Dear Radio Friends,
What an amazing testimony we have in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” The apostle Paul is in prison, in Rome, awaiting possible sentence of death himself. And he writes in the immediate context these words, “For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death.”
How could the apostle Paul say that? And how can death be a gain, a profit, an advantage? Let it be said from the outset: It is because he could also say, “For to me to live is Christ.”
Hundreds of passages can be found in Scripture on the subject of death. That is not surprising, since this is the book of life that we hold in hand, and it teaches us to prepare for death. Death strikes at any time — when we are old, when we are young. We must remember our Creator, for life is but a vapor and ours for a while, then it vanishes away. Death, the very thought of death — our own or that of others — often strikes fear and grief in our hearts. The fact that the apostle Paul himself struggled with the dilemma of death is clear in the verses that follow our text. In verses 22-24 he speaks of that struggle, that, on the one hand, he desires to live so that he could continue to minister to the saints. Yet, on the other hand, he even desired to die and to be with Christ, which, he says, is far better. He holds out the hope in verses 25 and 26 to saints that he might live yet and see them. But then, notice, in verse 27 he exhorts them, “only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ.”
Can you say that, my friend: “For to me to live is Christ”? Then you will also be able to say, “and to die is gain.” That is your conversation and mine. That is the old English way, of course, of saying how we live. Our life — does it reflect the gospel of Jesus Christ? If for us to live is Christ, for us to die is gain. And then we are prepared to die willingly.
So we consider this Word of God, “To Live is Christ, to Die is Gain.”
There is gain that the child of God expects in death. This is a beautiful, personal testimony of the apostle Paul, but also one that every child of God, by faith, can make. The apostle says, while himself awaiting the very sentence of death, “To die is gain.” Literally, we read in the original, “To me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” The phrase “to me” is placed at the head of the sentence deliberately for emphasis. To me — that is, as far as I am concerned, to live is Christ. And death, to me, is gain. For others who preach Christ out of contention, that may not be true. But to me it is! Death, he says, is gain. Death is not loss. Death is not destruction. But death is, in fact, benefit. Death is my profit. Death is to my advantage.
How can that be? Is not death the just judgment of God against sin? Even for the child of God, is not death still the last enemy (I Cor. 15:26)? Is not death painful, and was not Paul aware of the torture, the agony, that he must face? Was Paul belittling the very conflict that he describes in the verses that follow? From every human point of view, death is not gain but loss. Death is the universal sentence of God against mankind for sin. Yes, in death we lose everything, as we see in the parable of the Rich Fool, who had to hear those solemn words from God: “This night….” Death, as we read in Isaiah 40 and I Peter 1, points to the reality that our present life is frail — as the grass of the field.
Notwithstanding all of that, the child of God, regenerated by the Spirit of God, makes this confession: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Notice how the apostle actually tells the Philippians the reason why death is gain for him in verse 23 of this passage. He writes, “For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better.” It is true, he also struggles with that desire to abide in the flesh for the sake of the saints. But he acknowledges that to be with Christ is far better. And that comes, of course, in the way of death. Sure, he loved the saints of Philippi. But he says that he desires to depart, that is, to die. Then he will be with Christ! His departure from this earth will mean arrival home. The child of God who has passed from death unto life knows and is assured of this reality: Though we must depart or sleep, death is not a loss but a gain, because immediately we go to be with Christ. Yes, the Christian’s death is absence from this body; but then, immediately there is presence with the Lord. As the Heidelberg Catechism says in Lord’s Day 16, Question and Answer 42, “Our death (the Christian’s death) is not a satisfaction for our sins, but only an abolishing of sin, and a passage into eternal life.”
This answers the question for those of Roman Catholic background who have been taught purgatory, that is, the teaching that after death one must enter a place to be purged from his evil deeds. That is a teaching which denies the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and the complete satisfaction that He made on behalf of His people on the cross. The idea that the prayers of the saints, or the indulgences paid to the priest, will cause the souls of those in purgatory to fly to heaven is a lie and a denial of the perfect work of Jesus Christ on the cross. It denies the glorious gospel of Christ alone and grace alone through faith alone.
This answers, also, the false idea of soul-sleep, of non-existence till the day of resurrection. Paul knew that, when he died, he would not go to sleep but he would be with Christ immediately. It is true that the Scriptures describe the death of a Christian as sleep. For example, in I Thessalonians 4, the dead in Christ are said to be asleep. But that is with regards to the body, which is in the grave, being at peace. That is not soul sleep. It is true that our bodies must remain there until that great day of the resurrection when our souls will join with our bodies and then we shall be with God in the new heavens and the new earth, body and soul. But immediately our soul goes to be with Christ. The thief on the cross cried out, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” What did Christ answer him? “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Our Lord said in John 14 to His disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled. In my Father’s house are many mansions. And if I go I shall come again.” In the way of death, Christ Himself comes to bring His child to Father’s house of many mansions.
So the apostle Paul again, writing about the earthly tabernacle being dissolved in II Corinthians 5:8, exhorts the saints that we walk by faith and not by sight, willing rather to be absent from this body and to be present with the Lord. That is the Christian’s gain. For now God guides us with His counsel, and then He receives us in death, into glory. You can be prepared to die willingly when you know that death is not loss but in fact a fulfillment of your faith. According to Hebrews 11:13, the patriarchs all died in that faith. They confessed that they were pilgrims on this earth. This world was not their home. They were just a-passing through. They looked for a city which hath foundations, whose maker and builder is God. And embracing the promises of God in Christ by faith, the child of God looks for heaven, where there will be no more sin, no more suffering, but forever blessedness in the presence of God. His or her death is not contrary to but in line with his or her faith.
Oh, what gain, indeed, for the child of God when he or she dies! Physical death, then, is no more condemnation but, in fact, it is a joyful entrance into that place that God has prepared for the redeemed.
May we understand that we can have such assurance and walk in such hope that our death is gain only when we also know what it means that “to live is Christ.” For to me to live is Christ, the apostle says, and then, to die is gain.
Let us consider what the apostle Paul means here, “for me to live is Christ.” I would like to mention a couple of things. God calls us to reach the nations with the gospel of grace, which we seek to do also through this sermon on death. Whatever may be your lot in life, whether it is terrorism or war or anthrax or smallpox or any other fear — surgery or cancer or loss of loved one — remember John 17:3, “This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” For, after all, the most serious threat to the church is the false notion that all ways lead to God. Eternal life is to know Jehovah, the triune God, the only true God — and only through Jesus Christ whom He has sent. Knowing that and living out of that, come what may, death itself, the child of God need not fear. “For to me to live is Christ.”
My wife and I have known a sister in the Lord many years on the island of Singapore, a good friend of ours who died of cancer, very young of age, leaving four children. She left notes behind for her husband, for her children, and for her friends. We received one too, a most beautiful note in which she told us that she was going home, exhorting us to continue to fight the good fight. She reminded us, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.”
But what exactly does the apostle Paul mean? Consider with me a few things. First, that Christ was his Savior. No doubt about that. We read of that in this same epistle, Philippians 3:7-9. Please read it. The apostle Paul knew the power of Christ’s resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings. He knew that His righteousness was not in his own works but in Christ alone. He no longer had confidence in the flesh — that he was a Jew or that he had been zealous for the Lord God. He knew that his righteousness was by faith alone through grace alone. For to me to live is Christ. Without Christ I am a dead man. But in Christ I am passed from condemnation unto life.
Secondly, Christ was also now the One who not only was his justification, his righteousness, but also his sanctification. Christ was the One who empowered him to live, as he says in Galatians 2:20, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” He knew that Christ not only saved him, but Christ also sustained him. For me to live, Christ! He knew he could not live a day in prison, he could not endure a moment, without Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, therefore, he derived all his strength from Christ. Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” He had learned what Christ taught us in John 15: “Abide in me and I in you, that ye might bring forth much fruit.” So he wrote in Colossians 1:29 that he preached and warned and taught every man, laboring according to Christ, who works in him mightily.
So then, fourthly, when he said “For me to live is Christ,” the apostle meant that he now trusted in Christ and he was content in Christ. Again, Philippians 4:11, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” After all, Christ had translated him from the state of death unto life. And he was persuaded that Christ was faithful and would keep his soul against that day. So he was content.
That brings us to the fifth thing: Christ was the very motivation of his life. For the sake of Christ he lived. And, yes, for the sake of Christ’s kingdom he labored. Why did he preach the gospel? Why was he willing to suffer death? Why was he in jail? Because he knew, as he said in the midst of the storm (Acts 27:23), “Whose I am, him I serve.” Really, then, this can be summarized in a nutshell: Christ was his everything. For me to live? Jesus Christ!
This passage points us to this reality so clearly. After all, Paul is in jail, suffering for the sake of the gospel. Yet he is not thinking of himself but of the cause of Christ and His kingdom. And even if he desires to live, it is for the cause of the saints in Philippi. Literally we read in our text: To live — Christ; to die — gain. That was the very reason for his existence. There was no other reason for which he was living and willing to suffer. Christ had given Himself for Paul. Now Paul knew what true life was all about. To me to continue to live is Jesus Christ. I may desire to depart. But I am also willing to live. But if I live, it is not going to be for myself. It is so that Christ Jesus might be magnified in me whether in life or in death. This was the godly contentment and motivation of the apostle Paul. This made him prepared to die willingly. This is the important question for you and for me. Can we say this? Are you, am I, prepared to die? Do we know that, for us, death is gain? Then we must also be able to say, To live is Christ. Whatever is contrary to God’s Word in doctrine or in life must go. Whatever desire I have that is not really in the service of Jesus Christ must go. Christ must be the very reason why I live. You may not be an apostle or a preacher. But the application is the same. No one can say that to die is gain if he is not able also to say “for me to live is Christ.” No one can say that to die is gain if he is not willing to hate even father and mother for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Really, for whom do you live? What do I live for? For my wife, for my husband? Oh, do not misunderstand me. We, each one, must be faithful in the vocation wherewith we have been called. But we must always remember that whatsoever we do we must do for Christ’s sake, for the glory of God through Jesus Christ. Even our love for our wives, our husbands, our children must be out of love for God. We must know that for us to live is Jesus Christ. It means we seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness first, knowing that all that we need in this life will be added unto us by our heavenly Father.
This great assurance that the apostle Paul enjoyed in life and in death he enjoyed, of course, by faith. For our text begins with a “for.” “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” What was the apostle Paul’s great assurance, and what was the basis of his confidence? Remember, we began by reading verses 19 and 20: “For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Paul’s assurance was that, even his bonds, even his being in jail, would turn to his salvation. Knowing this, he could say he will not be ashamed but he will remain bold in that hope. He knew that Jesus Christ would be magnified in his body, whether it be in his life or whether it be by his death. This assurance, he says, is the reason why he was willing to press on.
And he goes on in our text to tell us that the reason for such confidence is that for him to live is Christ and to die is gain. This assurance was the assurance of faith, faith in Christ who, though equal with God, humbled Himself even to the death of the cross; was raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God; and is coming again — all of those precious truths of which the apostle Paul will write immediately by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in the very next chapter: Philippians 2. The very same person who gave Himself for His people at the tribunal of God will one day return in glory. He will come as Judge from heaven — because He Himself had died and is now risen and ascended at the Father’s right hand. But He will come to present His church blameless and worthy of life eternal. Now, whether He comes in glory at the end of the ages, or in the death of an individual child of God, the Christian need not be afraid. At death he goes immediately to be with his Lord. Then, at the great resurrection, with body and soul, forever to join the redeemed saints, to praise God forevermore.
Only they who live now for Christ are those who gain when He returns. Otherwise at His coming there is but judgment and hell. If the Lord does not return soon, and we have to enter into the grave through death, then remember, death without Christ is destruction — utter destruction — of soul and body. But the child of God says, No. Even death cannot separate me from the love of God. For Christ has conquered even death by His death on the cross of Calvary. For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Father, lead us in the way everlasting through Jesus Christ. Amen.