Confidence in the plan of God
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.
What is Christianity?
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21 is a text that cuts like a surgeon’s scalpel to the heart of Christianity. What is Christianity? This question is a puzzle to non-Christian historians, sociologists, psychologists, and others. It also puzzles the person on the street, the homemaker, the college student.
What is Christianity? The answer to that question is not unknown to the believing child of God. Christianity is a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. All that is rightly associated with Christianity finds its center of gravity in him. John R. W. Stott has written correctly, “The person and work of Christ are the foundation rock upon which the Christian religion is built. … Take Christ from Christianity, and you disembowel it; there is practically nothing left. Christ is the centre of Christianity; all else is circumference.”
Many people do not realize this. They see only the paraphernalia of Christianity. Consequently, they form false conclusions about its essence and reject it on these grounds. In October of 1967, the Soviet Union launched a space probe designed to crash upon the surface of Venus and send back vital statistics about its surface temperature and atmospheric pressure. The space probe ceased transmitting 3,774 miles from the center of the planet, presumably because it had struck the surface. The information the probe gathered about the temperature and atmospheric pressure seemed unquestionable, and it suggested there could be life on Venus. Now, however, scientists have determined that the radius of Venus is only 3,759 miles, meaning that the Russian space probe ceased transmitting when it was still fifteen miles above the planet’s surface. Consequently, all of its figures were misleading. It gave the temperature fifteen miles above the planet’s surface, but it did not provide the information that the scientists most wanted to know.
In the same way thousands of well-meaning people stop receiving data when they are miles from the heart of Christianity. For many people a knowledge of Christianity stops at contact with those who claim to be Christians. They identify Christianity with so-called Christian character, and since many believers are far from what God intends them to be, this data gives a false impression. Other people actually get into the atmosphere, perhaps as far as the organization, and then conclude that Christianity is the visible church. This is like identifying life with a test tube full of chemicals, and this impression is misleading also. Other people get as far as the ceremonies of the church and often pass for Christians because they participate properly. The fact that so many congregations are filled with people who have gone no farther than this is one reason for the weakness of the Christian church today. Some people actually come as close as the creeds. They can recite them. Unfortunately, this too is less than Christianity, important as the creeds may be.
Christianity is a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing about Christianity will be rightly understood until there is faith in Christ and a personal relationship with him.
Christ and Paul
This truth was well known to the apostle Paul, and our text is a great expression of it. Paul writes: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (v. 21). This verse should be taken together with Galatians 2:20, which is Paul’s definitive commentary on it: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” These two verses, one from the early days of Paul’s ministry and the other from the end, summarize the living essence of Paul’s faith. Put the two together, and you have a great expression of what was undoubtedly the heartthrob of Paul’s life and Christian ministry.
One Christmas when I was a child I was given a kaleidoscope. I shall never forget how amazed I was to pick it up for the first time and to see the brilliant arrangement of colors as the bits of tinted glass were refracted many times by mirrors. I was even more amazed to find that the beauty increased infinitely as the kaleidoscope was turned. Our text from Philippians is like that. It is beautiful in itself, but it is even more beautiful as it is turned about and seen from new perspectives. What does it mean to say that Christianity is Christ or that the Christian life is Christ? As we turn the text about we can see that Christianity is faith in Christ; it is fellowship with Christ; and it is following after Christ. These are various aspects of the heart of Christianity.
Faith in Christ
When you say Christianity is Christ, you say, in the first place, that Christianity is faith in Christ. It is the acknowledgment that you can do nothing to save yourself, that you deserve hell from God rather than heaven, and that Christ has provided salvation for you by dying in your place. Moreover, it is a receiving of Jesus Christ as your Savior and as the Lord of your life. This is the message of the Book of Galatians and the central thrust of Paul’s words in Galatians 2:20.
To understand this verse properly, we must look at the historical background of the letter to the Galatians. The churches of Galatia were among the first Paul had founded, and they were particularly close to his heart. As Paul traveled through the Roman province of Galatia in what is now central Turkey, he endured real hardships as a result of preaching the gospel. We read in Galatians 4:13 that Paul had first preached “because of an illness,” and we are told in Acts that he had been stoned at Lystra. Such labors were hard, but they bore fruit, and everywhere Paul went he established congregations of believers. How Paul loved these people. He visited them on his second missionary journey and again on the third. He had put forth much energy on their behalf. He had lived with them and prayed with them. They were grounded in the gospel and trusted Christ and Christ alone for their salvation.
Then Paul went on to found churches elsewhere, and in his wake, like crows following behind a farmer as he plows a field, nonbelievers came trying to profit from Paul’s ministry. They came with a great show of authority and much human wisdom, teaching that salvation depended, at least in part, on human goodness. They reminded the Galatian Christians of the Jewish traditions and claimed a special relationship to the Jerusalem apostles. They even cast doubt on the validity of Paul’s apostleship. It is not enough, they said, to have faith in Christ to have salvation. It is necessary to become a Jew first. There must be circumcision, a keeping of the Jewish holy days, and many other things. To these legalizers salvation was not by faith alone.
The news reached Paul, and he was filled with righteous anger. These men were threatening to undo everything that he had accomplished among the Galatian people. Paul wrote back, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Gal. 1:6–9). For Paul, salvation was by faith in Christ alone, and he expressed this conviction vividly.
Are you trusting in Christ for your salvation? Earlier I mentioned those who reject true Christianity by stopping short at human character, the creeds, or Christian ceremonies. Unfortunately, many of these persons also trust these things to save them. Do you have faith in relics, in proper phrases, in the sacraments of your church, or in things you can do to improve your human character? These things will not save you and have no value in reconciling you to God. You must let God strip them away like worn out clothing. Christianity is faith in Christ, and in Christ alone.
Fellowship with Christ
Another aspect of the truth that Christianity is Christ is that Christianity is fellowship with Christ. This fact is a necessary complement to the truth that Christianity is faith in Christ, for Christians often tend to think of faith impersonally. Christianity is belief in Christ, but it is also communion or fellowship with him, and fellowship must be cultivated. The great evangelist and Bible teacher, A. W. Tozer, has written, “The modern scientist has lost God amid the wonders of His world; we Christians are in real danger of losing God amid the wonders of his Word. We have almost forgotten that God is a Person and, as such, can be cultivated as any person can.”
The fact that Christianity is a life to be cultivated is quite apparent in the early verses of 1 John. The writer of these verses is interested in the facts concerning the life of Jesus Christ. But his testimony does not stop with facts, nor is it given only to lead his readers to have orthodox opinions. John writes, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Doctrine must lead to fellowship and fellowship to the riches of the Christian life. The next verse adds, “We write this to make our joy complete” (v. 4).
How unfortunate it is that many Christians go through life with somber faces! They know the facts of Christian faith and they trust Christ for their salvation, but there is no joy. There is nothing that gives evidence of God’s presence in the midst of life or in its tribulations. This should not be so. The presence of our Lord brings joy. And if there is no joy (or peace, or longsuffering, or patience, or any other Christian virtue for that matter), the cause may well be a lack of fellowship with Jesus.
If you lack Christian joy, it may be that things are keeping you from him. If so, you need to set them aside a while and spend time in Christ’s presence.
It may be that activities are keeping you from him. In that case it is far better that these be set aside. Mary and Martha were both friends of Jesus, and both were quite orthodox. In fact, it was Martha who ran to meet Jesus when he returned to Bethany following the death of Lazarus. It was she who expressed faith in the final resurrection (John 11:24) and revealed her personal faith in Jesus: “Lord, … if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). But when Jesus was in the home of Mary and Martha, it was Mary who sat at his feet while Martha served. And Jesus said, “Martha, Martha … you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41–42). One thing is needed! How often we reverse the two. We think our service is needed and fellowship dispensable. We need to learn that nothing can be a substitute for the cultivation of the presence of God.
Following After Christ
To these truths we must also add that Christianity means following Christ. The Christ in whom we believe is a Christ on the move, and the fellowship we enjoy is not so much the fellowship of the living room as it is the fellowship of the soldier marching under the eye of his commander. In its simplest form Christ’s call was always the call, “Follow me.” It was the call to Matthew. It was the call to the rich young ruler. It was the call to the multitudes who came to hear him. Jesus always invited others to follow him and to unite their efforts with his cause. He invites you to follow him today.
You cannot follow Christ unless you have forsaken all that keeps you from him. Peter and Andrew left their nets. James and John left Zebedee. Matthew left his money tables. You must leave your sin, your personal sinful aspirations, your own conception of yourself. Moreover, you must continue to do so throughout your Christian life.
For this to be possible Paul says that there must be a crucifixion. It is true that he says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:20). He says again, “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). This is victory in the Christian life. But before he can say any of these things, Paul must be able to say that he is crucified with Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (v. 20). There must be the tearing of the flesh, the breaking of the bones, the shedding of blood before the spirit of the disciple is set free. Christianity is no easy thing. It is the walk of the disciple who must bear his own cross.
In Judea in the first Christian century there were certain customs that surrounded the relationship between a rabbi and those whom he chose to be disciples. One of these customs was that when the master moved from place to place the disciples literally followed behind him. We must imagine this being true many times of Christ and his disciples. He led them literally, as well as figuratively, and they followed where he led. During the days of Christ’s ministry there were hours spent in pleasant places—at a wedding or by the Sea of Galilee. At other times there were steps through angry crowds and steps before the faces of Christ’s enemies. All the time they followed. At last the steps of Christ led up the steep ascent to Jerusalem and stopped at the foot of the cross. The disciples were stunned. The work of three years appeared to have been undertaken in vain. But instead the work was finished; atonement was made; the veil was rent in two. Christ had provided access for all believers into God’s presence.
In the same way our following of Christ must lead to crucifixion and beyond the cross to glory. Neither you nor I must linger in the pleasant places. We must cast these behind and follow Jesus. Have you followed him through hostile crowds and dangers and yielded yourself to crucifixion?
In one of our hymns we sing:
Jesus, keep me near the cross;
There a precious fountain,
Free to all—a healing stream—
Flows from Calvary’s mountain.
The hymn embodies a great truth, but the truth we have been studying should be taken with it. We could also sing:
Jesus, keep me on the cross;
Let me wander never;
Then a twice-born child of God,
I’ll rise and live forever.
No one can crucify himself or herself. But God will crucify the Christian. He will place you on the cross, knowing that through death to self lies resurrection power and the removing of the veil.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 76–77). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2000). Philippians: an expositional commentary (pp. 74–79). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.