Summary: Funeral sermon upon the death of an elderly believer
Philippians 1:21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (RSV)
The apostle Paul was a man who had no fear of death. He was able to speak freely about the reality of death. Death held no terror for him. He even looked forward to it. Not that Paul was disillusioned with life and simply wanted to end it all. He didn’t look at life as evil, and see death as the lesser of two evils. Rather, he saw life as good, and death as the better of two goods. That is why we see him saying, “I am hard pressed between the two.” (verse 23)
Later in this same epistle Paul writes, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content.” (4:11) “I know how to be abased,” he says, “and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” (4:12-13)
Paul speaks here from a life of experience. He is writing this epistle near the end of his life while he is in prison suffering affliction for the sake of Christ. Much of his life had been a life of suffering. “Five times,” he tells his readers, “I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.” (II Corinthians 11:24-26) And yet he was content -- content to carry on his life and work, or content to die. He had learned the secret: “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
With these words Paul expresses what is true for everyone who confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. For the believer who abides in Christ, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” These are the words in which we find consolation and comfort as we think of the loved one whom we mourn today. In these words there is also encouragement for you who grieve as you face having to continue your lives without one whom you love. Furthermore, these words present a challenge to all of us who are still living, as we face the reality that it is also “appointed for us to die.” (Hebrews 9:27)
“To live is Christ, to die is gain.” There is genuine consolation in these words as we remember a loved one who has died in the Lord. We, of course, would like to always keep our loved one with us. But we know that death for him is a gain. If we allow our thoughts to focus only on ourselves and our loss, however great that may be, we will be unable to fix our minds on the glory to which he has gone and which he will enjoy forever. For him, the afflictions of this present life, from which he has been delivered, are now in the past. We remember the word of our Lord which the apostle John heard on the Isle of Patmos: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord….blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors.” (Revelation14:13)
“To die is gain,” Paul tells us. How is that so? The first thing that comes to mind is that the suffering of this present life is at an end. All tears are wiped away; “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more.” (Revelation 21:3) But more than physical and mental suffering is finished, is over, by the gain that Paul speaks of. The stain of sin which still clings to all of us in this life is finally and completely washed clean; the temptations that beset us here are not found there. Though we thank God that, with the help of his Spirit, we may make a beginning here and now in the new life which is ours in Christ Jesus, we realize that in the light of what God desires of us and requires of us, we make only a small beginning. For those who know Christ, however, death is a translation into that heavenly kingdom which knows no sin, no temptation, no evil. What a great gain is death for one who dies in the Lord!
That gain is not only the absence of suffering and sin. It is the entering into the glory of heaven and of an eternal life. “To depart,” says Paul, “is to be with Christ,” and “that is far better.” (verse 23) How can we possibly describe the happiness, the bliss, the unbounded joy which a departed one knows in that fellowship with Christ? “We are children of God,” John tells us, “and what we will be has not yet been made known.” (I John 3:2) Of the things that God has prepared for those who love him, Paul says, “no eye has seen,...no ear has heard, and...no human mind has conceived.” (I Corinthians 2:8-9) To die is unimaginable gain! This is the consolation and the comfort which comes to us from God’s Word as we remember our loved one who has been called to his heavenly home.