Of all the words contained in the letters of Paul, none read more poignantly than these:
“For me to live is Christ,
and to die is gain.”
This is Paul’s autobiography in a word. It’s the core of his faith, the basis of his hope, the reason for his existence.
“For me to live is Christ,
and to die is gain.”
I’ll never forget a Presbytery meeting I attended years ago in West Texas. It included the examination of a candidate seeking membership in the Presbytery as a Minister of Word and Sacrament.
I happened to know the candidate personally, and I knew him to be a man of God with a heart for the Lord and a clear sense of God’s claim on his life.
I also knew he wasn’t especially quick on his feet. I wondered how he’d stand up under pressure, being examined on the floor of Presbytery before a couple hundred people.
The examination began with three perfunctory questions posed by the Moderator of the Committee on Ministry – the kind of questions you’d expect from a ministerial body: “Briefly explain the Doctrine of the Trinity and how this informs your personal faith and your relationship to God.”
Candidates expect to be asked questions like these.Sometimes, they’re even given the questions in advance. The intent is to let them show off and get warmed up for the trickier questions to come. As expected, my friend sailed through the procedural questions like a champ.
Then the moderator opened the examination to questions from the floor. Anyone could ask him anything related to faith and practice, no holds barred. It was up to him to give a rational, reasonable – and impromptu – response.
An elder from some little church near Amarillo stood up and said, “What if Jesus’ bones were found in a box buried in the vicinity of Old Jerusalem? How would this affect your faith?”
My buddy didn’t see this coming. He froze with this dumbfounded look on his face. Well, how do you answer a question like that? The clock was ticking. I could just imagine his panic, as he tried to collect his thoughts. Finally, he said something to the effect:
“Jesus Christ is more than an historical figure. He’s the only begotten Son of God and Savior of the world. As importantly, he’s my Lord and Savior. He’s the essence of everything I am and all that I hope to be. His teachings guide me. His example inspires me. The fact that he died for my sins gives me hope that there’s a place in his kingdom for me. I can’t imagine life apart from Jesus. I can’t say what happened to his bones, once he was raised from the dead. What I know for sure is that his Spirit lives in me.”
The elder thanked him and sat down. The examination continued with a couple of soft lobs – easy questions you can knock out the park. Then the moderator called for a vote. The Presbytery not only voted unanimously to receive him; they gave him a standing ovation – something you don’t often see at a Presbytery meeting.
This is the kind of faith we’d like to see in every minister, every elder, every man, woman and child of the Christian faith: A clear and honest conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that life and death are measured not in terms of respiration, heartbeat, or human remains, but in the depth of our relationship to him. That’s the kind of faith Paul was talking about when he said,
“For me to live is Christ,
and to die is gain.”
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More than likely, Paul wrote these words while under house arrest in Rome. He refers to his imprisonment in the opening verses of the chapter. He says,
“… both in my bonds
and in the defense and confirmation of the Good News,
you all are partakers with me of grace.”
He wants the Philippians to know that he’s all right and that, even in his confinement, God is at work using him to lead others to Christ. He writes,
“… the things which happened to me
have turned out rather to the progress of the Good News;
so that it became evident to the whole palace guard …
that my bonds are in Christ;
and that most of the brothers in the Lord,
being confident through my bonds,
are more abundantly bold to speak the word of God without fear …
knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the Good News.”
Paul is upbeat and confident of God’s grace and love, even with Roman guards chained to him around the clock. Yet, there was a dark cloud hanging over him, and that cloud had a name: Nero, the dreaded emperor of Rome.
Paul had been brought to Rome under a death sentence, and while he remained hopeful that his sentence would be commuted, he was fully aware that, at any moment, the executioner could show up at his door. What he wants the Philippians to know is that his fate is secured, whether he is to live or die. He writes:
What does it matter?
Only that in every way … Christ is proclaimed…
For I know that this will turn out to my salvation …
(and that) I 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.”
This leads Paul to the classic question: Which is better? On the one hand, to live is to see his work continue to prosper and grow. And, make no mistake about it, Paul was not ready to throw in the towel. He had ambitious plans for the future. In his Letter to the Romans, he said he hoped to stop by for a visit on his way to Spain. (Romans 15:24)
Paul had anything but a death wish. Still, he was realistic: Nero was a madman. Paul’s life meant nothing to him. It could all be over in a matter of minutes.
No matter. Paul’s hope was based on someone far greater than Nero – Jesus Christ. He knew that, if he Nero had him put to death, it would simply hasten the day when he would stand before the Lord and receive a crown of righteousness and hear Christ say,
“Well, done, good and faithful servant …
enter in the joy of your Lord.”
Does there ever come a time when an active, healthy person is ready to die? I’m sure you’ve all heard the old preacher joke: An evangelist asked everyone in the congregation who wanted to go to heaven to stand up. One little woman in the front kept her seat. He asked her, “Lady, don’t you want to go to heaven?” She said, “Of course I do.” He said, “Then why don’t you stand up?” She said, “I thought you were getting up a load to go right now.”
We all want to go to heaven, but we don’t want to leave our loved ones behind. We don’t want to miss out on an upcoming birthday or anniversary … a graduation or wedding … a new birth or baptism … a family reunion or the yearly gathering at the deer camp.
Paul speaks for us all when he says,
“But I am in a dilemma between the two,
having the desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.
Yet, to remain in the flesh is more needful for your sake.
We all want to go to heaven … just not right now! That’s the nature of life – we live with one foot firmly planted on this earth and the other reaching for and testing the strength of the Promised Land.
Paul was at the mercy of a tyrant. Like the innocent victims in Iraq we hear about in the news today, his life was one, swift stroke of the sword away from being history.
That said, there’s more to life than strength and health and longevity. Scripture teaches that life is measured by the degree of our relationship with God. The psalmist writes,
“How lovely are your dwellings, (O Lord)!
My soul longs, and even faints for the courts of (the Lord)!…
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God,
than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.”
Jesus said, “This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent.” (John 17:3)
It’s what the Westminster Shorter Catechism calls, “The chief end of man” – i.e., “to know God and enjoy him forever.”
To live is to be in relationship with God. And if that’s what it means to live, to die is just the opposite: It’s to be cut off, estranged, apart from God.
In my first semester of seminary I took an introductory course on the Old Testament, and, as you might expect, it began with Genesis. It was early on in the semester, and Dr. Power was lecturing on Genesis, chapter three – “The Fall of Adam.” He got to the end, where God dressed Adam and Eve in garments of skin to replace the fig leaves, then sent them out of the garden.
All of a sudden, one of the students raised his hand. But he didn’t just raise his hand, he waved his hand in such a way as to say, “Wait, wait … you missed something” … like a first-grader, who can’t wait to get the teacher’s attention and give the right answer.
It was a response Dr. Power had seen many times before. I’m guessing it came up every time he taught the course. He knew the question before it was asked. But, like a good professor, he politely stopped his lecture and called on the student. “Yes, Mr. Wilson, did you have something to say?”
The student blurted out, “Well, yeah. In chapter two, God told Adam and Eve that if they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die. (Genesis 2:17) Well, why didn’t they? Why didn’t they get what they deserved?”
Dr. Power stood there, tongue in cheek and let the question linger for a while. It was the question he was hoping for. Then he asked the student, “What does it mean to die?” The student had the good sense to keep quiet.
Dr. Power said, “To live is to be in right relationship with God. It’s to live as a child of God, obedient to his authority. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit of the forbidden tree they began a life of rebellion and so, cut themselves off from God. No, God meant what he said when he told them, “for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.”
When you think about it, God has offered us the best of both worlds: The fullness of life in the glory of his creation in the company of those we love; plus, the promise of everlasting life when this life comes to an end. What more could you ask for?
The only thing standing in the way is this little matter we call faith. So, here’s the deal: The more you look to God and trust the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the more you’ll experience life in all its abundance, and the more the glitz and glitter of this world will lose their appeal.
No one knew this better than Helen Limmell, who wrote:
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.”
Let us pray: Gracious God, give us courage to lean upon your everlasting arms and entrust our whole lives to you, so that in our living and in our dying we may live as one with Christ and each other, for we ask it in his name. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.