Philippians 1:21 - For Me to Live is Christ
How do you define your life? If you were asked to give a crisp, one-sentence definition of your life, what would your answer be? It is natural for us to think of our lives in terms of who we are, what our family background is, what work we do, what our aims in life are and what we have achieved. Natural, for that is the way the world thinks. But followers of Christ must refuse to be pressed into the mould of the world. "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions," said Jesus (Luke 12:15), thus warning against the ever-present danger of materialism and defining our lives in terms of this world's categories. There are other, more subtle dangers for the Christian: seeing one's identity primarily in terms of ethnic, cultural, political or nationalistic factors, or in terms of doctrinal, denominational or group allegiance.
What then is the answer to this problem of identity and definition of one's life as a Christian? Paul sets forth his understanding of his Christian identity in this text, one of the most profound statements of Christian experience in the New Testament. "To me, to live is Christ" is his succinct way of identifying Christ as the centre of his identity and life. Let us study this remarkable statement together and apply it to ourselves. I would like Christ to be at the centre of our thoughts as we begin our meeting together in General Assembly, for it is in him that we find our identity and the true focus of our unity.
The text is intimately related to its context. Paul is writing to the church in Philippi, with which he had a special relationship. His pastoral concern for the Philippian Christians and their practical sharing in his ministry are evident throughout the letter. He is writing from prison in Rome while awaiting the outcome of his appeal to Caesar. He explains his situation and his response to it in this chapter. What strikes us forcibly is his realism combined with an optimism born of an unshakeable faith in the Christ he has come to know. He looks upon his imprisonment, which many would have regarded as an unmitigated disaster, as having served to advance the gospel (verses 12-14). His witness in custody led to Christ being made known throughout Caesar's palace and beyond. Because of his courage other believers were emboldened to witness for Christ more fearlessly. Despite the fact that some were preaching Christ from wrong motives, Paul refused to be discouraged (verses 15-18). He rejoiced that Christ was being preached, whether from false motives or true.
Furthermore, he rejoiced that even his imprisonment would turn out for his final salvation, through the prayers of the Philippians and the help of the Holy Spirit (verse 19). And then his realism comes to the fore. In verse 20 he faces squarely the possibility that he might be called upon to face a martyr's death for the sake of Christ. He is confident that whether he lives or dies, Christ will be exalted though him. Why? Because for him to live is Christ, and to die is gain. The reason he was able to face with equanimity the possibility of martyrdom was that his life was so Christ-centred that death would lead to the great gain of being "with Christ, which is better by far" (verse 22).
This leads him to contemplate the future as if he had some choice in the matter (verses 22-26). Would he choose life or death? He would prefer death, not to escape the suffering of this world, but to be with Christ, to know him fully and to be made like him in glory forever. But his sense of duty prevents him from making that choice. He is convinced that it is better for the church that he remains alive meantime and so he is certain that he will be spared for some time yet to labour for the Lord and his church.
A Personal Testimony
It is against this background that we must understand our text. The first thing we notice is the personal nature of the statement. "To me" is placed at the beginning of the sentence in Greek. The whole passage contains the personal pronouns "I" and "me" again and again. Paul is not afraid of giving a personal testimony. He is not reluctant to talk about his personal experience of Christ. Although he is reticent about the extraordinary spiritual experiences he sometimes had (2 Corinthians 12:1-10), he never tires of relating his own experience of the grace of God in Christ. When he reluctantly recounts his experience of being caught up into the third heaven, he introduces himself as "a man in Christ", thus highlighting the most important aspect of his identity - his relationship with Christ, his love for Christ, his desire to glorify Christ, his aim to be conformed to the image of Christ.
Although Paul is giving his personal view of his own life, he is not drawing a contrast between himself and others who may have a different view of things from him. Some have suggested that Paul is implicitly contrasting himself with the preachers he criticizes in verse 17 (NIV), verse 16 in (AV) who preached Christ from wrong motives, but there is no hint of that in the text. Rather he is explaining how he is able to contemplate the possibilities of life and death from the viewpoint of his faith in Christ.
Is there any significance in Paul's choice of the title 'Christ' to refer to our Lord? I believe that it is not merely a stylistic variation, but that it stresses the office of the Lord Jesus as Messiah and Redeemer and thus draws attention to his saving work and in particular his cross. Paul says in Galatians 2:20,
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 faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Paul took seriously the words of our Lord recorded in the gospels (for example, Luke 9:23), "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." Joined to Christ by faith, he knew that the cross was not merely the symbol of the atoning death of Christ, by which he was reconciled to God, but the symbol of his own death to self, sin and the world and of his new life in Christ. Christ now lived in him by the Holy Spirit and he was no longer in control of his own life. Saul the proud, self-righteous Pharisee had become Paul the humble bond-servant of Christ.
A Christ-Centred Life
When Paul says, "to me, to live is Christ", he is talking about his ordinary, everyday life, not some secret, hidden or mystical aspect of his spiritual life. This is borne out by verses 20 and 24, which refer to his life "in my body" and "in the flesh", thus grounding his experience of Christ in the here and now. The tense of the Greek verb "to live" refers to an ongoing present activity or process. In Colossians 3:3 Paul speaks of our life being hidden with Christ in God. This is a glorious truth expressing our objective union with Christ and guaranteeing our eternal salvation. But here he is referring to his subjective experience of that union. He is joined to Christ in such a way that his life is now identified with Christ and the whole aim of his existence is to give expression to that.
How are we to understand his equating of his life with Christ? Some have interpreted this as "Christ is life to me". While this is a truth, it is not the emphasis of this text. For instance it is clear from texts such as Colossians 3:4 ("When Christ who is our life appears") that Christ is the source, the preserver and guarantee of our eternal life. But what Paul is stressing here is his personal experience of life as "a man in Christ", his identification with Christ and the effect this has on his life in the present. Paul is setting forth the motive power of his life in terms of his personal relationship with Christ. It was because his life was Christ-centred that he could face the possibilities of life or death not only with equanimity but also with joyful acceptance. He had learned to put Christ first in his life and was being conformed to the image of Christ.
How did this Christ-centred life express itself? By his imitation of Christ, by his being conformed to the image of Christ. There are many ways in which this can be seen, but I would like to highlight just four.
First of all, Paul showed that for him to live was Christ by his concern for the gospel. Paul has been telling of his joy in the fact that, despite and even because of his imprisonment, the gospel is advancing. Since for him to live was Christ, his life was bound up in the proclamation of the good news of Christ. He says in 1 Corinthians 9:16, "Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel". Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, the great pioneer missionary, never forgot his sense of indebtedness to bring the gospel to all people, both Jew and Gentile (Romans 1:14). Thus he rejoiced that the gospel was advancing even during his enforced absence while imprisoned. He even rejoiced that Christ was being preached by some who had wrong motives, seeking to cause trouble for him in some way.
Paul did not call into question these men's Christian profession or doctrinal orthodoxy. Elsewhere he is unsparing in his condemnation of false teachers who teach wrong doctrine, another gospel (for example in Galatians 2:7), but here the reference is to those who appear to be sound in doctrine, but they are critical of Paul for selfish motives. However Paul is willing to let his reputation suffer for the sake of the advance of the gospel.
This shows an important aspect of his life being Christ-centred. He followed the example of Christ, who, when he was insulted, did not retaliate, but entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:21-23). We are also reminded of Jesus' words in Mark 9:40. When his disciples told him that they had tried to stop a man from driving out demons in the name of Jesus because he "was not one of us", he replied, "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against us is for us." Paul put the advance of the gospel above personal reputation, personal safety, personal gain and party spirit. To the Corinthians, who took pride in personal allegiance to leaders such as Paul, Peter and Apollos, he points to the Christ who had been crucified for them as the true focus of their lives. He urges them to stop quarrelling among themselves about secondary matters. He directs them to centre their thoughts and lives on Christ, who has become for them wisdom from God - that is their righteousness, holiness and redemption. What a challenge for you and me!
We are so ready to take offence at personal criticism. We are so prone to be suspicious of those who do not share our particular doctrinal and denominational distinctives. And now we are even attacking one another within our own denomination. Fathers and brethren, these things ought not so to be! Surely we should rejoice that Christ is being preached and people are being converted to him through those who may differ from us on certain matters. Are we willing to talk about these things on which we may disagree on the understanding that it is the gospel of Christ that is at the forefront of our agenda? Are our personal, congregational and denominational priorities decided on the basis of what will lead to the spread the gospel of Christ and the bringing of many people into a living relationship with him? The gospel of Christ crucified must take priority in all our thinking and acting. Until we have this kind of concern for the gospel we cannot claim with Paul, "for me to live is Christ".
Secondly Paul showed that for him to live was Christ by his concern for the church. Again we can see the self-denial that he learned from Christ. Christ made himself nothing for the sake of his church. Paul had learned to say no to self and yes to Christ! He would prefer to leave the body and be at home with the Lord, but he knew it was best for the church that he remains on earth until the Lord should call him away. Again and again we see in Paul's letters his deep concern and heavy burden for the churches, not only the ones he had founded, but the whole body of Christ on earth. For instance in 2 Corinthians 11:28, after recounting his many labours and sufferings, he says, "Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin and I do not inwardly burn?" We see this tender pastoral care throughout his letters to the young churches as he pours out his heart to them, pleading, praying, instructing, admonishing. And remember that he calls them saints - even the proud, contentious, undisciplined Corinthians! What a breadth of vision, what a self-denying, Christ-glorifying care of the church! How do you and I measure up in this regard?
We are so quick to find fault, to criticise, to condemn, to write people off if they do not measure up to our standards. What a travesty of a true Christian pastoral concern! We are preoccupied with our petty squabbles while the world around is perishing for lack of the good news of Christ. Meanwhile many people are quietly leaving our church in silent protest at what they see as a lack of evangelistic zeal and pastoral love. We have to ask ourselves, "Are we responsible for turning people away because of our attitudes, words and actions?" We are privileged as a church to be able to support Christian mission work in many parts of the world. God forbid that our current troubles may lessen our commitment and ability to continue to support this work. May we be filled with a Christ-like concern for the welfare of his church.
Thirdly Paul showed that for him to live was Christ by his concern for Christ's glory. He had the eager expectation and hope that whether he lived or died, Christ would be exalted in his body. The glory of Christ was his prime motivation in life. Paul expressed this in his humility. For instance in Philippians 3:4 -11, he lists all the things in his background that might have been thought to be in his favour. Then he goes on to say that he regards them all as loss, as rubbish, that he might know Christ, that he might gain Christ and be found in him, so that he might share in his sufferings, become conformed to him in his death and so attain to the resurrection from the dead. In Ephesians 3:8 he calls himself the least of all saints. In 1 Timothy 1:15-17 he calls himself the worst of sinners and goes on to ascribe all honour and glory to the King.
I ask you as I ask myself, "Is the glory of Christ our chief motive? Or are we driven by selfish, self-centred motives?" It is all too easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking that our preoccupations are his priorities too and that his glory is served when we get our own way. May God humble us all in the dust that we may learn to seek Christ's glory above all else.
Fourthly. Paul showed that for him to live was Christ by his freedom in Christ. In Galatians 5:1 he says, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free." This freedom is freedom from the slavery of sin, from the law as a system of works righteousness and from the doctrines and commandments of men. It is freedom to obey Christ. The law is no longer an outward standard to threaten us but an inward guide written by the Holy Spirit on our heart to direct us how to glorify and enjoy God - the law of Christ. Christ delighted to do the Father's will and when we are in Christ we share that delight. In 1 Corinthians 9:19 Paul says, "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible". In verse 22 he says, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." Paul was willing to limit his freedom in Christ for the advance of the gospel and the upbuilding of the church, being especially considerate of the weaker brother.
Do we know this freedom and flexibility in our Christian lives? Paul was firm but flexible. Where the integrity of the gospel was at stake he would not compromise, but on other matters of lesser importance he strove to find a way of peace and co-operation. He exemplified his own instruction. "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18). We may argue that sometimes it is not possible, and sometimes it does not depend on us, but we must be willing to go the second mile, to turn the other cheek and to strive for a peaceful solution to our differences. Think how many weak brothers and sisters are being hurt by our refusal to live at peace.
Paul said, "I can do all things through him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:13). He had learned the secret of being content in all circumstances, conscious of his own weakness, but fully confident that God would give him the strength to overcome. Because for him to live was Christ, he could rise above his circumstances, whether favourable or unfavourable. Thus he was able to reassure the Philippians and us: "My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:19). May God supply what we need in this Assembly beyond our asking.
Hope for the Future
In light of this confident claim that for him to live was Christ, Paul was able to say "and to die is gain." This is not a contrast to the first part of the sentence but a consequence of it. Were he to die a martyr's death, Christ would be glorified and the church encouraged to witness more boldly as they were already doing due to his example. As Tertullian said later, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." So his death would not be a loss to the church. But the greatest gain would be for Paul himself. He would gain the prize for which God had called him heavenwards in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14). He would be forever with the Lord, fully conformed to his image.
Paul's testimony is a fitting challenge for us as we begin our General Assembly. May we have the mind of Christ, giving us humility, faithfulness to the truth, love for Christ and his church, concern for the advance of his gospel and respect for and trust in one another. May misunderstandings and imputations of false motives be removed. May Christ be exalted.
Only if we can say that for us to live is Christ, will we be able to look forward to death as a gain. If we cannot live in harmony with one another in this life in our common allegiance to Christ, how can we look forward to living together in glory? I appeal to you, fathers and brethren, in the words of Philippians 2:1-5:
If you have any encouragement from being united to Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only on your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.
May the Lord apply his word to each one of us.