Hamlet, prince of Denmark, faced an excruciating dilemma. His uncle had murdered his father, seduced and married his mother, and seized Denmark’s throne. Because Hamlet could see no way to avenge his father and restore justice, he contemplated ending his inner torment through suicide. Taking his own life might offer an escape from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune … a sea of troubles … the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” So, he reasoned, “’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.” Yet he hesitated, fearing the unknown future that lay beyond the grave:
To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.…
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong … the law’s delay,
The insolence of office …
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn [realm]
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.…
The words that Shakespeare put into Hamlet’s mouth show a mind at the end of its tether. Most of us rarely live in that dark place. Nevertheless, Shakespeare voices a fear that we instinctively feel when we face the unknown future. It is not only the prospect of God’s judgment beyond the grave and our own uneasy consciences that “make cowards of us all.” We cannot even see the next thing to come in this life, and so we dread “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that (we suspect) lie in wait to ambush us. As miserable as our current situation may be, the ominous possibility of worse to come does indeed make us “rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.” You were laid off last month, and money is tight today. Will tomorrow bring bankruptcy and foreclosure? Yesterday’s surgery left a legacy of discomfort, and today chemotherapy saps your strength and takes your hair. Tomorrow, will cancer take your life, in excruciating pain, anyway?
As the apostle Paul writes from Rome to his Christian friends in Philippi, his current circumstances are “a sea of troubles.” He is shackled to a soldier and confined to house arrest. And on the near horizon looms a more daunting threat that he “knows not of.” He has been accused of fomenting civil unrest—a charge that always got the attention of Roman authorities. Invoking his right as a Roman citizen, he has appealed to Caesar to decide his case. Now he awaits the emperor’s verdict. As his ruminations in our text imply, the possible outcomes are extreme: either vindication and release, or condemnation and death. In Philippians 1:18 Paul turns his attention from his inconvenient present to his unseen but imminent future, tying present and future together with the theme of joy. Since the effect of his current imprisonment is that Christ is being proclaimed, “in that I rejoice” (1:12–18a). And as he looks ahead to the pending outcome of his legal appeal, he can still predict, “I will rejoice” (1:18b–26).
Paul, like Hamlet, ponders the pros and cons of ongoing life in this world of woes, on the one hand, and an imminent death that would end earthly suffering, on the other. Yet Hamlet’s and Paul’s soliloquies on the “to be or not to be?” conundrum are radically different in perspective and tone. Hamlet was paralyzed by indecision, unable to choose the lesser of two evils: miserable life or worse misery beyond the grave. Paul, on the other hand, is “hard pressed” to decide between the greater of two goods: ongoing life to serve Christ’s people or a martyr’s death that would usher him into Christ’s presence. Hamlet was Shakespeare’s fictional invention, whereas Paul was a real historical person. Yet for many people, Hamlet’s words of dismay sound more credible than Paul’s words of hope. What explains Hamlet’s and Paul’s radically different reactions to the uncertainties of the future? More importantly, how can we grasp the truth that set Paul free from fear as he faced an unseen but imminent life-or-death future?
It is in order to show others the truth that had freed him from fear of the future that Paul opens the windows of his heart. He is inviting his Philippian friends (and us) to observe his inner wrestling with the life-or-death possibilities in his future not only to calm their concerns for his well-being but also—more importantly—to show them how being captivated by Christ’s preeminence colors a person’s reaction to suffering and relationship to others. The Philippian believers are suffering at the hands of opponents whose intimidation tempts them to be frightened, putting their joy at risk (Phil. 1:28–30). Moreover, those outside pressures have revealed fissures in the believers’ bonds with one another. Paul wants them to stand “firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). Paul shows how he himself is processing possibilities looming in the future to guide both their joy in reaction to suffering and their humility in relation to each other.
Paul’s joy has its source in his commitment to one supreme goal and in his confidence that he would reach that goal, by whatever path God chose to lead him there. His certainty of reaching his destination casts a distinctive light on the alternative routes that lie before him—ongoing life or impending death. The advantages of each option compound his dilemma in choosing which of them he should request from his sovereign Savior. In the end, though, Paul’s supreme goal so transforms his deepest desire that it “tips the scale” of his own preference in the direction of ongoing life for the sake of promoting others’ progress and joy in trusting Jesus.
Paul’s One Supreme Goal: The Glory of Christ
Paul’s discussion of what might await him in the future begins with an announcement of his confident expectation that his supreme desire will be fulfilled (Phil. 1:18b–20). Paul’s opening declaration, that he will go on rejoicing because “I know that … this will turn out for my deliverance,” is attention grabbing, even surprising. As Paul shows in what follows, the verdict that Caesar would hand down is by no means a foregone conclusion. By the end of this text, Paul’s inner debate will reach a conclusion about the probable outcome, but Paul knows that the coming weeks or months could bring him either life … or death.
How, then, can Paul assert so confidently that his current imprisonment will definitely result in his “deliverance”? The answer lies in the meaning of deliverance. The Greek term that Paul uses, sōtēria, was sometimes applied to rescue from physical threats and harm. In Acts 7:25 it refers to the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. Some New Testament scholars, therefore, have concluded that in Philippians 1:19 Paul claims to know that Caesar would exonerate him and order his “deliverance” from both execution and chains. There are stronger reasons, however, to believe that the sōtēria “deliverance” that Paul anticipates so confidently is a far greater salvation than escape from Roman chains and sword. When Paul uses the word sōtēria, he means comprehensive salvation from sin’s power, from condemnation under God’s wrath, and ultimately from physical and eternal death at the end of history. Sometimes he looks back to the salvation from spiritual death that the Holy Spirit brought about at the beginning of the Christian life: “by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5, 8). Sometimes he looks forward to the consummation of salvation at Christ’s return: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:9). Here, Paul’s focus is on both his current and his future experience of God’s saving power in Christ.
Paul explains the salvation that would result from his imprisonment and trial in the short term in the following verse (Phil. 1:20), when he announces his “eager expectation and hope” that before Caesar’s tribunal he would have the courage to bring honor to his Lord, whatever the legal outcome, “whether by life or by death.” Paul craves and expects “salvation” from anything that would tempt him to cringe back in shame from bearing a bold witness to the glory and grace of Jesus. To have Christ “honored”—Paul’s Greek says “shown to be great”—is Paul’s one supreme goal. The “salvation” that Paul expects is deliverance from the temptation to be ashamed of Christ. By God’s saving power, Paul hopes to serve one transcendent purpose—displaying the greatness of Jesus—whether God had determined that Paul’s “chief end” would be better accomplished in that venue by the death of his body or its ongoing life on earth.
Paul can have such confidence because he knows that his ultimate destiny is not determined by human opinions—not even the verdict of the mighty emperor over Rome’s far-flung domain. Paul blends the words of Job, the ancient sufferer, into his own expression of confidence. Despite the accusations of his friends, Job had affirmed his innocence and his trust in God: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face. This will turn out for my salvation” (Job 13:15–16). Like Job, Paul faces an ordeal that could well end in death; and like Job, Paul is confident that, whatever the earthly outcome of his trial, his salvation before God’s heavenly tribunal is secure.
Paul also weaves another Old Testament theme into his confession of confidence in God’s salvation. In Psalm 34:3–6, the psalmist invited his fellow worshipers to “magnify the Lord with me,” promising that those who look in faith to the Lord “shall never be ashamed” and confirming this promise from his own experience: “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.” Like the psalmist, Paul sees the connection between salvation, freedom from shame and the privilege of magnifying the Lord. The “shame” that Paul wants to escape is embarrassment over confessing his faith. He had written to the Christians at Rome that he was not ashamed of the gospel (Rom. 1:16). Now his hearing before Caesar would offer the opportunity to prove that stance in practice.
For the psalmist and for Paul, to “not be ashamed” not only entails standing courageously rather than cringing in timid silence. It also expresses confidence that their hope in God will not prove misplaced, that he will not let them down by failing to keep his word. Other sources on which people rely might embarrass those who rest on them for security, collapsing in the moment of crisis. But David and Paul had staked their lives on the Lord’s faithfulness and power, and he never fails—never shames—those who trust him. Both Paul and Peter applied Isaiah 28:16 to Christ, the cornerstone that God would set in Zion, promising that “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 9:33; 10:11; 1 Peter 2:6). The “salvation” from shame that Paul anticipates is not only deliverance from cowardice before Rome’s emperor. It is also rescue from shattered hopes at the last judgment before the Lord of all creation.
Paul knew that God would grant him this great salvation, but he also knew that the sovereign Creator uses creaturely means to fulfill his Word. God would supply “the Spirit of Jesus Christ” to him, imparting courage, and God would flood Paul’s heart with the Spirit’s power “through your prayers” (Phil. 1:19). As Paul had prayed for the Philippians to grow in love, so he needed their prayers to conduct himself so as to bring credit to the Lord. Paul never underestimated the formidable spiritual forces of evil arrayed against believers. Nor did he overestimate his own intrinsic strength for the battle. During this same imprisonment, he wrote to the church at Ephesus, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Therefore, he begged them to support him in prayer, “that words may be given to me … boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (6:19–20).
What is your supreme goal in life, your “eager expectation and hope” (Phil. 1:20)? Paul expressed his supreme goal—to promote Jesus’ glory, whatever the cost or benefit to Paul himself—in order to whet the Philippians’ and our appetites for the same heart-satisfying aim. He was not setting himself apart from the rest of us as an otherworldly ascetic, to be admired from a distance by people whose devotion could not match his. Rather, he wanted to make us all to feel his thrill at the privilege of magnifying Christ. This privilege and nothing less is what you and I were made for. The author of Psalm 73 once envied those who enjoy attractive but ephemeral rewards. But when God brought him to his senses, he realized that nothing could compare to the priceless treasure he already possessed:
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Ps. 73:25–26)
Just as “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1) and the trees clap their hands and “sing for joy before the Lord” at his coming (Isa. 55:12; Ps. 96:12–13), so human beings who bear the very image of the Creator are designed to be “to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12, 14). Even a glimpse of that goal, the honor of extolling God’s honor, confronts you with a heart-searching question: What passion fills your thoughts in your waking hours and sleepless nights? Are you pursuing academic achievement, career success, health and fitness, a fulfilling marriage, respectful and accomplished children, financial stability, popularity, or community recognition? These are good goals, but none is big enough to be your supreme goal, the goal for which your Creator designed you. They might be consistent with his all-wise design for you, but if your sights are set no higher than these earthbound accomplishments, sooner or later your hopes will be dashed.
Or, to use Paul’s other way of speaking, from what evil, above all, do you need salvation? Do you long to escape poverty, illness, abuse, injustice, violence, loneliness, failure, obscurity, or shame? Any sane person would want to escape such miseries. Yet no sane person would expect a life free of pain and adversity in this world. God has not promised complete deliverance from the world’s woes short of Christ’s return at the end of history. On that great day, when the Savior for whom we wait appears from heaven, not only will he transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body (Phil. 3:20–21), but he will also create a new heavens and earth, from which every form of evil and misery will be excluded (Rev. 21:1–4). In the meanwhile, the salvation that God does give now, which Paul knew that he would receive through the saints’ prayers and the Spirit’s presence, is deliverance from fear and protective self-centeredness. And God’s grace will free you, too, enabling you to embrace the supreme goal that was Paul’s “eager expectation and hope” and that gave him confident joy in the face of an uncertain future: the goal of seeing Christ glorified through you, whether through life or death, plenty or want, health or disease, admiration or rejection. Don’t settle for less than the best!
Paul’s Difficult Dilemma: Two Desirable Alternatives
Paul’s mention of the life-or-death alternatives that await him in the near but unknown future prompts him to reflect on the pros and cons of each. Paul’s supreme goal is the glory of the Christ who had redeemed him and who controls his every circumstance. That goal casts a distinctive light on each fork in the road ahead in Paul’s pilgrimage of faith. The supremacy of Jesus and Paul’s passionate commitment to making his Master’s majesty known explain two factors that might surprise us in Paul’s ruminations on his options (Phil. 1:21–24).
The first surprise is that Paul, the prisoner, seems to assume that he, not the emperor, has the authority to decide whether he will be executed or released. As he weighs the alternatives, he expresses his quandary: “Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell” (Phil. 1:22). Here Paul sounds much like Hamlet, though their situations are so different. For Hamlet, to choose death would mean suicide by his own hand. For Paul, suicide is not an option. Years earlier Philippi’s jailer was about to commit suicide, preferring death by his own hand to public shame and torture for allowing prisoners to escape. But Paul stopped him: “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here” (Acts 16:28). Knowing that God’s Law demands, “You shall not murder” (Rom. 13:9), Paul would not have taken the power of life and death, which belongs exclusively to the Creator who gives life, into his own hands. From a human viewpoint, therefore, the decision between death and life did not belong to Paul the prisoner but to Caesar the judge. How could the defendant presume to speak as though he could choose his verdict and sentence?
The explanation of Paul’s audacious assumption is the sovereignty of the Christ to whom Paul belongs. Christ, not Caesar, is the true Lord who controls Paul’s fate. Paul will soon speak of Christ as the One who is and always has been equal with God (Phil. 2:6). He will go on to affirm that this divine person became human and was brought low in suffering obedience, but was then highly exalted by God as Lord of all, bearing the name that excels every name, the title that outranks every creaturely authority in heaven or on earth (2:9–11; see Eph. 1:21–23). Christ is the second person of the triune God who “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Therefore, when Paul made plans, they were always “in the Lord Jesus” and subject to his Lord’s revision (Phil. 2:19, 24). And when Paul prayed, his requests were subject to God’s will (Rom. 1:10). Although Caesar was unaware of it, his decisions, too, were subject to the sovereign control of the Lord Christ. Therefore, Paul the prisoner, through prayer, could go “over the head” of the Roman emperor; Paul had access to the King of all kings. God Almighty controlled the emperor’s every decision, so that the upcoming verdict on Paul’s appeal, whatever it turned out to be, would “work together for good, for those who are called according to [God’s] purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Paul’s dilemma—his “choice,” as he calls it—concerns which legal outcome he should request as he approaches his Lord in prayer, knowing that Christ, to whom he makes his petition, holds all authority in heaven and on earth and therefore controls Caesar’s decision.
The second surprising feature of Paul’s difficult dilemma is that he hesitates between two desirable alternatives: ongoing life or impending death. Some people have a love affair with death, a fascination with the macabre, even a depression that tempts them to suicide. Some find their current lives so intolerable and their future, as far as they can see it, so hopeless that they feel like the despairing Hamlet, torn between the lesser of two evils: life in an anguish-filled world or suicide. Other people—probably most people, most of the time—have a love affair with this life, with its opportunities for affection or achievement, its relationships, pleasures, and amusements. For them, the obvious choice would be “life,” particularly since the “life” that Paul anticipated was not perpetual incarceration but release from custody and a return to freedom. To people who doubt or deny life after death, Paul sounds like a madman when claiming that leaving this world is better by far than a “get out of jail free” card that would free him to consume the stuff and satisfaction that this earth has to offer (as they would use their freedom). For Paul, however, both ongoing life in this world and sudden death have almost irresistible advantages, though they are not advantages that would occur either to those who are suicidal or to those who cling desperately to this life.
Both of the alternatives that Paul finds so appealing are mentioned in his confession, “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Both his life and his death are defined by the fact that he belongs to Christ. In fact, because his “living is Christ,” Paul can also affirm that “dying is gain.” Paul wrote to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). When Christ died in his place, Paul himself had been executed under the just curse of God’s Law. Paul’s individual, independent standing before God came suddenly and mercifully to an end; he had entered into a new life, in which his identity, his motivation, and his capacity to love were all defined by the fact that Paul was now united to Jesus Christ. Paul had gladly forfeited the advantages of his former life, “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” (Phil. 3:8–9). Paul’s current life in service to the gospel is sustained by his Savior’s presence through “the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (1:19). Paul’s heart goes out to the Philippians with “the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:8), in a selfless concern for their welfare. He urges them to show the same attitude in their treatment of each other since this blend of humility and love expresses the mindset that is his and theirs “in Christ Jesus” (2:3–5).
Because Paul’s union with Christ now defines who Paul is, Paul can assess the alternative outcomes of his legal appeal—ongoing life or imminent death—not as competing evils, but as competing goods. In verses 22 and 24 Paul explores the benefit that would result if God’s plan is for Paul to honor Christ through ongoing life on earth. Continuing to “live in the flesh” would result in “fruitful labor for me” (Phil. 1:22). This fruitful labor that Paul envisions is not for his personal advantage. For Paul, “fruit” pictures the transformation that takes place in people’s lives when the Holy Spirit mercifully and mightily brings “home” to them the good news of Jesus, which Paul preached. Paul prays that the Philippians would be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that come through Jesus Christ” (1:11). He rejoices in their generosity not because he personally needs their gifts but because he seeks “the fruit that increases to your credit” (4:17). Years before he came to Rome, Paul wanted to reach the imperial capital “in order that I may reap some harvest [fruit] among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles” (Rom. 1:13). Paul has labored to plant the seed of the Word in the soil of human hearts, others have watered it, and God has made it grow, flourish, and produce fruit (1 Cor. 3:6–9). Therefore, Paul concludes, for him to “remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Phil. 1:24). If his legal appeal results in his vindication and release, he would return to Philippi, to strengthen his friends’ faith in person and to participate in their gospel witness to their fellow citizens. His arrival would further their “progress and joy in the faith,” and enrich their confidence in Christ Jesus (1:25–26).
On the other hand, for Paul personally, death is an even more attractive option. Death would be “gain” not because Paul finds his current circumstances intolerable, nor because it offers a quick escape from threats looming on the horizon. The one thing that makes a speedy death better—in fact, “far better” (actually, to convey Paul’s deliberately over-the-top Greek: “much more better”)—is that to die is “to depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23). Paul already enjoys, in a profound way, “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:8), but he is still straining ahead to lay hold of all that is involved in “gaining Christ.” Paul will later remind his friends that Christians are awaiting “a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (3:20–21). Christ’s glorious return from heaven is believers’ “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). Until that great day of the Lord, followers of Jesus live in an uncomfortable tension, as Paul told the Corinthians: to be “at home in the body” is to be “away from the Lord,” to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:6–7). Christ’s presence with his struggling people on earth through his Holy Spirit is real, but not visible. At death, even as we await the resurrection of our bodies, those who belong to Christ enjoy his presence in a more intimate way than we now do on this earth. So, Paul wrote, “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (5:8). What makes death “gain” is not the earthly misery that it puts behind us but the heavenly delight into which it will usher us, the delight of being with the Savior who loved us and gave himself for us. Paul’s desire to depart from life on this earth is ignited by longing to be as near to Christ as possible. If his personal longing were the deciding factor between life and death, Paul would gladly choose the martyrdom that would bring him swiftly to his King of grace.
Paul’s hesitation over the pros and cons of life and death poses a question to each of us. The question is not merely “Which would you choose, life or death?” It is rather “Why would you opt for ongoing life or for imminent death?” Perhaps you would choose life over death because life, despite its inconveniences, keeps you entertained with a modicum of comfort and pleasure. You view death, on the other hand, as a realm shrouded in mystery. You do not know whether it will bring endless unconsciousness or, as Hamlet feared, terrors to be dreaded more than the ills that you have known in life. Or perhaps you find death appealing precisely because you think (or hope) that nothing lies beyond it. Although you cannot know that it is so, you imagine death to be an endless anesthesia that finally numbs life’s agonies of body or mind. But can you hear how these reasons for preferring life to death, or death to life, reveal hearts enslaved by earthbound dreams and fears, hearts bent in on themselves? Paul the prisoner was so much freer! Because he had been seized and saved by Christ, he would joyfully follow whichever path Christ chose for him, knowing that in either case, the Lord who had loved him and rescued him from himself would grant his heart’s chief desire: “that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20).
Paul’s Pastoral Preference: To Stay and Serve
By the end of this text, Paul has reached a tentative conclusion (Phil. 1:25–26). As he has weighed the life-or-death alternatives before him and their consequences for himself and for his fellow believers, he has discerned which option would better enable him to glorify Christ at that moment. He introduces his conclusion with the carefully chosen word “Convinced” to show that his confidence is not based on a special revelation granted to him uniquely as an apostle, but rather results from a process of reflection to which his friends in Philippi also have access: he has applied biblical norms to observable circumstances. Paul’s purpose in opening the windows of his heart, so that they (and we) can watch him wrestle with the dilemma between desirable alternatives, is to present himself as a “case study” in how to assess our sufferings and how to find our deep desires transformed by the reality that defines our lives, as it did Paul’s: “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:21).
At this time in his ministry, Paul concludes that it is “more necessary” for the Philippians (and no doubt for other believers) that he “remain in the flesh” (Phil. 1:24). He expects not only to stay alive on earth but also to be released from custody, to return to Philippi and to “continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith” (1:25). Paul’s arrival will give his friends, even more, an occasion to “glory in Christ Jesus” (1:26). They will praise God not only because he will have answered their prayers for Paul’s release and return, but also because, in response to their petitions, Christ’s Spirit will have emboldened Paul to honor Christ throughout his legal proceedings. Although persuaded that God would restore him to his friends, Paul could not rule out the possibility that God planned for him to glorify Christ in a martyr’s death in the near future. He will still write: “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (2:17). Yet as he evaluates the Philippians’ spiritual need and the opportunities for “fruitful labor” still available to him throughout the empire, Paul expects exoneration and release. He plans to send Timothy to Philippi as soon as the verdict is delivered (2:19–23), and he is “convinced in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also” (2:24). From a later imprisonment, on the other hand, Paul would express a very different assessment of where God’s providence was about to lead him: “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:6–7). At that later point, with a sense of “mission accomplished,” Paul would joyfully embrace that “far better” alternative, “to depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23). In the meanwhile, he will joyfully remain in this sin-stained, sorrow-pained world to draw others into the depths of Christ’s redeeming grace.
In view of the confidence and joy with which Paul reached the resolution of his dilemma, we may still wonder why he led us through his inner turmoil in the first place. As he dictated the epistle to a copyist, did he not sense where his reflection would lead when his mixed feelings burst forth: “Which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two” (Phil. 1:22–23)? I suspect that from the outset, Paul glimpsed the conclusion to which his Christ-centered contemplation would lead. But the Spirit of Christ gave Paul words to lead us, his readers, through the process that brought Paul to the conviction that ongoing life in service lay in his immediate future. As we walk alongside Paul through the quandary and as we feel with him the intense appeal of each option, Christ’s Spirit is showing us how to assess and address the issues of suffering and self-centeredness that confront us.
Paul is about to turn the topic of conversation from his situation in Rome to his friends’ situation in Philippi (Phil. 1:27–2:18). He will speak of opponents whose threats must not intimidate them (1:28) and urge them to see their suffering for Christ’s sake as a gift of God’s grace (1:29–30). He will also urge them to strive to maintain a deep unity of mind and heart (1:27). They must resist the self-centered tendencies, rivalry, and conceit, that are undermining their oneness in Christ’s love, and they must replace divisive individualism with a Christlike humility (2:3–4).
Now through his own experience, Paul has shown them how to view and bear suffering. He sees his chains as servants of Christ, carrying the gospel into the barracks of the imperial guard and multiplying the numbers of evangelists who proclaim Christ where Paul cannot go. Moreover, Paul sees death itself, even violent death, as Christ’s servant and Paul’s, bringing about their face-to-face reunion in glory. What is the worst that the Philippians’ opponents could throw at them? Chains, flogging, sword? As God sustains them by his Spirit, every threat and pain could only further their one supreme goal: to see Christ honored in their bodies.
In his experience, Paul has also shown them how to repudiate self-centeredness. Why does he stress that his personal preference is a departure to Christ when his final choice would be to stay here for the sake of the Philippians? He is not engaging in self-pity or venting resentment, nor is he loading false guilt on their consciences for keeping him from heaven’s joys. True, Paul’s staying to serve them would cost him. It would postpone his full enjoyment of his heart’s chief treasure: face-to-face communion with his Lord. But the deferring of Paul’s delight could not compare with the price Christ paid to make Paul and his Philippian friends—and you, if you trust Jesus—into citizens of heaven. Paul is merely a miniature replica of Jesus. Jesus is the Son who is equal to God, who left heaven and came to earth, became a man, and assumed the slave’s subservience, ultimately paying an infinitely dearer price—laying down his life on the cursed cross—to serve and to save his wayward creatures. The more that we learn to say, with Paul, “To me to live is Christ,” the more that our hearts are set free from self-interest by Christ’s others-serving compassion, of which we are unworthy but most grateful beneficiaries. The gospel logic that calls us to love others as God in Christ loved us (Eph. 5:2) will take deeper root in our hearts, so that increasingly our “eager expectation and hope” is that, whatever happens to us, through us Christ will receive glory and others’ faith in him will be advanced.
May you find the joy and freedom of serving the great cause of Christ’s glory, so that you can make this pastor’s prayer your own heart’s cry, and Paul’s affirmation the theme of your life: “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”