Paul begins his letter to the Philippians with a thanksgiving and prayer for the church, 1:3-11. He then touches on his personal situation, 1:12-26. The passage before us reminds us to let Christ be exalted, whether in our day-to-day living, or in the day of our dying.
v19-20. Paul begins with a statement of faith. He knows that the prayers of the church and the ministry of the Holy Spirit will support him in this difficult time. He believes he will stand firm, courageous to the end. Thus, Christ will be honored, either by his life or by his death. He actually uses the word "deliverance", but does he believe that the prayers of the church will gain his release from prison? It is likely that "deliverance" here has an eternal sense. Paul knows that all things will ultimately work for God's good and therefore his good. Of one thing he is sure, that Christ will be exalted through the situation he now faces, whether it leads to his release, or his execution. The one element he needs in either situation is "courage", a courage instilled in him through the ministry of the Holy Spirit and bolstered by the prayers of the church. Thus, he will not be "ashamed"; he will not let Jesus down.
v21. "Living to me means simply 'Christ', and if I die I should merely gain more of him", Phillips. As far as Paul is concerned, life is found in knowing Christ and serving him, in good times and in bad. Death is even more wonderful. For the believer, death is but the means of fully knowing Christ. There are no limitations, no sin to deaden, nothing of the old life to resist fullness in Christ. Once through the vale, the "flesh" can no longer hinder our glorification.
v22-24. To live or to die, where does the advantage lie? To die is better for Paul, but to live gives the opportunity of fruitful labor, and this is far better for the church. For Paul, life is about "fruitful labor." It gives us the opportunity of service to Christ on earth, which service prepares us for our reign with Christ in eternity. Yet, at the same time, in the midst of the difficulties of life, Paul is very aware of the advantage that comes when we "depart and be with Christ." Seen in these terms, death is certainly a beautiful option. Note the immediacy of being with Christ at death. Paul's words do not imply that we have some pre-resurrection existence with Christ prior to the resurrection of our bodies in the last day. It just illustrates the immediacy of eternal life for a believer. Time no longer has hold over us. As Jesus said to the thief on the cross, "this evening you will be with me in Paradise." In fact, even now God has "seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus", Eph.2:6. Yet, Paul knows well that "it is more necessary for you that I remain." It might be better for Paul to go to be with the Lord, but it is not better for the church. God's people need to be built up and a minister like Paul cannot be replaced. In fact, it is true of anyone who seeks to serve the people of God. It is better to stay and serve.
v25-26. Given that it is better to live and serve, Paul is convinced that he will visit the Philippians again. When Paul says "I will remain", he is saying he knows that God's intention for him is that he will live longer so that he may continue in his labor for Christ. Of course, there is a purpose for his remaining and that is "your happy furtherance in the faith". Paul's hope is that he might labor for a growing understanding of divine truth in his new churches. This would naturally be accompanied by joy, the fruit of knowing Christ. So he adds, "your glorying in Christ will abound."
As a young minister, I was visiting a nursing home and a beautiful little lady told me that she just wanted to die. It was the first time someone had said this to me and I just didn't know what to say.
It is not unusual for elderly brothers and sisters in Christ, especially if bedridden in a retirement home, to feel that it is time to be with the Lord. It is a common feeling with those who have fought the good fight and now look toward their eternal reward. As we get older, we may express the same desire. The struggle of old age can be like that. Here we are confined to our bed and in this condition it is "better by far" to "depart and be with Christ" for there glory awaited us. No longer restricted by our body, no longer struggling for each gulp of air, no longer bowed by the limitations of the flesh. The day may come when we will desire such freedom, for then death will be "gain."
Yet, there is value in the continued struggle. This is easy for us to say if we have good health, but obviously not so easy if life has become a little tedious. It had obviously become tedious for Paul as he struggled to survive the daily drudgery of prison. Yet, whether it is easy or difficult to continue in the struggle of life, it is more valuable to remain. The apostle defines this value simply:
1. To learn courage in the midst of life's difficulties, rather than be overcome by fear and let the Lord down, v19-20.
2. To give fruitful labor for the building up of the kingdom of God, rather than seek the easy path of self gratification, v21-24.
3. To advance the knowledge of our brothers and sisters in Christ and so enhance their joy in believing, v25-26.
So, may life for us be Christ, and death be gain.
Consider how the above three points could be practically applied in the life of your congregation.