Philippians is an epistle of joy. Although joy is not the dominant theme, it is certainly a prominent one. Throughout the epistle Paul commands joy and models joy. He was able to rejoice in his chains, because through them the gospel was being more broadly and more boldly preached. He was able to rejoice in his critics, for even through them Christ was being preached. And now he is able to rejoice in his crisis, because He is so focused on living for Christ that whether he lived or died, Christ would be glorified.
Paul was not afraid of life or death! Either way, he wanted to magnify Christ in his body. No wonder he had joy!
That joy came from being so totally Christ focused and so totally focused on others. Life revolved totally around Jesus Christ.
When American chess player Bobby Fisher defeated Russian Boris Spasky of the Soviet Union to become the World Champion Chess player, some reporters asked him, “What does chess mean to you?”
Fisher hesitated for a full sixty seconds, then replied, “Everything!”
That’s what Christ meant to Paul. After his conversion, Christ became his entire life.
Now, we read in vv. 22-26, having just expressed “for 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.
Paul here admits that he was facing a dilemma. On the one hand, life is Christ; on the other, death is gain. On the one hand, living means fruitful labor; but on the other hand, death is “better by far” because it means he would be in Christ’s very presence.
But, living seems to be more necessary for their sake.
In this dilemma both choices are worthy and Paul admits he had difficulty choosing between the two. He feels literally “hemmed in on both sides” (sunechomai).
We might ask ourselves, why did Paul seem to entertain the very real possibility of his execution in vv. 20b-23, but then appear convinced (cf. v. 25) that he would remain alive and continue his ministry with them?
The answer seems to lie in a theme that runs throughout this epistle: Paul is seeking to model for the Philippians the joy that comes by putting “the interests of others” ahead of (or above) one’s “own interests” (cf. 2:4).
Although Paul’s greater preference would be to “depart and be with Christ” he is willing to lay aside his personal preference (no matter how tempting and how good it might be) for the sake of their “progress and joy in the faith” (v. 25). Like Christ in Philippians 2:6-8; Timothy in 2:20-21 and Epaphroditus in 2:30, Paul has put the interests of others ahead of his own and the interests of the gospel ahead of all.
What a man Paul was! He was willing to postpone going to heaven in order to help Christians grow, and he was willing to go to hell in order to win the lost to Christ! (Romans 9:1-3)
So Paul puts his own life, and death, in second place and chooses instead to meet the needs of the Philippians. Shame on us for being so self-centered that we split churches over whether to place the new piano on the right or left side of the sanctuary!
Let’s notice two things about death that Paul adds here. He has already told us that “death is gain” for those who center their lives around Christ.
Here Paul indicates that once a believer dies, they are immediately “with Christ.” Paul emphasizes this again in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 when he says that
6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
Now, we are “away from the Lord,” but through death our spirit leaves our body and goes “home with the Lord.”
Jesus told the thief who believed in him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
These verses would lead us to believe that our soul-spirit, the immaterial part of humanity, leaves the body at the time of death and while the body is buried here on earth, the soul-spirit goes to be with Christ at home with the Lord in paradise.
And the fact that Paul goes on to say that this is “better by far” and his current ability to fellowship with God, it argues against the Seventh Day Adventist doctrine of soul-sleep, the idea “the soul is simply inert and resides in the memory of God” (https://carm.org/soul-sleep, Matt Slick)
In addition when we look at the account of The Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, we clearly see Jesus using the imagery of consciousness after death. If soul sleep is true, what was Jesus doing relating the account of two individuals who were both conscious after their death?
In Revelation 6:10 we see the account of people being conscious after death and asking God, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” This is before the resurrection. Here gain we have another account of consciousness after physical death.
Therefore, the doctrine of soul sleep is incorrect. The soul continues on after death in a conscious state. The wicked face the judgment of God, and the Christians will dwell in His presence.
The essence of eternal life is to be “with Christ” forever, growing in our knowledge of Him and enjoying Him in uninterrupted fellowship. Jesus has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us and will come to take us to be where He is (John 14:2-3).
I love the words of Thomas Godwin who said about the sentiment of Jesus expressed in the words of John 14:3…
“It’s as if he had said, the truth is I cannot live without you and I will never rest ‘til I have you where I am that we may never part again. Heaven shall not hold me, or my father’s company, if I have not you with me. My heart is so set on you.”
I seems highly unlikely that Jesus would go to all that trouble just to bring an unconscious soul to heaven.
Death is gain because death gives us more of Christ. The essence of worship is experiencing Christ as gain. Or in other words: it is savoring Christ, treasuring Christ, being satisfied with Christ.
The other fact about death recorded here is that Paul believed “to depart and be with Christ is better by far.”
This idea of “departing,” found here and again in 2 Cor. 5:1-8 is analuseo, a word that pictures an army striking camp or a ship being loosed from its moorings so it can sail away. That is a picture of death, a journey to another place.
Does heaven seem “better by far” to you? This earth seems pretty good. There is much we can enjoy in this life. But we need to take seriously that all the joy and beauty and sweetness that we experience in this life is but a thimble in the ocean of heaven’s “better by far.”
Heaven is not just “better,” but “better by far.” It’s actually a construction which could literally be translated, like toddlers say it “more better,” and Paul precedes that with a word meaning “very much.” It just expresses that whatever we could imagine as better, the reality of heaven is even “very much more better.” There are no bounds to the proper excessiveness of heaven.
It’s like David says in Psalm 16:11
11 You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
We experience joy and pleasure in this life. In fact, some of us could point to lives that overflowed with joy and pleasure. Nevertheless, our joy in this life is never quite full. We always come up a little empty, a little short of “full joy.” Our experiences never quite match our expectations.
Likewise, our joys in this life are not constant, not “forevermore.” In general they are short-lived. Our joys are punctuated with aggravations and irritations and sadnesses and disappointments.
But in heaven, we will have complete joy continually, we will have full joy forever. That is “better by far.”
So it is quite easy to see why Paul’s “desire” was to die and enter eternal bliss with Christ. But he tempered that desire with the reality that the Philippians still needed him here, on this earth, for a while.
Paul brings the “better by far” back down to earth with the words “much more necessary.” I don’t think the necessity in any way outdid the superiorities of heaven, but they weighed on Paul’s conscience and he knew he must stay.
So against his own personal desires, putting their needs ahead of his own pleasures, he chose what was necessary “for you” and puts their concerns ahead of his own. But realize, even though he was giving up his preference for the gain of death and the “better by far” of being with Christ, he was still living Christ. And as long as he did so, death would be even more gain.
Paul was concerned, and was staying behind, for two things: “your progress and joy in the faith.” Paul was concerned about their faith, which may have been challenged by his imprisonment. He wanted them to experience progress in their faith, to keep growing, and to experience joy in the faith.
This is the purpose of leadership in a local church. Our aim is to produce progress and joy in the faith. This is why it shouldn’t be a struggle for a congregation to submit to their leaders, because their leaders are working for their good—for their progress and joy in the faith.
So John Piper notes:
It drastically changes the prospect of submitting to a leader when you know he isn’t pursuing his own private good, but genuinely seeking what is best for you, what will give you your deepest and more enduring joy. “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy” (Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:24).
You who are skeptical of leaders in general, what if you knew that “those who are over you in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 5:12) were not in it to stroke their ego, or garner private privilege, or assert their will to control others, but actively were laying aside their rights and comforts to self-sacrificially take initiative and expend energy in working for your joy?
And you who are leaders in the church or in the home or in the marketplace, what if those under your care were convinced — deeply convinced — that your place of authority was not for self-aggrandizement or self-promotion, but that you were working for their joy? That your joy in leadership was not a selfish joy, but a satisfaction you were finding in the joy of those whom you lead?
Leaders taste the greatest joy when they truly look out for the interests of others — when they do everything in their power to bring about the thriving and flourishing of those in their care. They know the delight of the apostle who says, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4). They can say, “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20).
When undershepherds in the church show themselves to be workers for the true joy of their flocks, they walk in the steps of the Great Shepherd — the great Worker for your joy — the one who tells us to pray “that your joy may be full” (John 16:24), and speaks to us “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11; also John 17:13).
Christian leadership exists for the joy of the church. Such a vision changes everything, first for pastors and then for their people.
Two significant things stand out in this phrase that helps us capture the essence of spiritual formation in our lives.
First, we need to be constantly seeking “progress” in our faith. If we don’t give attention to moving our faith forward, we won’t just sit still, we will actually begin to drift backward. Our culture works overtime to bend you and shape you to conform to the world culture. If you are not being spiritually formed by Christ, you are being deformed by Satan.
Second, a key element in our growth is our joy. We will always do what we enjoy doing. We will either pursue pleasure or avoid pain. In other to make progress in our faith, we must find joy in it.
Without joy our discipline becomes drudgery. With joy disciplines turns to delights. For Paul, joy was an indispensable element in the Christian life. That’s why he mentions it so often in his interactions with the churches.
What makes you “come alive”? For some it is shopping. Not me. My interest and passion and energy is sparked by other things.
What makes you “come alive?”
Philippians 1:21 becomes a valuable test for our lives. Try to fill in this blank: “For me to live is ___________.” How would you fill in that blank? What really gets you revved up? Not angry, but interested?
“For me to live is money and to die is to leave it all behind.”
“For me to live is fame and to die is to be forgotten.
“For me to live is power and to die is to lose it all.”
No, we need to echo Paul’s convictions if we are going to live a life of joy in spite of circumstances and experience an eternity of great gain. Give your live to what really matters.
“For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”