When Paul was put in prison and wrote to the people of Philippi, he expected to be released from that trial. Paul had preached the gospel, and he had made it to Rome by appealing to Caesar as a Roman citizen. Early in Philippians chapter 1, Paul rejoices that, because of his trial and imprisonment, he knows that many in the palace, many of the royal family, have heard the message of Jesus.
Though Paul expects to be delivered, he also knows that death is a possibility. Paul knows that, if he catches the Emperor on a bad day or if someone opposes him in just the right way, this entire appeal could end in Paul’s own execution. So, at the time of writing Philippians, Paul is between life and death, and the gap is not large at all.
Philippians 1:19-21 – 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 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. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Verse 21 is one of those verses that many of us know. But, we are not always diligent to look at it closely, simply because it is so familiar. So, consider a little more deeply the phrase “to live is Christ, to die is gain.”
John Piper points out that this is a parallel statement. Like the poetry of the Psalms, this pithy phrase from Paul has two items that are compared. If you see it with the comparison being made, you will see that something unexpected is written.
Looking at the phrase, we see right away that “to live” is contrasted with “to die.” Paul knows that these opposite outcomes are possible in his trial. Typically, then, we would expect that, if the subjects are opposite, the result of those subjects will also be opposite. We expect something like: to win is good, to lose is bad. We expect, “To live is good, to die is bad.” That is how we feel, especially when our eyes are on this life alone.
Paul says that to live is Christ. He expects that his life, should it be prolonged after the trial, will be to the glory of Jesus. Paul will know Jesus more and present Jesus more if he lives. Paul will live in the light of the knowledge and glory of Jesus. Paul will have joy in Christ if he lives.
Now, here is where the point gets beautiful. We expect the opposite statement to follow. To die must be something unwanted. But Paul concludes the parallel with “to die is gain.” If Paul lives, he gets joy in the glory of Christ. But if Paul is executed by the Romans, that he says is gain. Paul benefits infinitely if he dies. How can that be true? Paul has a grasp of the glory of God and the infinite wonder and joy of heaven.
Do you grasp that to live is Christ and to die is gain? Do you grasp that your life here on earth is to be to the glory of Jesus and for the service of Jesus? Do you understand that life is good and that living is something you want to do? At the same time, do you see that death, for the believer, in the timing of God, is gain?
A Christian should not do anything to try to bring his or her life to an early end. But, we should also have an eternal perspective about life and death. When it is time for the Lord to call us home, we must learn to cry, “Gain!” WE should see that crossing out of this life and into eternity is the step that will bring us the greatest joy imaginable. We should see that we live for Christ in this life, and that is good. But in the next, we stand face-to-face with Christ, and that is gain.