“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
I am at the end of a harried day, fraught with concerns and cares. Tomorrow does not look any better. So when I read the opening verse of this passage, I felt a mounting irritation that Paul was so single-focused. But as I let that feeling pass over me, I felt that next emotion that came behind it that was jealousy. Jealousy that Paul could be so single-minded and not have any other concerns. Of course that is not quite true. Paul did have other concerns and cares, most notably his being persecuted for his faith. But he did not let anything get in the way of his living for Christ.
He was just as ready to die for Christ also. And that death would not be a loss, but a gain. Safe in his belief in Christ and the Lord God, he knew his place in heaven would be assured. And the suffering and cares of this world would be behind him. And, if Christ was coming in what Paul felt was the not too distant future (I have read varying opinions on how imminent Christ’s return was expected), then there was not much life that he would miss out on living.
“If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer.” (Verse 22)
Barnes has done a very good and accurate paraphrase of this verse, and I defer to him; “The meaning of this passage, which has given much perplexity to commentators, it seems to me is, “If I live in the flesh, it will cost me labor; it will be attended, as it has been, with much effort and anxious care, and I know not which to prefer – whether to remain on the earth with these cares and the hope of doing good, or to go at once to a world of rest.” It is my understanding of the verse as well. But again, I feel my irritation growing.
How can Paul have lived so lightly in the world that leaving the world behind is the brighter of the two options? Where are the connections Paul has in the world? Well, actually, I know the answer to that too. All the people that Paul was connected to, he fully expected to see in the world to come. And he believed it would be a better experience for all than the world they lived in now.
“I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” (Verse 23 – 24)
However, it would seem that Paul does still feel a stake in remaining in contact through the flesh. Despite what some at times seem to feel, Paul is a flesh and blood person.
“Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.” (Verses 25 – 26)
A song writer [Phil Joel] I heard many years ago wrote a song called “Fragile”. And while not Paul, his song does talk about staying and abiding. When I heard the lyrics, especially the portion I have quoted below, it reminded me of Paul’s decision to stay in this world and continue to minister. Phil Joel, however, says it more the way I would.
“And I’ll stay here with you
Knowing that Jesus is here
To carry us through
And all through the night
I’ll stay by your side
Until the morning appears
And sun and moon collide
He’ll carry us through”
“Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing.” (Verses 27 – 28)
I don’t know if what Phil Joel wrote is in any way parallel to what Paul wrote. It seems to me a kinder, gentler exhortation from one who knows what it is like to be harried and pressed. And someone who is there long term, no matter what may come.
“For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well– since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.” (Verses 29 – 30)
I am not faulting Paul. He has given comfort and inspiration to millions more people than he (probably) ever thought he would. His words have stood the test of time, and that is a way of being there. But it is only one way of being with another. In the midst of changes, including my changing from one WordPress blog site to another, I am here. As are people in your circle of faith. We are here for one another, whatever may come, and until we are called “home” by our Lord God. Selah!