There are instances throughout the Bible where upon reading a particular Scripture, I am left utterly astonished by the words I read. The Bible can be quite surprising, you know, if you let its words and truths sink in. One such instance of this occurs in the New Testament in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In the opening chapter of the letter, Paul begins his encouragement of the believers at Philippi by sharing news of the gospel’s advance and of their partnership with him to make that advance possible. (Phil 1:3–11) He continues by relaying some words of inspiration, which this church was likely desperate to hear, following Paul’s imprisonment. Such is what makes these words so remarkable — that is, that they were written while in chains from a Roman jail cell.
Paul, however, makes a bold and buoyant confession that he has come to grips with his imprisonment, knowing that even in that lonely dungeon the advance of the gospel was still possible. (Phil 1:12–13) What’s more, Paul says that it is his “eager expectation and hope” that Jesus Christ “be highly honored in [his] body, whether by life or by death.” (Phil 1:20) That statement is surely surprising. It is not often that you hear of one’s resolve for a particular belief being of such strength and certainty that whether they live or die, they are resigned to adhere to their convictions. Such disregard for one’s own personal self-preservation is almost foreign to our modern ears. But such is the faith and commitment of St. Paul to Christ. Such, too, is the remarkable effect which the gospel of Jesus Christ has on those who believe in it and are committed to its advance. And yet, even that testimony is not the most surprising statement made in this first chapter. For that, we must take notice of Paul’s subsequent statement in the next verse:
For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Phil 1:21)
Here, Paul reiterates with even more force and fervency his devotion to Christ alone by declaring explicitly that death has no hold over him. In fact, “to die is gain.” It is to Paul’s advantage that he come face-to-face with death because through death he obtains a far grander reward. And what is that reward? What is gained by dying? Paul expresses precisely what he means later on in the same letter when he writes the following words in chapter three:
Our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly wait for a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject everything to himself. (Phil 3:20–21)
The gain of death is the wondrous transformation of our bodies into “the likeness of his glorious body.” We become like Christ with bodies perfected, free from sin, free from sickness, absent of all disease, absent of all abnormalities — free from weariness, exhaustion, and everything else that is offensive to the holiness of heaven. Such is the “gain” to which Paul longingly and hopefully looked. “To live is Christ,” Paul says, “and to die means I am with Christ and made like Christ in body and spirit.”
What compelled Paul to persist in his advance of the gospel was the hope that he had that Jesus Christ would be magnified and adored “whether by life or by death.” (Phil 1:20) So long as there was breath in his lungs, Jesus Christ and the message of salvation by the forgiveness of sins would be Paul’s singular focus and mission. And if circumstances or events were to take his life away, that would be to his advantage. “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Those words from St. Paul are some of the most surprising words in the entire Bible. They are words that strike us in our souls. And rightly so. We are so often committed to self-preservation, to safeguarding our lives, to protecting what we have here and now that we often miss what we gain in death. Perhaps that is because you do not know what lies ahead when death comes for you. Maybe for you, the prospect of death startles you, unnerves you, frightens you. You do not know what waits for you behind death’s door. Such is why the assurance demonstrated by Paul’s words are so surprising. How could someone, anyone approach death in that way?
Well, you can if you know that you are Christ’s. I have chatted on several occasions with different congregants from my church about how impossible it must be to carry on in times like these without the assurance of God’s Word. How do you face the death of a loved one without the Lord’s words of promise? Without the blessed hope that those who are “absent from the body” are “present with the Lord”? (2 Cor 5:8) Without the certainty that those who depart from this life awaken in the company of their Maker, their Savior, their Christ? Such is the believer’s hope. Such is the adamantine promise of the gospel.
For those whose faith rests in Scripture, they are imbued with the surprising assurance that “to die is gain.” That death is nothing to be feared or afraid of for those who are possessed by Christ Jesus, the Lord. The One who, we are told elsewhere in Scripture, “has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Tm 1:10) “Death is no enemy to the one to whom Christ is all,” comments H. A. Ironside. “To live gives opportunity to manifest Christ down here; to die is to be with Christ, than which nothing could be more precious.”1 Indeed, nothing is more precious than rejoicing in glory in the presence and peace of Christ himself. Such is what is gained through death.
But just think of stepping on shore
And finding it heaven
Of touching a hand and finding it God’s
Of breathing new air and finding it celestial
Of waking up in glory and finding it home2
H. A. Ironside, Notes on Philippians (New York: Loizeaux Bros., 1954), 29.
L. E. Singer, “Finally Home” (1971).