will be released from jail. And later on in verse 25 we find that this is indeed his expectation.

But here in verse 19 Paul is talking about a different kind of deliverance. Paul is actually quoting from Job 13 where Job says, “15 Though God slay me, yet will I trust him; I will surely defend my ways to his face. 16 Indeed, this will turn out for my deliverance, for no godless man would dare come before him!” (Job 13:15-16) Like Paul, Job was going through a difficult trial. But Job was confident that when all was said and done, God would vindicate him and declare him innocent of wrongdoing.

That is Paul’s confidence too. Paul was literally on trial before the Roman court. There would be extreme pressure to deny Christ in order to save his own life. But Paul knew he was also being tested and tried in the heavenly court, and just like Job he has full confidence that when he comes out on the other side, he will have remained true to Christ through it all. He will be delivered from the temptation to deny Christ.

Paul is confident that he will stand the test, but his confidence is not based on his own character, his own determination or his own will power. No, he draws his confidence from two sources only, both separate from his own person — the prayers of God’s people and the help of the Holy Spirit. The two are vitally connected. As the Philippians pray for him, the Holy Spirit will answer those prayers by giving Paul the help that he needs to stand firm. Paul was relying on the prayers of God’s people to furnish the supply of the Holy Spirit that he needed in order to stand strong under persecution.

Do you pray for persecuted Christians? You have brothers and sisters in Christ around the world today who are hungry, suffering, poor, imprisoned, separated from loved ones, perhaps facing death. When Christians from free lands ask them, “What can we do to help?” they don’t ask for money or food or clothing. Invariably they ask . . . for prayer. “Will you pray for us?”

There are Christians in the world today facing the same temptation Paul did to deny Christ in the face of suffering. They are tired and weak and scared. And they need your prayers. You or I may never have to make that terrible choice — deny Christ or lose your life. I pray none of you ever will, unless it would exalt Christ and help you to grow in our faith.

Paul’s confidence rested in the prayers of God’s people. Earlier he shared that he was praying for the Philippians. Now he asks them for their payers. And through their prayers and the help of the Holy Spirit, Paul knows that this will turn out for his deliverance. Paul will continue to testify for Christ even in the face of death.

This is exactly what he says in verse 20: “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Philippians 1:20) Paul’s passion was for Christ to be exalted in his body, whether by life or by death. He was fully confident that he would not be ashamed but would have sufficient courage to maintain his testimony for Christ.

The word “courage” here refers to speech. It means “to speak plainly or publicly.” It takes extra courage to speak up for Christ when your life is on the line. But Paul is confident that with the prayers of God’s people and the help of the Holy Spirit that he will stand the test.

Notice how Paul says, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed . . .” That phrase “eagerly expect” comes from an interesting Greek word which literally means “to watch with your head away” — i.e. to watch for something with your head leaning forward and turned away from all other distractions and pressed forward; a concentrated, intense hope which ignores all other interests and keeps its eye on the goal; an eager or earnest expectation. I remember waiting by the window as a kid for my Dad to come home from work. Supper would be on the table, and we would be waiting for Dad to come home so we could all sit down and eat together. Our kitchen window looked out over the front yard and down the street to where my Dad’s car could turn in at any minute. It was usually dark out so you couldn’t make out the shape or color of the cars as they turned onto our street; you could just see the headlights. I remember standing there by the window, head leaning forward, eyes trained on each new set of headlights which would turn onto our street, eagerly expecting my father’s return.

This was Paul’s eager expectation: he would not be ashamed, but he would testify to Christ. And Paul’s passion? That Christ would be exalted no matter what happened to Paul. Paul’s own life was secondary. Christ’s honor meant everything to him. I want you to feel the passion of this man who waits for his verdict in prison. What a testimony to Christ! What an encouragement to the Philippians to stand firm in their own faith. What an inspiration to us even today!

We don’t know for sure whether Paul was released from this imprisonment unharmed or not, but his passionate desire for Christ to be exalted through his testimony was certainly fulfilled. You might wonder how Paul could stand so strong. Look at this final phrase in verse 20 — “so that now as always.” Paul had been a Christian for over thirty years when he wrote these words. Honoring Christ was the pattern of Paul’s life. Do you want to be ready for a crisis? Set your patterns now. Paul wasn’t praying for something different to happen now that he faced death. He was simply praying that what was already true in his life would continue.

II. Paul’s purpose for living (21)

We see this as we move into verse 21 where Paul states his purpose for living. It is a powerful statement, succinct in expression, sweeping in its scope: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) This was Paul’s life goal that could not be taken away from him. This was Paul’s purpose, his reason, his motivation for living.

I had a friend in High School who used to say, “I don’t get that verse.” He always felt that there should be a verb in there — for me to live is to serve Christ, or to praise Christ, or to share Christ. And those are all implied in the phrase, but Paul’s purpose for living was not any action, no matter how noble or good. It was a person — the person of Jesus Christ. Paul could sum up his entire life goal in one word: “For to me, to live is Christ.”

Some people live for destructive things like drugs or alcohol. Others live for unworthy things like entertainment, pleasure or money. Some live for good things like family, children, public service or just causes. Still others live for religious things like church, prayer or religious works. Paul says that none of those things will do for him. “To me to live is Christ.”

Not only that, but Paul also says, “And to die is gain.” Because Paul’s entire life goal was wrapped up in the person of Christ — loving Christ, serving Christ, knowing Christ, honoring Christ — neither death nor prison could interfere with his goal. Life meant Christ, and therefore death was gain, for death simply meant more of Christ. H.A. Ironside wrote, “Death is no enemy to the one to whom Christ is all.” And Christ was everything to Paul.

I suppose that for most of us if we were waiting in prison like Paul, our minds would be focused on the verdict; our thoughts would be consumed by the coming verdict. The verdict, whether life or death, would make all the difference in our lives. For Paul it meant nothing. Either way Christ would be glorified — whether through Paul’s faithful confession unto death, or through his release and subsequent service to the Lord. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” You will not find a finer or truer life goal or purpose anywhere.

III. Paul’s predicament in the face of death (22-26)

We have seen Paul’s passion for Christ’s honor, and we have looked at his purpose for living. Finally now, let us examine Paul’s predicament in the face of death. We have already seen that life or death made no difference to Paul. His life goal was Christ, and neither life nor death could interfere with that. So what was his predicament? His predicament did not concern himself, but the Philippians. Look at verses 22-24: “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Philippians 1:22-24)

Paul was not afraid of death, for as he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:8, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” But he knew if he kept on living he could be of useful service to others. And so he was torn between the two. He desired to depart and be with Christ — that was certainly better by far, or I like the way the Greek has it here — “much more better!” — “by far the best!” And yet he felt the responsibility to remain and to help the Philippians make progress in their faith.

This phrase “torn between the two” literally means to be pressed in on both sides The New American Standard version captures it well — “I am hard-pressed from both directions.” Paul longs to be with Christ. He can’t think of anything he would rather do than simply know Christ in the fullness of his presence and to be with him. Paul’s whole life since conversion has focused on faithful service to Christ and intimate relationship with Christ, but as close as we may grow to Christ in this life, it’s nothing compared to what awaits us in heaven. In fact the closer we grow to Christ now, the more we desire to be with Christ then.

And yet he is hard-pressed from the other side too. The Philippians need him. If he goes on living, this will mean fruitful labor for him. And so he cries out, “What shall I choose?” This is no mere intellectual exercise for Paul. In the original language you can actually see Paul’s distress in his writing. Paul, the consummate writer and logical thinker, is writing on pure emotion here. You can see the broken sentences and syntax. “What shall I choose?” This is the cry of a desperate man. Not that Paul could choose his own verdict, anyways, but as he considers the options he does not know which to hope for. He was hard-pressed between the two. This was Paul’s predicament.

If you haven’t picked up on this already, please notice the sheer unselfishness of Paul’s thinking. Most people would shun death and hold on to life for selfish reasons. Paul longs for death but is willing to set it aside in order to be of service to others.

This is so typical of Paul. We see Paul’s unselfishness in another place in Romans 9 where Paul writes: “I speak the truth in Christ … 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel.” (Romans 9:1-4) Comparing the Romans passage with our present text Warren Wiersbe makes the following comment: “(Paul) is willing to postpone going to heaven in order to help Christians grow, and he is willing to go to hell in order to win the lost to Christ.” Now that’s unselfishness.

As Paul contemplates the thought of death, he realizes that all he has worked for, all he has lived for, all that he longs for is about to come to fruition. He is going to be with Christ! Paul is not trying to prepare himself in case a verdict of death is returned. No, he is trying to prepare himself in case the verdict comes back that he may live! Oh, to be so close to heaven and then have to return!

And yet because Paul feels strongly that God still has work for him to do, he writes in verse 25: “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.” Paul firmly believes he will be restored to the Philippians and together they will rejoice in God’s gracious answer to prayers on his behalf. They will be filled with joy that Paul is back with them in answer to their prayers.

CONCLUSION: This is a remarkable passage of Scripture. We have seen Paul’s incredible passion for Christ’s honor, his powerful purpose for living, and his staggering unselfishness as he ponders his predicament — shall I depart to be with Christ or remain to serve others?

As we close, I invite you to consider the central verse of this entire passage. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” How would you finish the sentence, “For to me to live is . . . what?” What would you put there? How would you fill in the blank? What is your overarching, supreme goal or purpose in life?

The interesting thing about Paul’s statement is that if you fill in the blank with anything other than Christ, you cannot finish the rest of the sentence with “and to die is gain.” If for me to live is my family, then to die is loss, for I shall be separated from my family. If for me to live is my work, then to die is loss, for I shall leave my work behind. (Ecclesiastes) If for me to live is money or the accumulation of material things, then to die is loss, for I can take none of it with me. Death is the great leveler of all men, and the only way death can be gain for me, is if Christ is the supreme goal and purpose of my life.

We are all going to die some day. Death and taxes are the two inevitables in life, and either one may be closer than you think. When you die, will that be gain for you or loss? It depends on what you have been living for. It depends on whom you have been living for. “For to me, to live is Christ.” May it be so in your life today.

© Ray Fowler

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