Philippians 1:21-26: A Holy Tension

We all have moments that had an undeniable impact in our lives. This was one of mine. We had just got back from youth camp. We all had an envelope on the wall of our group’s room where other students could drop encouraging notes, but we weren’t allowed to read them until we got home. I didn’t waste much time at home before digging through my notes. Most of them were pretty standard ones like, “You’re pretty cool” and “It was fun getting to know you.” But there was one that stuck with me. It was a note telling me that I was an example of Philippians 1:21. Obviously I had to look it up. “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” At first I wasn’t sure if that was actually a compliment, but it went on to become my favorite verse in Scripture, and one that I try to live up to every day.

There is a holy tension in this verse and this tension is the secret to the Christian life. The conjunction Paul uses is important. It is not life or death. It is life and death. This means Paul is simultaneously thinking of his life and his death. He is living every moment to glorify Christ. He is also living every moment anticipating and longing for heaven. He walks, as John Calvin puts it, with “one foot raised” to heaven. In one profound statement, Paul illustrates the already/not yet reality of God’s Kingdom, but in a very personal way. I firmly believe many of our failures in this Christian life can find their root in the fact that we are not living in this tension. We are living with a life or death perspective instead of life and death. I also believe that when we live in this tension there is nothing the world can threaten us with. What follows in the next verses is a description of how Paul views both sides of this tension and a model for our lives as well.

“My desire is to depart”

In verses 22-23, Paul makes very clear what he prefers. He’s ready for this life to be over. In verse 22 we see his conflict when he says, “Yet which shall I choose I cannot tell.” However, we see his personal preference when he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” In other words he is telling us that if he is being selfish he would rather die and go to Jesus. My friends, this brings up something that is sorely lacking in our modern evangelical world. Too many of us are trying to live the Christian life without the hope of heaven. But that is, quite simply, not possible. Many are trying to use Christ only as a medicine to enhance the quality of their present lives. This is foolishness when you really think about it.

This present world is like a ship sinking into the depths. Jesus did not come to make your sinking experience as pleasant as possible. He came to get you off the ship.

Click To Tweet

Paul’s faith was incredible and he was able to endure crazy things. The world couldn’t touch him. Satan couldn’t bring him down. Why? Because his eye was fixed on future glory, not his experience here on earth.

A common denominator of those historical Christians that we know as giants of the faith is that they had a high view of heaven, and a low view of this present life. Therein lies the secret. We have all heard the stories of Christians who were in the middle of their greatest torment, yet in that moment they experienced their greatest joy in Christ. The reason is because their was nothing in this world for them. All the false joys of this present life were removed from them so that that there was no competition for the true joy found in Christ alone. The truth is you will never experience the true joy of Christ until you let go and forsake the world.

To be sure, Paul’s desire was not death itself. This is not some morbid, dark fantasy that Paul has. Death itself is not to be desired. It is what stands on the other side of death that Paul longed for. The eternal presence of Jesus in Heaven. Death is nothing but the door to get there. For the Christian, facing the moment of death is like standing at the front door to their eternal home. And everything in this life is aimed at that goal – going home. So let us live our Christian lives with the end always in view. Let us live to enhance our lives in eternity and learn to forsake our lives now. Let us organize our lives and habits in such a way that we build up our experience of Christ instead of seeking to build up our experience in the sinking ship of the world.

“For your progress and joy in the faith”

Though Paul desired to depart this life, he was convinced it wasn’t time. He wasn’t going home yet. So in verses 24-26, he describes the living part of the holy tension. And what is the purpose for him continuing on in life? It is for the progress and joy of the Philippian believers, ultimately leading to the glory of Christ. This is why Paul said living is Christ and dying is gain. In death, Paul gains Christ. In life, Paul lives Christ. His life on earth is not for himself. It is for the joy of the saints and the glory of Christ.

Simply put, it’s not about you! Satan has deceived many of us into thinking life is gain and death is loss. For the believer death is gain and life is Christ. The reason you are alive on this earth is to glorify Christ and help others grow in Him. Jesus’s goal in your earthly life is not to make sure you are as happy as you can be. If that were the case, it makes no sense why He wouldn’t go ahead and take us all to heaven right now. Christ’s goal in your earthly life is His glory, the building up of the church, and your preparation for happiness in heaven.

It can be so tempting to live for our own advancement in this world. But when we are tempted to do so let us remember the words of Paul here. To live is not self enrichment. To live is Christ. To die is gain. So long for your eternal homecoming. Anchor your joy in the life to come. But work for the joy of others and the glory of Christ while you are waiting to walk through that door. Let us all live with a holy tension.