To live is Christ, to die is gain

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Philippians 1:12-26

What’s the focus of your vision?

The question that I think this passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians raises for us is what is the focus of our vision as we reflect on our circumstances and plan for the future? How do you evaluate your circumstances – determine whether things are going well or not so well? And what’s shaping and driving your hopes and plans for the future?

And in the context of that broader set of questions, the passage is then really getting us to consider how the gospel of Jesus Christ fits into it all.

 

The Natural Focus…

You see the natural and normal thing is for us to evaluate our circumstances through the lens of personal wellbeing. We judge how ‘well’ life is going and react to events and circumstances by whether we’re experiencing comfort, freedom, success, pleasure, satisfaction, security… and so on…

If you lose your job, life is not going so well. You get sick, things are not great. You find out your friend has been gossiping about you, life is bad. On the other hand, you’re on a holiday enjoying the good things of life – life is good! You get a promotion, things are going great. The kids are quieter and calmer than they used to be – what more could you ask for!?

This is the natural and normal way to evaluate and react to our circumstances. And so of course we hope, aspire and plan to make life even better along these lines. We dream of better homes and gardens, not worse ones. We plan for financial success, we work towards higher qualifications, we dream of the next holiday or a phase of life when we’re less stressed and more comfortable.

And I think it’s fair to say that most people then approach God and religion through this lens of what we value and what life is all about. So, to put it bluntly, I reach out to God if I’ve got a problem with my circumstances – things are not going ‘well’ – and I want him to make things better. Religion is meant to make life better – sort out my marriage, help me get married!, make me a better person, reward me for being a good person…

Now, many of us get that this isn’t right. Being a Christian isn’t a pathway to getting your best life now. The gospel is about bigger realities – life and death into eternity, peace with God, redemption for humanity. Bigger and better than improving my personal circumstances here and now… and yet, we can still so easily fall into the trap of going about life as if it really is all about our circumstances. God’s Word and his mission, church, the gospel… it all gets squeezed in around these other more pressing concerns. In the end, it’s our quest for ‘better circumstances’ that drives our reactions, our evaluations and our plans for life…

 

A gospel focus…

And then along comes the Apostle Paul, who turns everything upside down. In our passage, it’s clear that Paul evaluates his circumstances and hopes and plans for the future through the lens of whatever will further the cause of the gospel. For him, life is simply a context for Christ to be exalted and his mission to be advanced. And Paul approaches life like this because he is convinced that ’to live is Christ and to die is gain.’

And I think through what Paul shares, he’s inviting us to share this same approach to life. I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s not a single command in this whole passage. Paul simply opens with ‘I want you to know brothers and sisters…’ and goes on to describe events and share his reactions and hopes in it all. This passage is an invitation to see that to live really is Christ, and to die really is gain, and to learn to see our circumstances and our future through this lens. It’s an invitation to live for something bigger than the quest to better our personal circumstances. It’s a reminder that if we are in Christ, we are caught up in mission of profound importance and value that can and should lift us up above our mere circumstances. That’s what mature Christianity looks like. That’s what we’re invited into as people learning to follow Christ together.

And I think it’s a very timely message for us as we navigate relaunching onsite church services and activities over the coming weeks and months. There are lots of complicated factors. Things won’t look the same as before, and figuring out how to engage in church life and sharing the gospel won’t be simple and straightforward. But as we navigate these waters, it will help us immensely if all of us together embrace this call to put the cause of the gospel at the centre. We don’t want to approach church and our Christian walk with eyes fixed on personal preferences. We want to approach this together with our eyes fixed on the gospel.

 

1) Learn to evaluate your circumstances with ‘gospel glasses’ (v12-18a)

So the first big idea, from verses 12-18a, is this invitation to evaluate our circumstances as people who rejoice in the flourishing of the gospel above all else. We want to learn to see life with ‘gospel glasses’ on.

 

Things have actually turned out for good

Paul begins this new part of the letter in verse 12 by explaining, “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.”

What has happened to Paul? You might know already, but as he mentions in the next sentence, he’s in chains for Christ. At the point of writing this letter, Paul is in prison because of his faith in Jesus and his determination to share the gospel with others. Most likely he’s in Rome, awaiting trial before the emperor.

These are genuinely bad circumstances. I haven’t spent any time in prison, but I assume it’s not fun, and I don’t think it was any better in ancient Rome. On the surface, what has happened looks bad. Paul has lost his freedom and he would be far from comfortable. He’s not on the path to financial and social success. He’s facing the real possibility of execution. Naturally, the Christians at Philippi would have seen this as a terrible situation – bad for Paul and bad for the cause of the gospel. It’s the kind of thing you’d pray and petition against.

But Paul’s anxious to point out to his readers, his friends in Philippi, that what has happened to him has actually served to advance the gospel. Things look bad, but from his point of view, he can see how things are actually going really well. And there’s two reasons Paul gives for his evaluation.

 

Everyone knows I’m in chains for Jesus

First, in verse 13, ‘As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.’ As a result of Paul’s imprisonment, the news has spread far and wide, through the whole palace guard (which could have meant thousands of soldiers) and ‘everyone else’ (which sounds like a lot of people!), that this guy Paul is in chains because of his faith in Jesus. Paul wants people to hear about Jesus, and whilst his initial strategy didn’t involve getting imprisoned, he can see now that it has certainly helped!

 

Other Christians have been encouraged to preach

And secondly, Paul goes on in verse 14, “because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.” So not only has Paul’s imprisonment led directly to the name of Jesus spreading quickly through the centre of Rome, it’s also led to the Christians in Rome being encouraged to be more courageous themselves in their witness to Jesus. You might think it would discourage the local Christians from sharing boldly as they see someone punished for it. But in fact, it usually has the opposite effect. Seeing a brother or sister in Christ suffer willingly for Christ is a powerful testimony that Jesus is worth suffering for, and so it’s a powerful encouragement to stand alongside them.

 

Even if some don’t mean well…

Now it’s true, Paul explains from verse 15, that not everyone is ramping up their efforts to speak about Jesus for good reasons. Some are truly standing alongside Paul, finding confidence from his example and being willing to defend the gospel with him, come what may. Others, however, seem to be fuelled by rivalry with Paul more than anything else. Paul says these people ‘preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.’ But even so, ‘what does it matter?’ concludes Paul. For him, ‘the important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.’

 

…he rejoices.

Paul is primarily trying to reassure his partners in the gospel that what has looked like a real blow to the cause of the gospel has actually turned out to advance the cause of the gospel. But in doing so, he also reveals what really matters to him – what brings him joy. Even though he’s literally in chains and some people who should be standing by him and supporting him are actually trying to make things worse for him and undermine his authority, despite all this, Paul looks around at his circumstances and instead of seeing disaster and disruption, he sees the gospel going forwards. What else matters?

 

Not naïve optimism, uncritical support of ‘Jesus talk’, or apathy towards evil

Now it’s important to clarify a few things Paul is not saying here – things we should not take away as application for ourselves.

First, Paul’s not promoting a naïve optimism towards life, as if everything will always work out for the best and there’s always some comforting reason why something has happened. We’re not even meant to assume that things will always turn out to advance the gospel. Paul is simply saying he can see that’s what has happened here, and so he rejoices, even though it means he’s in chains!

Secondly, Paul’s not giving uncritical support to anyone and everyone who wants to preach about Jesus. Some might read this passage and think it’s the ultimate passage to promote uncritical acceptance of any group or church with ‘Christian’ or ‘Jesus’ attached to it and all preachers of the gospel. “Paul didn’t care who they were or what ‘camp’ they belonged to, he just rejoiced they were preaching Jesus and we should do the same! So stop being negative about that TV evangelist or the Mormons down the road or that conference that seems a bit ‘different’…”

Certainly, there are good reasons not to be quick to judge others or be overly critical. But Paul would be the first one to publicly denounce a preacher or group if he thought they were preaching anything other than the true gospel – he does it later in this very same letter! No, what’s going on here is that Paul is content that even these people with mixed motives are still preaching the true gospel, and so he can endure the personal cost and simply rejoice in the gospel being proclaimed.

And thirdly, Paul is not implying we should be apathetic towards evil or even pretend we’re not bothered by suffering and injustice. He’s not promoting stoicism – just shrugging your shoulders at personal suffering, or complacent acceptance of ‘fate’ – as if we should just roll with whatever happens to us or people around us. Paul follows the example of Jesus in getting quite angry and passionate about false, self-serving leaders for instance. Here in this passage, Paul’s not talking about whether we should fight injustice or work against false teaching. He’s simply saying, he can see how everything that’s happened is actually serving the cause of the gospel, so he’s content to rejoice in that.

 

What do you value?

It’s all about what we really value isn’t it? We can put up with a lot when the overall result is getting something we really value or seeing something happen that we really want to happen. Paul evaluates his circumstances through gospel glasses. The cause of the gospel is what his heart is captivated by, and so that’s what he focuses on as he reflects on how ‘well’ life is going. It’s like a parent who’s sacrificed a whole lot of their personal freedoms and pleasures to see their child flourish, whether it’s migrating to a different country or working long hours or simply the hard yards of caring for and disciplining their children… it all pales into insignificance for them when they see their child growing up successful and happy. That’s what it’s all been about for them. Paul is like this with the gospel. As long as he can see the mission of Jesus advancing around him, he barely notices his personal circumstances.

The question for us is, will we join Paul in looking at our lives, our circumstances, through these ‘gospel glasses’ – focused on the joy of seeing the gospel flourish, whatever that might mean for us personally?

When you evaluate how life is going, do you fix your eyes on how comfortable, wealthy, and happy you are? Or are you willing and able to see instead the ways in which the gospel is going forwards, and delight in that, whatever that might mean for you?

 

2) Let the gospel drive your hopes for the future

The second big idea of this passage really flows from this first one. If we’re going to grow as disciples of Jesus, then just as we should reflect on our present circumstances through gospel glasses, we will want to let the gospel shape and drive our hopes for the future. As you consider your future, make plans, and express your hopes, learn to put the cause of the gospel at the centre – let that be the overriding priority.

In our passage, Paul goes from describing his reaction to what has happened to now expressing his hopes for the future. And the message comes across just as strongly – what he really wants and hopes for is to glorify Jesus with his life and see the gospel of Jesus flourish.

 

Paul’s hope for deliverance

Paul goes on from the second half of verse 18 to explain that he will continue to rejoice, “for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.”

Now, it sounds at first like he’s suddenly shifting his focus back to his personal circumstances. He’s confident things will turn out for his deliverance. It sounds like he’s rejoicing because he’s sure God will answer their prayers by setting him free from prison. But it’s worth noting that the word translated ‘deliverance’ is the same word usually translated as ‘salvation’, and as we keep reading what Paul says next, I think it’s clear his vision is still fixed on Jesus and his gospel…

In verse 20, Paul explains, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”

Paul’s looking forward to something that isn’t dependant on whether he lives or dies. And it helps I think to see how the underlying grammar and logic of verses 19 and 20 work…

I know that what has happened will turn out for my salvation,

a) through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus

b) according to my eager expectation and hope that…

      – I will in no way be ashamed

      – but have sufficient courage

      => so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.

Notice the way that part (b) helps us understand what Paul means by his ‘salvation’? It will be according to his eager expectation that he will be faithful to Jesus to the end, so that Jesus is exalted in his body, regardless of whether that means death (i.e. execution!) or life (i.e. release). That’s real deliverance for Paul. That’s what the Spirit of Jesus is going to help him do in answer to the prayers of his gospel partners.

To put it simply, Paul’s hope and aspiration as he languishes in prison is not necessarily to be released, but rather to use every last breath to honour Jesus and promote the goodness and glory of his gospel.

 

You’ll be eaten by Cannibals!

Around 160 years ago a young man named John Paton sailed from Scotland with his wife Mary to the New Hebrides, the Islands now known as Vanuatu. The first attempt by missionaries to take the gospel to these Islands was 20 years earlier, and within minutes of the missionaries arriving on shore, they were killed and then eaten by the Islanders. Not what you hope for when you go to Bible college for 4 years! Now, by the time John and his wife Mary were planning to go there had been other attempts with more success, but it was far from a safe bet.

And as John made preparations to go, one elderly Christian man by the name of Dickson tried to pull John back from such foolish plans, “The cannibals! You’ll be eaten by cannibals!”

To which, John replied, “Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honouring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.”

Now, I suspect I would have been more likely to fill the shoes of Mr Dickson than the shoes of young John or Mary. Most of us find it hard to imagine adopting this kind of mindset, whether it’s facing the cannibals or Paul facing his trial. But their examples are meant to prod us to keep thinking about what really matters as we consider our future. Why aspire merely for comfort, pleasure and security, when bigger things are on offer? Death comes to us all in the end, and what will matter then is what we lived and died for.

 

What will I choose?

You see, when Paul does go on to actually consider whether he thinks he will be set free from prison, again his overriding concern is simply whatever will advance the cause of the gospel and see it bear fruit amongst God’s people.

22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.

Paul can’t even decide if even wants to be set free when he really thinks about it! For him, to ‘depart’, that is, to die, whether by execution or otherwise, is to go to be with Christ, which is better by far. Paul’s not suicidal. He knows the value of life here and now. It’s just that he can see clearly the glory and joy of going to be with Christ. He’s not afraid of that prospect, he’s looking forward to it. The Romans can’t hurt Paul in the end – the worse they can do is send him to be with his Lord in glory.

And yet, Paul can see the flip side. As much as he’d personally prefer to rest in glory, he can see how going on living in the body for a little longer will mean fruitful labour. It will be better for the Philippians and others. It will allow him to continue investing in their progress and joy in the faith. His presence with them will help them towards maturity in Christ. So in as much as he has any choice – if he could choose – that’s what he’d choose in the end. That’s what he thinks God will bring about. That’s what he’ll pray for.

Above all – not just beyond wanting personal freedom and comfort, but even beyond his personal desire to be in the presence of Jesus right now – above all, Paul wants to see the gospel of Jesus bear fruit in the lives of God’s people and amongst the countless souls of people yet to hear it. He has no greater concern or priority in his aspirations and decision making than to see the cause of the gospel advanced.

 

To live is Christ and to die is gain

And how does Paul sustain this kind of radical focus on the cause of the gospel over his own personal wants and needs? Because he’s convinced, verse 21, ‘to live is Christ and to die is gain’. What’s life all about? How do you approach the future and face decisions and fears?

“For to me,” writes Paul, “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

It’s a way of thinking about life that is the polar opposite of our natural inclinations and the culture we belong to. We breath from childhood the philosophy of ‘to live is personal fulfilment, and to die is the end of it all.’ It’s the natural way to think and act. It’s understandable.

But it doesn’t pay off, does it? The quest for personal fulfilment through our experiences and circumstances is ultimately frustrating – that’s what we see in the lives of people who seem like they should be happiest, and it’s what the teacher in Ecclesiastes reveals to us. And then in the end, none of us can avoid death – it becomes the ultimate frustration. If death is the end of it all, then we’re all facing failure in the end.

The good news is that life doesn’t have to be about finding personal fulfilment and avoiding suffering and ultimately death. The good news is that Jesus Christ has opened up a new way that overcomes the frustrations of life bound by our circumstances. Jesus has overcome death, so that death itself is not the end, but in fact, it is gain. For those who embrace faith in Jesus and the hope of the gospel, death is entry into the presence of the one who created us and redeemed us from our failures and frustrations. And so, life here and now is lifted beyond the pursuit of better circumstances and now revolves around this man and his mission – our God who gave everything for us.

As Paul expresses in another letter, his second letter to the Corinthians, “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

To live is Christ and to die is gain. This is the reality we need to grasp if we are to ever lift the focus of our hearts and minds from the pursuit of better circumstances and instead be consumed by the cause of the gospel. This is the mindset we need to embrace as we navigate our mission together as Chatswood Baptist Church over the coming weeks and months.

Don’t be surprised if you find it hard, but don’t give up either. The more we focus on the hope of the gospel, the more we look for signs that it is advancing in and through us and what’s happening around us, regardless of our circumstances, the more we make decisions for the sake of the gospel… the more we will find ourselves saying along with Paul, from the heart, ‘to live is Christ, to die is gain.’