This week I'm starting a two week series from the book of Philippians. I first thought about this series after the recent shooting in Isla Vista, followed closely by the shootings at an Oregon high school and a Seattle university. Because one of our college students attends UCSB, the tragedy in Isla Vista hit close to home. And as the campus mourned, there were also feelings of fear and anxiety.
In the midst of this, Paul's word to the Philippians stands out. Philippians 1:21 states, "To live is Christ, to die is gain." To die is gain? Is that really true?
1) Why did Paul write "to die is gain?" The context of this statement is that Paul is writing to the church in Philippi from prison. It is quite possible that he may be literally put to death for preaching about Jesus Christ.
Paul is not saying, however, that death is a welcome relief from the suffering of this world. Death is not a good thing. It came as a result of sin, our rejection of God, our lack of trust in God's goodness. But what Paul is saying is that because of Jesus Christ, death no longer has power over him. When he dies, he will be with Christ "which is better by far..." (Philippians 1:23)
2) Why does Paul believe "to die is gain?" After his dramatic encounter with Christ (Acts 9), Paul's commission was to preach that Jesus is the Son of God "to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel." (Acts 9:15)
This message is wonderfully detailed when he preached in Athens, "...[God] now commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:31)
Through the cross and the resurrection, Jesus Christ is victorious over sin and death. Hebrews 2:14 tells us "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death-that is, the devil- and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death."
Paul is assured that after this physical life has passed there is the promise and hope of a new and eternal life with Christ in heaven. To die is gain.
3) How did "to die is gain" affect his attitude toward life? Even though death is not something to be feared, it is not something to be pursued either. Paul writes about a curious thought battle going on in his mind in Philippians 1: 22-24 "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! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body."
I'm fairly certain, that Paul did not literally have to choose between life and death, but I think that it was more his mindset. He recognized that his life might end soon and he could embrace death, but he also understood the importance and purpose of his life. Convinced that he did have a purpose, he chose to believe that God would return him to ministry
How can we take a page from Paul's playbook? How will the mindset of "to die is gain" transform our attitude toward life and death? For one thing, if we truly believe this, it can give us a peace in the face of death. It is not something we need to fear. Because of our faith in Jesus Christ, we have the promise and assurance that when we die, we will have a place in heaven with Christ forever.
But secondly, it gives us a reason and a purpose to live. We don't have to spend our lives merely living for our own pleasure and comfort, accumulating goods or putting all our security in our financial assets. We can enjoy the blessings of this life and we can live to make this world a better place by pointing people to Christ, helping them to have the assurance of eternal life and living a life of love in the midst of this dark world.
To live is Christ, to die is gain.