Philippians 1:21-24, “21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”
His statement of longing for Christ to be glorified in him whether he lives or dies (Phil. 1:20) prompts Paul to “think out loud,” as it were, about the prospect of life and death in Philippians 1:21-24. Specifically, the apostle considers whether it would be better to go on for many more years in this world or to pass at once into glory, illustrating the conflicting desires within the heart of every believer.
Considering Philippians 1:21-24 as a whole, there are distinct advantages for Christians in both our lives and our deaths. On the one hand, living many years gives us almost countless opportunities to serve Jesus in this fallen world and bring great blessings to the brethren (Philippians 1:22). In Paul’s specific case, this meant a reunion with the Philippian church and work that was “necessary” for their spiritual maturity (Philippians 1:24–26). For the apostle to have been taken to heaven soon after writing this epistle would have been, from a limited earthly perspective, a disadvantage to the Philippians, who, from what Paul could see at the time, needed some face-to-face guidance.
On the other hand, physical death puts the Christian in a far better position, at least in the believer’s own experience. Simply put, to breathe our last is to enter the very presence of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:23). The emphasis here is not so much on the cessation of earthly difficulties, although that is one of the blessings that attends face to- face life before our Savior (Rev. 21). Instead, the focus is on the joys that come with experiencing the unmediated presence of the One who bought us with His own blood. We cannot even begin to describe the glories of that day.
Whether Christians live or we die, we do so in Christ, which is the main point of Phil. 1:21. Being in Jesus gives our entire existence meaning and purpose, just as it drove everything that Paul did on earth. Dying brings us great gain — the joys of communion with our Lord unhindered by sin. Living, however, is a great advantage as well, enabling us to bring glory to Christ among the nations. John Chrysostom writes, “One must not suppose that [Paul] is demeaning this life… . There can be profit even here, if we live not toward this life finally but toward that other” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT vol. 8, p. 217).
One commentator has wondered what it would mean for the church if we really acted on the reality that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” What if we more consistently conducted ourselves as if true life meant Christ and not a bigger house, a happy family, or a satisfying job, however important all these may be? What if we lived more regularly as if our deaths would result in the greatest gain we could ever conceive?