May 28 – Joy in Spite of Death

“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Philippians 1:21


In addition to Scripture, God has given us more than adequate spiritual resources to meet suffering and death.

Wall Street, the name synonymous with the American stock market and financial investing, is a place where confidence can rise and fall with great force and unpredictability, right along with the rising or sinking level of stock prices. Prices always seem to even out, but who can be certain about how they will behave in the future?

The apostle Paul’s spiritual confidence was not based on the changeableness of financial markets but on truths that are stable and reliable. Yesterday we saw his confidence in God’s Word, and today we’ll look at three more reasons Paul could confront death confidently.

First, Paul had confidence in the prayers of other believers. But it was not a presumptuous confidence because he believed in asking others to pray (see Rom. 15:30). Paul was convinced that “the effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16).

Second, Paul was confident that the Holy Spirit would supply all necessary resources to sustain him through any suffering, even death. All Christians can have that same confidence: “The Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).

Third, Paul had the utmost confidence in Christ’s promises. The apostle was sure that God had called him to a specific ministry (Acts 26:16) and that if he was faithful, he would never suffer shame (Mark 8:38). Jesus never abandons His sheep, no matter how bleak and frustrating their circumstances seem (John 10:27–28).

Our verse from Philippians summarizes Paul’s confidence and joy in spite of possible death. As long as he was serving Jesus Christ, he’d just as soon die because death frees the believer from the burdens of earth and lets him glorify Christ in eternity. We can rely on the same promises and provisions as Paul did and have his kind of joy. Jesus “is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever” (Heb. 13:8).


Suggestions for Prayer: Confess any ways in which you have a misplaced confidence. ✧ Ask the Lord to reinforce in your heart a Pauline confidence that rejoices no matter what.

For Further Study: Read Romans 8, and list as many spiritual resources and reasons for rejoicing as you can from the chapter.[1]

1:21 Here, in a nutshell, is Paul’s philosophy of life. He did not live for money, fame, or pleasure. The object of his life was to love, worship, and serve the Lord Jesus. He wanted his life to be like the life of Christ. He wanted the Savior to live out His life through him.

And to die is gain. To die is to be with Christ and to be like Him forever. It is to serve Him with unsinning heart and with feet that will never stray. We do not ordinarily think of death as one of our gains. Sad to say, the outlook today seems to be that “to live is earthly gain, and to die would be the end of gain.” But, says Jowett: “To the Apostle Paul, death was not a darksome passageway, where all our treasures rot away in a swift corruption; it was a place of gracious transition, ‘a covered way that leadeth into light.’ ”[2]

  1. There is no sharp division between verses 20 and 21. They should stand together. Paul says that he knows that in his person Christ will be magnified, For to me to live (is) Christ, and to die (is) gain. Were this not true, Christ would not be magnified in him.

What Paul means by saying, “For to me to live is Christ,” may be learned from the familiar lines of the well-known hymn by Will L. Thompson:

“Jesus is all the world to me,

My life, my joy, my all;

He is my strength from day to day,

Without him I would fall.

When I am sad to him I go,

No other one can cheer me so;

When I am sad he makes me glad,

He’s my friend.”

And the stanzas which follow.

When the apostle says so emphatically “to me” placing this word at the very beginning of the sentence, he is giving a personal testimony and is at the same time drawing a contrast between himself and those to whom he has just been referring and who, no doubt, are still very much in his mind; namely, preachers “who proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition,” Paul, then, in contrast with them, is not self-centered but Christ-centered. He is concerned with the honor and glory of his wonderful Redeemer.

To determine even more exactly just what the apostle has in mind when he says. “to live (is) Christ,” parallel Pauline passages must be consulted. It means: to derive one’s strength from Christ (Phil. 4:13), to have the mind, the humble disposition of Christ (Phil. 2:5–11), to know Christ with the knowledge of Christian experience (Phil. 3:8), to be covered by Christ’s righteousness (Phil. 3:9), to rejoice in Christ (Phil. 3:1; 4:4), to live for Christ, that is, for his glory (2 Cor. 5:15), to rest one’s faith on Christ and to love him in return for his love (Gal. 2:20)

“And to die (is) gain.” Dying physically means gain for Paul. It will mean that he will actually be with Christ (see verse 23), “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). But gain for Paul can never be dissociated from gain for the cause of Christ, for the one objective in which Paul rejoices most is that in his person Christ may be magnified. Death will be a distinct gain because it will be the gateway to clearer knowledge, more wholehearted service, more exuberant joy, more rapturous adoration, all of these brought to a focus in Christ. Surely, if even now Christ is magnified in Paul’s person, he will be thus magnified even more on the other side of death. Cf. 1 Cor. 13:12. Death is gain because it brings more of Christ to Paul, and more of Paul to Christ.[3]

whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (1:20b–21)

Paul was not certain what God’s plan was for him, whether he would continue to serve and exalt Him through his life and ministry or through the final exaltation of death. Either way, the Lord’s will would be done; His plan would be fully accomplished.

To the elders from Ephesus, who met him on the beach near Miletus, Paul declared unequivocally, “I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). A short while later he said to the believers in Caesarea who were distressed by Agabus’s prophecy of Paul’s impending arrest: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). He reminded the believers in Rome that “not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Rom. 14:7–9). Whether he lived or died, the apostle could say now as he would to Timothy a few years later: “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:6–7). Either way, he would be victorious and Christ would be exalted.

The Greek phrase rendered to live is Christ and to die is gain contains no verb. It literally reads “to live Christ, to die gain.” Paul knew that living is Christ, because he would continue to serve Him while he lived. He also knew that dying would be gain because then he would be in God’s presence, able to worship and serve Him in holy perfection (cf. v. 23). Paul fully understood that wealth, power, influence, possessions, prestige, social standing, good health, business or professional success, and all other such things are transitory. Many acknowledge that truth, but not many live as if it is true. Few can say with Paul’s utter sincerity to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

The apostle’s very being was wrapped up in his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He trusted, loved, served, witnessed for, and in every way was devoted to and dependent on Him. His only hope, his only purpose, his only reason to live was Christ. He traveled for Christ, preached for Christ, and was persecuted and imprisoned for Christ. Ultimately, he would die for Christ. But even death, by God’s marvelous grace, was ultimately for Paul’s eternal gain.[4]

21 The statement “to live is Christ” is not some pious cliché. Since Paul always carries in his body “the death of Jesus” and is always being “given over to death for Jesus’ sake” (2 Co 4:10–11), living entails continuing to participate in Christ’s sufferings (Php 3:10; see Col 1:24). It means obeying God, humbling himself, and giving his life for others as Christ obeyed, humbled himself, and gave his life for others.

“To die is gain” is a figure of speech whose meaning changed over the course of time (M. E. Boring, K. Berger, and C. Colpe, eds., Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995], 479). It could mean that death is an escape hatch from troubles in this life. It becomes a gain because it means one is free from all care: “It is better to die once than to suffer every day” (Aeschylus, Prom. 747–51; Sophocles, Ant. 463–64). Plato (Apol. 40) understands death to be a “dreamless sleep” in which “time seems no longer than one night.” Tobit (3:6 NRSV), who became blind and impoverished while in exile in Nineveh after courageously burying an executed fellow Jew, laments to God:

So now deal with me as you will;

command my spirit to be taken from me,

so that I may be released from the face of the earth and become dust.

For it is better for me to die than to live,

because I have had to listen to undeserved insults,

and great is the sorrow within me.

Command, O Lord, that I be released from this distress;

release me to go to the eternal home,

and do not, O Lord, turn your face away from me.

For it is better for me to die

than to see so much distress in my life

and to listen to insults.

By contrast, Paul uses the verb kerdainein (GK 3045; “gain”) in 3:8 to refer to gaining Christ, which involves having righteousness from God, knowing the power of Christ’s resurrection, sharing his sufferings, being conformed to his death, and attaining the resurrection of the dead. The gain of death would put to rest what he most feared—being disqualified (Craddock, 29).

Paul does not have a “death wish” and does not regard earthly life to be insignificant in comparison to the heavenly realm. Life on earth presents the opportunity for “fruitful labor.” His dilemma is created by the extraordinary value he places on his service to Christ and the church (Lincoln, 103–4). Life in the flesh (“living in the body”), with all of its weaknesses and temptations, is not a lamentable condition for Paul but presents a continued opportunity for him to labor fruitfully in the cause of Christ (Ro 1:13).[5]

[1] MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1963). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Philippians (Vol. 5, pp. 75–76). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 76–77). Chicago: Moody Press.

[5] Garland, D. E. (2006). Philippians. In T. Longman III (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, p. 204). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.