The Meaning of Life | Philippians 1:18b-26 | Jeff Purswell
Scripture: Philippians 1:18–1:26
Do you recognize these words: “To be or not to be, that is the question”?
Do you know where they came from?
Do you know what those words mean?
The case with language and Shakespeare is that these words are familiar to most people, but their meaning is less so, and their significance is even more remote to us.
This morning we are going to look at a text that has a couple things in common with the phrase above. This text considers existential alternatives, the very meaning of life. And this text contains some words that are very familiar, but whose meaning is too often unexamined and, therefore, unappreciated.
“What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.” (Philippians 1:18-26 ESV)
In the midst of, possibly, the most complex sentence in all of Paul’s writing is a very familiar verse: “To live is Christ and to die is gain”
It’s far too easy to quote this verse without fully realizing what it means or grasping and applying its implications for our lives.
This is Paul’s answer to the age old question, “What is the meaning of life?” For Paul, that meaning is Christ. For Paul, existence on earth and how we go about day to day means Christ. Christ is the central, controlling reality for Paul. Christ is the determining factor in Paul’s worldview. He is the meaning of our lives. He is the point of our lives.
But what does that mean? How does that affect Paul’s life and how is that to affect our lives? It is not a slogan for Paul. Though Paul doesn’t give us a detailed explanation of this verse, the text shows us the effects of this philosophy on Paul’s life. We learn what it means by observing its effects. And seeing the effects of this philosophy on Paul will not only help us understand it, but it will also help us apply it to our own lives. It will help us move it out from the realm of cliché, sentimentality, and platitude and transfer it into the trenches of our daily existence where life is lived, and hassles are endured, joys are savored, pain is experienced – this verse is meant to function for us.
God has given us this text as an invitation and challenge to live our lives in such a way that Christ is the preeminent, the most cherished, the most satisfying reality in our lives. Isn’t that a noble challenge? That’s why this text is here.
In the text we’re going to see two related, but distinct effects of this philosophy. One is internal and one is external.
First, the context: the guy writing this is not standing in front of adoring crowds. He’s writing this from a prison cell. He’s writing this having reflected on the effect of his ministry. He moves on the effects of his circumstances on others to the effects of his circumstances on himself. What is he feeling as he sits in his cell awaiting his fate?
“What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” (Philippians 1:18-19 ESV)
He believes his imprisonment and coming trial is going to result in his deliverance. “Deliverance” is translated “salvation”. He’s convinced of his salvation, his ultimate acceptance before God. And second, ultimately he will be vindicated. God will uphold his cause. Not “I’m going to win the trial” but “My cause will be upheld.” My goal in this will be attained.”
What is his goal? It’s here we see the first effect of having Christ as the definition of our lives:
1. An Ambition for the Honor of Christ “As it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Philippians 1:20 ESV)
His ambition is an unwavering commitment to Christ’s glory and honor in all the circumstances of his life. That through his life Christ’s renown and fame and glory would increase and expand and intensify. That was Paul’s singular passion and consuming ambition. “May Christ be magnified in my life whether I live or I die. When I stand before the legal court, may my testimony and reveal and display Christ’s glory. Then, if they let me go, may Christ be honored when I move on. And if I die, may Christ be honored when I die.” Here is what Paul lives for: In every circumstance of my life—massive, important, or mundane—may Christ be exalted in it and by it.
Can you relate to that? Is this your ambition? Is this what gets you up in the morning? Is this what compels you during the day: Christ’s honor and the display of His greatness? Is that the foremost consideration in your motives? Is that the foremost factor in your decisions? Is that the number one consideration in your priorities and your to do list?
All I have to do is think of yesterday and I’m convicted—and I was preparing a sermon! My priorities and desires were all over the place yesterday. I’m just learning to grab hold of this truth. I get even more convicted as I looked at the contrast of Paul’s ambitions. There are two sides to his ambition. A negative side: “That I may not be at all ashamed” and a positive side “but that Christ may be honored.”
Do you see how those two fit together for Paul? If Christ is honored, then I am not ashamed. To the extent that glory goes to Jesus, I avoid all glory and all shame. If Christ is not honored in my life, then I am ashamed. For Paul, his shame and disgrace is completely determined by whether Christ is magnified. For me, Christ is so often not even in the equation. I don’t want to be ashamed, so what’s the opposite of my being ashamed? My being honored! Not shame, honor. Not embarrassment, applause. For Paul, if Christ is up, Paul is up. If Christ is not honored, Paul is ashamed. I am far too often ambitious for my own. This is a radically God-centered perspective on life. The only disgrace Paul fears is disgrace in the eyes of God. Disgrace of unfaithfulness, unbelief, disobedience—that’s all he cares about. His positive ambition is utterly God-ward. He evaluated all of his life—his goals, activities, bank account, to do list—by one ambition: Does it magnify Christ? Is His reputation enhanced? Are His purposes advanced?
This is so challenging. It’s not only a God-centered way to live, it’s a freeing way to live. If Christ’s honor is my greatest aspiration, my foremost consideration, then a thousand self-centered concerns fall off my shoulders. Life becomes so simple. Others’ assessment and approval of me is of no concern. My reputation, agenda, desires, purposes are all bound up with Christ. Isn’t that freeing? My greatest anxieties melt away when Christ’s honor is my chief concern. That’s the way to live.
What’s the connection? “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” The reason Paul is so hopeful that Christ will be magnified is this verse. Do you see the logic? If for you, to live is Christ, then you will live in such a way that Christ will in fact be magnified in the way you live. If for you, to die is gain, then the way you face death will show Christ to be great. It simply will happen. If verse 21 is true, verse 20 will happen in your life. The way you live and die will display what your treasure really is.
That’s why this single-minded devotion created a dilemma for Paul. Verse 22 “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” (Philippians 1:22-23 ESV)
Paul looks at the two outcomes to his life. Outcome 1: Paul is released from prison, he can go on loving, enjoying, and serving Christ. He can travel, fellowship with friends, preach, plant churches, raise up leaders, experience God’s faithfulness in life, experience God’s answer to prayer, and invest in others and see them treasure Christ. Outcome 2: Paul is condemned to die. He knows what will happen. He’ll be taken to an arena and become a public spectacle. He watches a lion bound toward him, and after intense painful struggle, his body goes limp and is dumped outside the city in a mass grave. Paul looks at the two outcomes and says “I don’t know which one to choose!”
Where does a man get such poise? How is a soul so infused with such strength? Verse 23 “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
Paul doesn’t have a death wish, nor does he relish pain, but he sees beyond this brief encounter with lion or sword or car-wreck or cancer to something beyond it that’s so precious, desirable, and glorious that death pales in comparison. He knows that if he dies life is not over. If he dies he graduates to the ultimate human experience: non-stop, unbroken joy, glorying Christ 24/7. No interruptions, no opposition, no temptations, just an ever-expanding, ever-intensifying, ever-accelerating experience of total joy and exhilaration in the presence of Christ forever. That’s a wonderful after life!
Christ is, for Paul, better than _____. What’s life delivering for you? Christ is better. I don’t know what it is, but I know He’s better than all the unfulfilled plans and aspirations that we treasure in our heart right now, Christ is better than that longing. To have Christ is to have everything worth having in infinite supply. To be with Christ is the ultimate pleasure in infinite measure.
If living, for us, is anything other than Christ, then dying won’t be gain. How would a casual observer studying your life fill in this blank for you: To live is ______.
To live is Career. Well then, dying is loss because your source for true significance vanishes.
To live is Popularity or Respect. Then dying is pathetic because you’re forgotten real soon and your popularity becomes obscured.
To live is Good Health? Then death is really a bummer! Because you’re dead! And life itself becomes a futile attempt at self-preservation.
To live is Financial Security? Dying is ruined. Life becomes a futile grasping at something that is going to let you down, guaranteed.
But if living is Christ, then death is the ultimate gaining of our lifelong passion! Death is getting in full what we had in part. Death is gaining the fullness of what we’ve longed for all our lives. Our greatest desire and friendship blossoms into full flower.
Once you see Christ in this way, by God’s grace, we don’t have to be exhorted to have pure motives. When Christ is seen as so worthy, so valuable, and so glorious, our view of the ideal life won’t be house, spouse, university, academic respectability, business success, friendship, an orderly home. Rather, the ideal life will be a life fully devoted to His praise and His glory. Then the whole spectrum of human existence becomes one long opportunity to see Christ magnified.
2. Activity for the Good of Others. “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.” (Philippians 1:22-25 ESV)
For Paul, to live is Christ is not a slogan. It is a truth that propels him and infuses his life with significance, purpose, and resolve. If your life truly is Christ, then you will live a certain way. You will give yourself for the good of others. You won’t just be a humanitarian. “It’s for your progress and joy in the faith” Paul labors so that the Philippians would grow in their understanding of their faith and their grasp of who Jesus is and what He’s done, so that the fruit of the Spirit ever becomes more present in their lives.
In fact, Paul spends the rest of his letter unpacking this, exhorting them to “contend for the faith,” “love each other,” “look not only to their own interests, but also to the interests of others.” “do everything without complaining or arguing.” He’s giving himself for their progress in their faith and for their joy. He’s not concerned with just obedience.
Yesterday I told my sons, “You know, I’m not concerned that you stop doing this and start doing that. The Christian life is not ‘DO this.’ It’s turning from your desires and turning to Christ and finding him glorious and receiving from Him grace to please Him and serve others.” I don’t want to create Pharisees. Paul wants their affections for Christ to be enflamed. He wants their godliness not to be just avoiding evil, but to be treasuring Christ.
It’s as simple as this: Paul’s life was devoted to producing in others the same cherishing of Christ and the same desire to honor Christ that characterized his own life. “If for me to live is Christ, then I will give my life so that the same is true for everyone I come in contact with.”
I’m so grateful that Paul didn’t write “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” And then end the book of Philippians. It’s far too easy to say or sing or quote “To live is Christ” until it becomes cliché. But verses 25-26 decode the phrase and provide evidence that it’s true of our lives.
How do I know that for me to live is Christ? If, for you, to live is Christ, there will be in your life a corresponding pursuit of spiritual growth in others. There will be concrete expressions of serving others, encouraging others to godliness, praying for others, coming alongside of others in their weakness and sin to encourage them and counsel them and correct them.
There is to be nothing mysterious about the phrase “To live is Christ.” It’s not a mystical experience of a spiritual elite who live in isolation. The best place to find a living illustration of someone for whom it is true “to live is Christ” is in the local church. It’s there where you find people contending for each other’s progress and joy in the faith.
Do you want an illustration of this? Picture someone that you know is giving themselves to serve others in the local church. Picture someone who is constantly sharing their faith so that others would know how glorious Christ is. Picture a mother pouring herself out day after day for her children, whose life could be a mathematical equation “Living = Self-Denial”
Let’s let this second effect, activity for others, have its searching effect. If I think about my life, is it characterized by continuing with others for their progress in joy in the faith? Is there a specific group that I am passionate about helping propel forward in their faith and joy?
Parents: is your focus in parenting your children’s progress and joy in the faith or is it your reputation as a good parent?
College students: When you leave your dorm room, headed for class, is a test, accomplishment, or survival driving you or are you walking to class, eyes open, looking for whom you can continue with for their progress and joy in the faith? Who can you care for? Who can you encourage? You’re not just here for you. You’re here for them.
Kids: Do you know your influence on those younger than you? You’re not just beating your brothers in video games. You have an opportunity to be an example to help them grow in godliness and love Jesus more. You have siblings. You’re in a family for a reason.
For the Christian, here is God’s intended meaning for all of our lives: to live is Christ.
One last question: How do I cultivate this? It’s not a secret. We get there the same way Paul got there. In fact, Paul shows us how he got there: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” (Philippians 3:7-9 ESV)
Paul derived the meaning of life not from some philosophical reflection or spiritual quest or working really hard to earn God’s favor. He got there when he grasped Christ’s work on his behalf. When he discovered that Christ took the divine execution Paul deserved, and gave him a righteousness he did not deserve, then Christ became the most precious and most valuable and satisfying, comforting, joy-giving reality in his life. Christ became the goal, inspiration, and sustaining reality of his life. Living any other way made no sense for Paul any longer.
As we ponder the gospel and increasingly plumb the depths of this message that the eternal Son of God became man to die in our place to bring us to God that we might spend an eternity delighting in and magnifying Him, it will be increasingly true of us that to live is Christ and to die is gain. We can’t be exhorted into it or generate it on our own, but we can position ourselves to receive it. We do this by proclaiming, meditating on, reflecting and rehearsing the life-transforming power of the Gospel.
More in Pressing on in Joy [The Book of Philippians]
May 19, 2013Paul's Postscript | Philippians 4:21-23 | C.J. Mahaney
May 12, 2013God's Take on Our Giving | Philippians 4:14-20 | C.J. Mahaney
April 28, 2013A Rare Jewel | Philippians 4:10-13 | C.J. Mahaney