How Death is Gain
Topic: Grace Pulpit Passage: Philippians 1:21-23
How Death Is Gain
March 1, 2020
What a joy it is to be back with you again today in this book. It’s been a while, so we are going to spend the first couple of moments reminding ourselves of what Paul has been saying to us in the previous verses. Of course the best way to remind us of that is by reading some of these verses. Let’s read together the end of verse 18 through 26 in Chapter 1 and remind ourselves a little of this context, where Paul said:
*Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 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 on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. *
So if you remember the last sermon from Philippians back in January, we were discovering together what exactly it was that led Paul to rejoice in all circumstances. We have seen that even though Paul was in prison, and even though there were those outside of the prison who were using his imprisonment to advance their own ministries and to discredit his, he is able to look past that, and he is able to express an exceeding amount of joy in his circumstances. And that is what we looked at last time. We focused on just what it was that Paul was doing, how he was living despite all of this to not only keep from being discouraged, but to remain joyful. The culmination of what we looked it was his mindset. You saw what he said in verse 20, that he was confident “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” The fact that he knew God would bring glory to Christ through his body no matter what might happen to him allowed Paul to rejoice in all circumstances because he knew a sovereign God would use him in whatever condition, whether he was respected or looked down on, whether he was free or imprisoned, whether he was alive or whether he was dead because he really believed that. Paul was truly able to rejoice in whatever situation he might find himself in because he believed that truth about God and his promises about using Paul to bring glory to himself.
If you understand all that really matters when it comes to your life—that it is to be used to glorify God and that happens for every faithful Christian whether they live or die—then it makes perfect sense why Paul was always rejoicing. He is thinking along the lines, “I’m being opposed and persecuted? Well, praise God because they also persecuted Christ. Now his affliction is mine. So, I’m not being opposed? Well, praise God for that because now I can spread the Gospel in an unhindered way. I’m imprisoned? Well, praise God for that because I can now put a seal on my testimony and be imprisoned for the sake of Christ. And, oh, look at all these Roman soldiers that need to hear the Gospel. I’m not imprisoned now? Well, praise God that I can get back to the work of building up the church until God has some more Roman soldiers whom he wants me to minister to in prison again. So I’m going to live, then? All right, well, praise God. That’s more time I get to serve God by giving myself for his church. I’m not going to live; I’m going to die? Well, praise God because I get to complete my sanctification and I finally get to enjoy Christ unhindered by sin and its effects for the rest of eternity.” That is the type of thinking that characterized Paul, and it is a type of thinking that should characterize all of us because it is the logical way that someone who understands they have been saved from the penalty of their sins by a God who now invites them to serve him—it’s the logical way a person like that would respond to such great news. It’s the type of life that proceeds from one who knows they have died to their old life and they are now living a new life in service to the King who saved them.
In verse 21, Paul sums up what living with an eternal mindset means, right?—that being what we just touched on last time when he said, “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” Literally, “To live equals Christ, to die equals gain.” In the verses we are going to look at today and next week, we are going to see Paul unpack just a little bit what he means by those two statements: “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” He is certain Christ will be honored in his body if he lives and because to live is Christ; that will mean fruitful labor. That is what we’ll talk about more in depth next week. But he is also certain Christ will be honored in his body if he dies because to die is gain. That concept is what I want us to spend most of our time on today.
With that in mind, can I ask you to think about what some might consider to be a morbid question? Are you scared of your own death? Let’s use a Pauline metaphor—do you fear reaching the end of your race? Of course, the theologically informed answer that every Christian should give is, “No,” right? And we would cite all the same reasons that Paul would. I’m not saying—Paul is not saying we should be fools who live like no-fear-of-death-people who stand on the edge of a cliff to take a selfie—not that. That is foolish. Not the lack of fear of your own death, of your own mortality or just not thinking about it. That’s not living like one who doesn’t fear death. That is just taking unnecessary risks for some sort of personal status upgrade. That’s not really living; that’s being foolish.
We live in a world, though, that does not like to talk or think about the reality of death. And when they do, it’s generally vague and no one probes anyone’s thinking because of the potential of making the discomfort of that situation even more uncomfortable. Therefore, our world’s most common way of dealing with death is to try to minimize it, not talk about it much. If they go much beyond the tragedy and start to really dig into questions like, “How can you really know where that person is right now?” that would start to make a situation that the world is trying to gloss over even more prominent and more painful. That’s why you see news stories covering death and tragedy, and they’ll say how sad it is. They’ll try to honor the life of that person. Unfortunately, at other times they are trying to make a political point with the death. But you won’t hear much in those news stories about where they think that person is now. You might hear a friend or family member being interviewed by a news anchor, saying something vague like, “They’re in a better place now.” Or “At least their suffering is finally over,” but you’ll never hear the news anchor come back with, “Oh, that’s great! How do you know that?” Or “What makes you think they’re not suffering now?” No news anchor would say that. They would be reprimanded or fired to say that to a grieving family.
The reason no one wants to talk about it is because when you carry out an unbiblical worldview all the way to its extension, the answer on death is really scary. I was looking at a website this last week that allows people to ask whatever questions they want, and other people will submit answers to try to help them. I looked at a couple of questions related to death. Some of the answers given demonstrate why no one likes to talk much about it. There were questions along the lines of, “Why must I die? I don’t want to die. Is there any way to escape it?” Another question, “I’m really afraid of death and I don’t want to die. It seems like entering a dark cave with no idea what happens.” Here’s the help they received. A certain novelist responded this way, “Like birds and blades of grass and every other brief expression of life, human and animals die and disintegrate, thus remaining always part of this world, this universe, which is forever recycling its myriad of infinitesimal parts. There is no escape, nor would it make much sense to desire one.” How hopeful is that? A physicist from Penn State, after spending some time talking about how difficult it was for him to come to the same realization as those questions and how he even pondered suicide, offered this help to say what he did. He said, “I take a deep breath, be serene as I possibly can muster about this and make sure the terrible inevitability that I do not want to occur, but cannot avoid, will not ruin my day. In this hour, or this minute, I will ensure the inevitability will not leave meaninglessness. I will try to make my day mean something to me and others and this day will add up with the other days. And maybe there will be an overall meaning, a reason for my existence that helps in the inevitability of oblivion.”
Another man, who identified himself as a “freed Christian,” an ex-Christian atheist, offered a sample of what enlightened thinking sounds like when you’re free of the shackles of organized religion with this hope-filled statement: “It’s very difficult to imagine ourselves not existing. One, instead, tends to imagine oneself in a big dark void for all eternity, which is of course very frightening. But the truth is there will be no fright or anything else as a consciousness is a function of the mind, which with the body ceases to exist after death. So it’s just like falling asleep or being hit over the head with a very big thing. The lights just go out and that’s that.”
When you dig into what this world believes about death, you either get these kinds of answers filled with no hope, or you get maybe even some other ones that offer ridiculous hope in science to solve the problem of death. Or you get people who absolutely ridicule those who believe in the Bible, calling us “archaic” and “haters of science,” suddenly, when it comes to death, hoping against all scientific evidence in some sort of mystical belief and form of incarnation or to be made one with the universe, or other even more ridiculous beliefs. It’s amazing how quickly they will chuck their so-called scientific worldview when they’re trying to cope with death. The unbelieving world has no good answer for death. They fear what lies beyond it because the best they can come up with is despair and hopelessness, or a faceless, groundless mysticism that just trusts something is going to happen after death that goes against the pure scientific logic they have lived their whole lives believing. This world doesn’t like this subject because they have no answer for it. And if we knew nothing of God, it would make sense to have those kinds of feelings about death and avoid talking about it as much as possible, also. In fact, if you are not in Christ, or unsure about your standing before a Holy God, then the truth is far more terrifying than any of those useless conclusions.
That is not the case. We are Christians, right? And we have a glorious answer for the problem of death. And that answer is that it is not in fact a problem at all. But even though that’s true of us, it seems like in recent Christian history, it has been quite discouraging to see how many Christians have completely bought into the world’s thinking on death, talking about it and even living out the majority of the last decades of their life with the primary goal of putting off death as long as possible==sometimes even obsessing over it just as much as unbelievers, going to doctor’s appointments with the same fear and anxiety as those with no hope, watching the news, hearing about shootings, natural disasters and viruses and just living with the same sort of fear of death as the rest of world, who have no idea about the hope we have. We spend so much time and energy being worried just like them.
Even Christians are believing death is a generally sad and morbid topic. They verbally acknowledge the hope we have in Christ but try to avoid thinking and talking about death just as much as the world. At a funeral here, we will see Travis or whoever come up and say that this is actually a happy occasion for the faithful Christian who has died. And again, we all know that’s true, right? We all know that is true, but part of us is thinking, “That’s just what the pastor has to say, though, right? That’s kind of how he soothes us.” When it comes to the topic of death, most Christians today live like they don’t believe the Bible when it comes to their own death. There is a spoken hope—there’s a mouthed affirmation of the truth of Scripture, but little behind that. I think that a lot of us have talked ourselves into thinking that’s just normal, that’s how Christians probably normally are. “Yeah, I’m a Christian, and I know that I have hope beyond death, but death is still a topic I don’t really want to talk about, and if I’m honest, I’m still pretty fearful of it.”
We don’t get any sense of Christians living like that in the New Testament or in Christian history. We see Christians who have such a disdain for pursuing the fleeting pleasures of this world—such an understanding of who God is, of what Christ has done on their behalf—that they really didn’t care whether they lived or died. They truly didn’t. They trusted God. They were committed to serving him in life and excited to see him whenever he chose to bring them home from earth. We see this same type of thinking in the New Testament, throughout most of church history and really up until these last few decades—decades that have been marked by Christians trying to compromise with the world on everything, trying to mine post-modernism for just little flecks of truth while neglecting the fully sufficient Word of God they’ve been given. They are enjoying the things of this world so much that the prospect of leaving here to be in the presence of Christ in heaven just doesn’t sound as promising as the things they have come to love and live for here.
At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, you saw churches in our country demonstrating to the world that the church has an answer for death. You don’t see it much around here, but when we lived in Kentucky, if you drove around those back roads through the little towns and communities, you would see church buildings with graveyards right on their property. They’re everywhere. They are generally churches that have been around for over 100 years or so. I’m not sure if they still use them today. I know some do for sure. Every Sunday, as people are going to those churches, as they are walking up to be a part of the worship service, they have to walk right by those headstones marking the graves of people who used to be as young as they are, coming to sing even some of the same songs and hear a message from the same Bible. There is nothing morbid about it.
Check yourself as you hear that and if it strikes against you. There’s nothing morbid about that. That is a sign to all the world that Christians are not afraid of death. They understand it. They have an answer for it. As we evangelize a watching world, one of the things that marks us out as set apart is that those who have put their trust in Christ, those who follow Jesus as Lord, have a completely different understanding of death from the rest of the world. That should mark us.
So today, with the time we have left, I want us to look at this passage and see how Paul understands death. How does he understand death so that he can make the claim—and mean it—that to die is gain? We’re going to mainly look at verse 23 and we’re going to understand together what it is that we need to understand about death to be able to live in such a way that we truly believe that to die is gain. And we must get this. This isn’t something we can keep putting off thinking through this. There will be, guaranteed, in this church in the next several years people sitting here right now who are forced to face death. And they’re not expecting or thinking about it at all right now. It might be you. We need to understand. We need to believe this—what the Bible says about it—and stop avoiding it so we are ready for that day ourselves, so that we can minister to each other as they face it.
We are going to unpack this understanding of Paul by using the four points you see in your bulletin. The first of these is Present Pressure. Look at verses 21 through 23 again. Paul says:
*For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. *
Paul is moving out of his statement from verse 21, and he is honestly laboring in his mind about which would be better: continuing to live or getting to die. When it says “choose,” it doesn’t mean Paul is trying to decide what he is going to do. He knows that God is the one who is in charge of his life and when he dies. That is evident throughout all his writing. He is deliberating in his mind about which one he really wants in his heart. What does he desire most—living and continuing in fruitful labor for the Lord, for that Lord who saved him? Or getting to die and be in the presence of that Lord? The verse says he feels “hard pressed between” these two possibilities. The picture the Greek word presents is of pressing your way through a narrow opening where both sides of your body are kind of scraping up against the walls, squeezing through.
Paul is saying that this is the type of pressure when he considers whether he would rather be with Christ in heaven or continue serving him on earth. This is the type of thing he struggles with thinking about. This is the decision that causes him the most pressure. We have just read the rest of this passage, so we know as this passage unfolds, Paul comes down on the side knowing it is more beneficial for the Philippians and for other Christians that he should remain in labor among them. But saying what is most necessary is not the same as saying what is best.
We’ll talk more about what remaining in this life looks like next week, but for now I want us to look at Paul’s feeling of tension and ask ourselves if that is even close to what is going on in your life right now. Do you feel pressed in on both ends by your desire to depart and be the with the Lord and your desire to stay among the church and continue laboring for their good and growth? Do you feel that tension? If you don’t, why not? Because isn’t it true that most of us don’t? And isn’t it true, if most of us are honest, that we don’t have much of a desire to be physically dead and present with the Lord? We’ve bought into this world’s poison more than we care to admit.
At best, a lot of Christians just get to a time in their life when they’re in enough pain and discomfort that they are then finally ready to make a statement that sounds kind of like Paul’s—where they’re hard pressed on both sides by the physical pain and weariness of this life, like, “Enough is enough,” and now they finally desire to be with Christ. Is that anywhere near what Paul is talking about—to have just the desire to feel less pain? Isn’t that how we think? “What I’d really like to do is recover so I can go back to living the way I always have lived. It seems like that is less and less of a possibility, so I guess I’m ready to go home and be with the Lord.” That’s what they say.
Do you see how different that is from Paul? He is asking himself, “Do I really want to be freed from prison and go back to the people I love, or do I want to depart from this life and be with Christ?” Paul isn’t living the Christian life in such a way that one day he’ll be ready to die and go home and be with the Lord. He is ready now. Why are we not like that? What is even sadder is that the one thing holding Paul back from fully embracing his own death and eternal life with the Christ is all the fruitful labor he still has on earth. That’s what’s keeping him. That’s what’s drawing him back. When we are honest, most of the time it just comes down to a tension that comes from loving the world. The reason that being dead sounds so unappealing to so many Christians is that they are so in love with this world. It’s pretty simple really: The more attachments you have in this world and the things you have that you are giving your time and energy to, the more difficult the idea of being separated from those things is.
Of course, this is not saying you should stop caring for all the people you care about. But really, death is just trading those relationships—many of which you will be reunited with one day anyway—trading those relationships to gain a close relationship with the one you have lived your life for. Paul still had a lot of people he loved, but none came close to his attachment to Christ. There is nothing else the world had to offer him that had that kind of draw. So he was ready. It really is a tragedy in your life when people you know and love die. Even if they are believers, we can be absolutely confident that now they would have no desire whatsoever to come back. People left behind will grieve the loss of someone. Of course we will. We’ve been separated from that person for the rest of our lives, and that is a difficult trial and a sad, lingering effect of the Fall. This passage isn’t to see an application in telling someone who has just lost someone that it is great, and they should just be happy. That’s not the application. Of course, they should be sad. They’ve been separated from someone they love and care about.
This application is about you. It’s about your attitude about your own death. We should grieve someone else’s death because of the earthly separation for those who remain alive. But when you die, you lose nothing. It is only gain. As much as you love your spouse or your kids or your family, one second after you leave this earth, you will not consider those relationships a loss in any way; it’s only gain. The only reason why a Christian wouldn’t feel this same tension we see in Paul—the same pressure—would be because he loves the treasures of the world too much and Christ not enough—whether it is things like sports or entertainment, or even good things like family and friends—because compared to your love for Christ, those are supposed to look like hatred, right? Remember what Jesus said? When you really believe that to die is the ultimate gain, then you will see death as something to ultimately look forward to.
Again, it’s like the end of the race. Do you see your life like you were running a race for Christ, where he is waiting at the finish line for you? If you really do, then death should not be an issue for you. You are either running as hard as you can for his pleasure and his glory, or you are finishing the race for the reward of being with him for eternity. To live is Christ, to die is gain. Are you there? Does that describe you? I struggle. I think the reason that doesn’t describe many of us is because the next three points we are going to talk about lay too lightly upon us. The closer you are to rightly understanding these next three points that all come from verse 23, the more that tension is going to grow in you. Much of our attachment to the world—much of it—comes from the fact we just don’t understand the things we’re about to talk about. We don’t think about them enough.
Point two—Final Freedom. And the freedom I’m talking about is the freedom from the presence of sin. When you look at verse 23, you see Paul says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ.” “Epithumia,” the word that is translated as “desire,” means a strong desire or an eager longing. And the word applies not only to his desire to be with Christ, but also to his desire to depart. If you are diagramming that phrase, you would draw a line from strong desire to both the phrase, “to depart,” and to the phrase, “be with Christ.” It’s talking about both of them. This is interesting because we often hear about the desire to go to heaven, but unless someone is suffering physically, we don’t often hear about a desire to depart from this world. Like we said earlier, most people would rather just feel better and get back to their old life. They’ll almost just settle for entering eternity with Christ if it looks like they’re not going to get better.
But Paul has a desire to depart from the earth. Let’s quickly establish the fact Paul isn’t some suicidal nihilist. Just read this whole letter. It’s abundantly clear. There is nothing you can do to Paul to get him to not rejoice in what God is doing in and through his life. No matter what circumstances he is in, there is no way Paul is going to stop being joyful and live every second God gives him to be joyfully glorifying God whether he is a prisoner or whether he is free. When God decides to take him from this earth, he will be excited for that, but until then he is living life joyfully serving and trusting in his Savior. The only reason then that Paul is looking forward to departing this world is that this is the only place, the only time when he’s going to have to deal with sin. It’s the only time.
Sin is in this world and it’s everywhere. This week in our own country, sin voted down a bill that would require doctors to try to save the life of any baby who survives an attempted abortion instead of just letting it die. They voted it down! Because passing it just might be the thing that opens the door of valuing the lives of babies before they’re born. We live in a culture—you know this—where every single part of God’s definition of marriage is being mocked. One man, one woman for life, right? The “for life” part means absolutely nothing anymore. Divorce is just accepted by everyone now. It’s almost never even mourned. Even Christians who say they’re against it just seem to accept it as part of life. God says, “I hate divorce.” Divorce is so much a part of our culture, there’s not even a debate about it. Neither the Democratic platform nor the Republican platform are anti-divorce. There is no anti-divorce platform anymore. It’s just accepted.
The “man and woman” part of God’s definition of marriage—that’s also not going to be up for much debate in a few decades. That’s just readily embraced. It can be “man and man” or “woman and woman.” And now, not only the “man and woman” part is attacked as a whole, but—what would have been incomprehensible just a few years ago—even the terms “man” and “woman” are being robbed of all meaning. There is widespread acceptance of rebellion against what a man is or what a woman is. This week you might have read some of the articles and news coverage about the “one” part of the definition being challenged by the push to start accepting polyamorous relationships. One man, one woman for life—there’s not a single word in that definition that this godless, sin-loving culture isn’t warring against.
Those are just a few examples. But you all know. You all live in this world—fornication, pornography, murder, greed, lust, hate, envy, jealousy, this overwhelming love of self above everything else—it’s everywhere. Sin and a love for sin has infiltrated everything. Even all those things we think of as morally neutral are infused with sin and sinful thinking. Try to watch a single movie, a single TV show, a single commercial that isn’t somehow laced with sin in some way or another. Find one song on the radio, even on most Christian radio stations, that doesn’t have sin and a love for sin flowing through it. It’s everywhere. And the fact that we have become so callous to it in so many areas should make us look forward even more to the day that God decides to remove us from it.
In addition to all of the sin and the results of the sin we see everywhere we look in the world, it is almost certain that the sin Paul is most looking forward to leaving behind is the sin that still clings to him. Every Christian, every one of us, is in a lifelong sanctifying process discovering sin in our life, repenting of it, mortifying it. And as you grow more and more in your understanding of God, you come to see more and more just how sinful you are every day as you hear some of the stuff that comes out of your own mouth, the way you lose your patience and react with sin. As you read your Bible, you discover even more just how much sin is prevalent in your life and how serious it is. But this wickedness—your bitterness, your jealousy, your gossip—it’s such serious rebellion against God that he had to create and die on the cross to deal with it. When we see this, it causes us, then, to praise him more and more for the Gospel, for the substitutionary death of Christ so that in him we can have our sins paid for fully and be credited with the righteousness that is not our own. We’re adopted as children of God. And we can now joyfully call God our Father.
So the sin that still clings to us no longer condemns us, but because of our deep love for our Father, for our Savior who died for us and the good law that God has laid down for us, we hate that sin. We hate when we still see in ourselves that for which Christ had to die. Don’t get me wrong. It is a joy to look back in my own life and to see what God has done, to see the sins that used to be in my identity now holding no power whatsoever over me. Praise God! I see other areas in my life where I have seen tremendous growth, and I’m sure you all do, too. I can praise God for how he has displayed his power and his kindness in my life, sanctifying me and making me more and more like him every day. I continually praise God for how he has done that in me, and it is only explained by his work in my life. I’m sure you all have similar stories of sanctification. They are a constant source of joy and praise to God.
But don’t you just want sin to be over and done with in your life? Don’t you long to never hurt someone you love with another sinful word or action? Don’t you long to never have another moment when your mind drifts into thinking things that dishonor the name of the great God who has called and saved you? No more days where you’re driving home rehearsing a conversation in your head with remorse or regret. Don’t you long for the day when you will never again regret the way you spend a single minute, a single second? Fellow Christian, don’t you long for the day when sin will have no part in you? Of course you do! Because you have been regenerated by God. One of the first things that happens to you is that you become keenly aware of the sin that has separated you from a good and Holy God. You deserve to go to hell for all of eternity because of it—because it was an affront, a rebellion against an Infinite and Eternal God.
But God, in his great mercy and grace, did not leave you there in that state. He sent Jesus Christ—truly God, truly man—and he lived the perfect life that you and I could never live. Then he paid that infinite penalty on the cross so that when you recognize that sin for what it is and what it means, and you turn from it and you put your full trust and confidence in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the penalty for your sin is paid for in Christ, the righteousness of Christ is credited to you. Jesus Christ lived obedient to the law for his entire life, overcoming every trial, every temptation without sinning once. And you and I, who have sinned countless times in word and action and thought just since we woke up this morning—we are credited with his obedient life. And that is the Christ whom Paul desires to be with.
This leads us to our third point—Perfect Presence, and by this we of course mean being the presence of Christ perfectly. Right now there is a sense in which we experience the presence of Christ, but not fully. “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” 2 Corinthians 5:8. Just think about that. In your death, you are immediately in his presence. Immediately! The moment you depart, you are with Christ. There is no time when you are traveling between two worlds. Before the words are in the mouth of the doctor or the nurse who will pronounce you dead, you are in the presence of your Redeemer, the one who accomplished all of that Gospel on your behalf, the one who paid your eternal debt and in whose righteousness you now stand robed. The God who chose you before the foundation of the world to set his grace upon you—you will be with him. Is there anything greater than that?
Think about how much you love being with the person who loves you the most in life. It is wonderful to just have time with that person, but even as great as that person is and as much as you might love each other, you will not help but fail to truly love each other most of the time. Now, just imagine as best you can what it would be like to be in the presence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise person who never fails to love you perfectly every second. This is the love of God for you in Christ. You are experiencing it now, but in this sin-tainted world, we see it in our sanctification, which happens through trials and overcoming temptation. This will no longer be the case the moment you step into eternity.
We have already seen the evidence, right? We just looked at it—this evidence we’ve seen in our election and through our redemption. Christ has already taken up himself everything you would have felt in an eternity in hell. He has taken it upon himself on the cross. There is no one who loves more than God through Christ. And, in fact, the closest anyone in this life has ever come to loving you is closer to hatred than it is to this kind of love. Once you step out of this life and into his presence, you will experience it in a way you never have before. It will be your very first experience and every experience from then to eternity.
And you, then, now unhindered by sin or selfishness, will be finally free from every enemy of your soul. You’ll be able to praise and glorify as you never could before. When you die, you will be with Christ. You cannot fathom anything greater than this. Oh, Christian, don’t you see that when you prize this life, when you are terrified of death, when you live just like everyone else in the world when it comes to how you think about death, when your goal is to live your life until you get to the point when you’re ready to go home—it’s just like saying something like, “Boy, there’s a lot of stuff I love living for in this world. And in the end, I guess the presence of Christ is better than hell.” How could we think that way?
That kind of thinking spills over into our last point—Eternal Enjoyment. The wording of that point seems really weak to capture this. It seems like it should be something more like, “Incomprehensible Eternal Enjoyment.” So many so-called Christians give a lot of lip service to how great heaven is, but they don’t act like they believe it. That’s point we are getting at. Most of the time people just want to have this life and then in the end, heaven is the “much better option” than hell. And it’s not like they think that between heaven and hell is a close call, but in actual practice most Christians act like their earthly lives are the best option and then eternity with Christ like a bonus at the end of life.
Being in the presence of Christ is what would be best—always. There is nothing you’re ever going to do that is going to be better than that. Our earthly existence, even the most joyous moment you’ve ever had, is closer to hell than eternity with Christ. Paul makes this clear in the last section in verse 23 where he says, “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Even though Paul has stated he is going to continue in the flesh for the sake of the church, that doesn’t mean he is confused about which option would be better. He says being with Christ is, “far better.” It is far better—there is no comparison. “No offense, Philippians, but it would be far better for me if I never saw you again and went immediately into the presence of the Lord.” Even though as we have already looked many times—we even spent a whole sermon on it—even though this letter has made it abundantly evident just how much Paul loves the Philippians—he loves them—but between being with them or walking into the presence of Christ, that’s not even a choice.
In the ESV, even though it tries, it can’t quite capture how much more Paul desires to be with Christ than to continue in this life. But in the Greek, Paul uses triple comparatives, which doesn’t sound good when it is translated word for word in English. So the ESV just uses the word “far” to make the translation more readable, but in actuality, it should read something more like this, “Many more better,” or, “Much more better.” If you are typing it out, it gives you that little blue grammar check underline. But that is the point: Paul is piling up positive words to try to show just how much greater it would be to be in the presence of Christ than to do anything on earth. And this is Paul and not you. He was the most joyful person alive at that time. He sees everything that happens to and around and whether it looks good or bad—he sees it as God’s sovereign work for his good and God’s glory. He has no doubts about this.
You would be hard pressed to find someone who is able to enjoy every aspect of life more than Paul did. I mean, he just got done talking about it. He rejoiced; he found a reason to rejoice over people who didn’t like him and who were using his imprisonment to disparage his ministry, and he found a way to rejoice over that. And he meant it. I might say something like that because I know I should, but Paul really believed it. He really believed it. It’s recorded in Scripture. He counts all things joy. Even the most optimistic person in the world would be bewildered by Paul’s joy. After hearing all of that and how much love he has for the Philippians and for the Church, and even though he seems to think he’s going to be released from prison and be free, he still says, “Yeah, it would be so much greater—not even in the same ballpark—better to not see any of you again and be with Christ.” Again, that says nothing for how much he loves the Philippians. It is crystal clear he loves the Philippians with an exemplary love that we’re trying to learn from and love each other with. It only speaks to how superior his love for Christ is above anything else. There is nothing even worth comparing it to.
See it like this. When you die, you will be rid of sin forever. You will be with Christ. Nothing you can conceive of or ever experience in this life—if you were somehow able to spend a thousand lifetimes researching and planning the greatest possible experience that a human being could ever have in this life and then you did it, it would seem less exhilarating than tying a shoe when compared to one second in the presence of Christ. If you are a believer, there is nothing anyone could ever say at your funeral that begins with the words, “Too bad he never got to…,” that could be finished with anything other than something that would end in blasphemy because of what you are experiencing in the moment in the presence of Christ. We can say nothing in that sentence, “Too bad he never got to…,” that wouldn’t be absolute foolishness in light of where you are.
Beloved, this is what awaits those who are in Christ. Please don’t fall into the world’s thinking on death and dying. The church has a glorious answer to death. Our firm belief in the authority of Scripture—what it teaches us on this subject. Death for the believer is what it says it is—it’s gain. This belief marks us out as distinct from a world that is so confused and so terrified about death. We have an answer here. We should be unafraid to show them and tell them. While losing those we love is hard, and we will certainly miss them, every believer can rest assured in the wonderful promise that comes when we die. It’s the finish line. No more presence of sin, no more power of sin—and finally, the perfect presence of Christ, our Redeemer for eternity. It’s what should encourage us as we continue in our service to him in this life for as long as he gives us. That is what it seems to do with Paul here—what we just looked at in this little excursus in verse 23.
It’s like Paul, while sitting in chains as the prisoner of Rome, briefly opens the door to heaven, and he looks in for a while. He sees Christ there waiting and he longs to enter. After the briefest of glances, just enough to remind him of what’s awaiting at the end of his race, he turns from the doorway, desiring to not stand before his Christ without having accomplished all the work his King has set apart for him in this life. So he closes the door and sets his sight back on the work that his Lord still has for him before he gets to that finish line. What is that work? What is the service that should keep the Apostle Paul from wanting to burst through that door? What is it that could keep him, at least for the moment, content and joyful on this side of the door? That is what we’re going to talk about next week as get into verse 24.
Our Father, would you give us a hatred for sin—a hatred for sin and such a love for Christ, that all our cords of attachment to this world would be weakened and broken so that we might live before this world as those who can truly embrace what we’ve been promised at the moment of our death—that we may be manifest this trust before an unbelieving world as a testimony for the greatness of our God and the work he has done—that we would really be able to pray, holding nothing back. We ask you, Father, to take our lives, Lord, and use them up for your good purposes and then in your time, bring us into your glorious presence for joy eternally. It’s in the name of the Son Jesus Christ that we’re able as we do. Amen.