Summary: In Paul's "to live is Christ, to die is gain," we learn a new boldness, a singlemindedness, and a fearless approach to death when God brings it. We can serve God fully with yearning expectation for the life to come.
Living with One Foot in Eternity
Over the next four weeks, we’ll look at the tiny New Testament book of Philippians. It’s actually a letter the Apostle Paul wrote around 61 AD to the church in Philippi. Paul wrote from prison in Rome, probably during his first imprisonment, which was more like a house arrest. He was detained simply for sharing his faith. He was writing to a church that he started on an earlier trip to Philippi. The story is found in Acts chapter 16. There weren’t enough Jewish men in this city to form a synagogue, so Paul met with a group gathered in prayer on the banks of the river. One of the members of the group was Lydia, a smart business woman, who volunteered to host a church in her home. This church became the first Christian church on European soil!
We can identify with the city of Philippi because, like San Antonio, it was “Military City USA.” (Well, not the USA part!) It was an outlying province of Rome, and a place where many Roman soldiers went to live out their retirement.
Paul’s primary reason for writing the Philippian church was to say thanks for their gift to him during his two-year arrest in Rome. Despite writing from prison, Paul emphasizes the theme of JOY, regardless of your circumstances. During these four weeks, I urge you to read the book in its entirety. Use your Bible’s Table of Contents, look it up, and read it. You can do it easily in one sitting. Or you can read a chapter a week if you prefer. If you have never actually read the Bible on your own, this is a good place to start, as we trek through Philippians together.
Today we’ll focus on the tension between yearning for heaven and living this life to the full. Paul puts it well in his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy in verse 21: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” In the original Greek, it becomes even briefer: “For me...to live Christ, to die gain.” What is Paul saying here? What kind of priority system does he have? And how does this help him live with one foot on earth and one foot in heaven? Consider these three points:
1. Christ is our life.
We’ve talked about this concept before, but Paul absolutely demonstrates it in his opening words: “For me, to live is Christ” (verse 21). Notice what he DOESN’T say. He doesn’t say, “To live is to follow Christ,” or “To live is to act like Christ,” or “To live is to ask yourself, ‘What would Jesus do?’” Those things are good, but this is even more. Paul’s life is not just oriented TOWARDS Christ; it is wrapped up IN Christ. His Lord is his all-in-all, the center of his world, his meaning and purpose, his most precious possession, and the absolute definition of his being. All of Paul is found in all of Christ, so his life centers on serving and glorifying the Son of God, in all he is and in all he does.
Like many of you, Paul has always been a Type A personality. Before he was Paul, he was Saul, a radical persecutor of Christians. He hunted down and imprisoned Christians with zeal; sometimes he even supervised their execution. That is, until Jesus blinded him on the Damascus Road and asked, “Why are you persecuting me, Saul?” For the first time, Saul knew that Jesus was real. Jesus wasn’t just a myth that was causing Jews to go down the wrong path. Jesus was truly risen from the dead. Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. As Christ restored Saul’s sight and gave him a new name, Paul became a radical follower of the Lord. He studied the scriptures with Christians for years and then became the most fervent missionary of the Bible, setting up churches all over the Middle East and then Europe. He first went to the Jews, but when he found mostly rejection there, he went to the non-Jews, the Gentiles. In many towns, certain Jews set out to discredit him, to get him into trouble with the Roman authorities of the time. Paul suffered beatings and imprisonments on trumped-up charges. He was shipwrecked once on a prison ship. He was bitten by a poison snake. He was run out of town for his faith. He was discredited and cast out by his fellow Jews. And yet he could still say, “To live is Christ!” Nothing would deter him from his faith.
What about you? Most of us could say, “To live is Christ...PLUS a few other things.” Maybe the plus is work, leisure, accumulating wealth, relationships, etc. And sometimes the plus part becomes the primary part. “For me, to live is work.” Or, “To live is golf.” Or, “To live is food.” And sometimes we are fair-weather Christians. Our lives will be centered on Christ as long as everything is going smoothly. But then we recall the words of Job after he lost it all, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10). And his summary, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).