September 18, 2011
Philippians 1:20-30

A famous evangelist once said there was a topic he could address on any occasion with any group without fear of contradiction—the universal nature of death. Perhaps babies should come with a warning label, “Birth will be hazardous to your life.” There is a one-to-one correspondence between birth and death: All who are born will die.

The Book of Philippians is one of Paul’s prison epistles. Written toward the end of his life, it is one of the most upbeat and optimistic of his letters. It is truly an epistle of joy. We get a glimpse of Paul’s view of his own life, the approach of death and his hope for the future in today’s text.

In our culture, the subject of death is frequently taboo. We go out of our way to avoid the reality of death. Hollywood desensitizes us to the reality of death by entertaining us with gratuitous violence and bloody carnage that make death seem more like a bad round in a video game rather than ultimate and final in nature.

In an earlier day and time, it was not uncommon for death to be seen as a natural process that was part of everyday life. People frequently died at home with family and friends near. The advent of high-tech medical treatment and the modern hospital removed death from daily life for many. Thankfully, the growing popularity of the hospice movement has reversed this trend.

Still, death, especially our own mortality, is a subject we avoid at all costs. Even in Christian circles we speak euphemistically about going to the other side or passing away. As did Jesus’ disciples, we need to be told plainly, “Lazarus is dead.”

Imagine the surprise of post-moderns to hear Paul’s words, “To die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). We talk bravely once death has come. Frequently a sports hero who dies is said to have gone to that big game in the sky. Others with different vocations or reputations go to their appropriate heavenly destination. One seldom anticipates death with the word gain in mind.

That is, unless one is a follower of the One who has defeated death by His own death, burial and resurrection. Paul was such a follower. Indeed, he said that if Christ is not raised from the dead our faith is in vain.

Paul’s anticipation of gain is based on the presupposition in the first half of that verse, “For to me, to live is Christ…” If Paul’s anticipation of death strikes as unbelievable, his claim about his relationship to Christ sounds incredulous. How audacious and arrogant to say, “If you have seen me, you have seen what Christ is like.”

Paul is not, however, boasting in his own spirituality. He sees his life as radically transformed by his encounter with the risen Christ—so much so that all that Paul was before coming to Christ he was willing to “consider loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8). That is a perspective on life that our world does not understand or value.

Paul was not claiming to have arrived or that he had it all together as a Christian. Rather, he knew that any good that came from his life and any glory that was revealed in his life was the result of the working of God through the Lord Jesus Christ in and through him. The principle he expressed earlier was, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live; but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by the faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

It is only as we are willing to lay down our lives, to loose our lives for Christ’s sake and the gospel, that we will find true life. Eternal life is a kind and quality of life that begins when we encounter God’s life through faith in Christ.

Paul had no morbid death wish. Rather, it was because of his encounter with the living Christ that he could say to have passed through death’s door is gain.

Do you recall the death of Pope John Paul II? That was an object lesson in how a Christian ought to face death. Regardless of one’s theological judgment of the Pope or relationship to the Roman Catholic Church, all believers could draw inspiration and strength from the courage and dignity with which John Paul faced death.

Why was the international community so interested in his death? We saw something of his confidence—the Christian confidence—that physical death is not the end but a transition to a new beginning. Indeed, to have passed through death’s door is gain!

Share This On: