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Philippians 1:21-30 Biblical Commentary
The first eleven verses of this chapter constitute the salutation (vv. 1-2) and Paul’s prayer for the Philippians (vv. 3-11)—”that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that you may approve the things that are excellent; that you may be sincere and without offense to the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (vv. 9-11).
Beginning with verse 12, Paul tells of his circumstances as he writes this letter. He is in prison (1:7, 13-14, 17), but we don’t know which imprisonment this was. Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea for two years (c. 58-60 A.D.—Acts 23:23ff.)—and in Rome for another two years (c. 60-62 A.D.—Acts 28:11ff.). On another occasion, he faced a death sentence in Asia, probably in Ephesus (2 Corinthians 1:9; Acts 19:23ff.). While we think that Paul sent this letter from Rome, we can’t be sure.
Paul takes pains to let the Philippians know that the Gospel has been well served by his imprisonment. He has been able to proclaim Christ to the guards, and the local Christians have been emboldened by Paul’s example (1:12-14).
Paul’s concern to assure the Philippians regarding the positive nature of his imprisonment stems, at least in part, from the possibility that they might interpret his imprisonment otherwise. They could regard his imprisonment as shameful—a stamp of disapproval by the Roman government—a sign that Paul is guilty of some sort of crime. They could also regard it as a sign that God has abandoned Paul—or even that God is powerless in the face of the Roman legal system. Paul wants to head off any such misinterpretations. He wants to insure that the Philippians understand that God is in charge, and all is well with Paul and the Gospel—his imprisonment notwithstanding.
Paul acknowledges that some people proclaim Christ out of impure motives, such as “selfish ambition,” (1:16) while others proclaim Christ “out of love” (1:17). He doesn’t let this bother him, because “whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed” (1:18)—a fact that causes him to rejoice.
Paul also acknowledges the joy he finds in the prayers of the Philippians for his deliverance (1:18b-19). He says that it is his “earnest expectation and hope, that (he) will in no way be disappointed, but with all boldness, as always, now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life, or by death” (v. 20).
This last verse, where he expresses his hope that “Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life, or by death,” is the lead-in to verse 21, which begins our lectionary reading.
PHILIPPIANS 1:21-26. TO LIVE IS CHRIST & TO DIE IS GAIN
21For to me to live is Christ (Greek: Christos), and to die is gain (kerdos). 22But if I live on in the flesh, this will bring fruit from my work; yet I don’t know what I will choose. 23But I am in a dilemma between the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. 24Yet, to remain in the flesh is more needful for your sake. 25Having this confidence, I know that I will remain (meno), yes, and remain (parameno) with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26that your rejoicing may abound in Christ Jesus in me through my presence with you again.
“For to me to live is Christ (Christos) and to die is gain” (kerdos) (v. 21). Note the wordplay (similar sound) in the Greek that doesn’t translate well into English. “To live is Christos, and to die is kerdos” (gain). That sort of literary artistry adds power to the written and spoken word. Depending on the preacher’s skill and the congregation’s sophistication, it might be possible in a sermon to do something with this wordplay, perhaps by explaining the meaning of the two Greek words and then using the phrase, “Living is Christos (Christ), and dying is kerdos (gain)” repeatedly.
As noted above, in verse 20 Paul expressed his hope that Christ would be exalted by his life and his death.
Paul’s mention of life or death (v. 20) and living or dying (v. 21) suggests that he might be subject to capital punishment. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, he says, “Yes, we ourselves have had the sentence of death within ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9). However, we are uncertain how that comment is related to the imprisonment Paul is experiencing as he writes the Philippians this letter.
Paul is saying that he cannot lose. For him, to live is Christ (which is good) and to die is heavenly gain (which is also good). For another expression of this sentiment, see chapter 3 where Paul tells of his willingness to share Christ’s sufferings so that he might “know (Christ), and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed to his death; if by any means I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (3:10-11).
In saying that “to live is Christ and to die is gain,” Paul demonstrates a Christ-centered single-mindedness that has characterized millions of Christians through the ages. As one example, I remember a story of a missionary and his family who were going by ship to a primitive part of the world where they planned to establish a mission. The ship’s captain tried to dissuade them, saying that if they insisted on disembarking the ship they would surely die. The missionary replied, “We died before we left home.”
As another example, consider Martin Luther King, Jr. From the time he got involved in the Montgomery bus boycott, his life was continually in danger. On April 3, 1968, he flew to Memphis to address a crowd at Mason Temple. He almost didn’t get there, because his plane was delayed by a bomb threat. He alluded to that threat in his speech that evening, saying:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now.
We’ve got some difficult days ahead.
But it doesn’t matter with me now.
Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.
Longevity has its place.
But I’m not concerned about that now.
I just want to do God’s will.
And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.
And I’ve looked over.
And I’ve seen the promised land.
I may not get there with you.
But I want you to know tonight,
that we, as a people will get to the promised land.
And I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next day, April 4, King was felled by an assassin’s bullet.
“For to me to live is Christ” (v. 21a). Paul has already given one example of what this means. His imprisonment has provided him with an opportunity to spread the Gospel. Through his witness, the imperial guard and others have learned about Christ—and Christians, emboldened by his witness, have spread the Gospel without fear (1:12-14). He will also tell the Philippians that for him “to remain in the flesh is more needful for your sake” (v. 24)—meaning that, if he lives, he will have an opportunity to give additional pastoral support to the Philippian church.
“and to die is gain” (v. 21b). The traditional interpretation of this verse is that Paul expects that death will usher him into Christ’s throne room. This is reinforced by his comment in verse 23, “having the desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.”
Paul expresses this same sentiment in his second letter to the Corinthian church, when he says, “We are courageous, I say, and are willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
Paul has lived a purposeful life, but not an easy one. His life has been characterized by hardships of various kinds (2 Corinthians 11:23-28). Once he has died, those hardships will be behind him, and he can expect to experience only glory.
But Ralph Martin, in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary on this verse, says that Paul had something else in mind as well. If Paul were to be martyred for his faith, he believed that his martyrdom would enhance his witness for Christ.
There is no reason why both of these interpretations can’t be correct.
“and to die is gain” (v. 21b). If Paul anticipates being ushered into Christ’s throne room upon his death, that raises another question. Can we expect to find ourselves in Christ’s presence immediately upon death, as this verse implies, or will we have to wait for the general resurrection that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15?
That question has pastoral significance. At funerals people often say, “Now he/she is with the Lord” or “Now he/she is in a better place”—reflecting their belief that an immediate transition to the heavenly realm has taken place—but how does that accord with a belief in the general resurrection.
Before addressing this question further, let me stop to say that a funeral is no place to set the grieving person straight by saying, “No, he/she isn’t in a better place yet—not until the general resurrection.” Give the grieving person space to grieve in peace.
Having raised this question, I find myself unable to answer it definitively. However, I will make these observations:
• The Old Testament tells of two people who didn’t die, but went directly from earth into God’s presence—Enoch (Genesis 5:24; see also Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11).
• Paul describes the general resurrection as follows: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible” (1 Corinthians 15:52b). He is describing an end-of-time event.
• At the time of the general resurrection, “We who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together in the clouds with (those whom Christ has raised from the dead) to meet the Lord in the air. So we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
• Jesus promised the penitent thief, “Assuredly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)—an immediate translation into paradise. However, in saying this, Jesus establishes a one-time exception rather than a general rule.
• Jesus presents eternal life as having a present dimension. He said, “This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:3). His prayer in that chapter is very “now” oriented. Jesus is saying that eternal life is a matter of relationship with the Father—something that will be fully realized only in the future, but that has its beginnings in our lives now.
• Jesus incorporates both the “now” and the “future” dimensions of eternal life in a single sentence when he says, “‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life (now), and I will raise him up on the last day’ (to come) (John 6:54)” (Myers, “Immortality,” 520).
• Jesus also said, “Most certainly I tell you, he who hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life, and doesn’t come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24), which is “now” oriented and could point to an immediate translation to heaven. However, Jesus then said, “Most certainly, I tell you, the hour comes, and now is, when the dead will hear the Son of God’s voice; and those who hear will live” (John 5:25), which is clearly future oriented.
As nearly as I can determine, Paul’s writings support both the idea of an immediate transition into the Lord’s presence at death—and the idea of the general resurrection at the end of time. These two ideas live in tension with each other, and I am unable at the present time to resolve them to my satisfaction.
“But if I live on in the flesh, this will bring fruit from my work” (v. 22a). In verse 21, Paul outlined two possibilities: (1) “to live is Christ” and (2) “to die is gain.” He is at present a prisoner awaiting trial, which is a life-and-death proposition. At best, he will be acquitted and freed. At worst, he will be found guilty and executed. As Samuel Johnson would later say, the awareness of impending death “concentrates the mind wonderfully.”
Now Paul enlarges on the meaning of “to live is Christ” (v. 21) by saying, “But if I live on in the flesh, this will bring fruit from my work.” He doesn’t explain what he means by “fruit,” but that would have been obvious to the Christians at Philippi—and should be obvious to anyone today who has studied Paul’s life. After his Damascus road experience (Acts 9), Paul has traveled widely and has suffered many hardships (2 Corinthians 11:23-28) so that he might proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Even in prison he has rejoiced in the opportunity to preach Christ to his guards (1:12-14). If he is acquitted and freed, he will have the opportunity to continue his travels and preaching. He will have further opportunity to serve Christ.
“yet I don’t know what I will choose. But I am in a dilemma between the two” (vv. 22b-23a). The second possibility outlined in verse 21 was “to die is gain.”
Paul expresses his dilemma. While the Roman authorities have not given him the option of choosing life or death, he would find such a choice difficult.
“having the desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (v. 23b). From the standpoint of his own personal welfare, Paul would welcome dying and being with Christ. That would be “far better” for him. If the Roman authorities decide to execute him, he will no longer have to experience beatings and shipwrecks and other hardships for the cause of Christ. He will instead “be with Christ” in glory. That sounds wonderful to Paul—not because he has a death-wish, but because he believes that he, as a Christian, will enjoy life with Christ after death.
“Yet, to remain in the flesh is more needful for your sake” (v. 24). If the Roman authorities decide to free Paul, that will give him further opportunities to serve the Philippian church—and the other churches that he has established.
“Having this confidence, I know that I will remain (meno) yes, and remain (parameno) with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith” (v. 25). Note the wordplay between meno and parameno—a bit of literary artistry that gives Paul’s writing a bit of extra power—but which we lose in translation.
Given that God has called Paul to be an apostle (the Greek word apostolos means “one who is sent”), it seems likely that God will cause the Romans to free Paul so that he might continue his ministry. By continuing with his life in this world, Paul will have opportunity to observe the progress of the Philippian Christians—their progress and their “joy in the faith.”
We should note that, even in prison, Paul is modeling “joy in the faith” for the Philippian Christians. Most people, sitting in a prison cell month after month, would find themselves at loose ends—and quite possibly suffering depression at their circumstances. Paul, however, views his prison as just one more mission field. Being imprisoned has not blocked his opportunity to proclaim Christ, which is his raison d’etre—his reason for living. He is happy to have the opportunity to speak to the guards and prisoners about Christ (1:12-13)—and his witness has emboldened other Christians to proclaim Christ in circumstances where they otherwise might not have done so (1:14).
“that your rejoicing may abound in Christ Jesus in me through my presence with you again” (v. 26). Paul fully expects to see the Philippian Christians again. He is looking forward, not to his own opportunity to boast of his exploits, but of the opportunity to hear the Philippians boast “in Christ Jesus—their faith in Christ and their work for Christ.
PHILIPPIANS 1:27-30. LET YOUR LIFE BE WORTHY OF CHRIST
27Only let your way of life (Greek: politeuesthe) be worthy of the Good News of Christ, that, whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your state, that you stand firm in one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the Good News; 28and in nothing frightened (ptyromenoi—frightened, terrified) by the adversaries, which is for them a proof of destruction, but to you of salvation, and that from God. 29Because it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer on his behalf, 30having the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear is in me.
“Only let your way of life (politeuesthe) be worthy of the Good News of Christ” (v. 27a). In verses 12-26, Paul has been talking about his present circumstances. Now in verses 27-30, he begins to talk about the Philippians—to encourage them to live lives “worthy of the Good News of Christ.”
The verb politeuesthe is derived from the Greek noun polis, which means city. Politeuesthe can be translated “to live as a citizen.” To understand the significance of this word here, we must remember that, only a few decades earlier, Mark Anthony made Philippi a Roman city, with the consequence that citizens of Philippi became citizens of Rome. This citizenship endowed them with substantial benefits—and was a great source of pride to the Philippians.
So Paul is saying, “You who are rightfully proud of your Roman citizenship, keep in mind that you enjoy an even more important citizenship in God’s kingdom. Just as you would expect to live in a manner consistent with your Roman citizenship, so also you should expect to live in a manner consistent with your citizenship in God’s kingdom.”
But Paul expresses it as an imperative, so that he is telling them to be sure that they do live in a manner consistent with their citizenship in God’s kingdom.
“worthy of the Good News of Christ” (v. 27a). What kind of life would be “worthy of the Good News of Christ”?
• In his letter to the Galatian church, Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). To be “worthy of the Good News of Christ,” a Christian should manifest those qualities.
• In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul identifies love as the essential mark of the Christian life (1 Corinthians 13:1-13).
• In this letter to the Philippians, Paul talks about “joy in the faith” (v. 25) and “rejoicing…in Christ” (v. 26). Those would be consistent with citizenship in God’s kingdom.
• A few verses later, Paul will encourage the Philippians to do “nothing through rivalry or through conceit, but in humility, each counting others better than himself; each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others” (2:3-4). And then he will call them to “have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross” (2:5-8). This would certainly be consistent with citizenship in God’s kingdom.
“that, whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your state, that you stand firm in one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the Good News” (v. 27b). Paul calls these Philippian Christians to live lives consistent with their citizenship in God’s kingdom so that, whether near or far, Paul can know that they are united with their work for Christ.
Paul’s relationship with the Philippians is sufficiently close that this appeal is likely to have an effect—particularly in view of the fact that Paul is in prison as he writes this. The Philippians know that there is a possibility that they will never see Paul again. One of the chief ways they can ease his mind is to single-mindedly and with one spirit serve Christ.
“stand firm in one spirit” (v. 27b). This raises a question. When Paul says, “in one spirit,” is he talking about a spirit of unity among the Philippian Christians—or is he speaking of the one Holy Spirit? Many translations treat this verse as if it means a spirit of unity, but scholars are divided on this issue.
“and in nothing frightened (Greek: ptyromenoi—frightened, terrified) by the adversaries” (v. 28a). Christians often find themselves living in tension with secular authority. When Paul and Silas originally visited Philippi, Paul exorcised a spirit of divination from a slave girl, making her worthless to her owners. Those men brought false charges against Paul and Silas, causing them to be beaten and imprisoned. Because Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were able to exact an apology from the authorities who had imposed punishment without first giving them a trial. However, after apologizing, the authorities asked Paul and Silas to leave Philippi, which they did (Acts 16:12-40).
While Paul encouraged Christians to “be in subjection to the higher authorities” (Romans 13:1), both Jews and Christians resisted worshiping the Roman emperor—sometimes under penalty of death. While Tiberius (14-37 A.D.) refused divine honors, Caligula (37-41 A.D.) demanded that he be worshiped. Claudius (41-54 A.D.) refused divine honors, but Nero (54-68 A.D.) reinstated the cult of the emperor and was depicted as a god on Roman coins. Vespasian (69-79 A.D.) refused divine honors, but Titus (79-81 A.D.) and Domitian (81-96 A.D.) reinstated them. While Trajan (98-117 A.D.) refused divine honors, he did condone capital punishment of Christians who refused to worship Roman gods (Jones, “Roman Imperial Cult,” Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary).
Given that Paul probably wrote this letter to the Philippian church in the late 50’s or the early 60’s, Nero would have been on the throne. Nero persecuted Christians, but his persecution was sporadic and, for the most part, limited to the city of Rome. Therefore, Philippian Christians are not suffering from persecution that grows out of imperial policy. Their opposition is local.
Paul’s counsel to the Philippian Christians not to be frightened by their opposition reflects his confidence that God’s power trumps all opposition. He says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)—meaning, “If God is for us, what does it matter who is against us?”
Paul’s counsel also reflects his eschatological (end of time) perspective. At the beginning of this passage, Paul said, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:21). If that was true for him, surely he expected it to be true also for the Philippian Christians—and for us as well. It is hard to intimidate a person who truly believes that God has saved him/her.
“which is for them a proof of destruction, but to you of salvation, and that from God” (v. 28b). Their adversaries will see their actions against the Philippian Christians as a sign that they are destroying the Christians. However, the Christians, knowing that God is with them and has saved them, will understand their sufferings as being related to their salvation—salvation that comes from God.
“Because it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer on his behalf” (v. 29). In Hebrew scripture, suffering is usually seen as the consequence of sinful behavior. However, Jewish people were also capable of seeing suffering as God’s tool for shaping Israel as a nation (Deuteronomy 8:1-10). The book of Job deals with the problem of righteous people suffering. The prophet Isaiah introduces the suffering servant, whose suffering is redemptive—and who will be vindicated in the end (Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12).
Jesus’ teachings stand the traditional view of suffering on its head. In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12; Luke 6:20-26), the blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, and those who are hungry. The most expansive of the Beatitudes is the one that deals with the blessings of those who are persecuted. Jesus says, “Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).
Then, of course, Jesus’ death on a cross came to be viewed as part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world (Matthew 16:21-23; John 3:16). Jesus challenged his disciples to take up their cross to follow him.“For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life?” (Matthew 16:25-26).
In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul talks about the hardships that he has experienced as a result of his work for Christ:
“Five times from the Jews I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I suffered shipwreck. I have been a night and a day in the deep. I have been in travels often, perils of rivers, perils of robbers, perils from my countrymen, perils from the Gentiles, perils in the city, perils in the wilderness, perils in the sea, perils among false brothers; in labor and travail, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, and in cold and nakedness. Besides those things that are outside, there is that which presses on me daily, anxiety for all the assemblies” (2 Corinthians 11:24-28).
Paul was not a masochist. He bore his sufferings gladly, because they were part of his service to a great cause—the gospel of Christ Jesus.
Furthermore, Paul was convinced that “suffering works perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope: and hope doesn’t disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3b-5).
It is in because of this understanding of suffering that Paul tells the Philippian Christians that God has granted them the privilege of suffering for him.
“having the same conflict which you saw in me” (v. 30a). The Philippian Christians had a front row seat to observe a small part of Paul’s conflict. As noted above, when Paul visited Philippi to start a church there, the authorities, acting on a bogus complaint, beat Paul and Silas with rods, threw them in prison, and fastened their feet in stocks (Acts 16:16-24). Paul characterized that experience as having been “shamefully treated…at Philippi” (1 Thessalonians 2:2).
Paul links the suffering of the Philippian Christians with his own suffering. Like him, they have the honor of suffering in the service of Christ their Lord.
“and now hear is in me” (v. 30b). The struggle that Paul is currently experiencing is the imprisonment from which he is writing this letter (1:7, 13-14, 17).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Still, Todd D., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Philippians & Philemon (Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2011)
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