A podcast listener from the fine city of London writes us. “Hello, Pastor John! My name is Laura, from London. I would love to know what it actually means when Paul says, ‘For me to live is Christ,’ in Philippians 1:21. I can’t seem to pinpoint a solid definition without just giving examples of what that kind of life looks like. Thank you!”
Well there aren’t many things I love to think about more than the context of Philippians 1. And you’re going to see why before we’re done. I’m a Christian Hedonist through and through. And it doesn’t get any better than these verses and the parallels in chapter 3.
To Live and To Die
I think in answer to Laura’s question there are two ways to define “for me to live is Christ”: first, from the immediate context of Philippians 1:20–26; secondly, from Philippians 3. You’ll see why both of those are so relevant.
“‘To live is Christ’ and ‘to die is gain’ are two ways of Paul’s magnifying Christ with his body.”
Let’s walk through it, and she’ll see right away how this works. Paul says, “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” (Philippians 1:20). Now there is his central passion in life, that Christ will be honored or magnified — that is, shown to be magnificent.
He continues, “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” — and here come these two phrases. “For me to live is Christ” — that’s the one she’s asking about. And the other one is “and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:20–21).
So, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” are two ways of Paul’s magnifying Christ with his body. So what we want to know is how is Christ magnified in Paul’s life, because that’s what he’s aiming at in this text.
To live is Christ. To live is to magnify Christ. To live is to show that Christ is magnificent, so watch how he does it. He says, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” (Philippians 1:22). So the first thing he says about living is not Christ, but fruitful labor.
So what does that mean? What is fruitful labor that magnifies Christ in such a way that you can say that to pursue this fruit is to pursue the glory of Christ? So he keeps going: “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” (Philippians 1:24–25).
So his fruitful labor that he’s staying alive for is labor to increase the joy of the faith of the Philippians. If they have greater joy by embracing Jesus — that is, believing Jesus in faith — Jesus is made to look magnificent.
If this happens, Paul’s life is achieving its purpose laid out in verse 20. So your joy of faith in Jesus is the fruit of my labor. That fruit makes Christ look great, and that’s what it means that “for to me to live is Christ.”
Living for Joy
Now, he keeps going: “so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again” (Philippians 1:26).
“Paul’s dying magnified Christ because it showed Christ was more valuable than everything he had lost in death.”
So by his coming to them — that is, coming to increase their joy in faith and coming to bear fruit in his labor — by his coming to them and ministering to them and increasing their joy of faith, they are increasing in their glorying or boasting in Christ Jesus.
So the upshot of Paul’s life is that other people are making much of Jesus by being joyful in Jesus and boasting in Jesus. This is what it means for Paul to say “to live is Christ.” To live is Christ means to live, to be the means, of other people making Christ look magnificent by finding Christ to be their supreme treasure and their greatest satisfaction. That’s what glorying in Christ and being happy in Christ means. So that’s the first answer.
Living for Gain
Now watch it get amazingly confirmed if you jump over to Philippians 3:7–8. The link is clear in Paul’s mind because the word gain over in chapter 1 is connected to dying. Now watch the uses of the word gain in Philippians 3:7–8, where there’s the same way of thinking: Christ’s being a supreme treasure makes Christ look magnificent, which is what Paul’s life is about.
Here’s what he says: “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7–8).
Now back in chapter 1, to die was to be with Christ; therefore, dying was gain. That means his dying magnified Christ because it showed that Christ was more valuable than everything he had lost in death.
Now here in chapter 3, he’s unpacking “to live is Christ” in the same way with the same argument. Only instead of losing everything by dying, he says, “I’m counting everything as loss even while I live” to show that the value of Christ is better than the things I have in life even while I am alive. So again, “to live is Christ” means to live in such a way as to make Christ look magnificent as your supreme treasure.
Now, I can’t let this go without circling back to the beginning, when I was all excited about Christian Hedonism. I can’t let this go without making explicit that these contexts in Philippians 1 and Philippians 3 are two of the most important foundations for what I call Christian Hedonism.
“Christ is most magnified when we’re more satisfied in him than in what we lose in death and what we have in life.”
I’ve devoted my whole life trying to understand and preach this, which I usually sum up by saying, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”
But here’s the way I would say it by putting together both “to die is gain” and “to live is Christ”: Christ is most magnified in us when we are more satisfied in him than in what we lose in death and what we have in life.
In both cases, the goal of Paul’s life is attained when Christ is magnified in his body, whether by life or by death. The key to magnifying Christ in life and in death is to find him more precious, more valuable, more satisfying, more joyful, more boast worthy than everything we lose in death — “to die is gain” — and everything we have in life — “to live is Christ.”