The Joy of the Double Win, part 1 (Philippians 1:18b-21)

“Because of Paul’s chains, Christ was made known (Phil. 1:13), and because of Paul’s critics, Christ was preached (Phil. 1:18).  But because of Paul’s crisis, Christ was magnified (Phil. 1:20)” begins Warren Wiersbe for this next section of the book of Philippians.  Next to the “Christ hymn” in Philippians 2:6-11, it is one of the high points of Scripture.

Paul was in prison, unsure whether he would live or die.  But what mattered most to Paul was whether Christ would be magnified.

In the last part of Philippians 1:18, Paul turns his attention from the present to the future.  He says, “Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.”  Although Paul was not totally confident about whether his future would result in his release or his execution, he seems to have a growing confidence that he would be released and minister to them again in the future.

So let’s read that passage…

Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 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. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

I’m going to divide this passage into two sections:

  1. Paul can rejoice because Christ will be exalted in life or in death (1:18b-21)
  2. Paul can rejoice because the Philippians will be helped if he remains (1:22-26)

Notice that in either case Paul’s ability to rejoice arose because he did not focus upon himself, but on Christ and on others—even in the face of dire and possibly deadly circumstances.

What is your life focus?  Is it on yourself—your acclaim, your comfort, your possessions, your peace, your safety, your convenience?

The famous way that Paul expressed this perspective is found in verse 21: “For to me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”

What a wonderful perspective!  What a liberating perspective!  It was a double win!  Whether Paul lived or died, it was all for Christ and therefore even death would be gain.

Is Christ your life focus?  Will death be gain for you?

Notice that Paul says at the end of verse 18, “I will rejoice,” which has the idea “I will continue to rejoice” and then verse 19 gives the grounds of his rejoicing…

19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,

Paul didn’t know for sure whether he would be released or executed.  Although his preliminary trial had gone favorably, the final verdict was yet to come.  You see, unlike our court system where an unfavorable verdict can be appealed to a higher court, Caesar was the final verdict.  Whatever he said, that was it.

And you might remember that the Caesar at the time was none other than that maniac—Nero!

Yet, in the very midst of all that might lend itself to uncertainty, Paul had definite assurance of his deliverance.  Somehow, he “knows…this will turn out for my deliverance.”  Paul uses the word for “knows” that speaks of the “knowledge of intuition or satisfied conviction.”

Because the words “will turn out for my deliverance” is an exact quote from the LXX text of Job 13:16, it is quite possible that Paul’s confidence was based on God impressing these words of Job on his heart.  Knowing that God had ultimately delivered Job, Paul was confident he would be delivered.

Now, although the word “deliverance” here is soteria, the word often translated “salvation,” it is clear that it is not justification that is in view, but physical deliverance.  Remember that the context determines the meaning.

Maybe, Paul uses this word to express the idea that he believed he would be vindicated (justified in the eyes of the court) and therefore released.

And on a deeper level, Paul knew that whether he lived or died, he would stand vindicated (with no condemnation) before the court of God.

Paul had prayed that the Philippians would stand “pure and blameless on the day of Christ” in v. 10 and now he is saying that the Philippians’ prayers for him would result in a “successful” stand—a vindication—before the judgment seat of Christ.

Paul wasn’t questioning at all whether he would end up in glory, nor is he expressing the idea that his ultimate salvation rested in the prayers of the saints.  Rather, his concern is that Christ be magnified in his life so that he would receive reward in heaven.  Paul was very careful to “beat my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified from the prize” (1 Cor. 9:27).

So Paul is rejoicing in this confidence he has, which has come “through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.”

Also interesting in verse 19 is the connection between the prayers of the Philippians and the supply of the Spirit to Paul.

Again, Paul isn’t calling into question the basic reality that every Christian has the Holy Spirit dwelling in them (cf. Rom. 8:9).  However, he also uses language like the Spirit being “given” to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 4:8), being “supplied” to the Galatians (Gal. 3:5) and tells the Ephesians they needed to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).

As Frank Thielman writes:

“All believers have the Spirit all the time, but they sometimes experience the Spirit’s presence in greater power and abundance than at other times.”

Peter was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he stood before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:8); the Jerusalem believers were “filled with the Holy Spirit” and spoke the word boldly (Acts 4:31).  Stephen was “full of the Holy Spirit” prior to his martyrdom (Acts 7:55).  In all these cases, the people received an abundant measure of the Holy Spirit prior to a time of special testing or ministry, allowing them to stand firm and testify to the gospel.

And this is exactly what Paul wanted—that through their prayers for him he needed and wanted an unusual measure of the Holy Spirit that would allow him to have boldness to testify to Christ in front of crazy Nero!

Paul didn’t want this extra measure of the Holy Spirit so that he could experience some higher emotional plane, or even so he could enjoy his giftedness.  He especially wasn’t looking for more of the Spirit to give him health and wealth.  Rather, he hopes that the Spirit’s abundant presence in his life would lead him to bear courageous and clear testimony to the gospel, so that whether he is spared or executed “Christ will be exalted” (v. 20).

Jesus had promised this to his disciples.  He told them that when that stood before a court, the Holy Spirit would give them the words they needed to speak just the right words at just the right moment (Mark 13:11; Matthew 10:29; Luke 12:12).

Then, in vv. 20-21, Paul again states his confidence: “I will in no way be ashamed….Christ will be exalted” and again he gives a reason, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Again, Paul can maintain a joyful attitude in very difficult and uncertain circumstances because whether he lived or died, he was centering his life around Christ and Christ would be exalted.  Joy exists when self is denied.

The words “eager expectation and hope” at the beginning of v. 20 express Paul forward stance.  The two words match each other.  “Eager expectation” is from the Greek word apokaradokia, which has the idea of turning the head away from something to look in another direction.  And that other direction is the future, expressed by the word “hope,” which, in the Bible, always means a “confident expectation.”

So Paul has this intense expectation that he would “not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body.”

He believed that he would survive.  But why was Paul so eager for this?  It is not because he could not bear with the suffering, or even that he feared dying.  Rather, his court appearance might demonstrate that he was innocent of all charges and therefore prove that the gospel was not a subversive element in the Roman empire.  His hope was that his personal vindication might clear the way for the declaration of the gospel.

What Paul is saying here is that: “Even if his appearance before a Roman tribunal results in condemnation and death at the hands of an executioner, Paul contends that he will not have been put to shame by his enemies and that the Lord will be exalted.  His physical circumstances were out of his hands, and it may look perhaps to some as if they are out of God’s as well, but the apostle knows that despite appearances God is still sovereign over the affairs of his life and that God will see him safely through to ultimate, eternal vindication” (Frank Thielman, p. 77).

Paul’s greatest desire is that Christ would be honored, or exalted.  The word here as the idea of making something great.

But Christ is already supremely great, so great that He couldn’t be any greater.  So, what does this mean?  How do we magnify something already so great?  Or, to put it another way, “How do we glorify God?”

John Piper describes it with this illustration:

We are not called to be microscopes, but telescopes.  Christians are not called to be con-men who magnify their product out of all proportion to reality, when they know the competitor’s product is far superior.  There is nothing and nobody superior to God.  And so the calling of those who love God is to make his greatness begin to look as great as it really is.

You see, a microscope takes something that is, in reality, quite small, but makes it look larger.  On the other hand, a telescope focuses on something exceedingly large, but far away, and makes it more clearly visible to the human eye.

Like the NASA photographs reveal the greatness and beauty and majesty of far away galaxies hidden from the naked eye, so we make the already immensely glorious, all beautiful, majestic Christ visible through our preaching and through our lives.

So, when we glorify God through our thoughts, words and deeds we do not add to his glory, but make his glory visible to others.

The reason Paul could be so confident in his ultimate deliverance and future opportunity to magnify Christ is that “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Paul was not afraid of death and didn’t need to grasp onto life.  His life was bound up with Christ.  Nothing else was important.  Later, in chapter 3, Paul will tell us that he considered everything else rubbish in order to gain Christ and his greatest desire in life was to know Him.

When you “live to” Someone, you center your life around that person.  Your allegiance, affections, attention and energies are all directed towards that one person.

Notice that Paul starts this verse with the words “to me.”  In other words, this is Paul’s personal perspective of what makes life worth living.  It is his settled conviction.  It is ours?

What is your life mission statement?  What do you want to accomplish in life?  Ask yourself, “When all is said and done, will I be proud of what I spent my life on?”

See if you can figure out who made these causes their life’s ambition:

  • “end slavery and preserve our nation” (Abraham Lincoln)
  • “lead our nation out of the Great Depression” (FDR)
  • “eradicate racism in our land once for all” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
  • “to show mercy and compassion to the poor” (Mother Teresa)

And this one should be easy:

  • “to seek and save the lost” (Jesus)

But what was Paul’s life mission statement:

  • “I want to know Christ”

You see, simple statements like these gave these people single-minded focus and great determination and as a result they accomplished great things.

You can’t easily derail a person with a focused and significant cause.

Imagine if we had a church filled with people who had a laser-like focus to know and follow Jesus Christ!

What is “life” to you?  What does it mean to “really live”?  Sad to say, for most of us it is not Christ.

Even most of those who name Christ as their Savior don’t make Christ the center focus of their lives.  Too many other things, and many of them good things, crowd into the center of our lives and demand our attention and drain our affection.

What did it mean for Paul to have Christ as his life?  It meant that he focused every moment—every moment—on living for Christ’s glory, on doing whatever he could to help others see the greatness of God.

Gerald Hawthorne describes it as:

“Life is summed up in Christ.  Life is filled up with, occupied with Christ, in the sense that everything Paul does—trusts, loves, hopes, obeys, preaches, follows, and so on—is inspired by Christ and is done for Christ.” (Hawthorne, p. 45)

Commentator John Eadie, in his commentary on Philippians, says…

—the preaching of Christ the business of my life
—the presence of Christ the cheer of my life
—the image of Christ the crown of my life
—the Spirit of Christ the life of my life
—the love of Christ the power of my life
—the will of Christ the law of my life
—and the glory of Christ the end of my life.

Christ was the absorbing element of his life. If he travelled, it was on Christ’s errand; if he suffered, it was in Christ’s service. When he spoke, his theme was Christ; and when he wrote, Christ filled his letters…

And here’s the great lesson—when Christ is our life, death is gain.  It is gain, real gain.

So, if our life is much about Christ, there will be much gain; little about Christ, little gain.

And if Christ is not in your life at all, death is not gain but rather horrible, tragic loss.

Notice that Paul is attacking one of our cultural icons:  Life is good and death is to be avoided at all costs.  Our society’s goal is the postponement of death as long as possible.

The Greek pagan viewed death as release from earthly troubles but no more.  Paul saw death not only as a continuing of his relationship with Christ (vs. w3), but genuine gain.  Knowing Christ causes us to look beyond the grave.

Paul sees both life and death as vehicles through which he can enjoy Christ.  Greater than life is Christ.  Greater than death is Christ.

Death won’t be nearly as much gain for us as it could be if we don’t make Christ our life-focus here and now, and from this day forward.

On the flip side, it is when we begin to take seriously the idea that eternity could be great grain for us if we would just make Christ the center of our lives now.

“…It is tempting for believers to live as if there were nothing beyond the grave.  This can only cause us to clutch our material possessions more tightly for the security they can give and keep us from risking our lives in the service of God” (Frank Thielman, p. 89)


Two extended quotations on Philippians 1:21

Since Paul was in prison awaiting trial, he had to face the fact that it was quite uncertain whether he would live or die; and to him it made no difference.

“Living,” he says, in his great phrase, “is Christ to me.”  For Paul, Christ had been the beginning of life, for on that day on the Damascus road it was as if he had begun life all over again. Christ had been the continuing of life; there had never been a day when Paul had not lived in his presence, and in the frightening moments Christ had been there to bid him be of good cheer (Acts 18:9-10).  Christ was the end of life, for it was towards his eternal presence that life ever led.  Christ was the inspiration of life; he was the dynamic of life.  To Paul, Christ had given the task of life, for it was he who had made him an apostle and sent him out as the evangelist of the Gentiles.  To him Christ had given the strength for life, for it was Christ’s all-sufficient grace that was made perfect in Paul’s weakness.  For him Christ was the reward of life, for to Paul the only worthwhile reward was closer fellowship with his Lord.  If Christ were to be taken out of life, for Paul there would be nothing left.

“For me,” said Paul, “death is gain”.  Death was entrance into Christ’s nearer presence.  There are passages in which Paul seems to regard death as a sleep, from which all men at some future general resurrection shall be wakened (1 Corinthians 16:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:14 and 16); but at the moment when its breath was on him Paul thought of death not as a falling asleep but as an immediate entry into the presence of his Lord.  If we believe in Jesus Christ, death for us is union and reunion, union with him and reunion with those whom we have loved and lost awhile.

The result was that Paul was swayed between two desires. “I am caught,” he says, “between two desires.”  As the Revised Standard Version has it: “I am hard pressed between the two.”

–William Barclay

My father’s favorite verse throughout most of his life was Romans 8:28, but toward the end of his life he claimed Philippians 1:21, “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” When we live much for Christ, we have much gain. When we live little for Christ, we have little gain. When we live not for Christ at all, we have no gain, but loss. Listen to the words of John Eadie:

“Christ, says the Apostle, shall be magnified in my body by life, ‘for to me to live is Christ.’ Christ and life were one and the same thing to him.

Might not the sentiment be thus expanded? For me to live is Christ:

—the preaching of Christ the business of my life
—the presence of Christ the cheer of my life
—the image of Christ the crown of my life
—the Spirit of Christ the life of my life
—the love of Christ the power of my life
—the will of Christ the law of my life
—and the glory of Christ the end of my life.

Christ was the absorbing element of his life. If he travelled, it was on Christ’s errand; if he suffered, it was in Christ’s service. When he spoke, his theme was Christ; and when he wrote, Christ filled his letters…

And when did the Apostle utter this sentiment? It was not as he rose from the earth, dazzled into blindness by the Redeemer’s glory, and the words of the first commission were ringing in his ears.

It was not in Damascus, while, as the scales fell from his sight, he recognized the Lord’s goodness and power, and his baptism proclaimed his formal admission to the church.

Nor was it in Arabia, where supernatural wisdom so fully unfolded to him the facts and truths which he was uniformly to proclaim. It sprang not from any momentary elation as at Cyprus, where he confounded the sorcerer, and converted the Roman proconsul.

No, the resolution was written at Rome in bonds, and after years of unparalleled toil and suffering. His past career had been signalized by stripes, imprisonment, deaths, shipwreck, and unnumbered perils, but he did not regret them.

He had been ‘in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness,’ but his ardour was unchilled; and let him only be freed, and his life prolonged, and his motto still would be—’For me to live is Christ.’

It did not repent the venerable confessor now, when he was old, infirm, and a prisoner, with a terrible doom suspended over him, that he had done so much, travelled so much, spoken so much, and suffered so much for Christ.

Nor was the statement like a suspicious vow in a scene of danger, which is too often wrung from cowardice, and held up as a bribe to the Great Preserver, but forgotten when the crisis passes, and he who made it laughs at his own timidity.

No. It was no new course the Apostle proposed—it was only a continuation of those previous habits which his bondage had for a season interrupted. Could there be increase to a zeal that had never flagged, or could those labours be multiplied which had filled every moment and called out every energy?

In fine, the saying was no idle boast, like that of Peter at the Last Supper—the flash of a sudden enthusiasm so soon to be drowned in tears. For the apostle had the warrant of a long career to justify his assertion, and who can doubt that he would have verified it, and nobly shown that still, as hitherto, for him to live was Christ?

He sighed not under the burden, as if age needed repose; or sank into self-complacency, as if he had done enough, for the Lord’s commission was still upon him, and the wants of the world were so numerous and pressing, as to claim his last word, and urge his last step.

It was such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ, who placed on record the memorable clause, inscribed also on his heart—’for me to live is Christ.’”

–John Eadie, A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians (ed. W. Young; Second Edition.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1884), 51–51-52.

May you and I live much for Christ today. May He be our life, our joy, our treasure and greatest pleasure.


Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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