The Attitude of Joy
Philippians 1:21 is a beautiful verse, and one that many Christians commit to memory. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” In addition to the beautiful grammatical parallelism in that verse, and in addition to its brevity, the profundity of that verse also makes it an oft-quoted verse in churches around the world. But do we realize what that verse is really saying? Do we think about its meaning? Do we meditate on its truth and internalize it? In writing a commentary on Philippians 1:18-26, I could not devote a disproportionate section to this one verse, and so I include it here, in an excursus. Philippians 1:21 teaches us believers to have the attitude of joy.
Notice first the opening word of this verse. To gloss over this word would be to miss some of the verse’s rich meaning. “For” puts this verse into context. In v. 20, Paul writes “that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” Recall that Paul at the time of writing Philippians is imprisoned in Rome. Death is a very real possibility for him. He does not say “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” lightly. Writing this while being possibly near death’s door, Paul weighs his words and realizes their import.
To Me to Live Is Christ
Paul first considers the meaning of his life: “to me to live is Christ.” Paul’s life is wrapped up in Christ. He writes in Galatians 2:20 that he has been “crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” When examining the verse in Galatians side-by-side with the Philippians verse, we see two halves of the same coin. For Paul, Christ is in all reality his life. Paul has devoted his life to living for the Lord. Indeed, Paul was “crucified with Christ,” so that he no longer lives; rather, it is “Christ who lives in me.”
Paul further develops this idea of “to live is Christ” in Philippians 1:22 by saying that “to live is Christ” means “fruitful labor for me.” By continuing to live, Paul would minister to others—though not him, but Christ who lives in him. Paul has lived his entire Christian live living out the principle that “to live is Christ.” Consider Paul’s poetic autobiography in 2 Corinthians 4:7-11:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
For Paul, “to live is Christ” is not a mere philosophical idea but a true way of life, a life of painful persecutions that yield “fruitful labor.” As I will later more fully develop, Philippians 1:29-30 assumes the universality of Christian suffering. Perhaps above all else, “to live is Christ” means to suffer for Christ while spreading His gospel.
And to Die Is Gain
Having considered what life means, Paul goes on to write that “to die is gain.” Paul—in the face of death—does not fear death. In fact, he looks forward to death, for that means that he would “depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:23). Henri Milan wrote a beautiful hymn centuries ago that has since been translated by George Bethune and modernized by Bob Kauflin of Sovereign Grace Music. The title of the song emphasizes its message: “It is not death to die.”
The apostle Paul understood this, and it is this principle that he writes of at the end of Philippians 1:21. “It is not death to die” because “to die is gain”; to die is to “depart and be with Christ, which is far better” than even the best of earthly blessings. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul writes: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Is that not fully better than what we experience on earth? For now, we have the great blessing of spiritual fellowship with God, but in heaven there shall be added to it the even greater blessing of “face to face” fellowship. There will be no more sin nature to hinder our relationship with God; faith and hope will even be gone, and love only will remain. For Christians, to die is truly gain: it is not death to die.
The Attitude of Joy
This verse is what I call the attitude of joy: “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” That is the attitude of joy. People who internalize this verse, who truly believe it from their innermost being, are the people who are truly joyful. If we believe that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” we will truly rejoice in the Lord as Paul commands in Philippians 3:1, which in Philippians 3:3 he explains as being to “worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” To do these things, we must have the attitude of joy. We must truly believe—both in thought and in deed—that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”