“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
What is the most important thing in your life? What is continually on your radar screen as you fly through the clouds and storms and also the clear blue skies of life? What makes you excited about living? In all of life’s hustle and bustle, what remains constant and gives you sure direction and solace? What gives life meaning?
The Apostle Paul provides a clear answer to this question in his letter to the Philippians. When Paul writes this letter, he is being held as a prisoner; he is a man in chains (Phil 1:13). But Paul does not despair because of his unpleasant circumstances. Rather, he rejoices that his imprisonment has in fact even helped to spread the gospel. For now more people than ever are speaking about Christ (Phil 1:14).
In verse 21, Paul makes a very personal confession, as the “to me” indicates. Paul shares with the Philippians what is important to him as a believer in the Lord. For Paul, “to live is Christ”. What is really meant with this expression? It is a concentrated way of saying what he wrote in verse 20, namely, that Christ will be exalted in his body, whether by life or by death. “To live is Christ” means to let Christ determine one’s life. Christ becomes the focal point of life and the very reason for living. In everything that Paul does and says, he seeks to exalt Christ. Only then will life have fulfilment and meaning. For it is Christ who has given him life with God. Christ has brought about complete reconciliation with God the Father. Through Christ it is possible to begin to live life the way the Creator intended it, namely in communion with him.
Christ is everything in the life of the believer, and the work that Christ has done on our behalf will also change the view that we have of death. Death is the last enemy and is feared and dreaded by all. But because of Christ, Paul is able to regard death as gain. The two phrases, “to live is Christ” and “to die is gain”, are connected by a vital “and”. Death can only be seen as gain in a life that has been dominated by Christ. Because Christ lives in the believer, when he dies he has nothing to fear but may instead look forward to tremendous gain, indeed even to things that are not present in this world.
Of ourselves we might have thought to switch the two phrases around, like this: to live is gain and to die is Christ. There are those who call themselves Christians who live like this. For them this earthly life with all its pleasures is what really counts and then they have Christ in their back pocket, as it were, to provide some relief when they are confronted with death.
But that is not how it is for those who truly belong to Christ. For them this life already is full of a focus on Christ. Let us desire here and now to live for Him and to magnify Him in our lives. It is now already that He gives us peace through his sacrifice on the cross. It is now already that we experience the mercy and grace of God through his Son Jesus Christ. If we state for ourselves that this life itself is gain, then we have missed the seriousness of the call of the gospel. Then we live for ourselves and apart from Christ. If we regard this life as “the gain”, then we are faced with eternal death.
No, this life is not “the gain” but rather this life is the testing ground. It is the time that determines our eternal place. Those who realize their need for Jesus Christ and turn to him will gain much in the life to come. But those who live only for the fleeting pleasures of this world will find every sorrow in the next life. They will exchange gain for pain if they reject Christ.
What do you live for? What gives your life meaning? May this confession of Paul “to live is Christ and to die is gain” also be our confession. We can be excited about living in this sinful and unstable world because of the firm confidence that we may have in the work of Christ on our behalf. In Him, we may now already have communion with God and so experience the deepest joy there is.
This article by Rev Carl Van Dam (minister of the Canadian Reformed Church at Houston, BC) was published in Clarion 24 March 2017 and is republished here with the author’s permission.