What are we to make of Paul’s joy that selfishly ambitious teachers are proclaiming the gospel? And, what can we learn from his famous statement “to live is Christ, to die is gain”?
Paul imprisoned in Rome around 60-62 AD, waiting to see whether he will be released or executed. The Philippians church has generously sent him financial support. Paul is writing this letter to thank them and send back news to them with Epaphroditus, the one who brought the gift to Paul.
Paul had 3 purposes in writing this letter
- to express his joy that their faith has led them to support him financially;
- to encourage them to live lives of obedient persevering faith;
- and the one we’ll see in 1:12-26 to update them on his circumstances.
In 1:1-11 we have seen the first two purposes. Now in 1:12 he turns to his own circumstances.
He has expressed his gratitude for their faith that led them to support him financially and he has told them he is praying for their spiritual health. He has prayed that they would have a genuine faith that manifests itself in wisdom which leads them to love one another and that they would persevere in this faith until the end.
12I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. 15Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, 19for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20as 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. 21For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. – Philippians 1:12-26 ESV
Paul says, contrary to expectations, his imprisonment has advanced the gospel two ways:
- Philippians 1:12-13 – The imperial or praetorian guard has heard the gospel through being chained to him.
- Philippians 1:14 – others have started proclaiming the gospel in Paul’s absence.
- Two kinds of people are inspired by Paul’s absence: those who are preaching out of rivalry and those who preach from good will.
- As he writes this letter, Paul’s future is uncertain. He may be released or he may be executed.
- Paul believes he will be released from prison, not because he’s too important to be executed but because he believes God has more work for him to do in this life.
- His famous statement “1:21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” is written in that context: whether he is executed or released, it is a good outcome.
I rejoice that the gospel is advancing in spite of my chains. And I will continue rejoicing because I know that soon I will be freed from these chains. Your prayers for my release will be heard and the Spirit of Christ will work on my behalf. Do I say this because I think God would never let me be executed? Not at all. My belief that I will be freed is in keeping with my more general belief that I will not be put to shame in anything. I will never be ashamed that I followed Christ and proclaimed his message. That may seem an odd thing to say for someone who has been shamefully imprisoned. But I will continue to proclaim the gospel and whatever happens to my body will not be shameful, but will continue to bring exaltation to Christ. If I live on this will exalt Christ. If I am executed this will exalt Christ. As far as I’m concerned either option is desirable. If I live on, this will be an opportunity to continue to serve Christ by serving his people. If I am executed, this will be to my benefit as I will be with Christ sooner. If God were to leave the choice to me? Which would I choose? It would be so much better for me personally to depart and be with Christ, but I know that it would be better for you if I remain and Since it is better for you that I stay, I think God will grant me to live on a while longer so that I may return to you again and encourage you and help your faith mature and bring you joy.
What are we to make of Paul’s joy that selfishly ambitious teachers are proclaiming the gospel?
- Paul is willing to suffer greatly to give the gift of hearing the gospel to others. It’s more important that we proclaim the gospel than that we solve world hunger or end poverty, for example. What can you offer someone that is better than the way to find eternal life? Thus Paul can rejoice even when the gospel is proclaimed for the wrong reasons.
- Being in the leadership spotlight offers many temptations to start valuing the spotlight more than the proclaiming the gospel. We should humbly realize that all of us may be doing the right things for the wrong reasons.
- We should not be so quick to judge the labors of others. God can and does work through our flawed efforts.
- Similarly, we should not harshly judge our own efforts. God can work through flawed, “not-so-great” efforts.
What can we learn from his famous statement “to live is Christ, to die is gain”?
- Many of us might say: ” To live is Christ, to die is hard.” Others might say: “To live is hard, to die is gain.”
- Granted life and death are hard, but ultimately we will find meaning, purpose and joy in both because of Jesus Christ.
- Suffering is an opportunity to learn and grow in faith, even though it is hard.
- To be able to rejoice in my possible impending death shows I understand the gospel in a real and practical way.
- Happiness is the feeling of euphoria that results when good things happen. Joy is that sense of satisfaction in knowing good will result. Joy is closer to hope than to happiness.
- God loves us too much to change our circumstances without changing our sinful hearts.
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Series: Philippians: Choose Life
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Scripture references are from the English Standard version.