In verses 12-18, Paul shared personal details about his ministry of the gospel. Now he turns toward his expectations about the future.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. [b] 20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.
As Paul sits in prison, he understandably starts to wonder about the outcome of his trial. Will he be set free? Executed? What’s going to happen?
Let’s first note Paul’s positive outlook, which is a direct result of the Philippian believers’ prayers. Their prayers are intricately linked with God’s provision of the Spirit of Christ (i.e., Christ’s presence). This is a good reminder for us that prayers move God to action. God’s response gives Paul confidence of his deliverance (Phil 1.19; cf. Job 13.16); specifically, that he’ll have the courage to face whatever happens, so that “Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil 1.20).
In the following verses, Paul weighs the benefits of the possible outcomes: 21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith. . . .
One potential outcome is freedom or life. If Paul is set free, he’ll be able to partake in “fruitful labor,” which for Paul means continuing to proclaim Christ. This is ultimately what Paul feels God is revealing to him (1.25). He recognizes that for the benefit of the Philippians, it would be best to remain living. The gospel will continue to advance in them—with their “progress and joy in the faith.”
What about the alternative death? How might this be considered “gain”? First, let’s be clear that Paul does not view death as a way to escape the problems and suffering of this life. In fact, in chapter 3 where Paul speaks of the gain and surpassing worth of knowing Christ, he states his ultimate goal of life, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (3.10; emphases mine). Thus, Paul views death and suffering as a way to know Christ more intimately, more completely.
If Paul dies by Roman execution, he will be united with Christ (1.23). But note that when Paul expresses his hope that “now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (1.19), he’s speaking about life in the present, not about the afterlife.[i] In other words, Paul hopes his death will serve as a powerful witness for Christ. It’s Paul’s potential Braveheart moment. Or better yet, his Jesus Christ moment: his time to share in the likeness of Jesus’ death (3.10); his opportunity to follow in the way of his Lord and Savior, “becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2.8). This, for Paul, would be “gain” (1.21). I believe this is the primary intent of this passage.[ii]
In various parts of the world, Christians are still put to death for their faith. And I suppose it’s possible some of us may even know some missionaries who face the threat of martyrdom. For such people, I pray Paul’s example provides encouragement and strength. Although most of us don’t find ourselves in such circumstances, I believe this text nevertheless proves relevant to us 21st century, Western Christians. Let’s face it: we don’t hold a proper view of suffering. Whenever something goes wrong, we tend to think that we’ve fallen out of God’s favor. We grumble and complain, some even curse God. But as difficult as it might be to accept, suffering is the reality of the Christian life. We must therefore do our best to embrace it; for, it’s an opportunity to know Jesus more intimately. It allows us to better understand what he went through for us on the cross.
Heavenly Father, Lord Jesus Christ, may we, like Paul, desire nothing more to have you Jesus exalted in our body, whether by life or by death. Help us to make the most of each day you give us here on earth. Grant us the grace of your blessings. Grant us the grace of your suffering. We praise you. Amen.
[i] It’s often taught that death is gain for Paul because he views death as the time when he will experience eternal bliss with Jesus in heaven. While it’s certainly true that Paul believes in afterlife of this sort (see 2 Cor 5), I don’t believe it’s the primary focus here. The immediate context is Paul’s trial and execution. And Paul hopes to glorify Christ, now and in the body (Hansen, Philippians, 81).
[ii] Greatly influenced by Walter Hansen, Philippians, 76-93.