Philippians 1:21

‘to live is Christ,
and to die is gain’

(Philippians 1:21)

This thought provoking statement is the Christian’s perspective on life and death; at least it was the apostle Paul’s, and we’d to well to learn from his ‘example’(Philippians 3:17), as he points out in this letter, which interestingly contains much to demonstrate this perspective.

Obviously Paul’s referring to our physical death in this verse, but first our life in Christ must begin with another death, which he describes using similar vivid language elsewhere: ‘I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me’(Galatians 2:20). Of course he doesn’t mean that we cease to exist and somehow get replaced, but we do undergo a life changing transformation, which involves a form of death and new life, filled with the Holy Spirit. As Paul clarifies later in the same letter, those ‘who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts. If we live by the Spirit, let’s also walk by the Spirit’(Galatians 5:24-25). This initial death combined with spiritual birth is often accompanied by other losses too, as was the case for Paul, who told the Philippians that he’d ‘suffered the loss of all things… that I may gain Christ and be found in Him’(Philippians 3:8-9).

So the Christian life begins with this death of sorts, and birth into new life ‘in Christ… a new creation. The old things… passed away… all things… new’(2 Corinthians 5:17). Moreover, through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in us, we’re enabled to ‘will and to work’(Philippians 2:13) for God’s purposes, ‘through Christ, who strengthens’(Philippians 4:13), becoming like ‘a living sacrifice… transformed’(Romans 12:1-2), ‘like-minded’(Philippians 2:2) with Christ.

So we begin to see why ‘to live’ really is ‘Christ’ for the Christian, and how Paul sees it as so all consuming; but what should it actually look like?

The first thing, very evident from this letter, and which we’d do well to recognize and nurture, is that we’re ‘members of the body’(1 Corinthians 12:12), as Paul puts it in several of his other letters. We’re ‘one body in Christ’(Romans 12:5), the aim being that ‘each individual part’(Ephesians 4:16) works collectively towards the growth and mutual loving support of the whole. The very fact that all of Paul’s teachings in the Bible are letters demonstrates this well. We’re still in that same ‘partnership’(Philippians 1:5). Paul was expecting to visit the Philippians to engage in further fruitful ‘work’(Philippians 1:22) amongst them, for their ‘progress and joy in the faith’(Philippians 1:25). Likewise, they had helped Paul, who was in prison, by sending ‘Epaphroditus’(Philippians 2:25) with gifts and support. His letter was partly to convey thanks for this ‘well-pleasing sacrifice to God’(Philippians 4:18).

However, our lives as this body of believers mustn’t be just inward looking. Our partnership and mission is for the ‘furtherance of the Good News’(Philippians 1:5), i.e. ‘the righteousness which is from God by faith’(Philippians 3:9). So we’re to be sold out for the gospel as well. Paul was excited to tell the Philippians how even his imprisonment had helped spread the gospel message, ‘to the whole palace guard’(Philippians 1:13). His letter reads partly like a mission report, aside from conveying the thanks, although it also contains much teaching.

That teaches us more about what ‘to live is Christ’ looks like. In addition to being this supportive community, sharing the gospel with the world, we’re also to behave in a way that’s ‘worthy of the Good News of Christ’(Philippians 1:27), as ‘children of God without defect… lights in the world’(Philippians 2:15). Paul prays for the Philippians, that they be ‘filled with the fruits of righteousness… through Jesus Christ’(Philippians 1:11). Such prayerfulness is another key characteristic of this blessed Christ-life too, through which we can experience ‘the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding’(Philippians 4:7), become ‘content’(Philippians 4:11) regardless of our circumstances, and ‘rejoice’(Philippians 1:18,2:17-18,3:1,4:4&10) – a particular feature of this joyful letter from Paul, despite it having been written from prison.

Then, even more challenging, we can become role models too, an ‘example’(Philippians 3:17) to one other, ultimately ‘imitators… of Christ’(1 Corinthians 11:1), always humbly aware, with Paul, that none of us are ‘already made perfect; but… press on… in Christ’(Philippians 3:12-14). So Paul makes central to his letter the example of ‘Christ’(Philippians 2:5ff.). There we’re again reminded that our joy, contentment, peace, gospel service and fellowship might include (but needn’t be quenched by) suffering, even ‘to the point of death’(Philippians 2:8). Nevertheless, our Lord’s glorious end reminds us why Paul could add ‘to die is gain’, because ‘our citizenship is in heaven’(Philippians 3:20), ‘with Christ, which is far better’(Philippians 1:23).

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