Paul gave the Philippians a very astute observation: ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ (Phil. 1: 21). This verse has become a favorite for Christians. In fact we could find this verse often quoted in the obituaries and also inscribed on many Christian tombstones. But what did Paul mean when he declared this confident dictum? When the Philippians heard this read, the effect must have been stunning because of its parallelism and compactness (in the original Greek there are no verbs). In short, Paul was using a literary device to make a lasting impact upon the minds and hearts of his audience. We could translate Paul’s words in this way: “For to me to live-Christ and to die-gain.”
What then did Paul mean? To Paul it meant that he was completely identified and united with Christ. In other words, Christ was in Paul, and Paul was in Christ. This description is used more than any other in the New Testament. As Paul explained to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2: 20). It also meant that Paul was so occupied with Christ that life for him was synonymous with Christ. All of Paul’s life, energy, and time was and would be spent for Christ. Living would mean that Christ would be seen in him and his life was wholly devoted to Christ.
How about the second half of the verse — ‘to die is gain’? To many, death is a great loss. We often hear people expressing the death of a loved one as a loss. However, to Paul death was gain. How is it so? For him, death would mean being in the presence of his beloved Savior. He would be in more complete union with Christ and far removed from suffering and trials or from the limitations of earthly life. Death would be beneficial because he would have rest after a life of service for Christ and his death by martyrdom would promote the cause of Christ.
What would it be like to be passionate for Christ in the way Paul was, such that he could say that living is Christ and dying is gain? I am afraid most of us have divided hearts. We are passionate about many things – Christ, our families, our work, our favorite sports and teams, etc. Living involves all these things, plus wealth accumulation or leisure time, or entertainment or building friendships or a host of other things. But what would it be like to be so singularly focused as to say with Paul, that to live is Christ and to die is gain? What could it mean to live in, live out of, live for, and live with Christ with a passion that burned so hot that all other passions, while not eliminated, were totally subjected to the central passion of one’s life?
Let us have the courage to follow Paul’s single-mindedness and singular passion for Christ. Let us heed the call of William P. Merrill who penned these words:
“Rise up O men (and women) of God! Have done with lesser things; Give heart and soul and mind and strength to serve the King of kings.”
Rev. Mark Tay