Live Like Death Is Gain

Cities Church | Saint Paul

A few weeks ago, my seven-year-old informed me that he wanted to be eight — but not any older than that. “Buddy, why don’t you want to be any older than that?” I asked. “Well, because when you get old, you die.” Fair enough. Eight seemed safe and exciting enough, I guess (he has some eight-year-olds in his class), but nine — now nine was a different story. Who knows what might happen then? Better stick with eight.

It’s a sobering thing, isn’t it, to watch your children begin to wrestle with a reality like death (and then to force you, as a dad or mom, to try and explain something like death). I think our verses this morning are a great help to dads and moms (and teenagers and twenty-somethings and sixty-somethings) in answering the biggest questions we ever ask. What’s going to happen when we die? What does it mean to really live?

A couple of years ago, on June 28, 2021, my (then) 64-year-old dad had a heart attack. I’ll never forget the moments I spent beside his hospital bed that week, as he waited for quadruple-bypass surgery. I felt my own mortality, watching the strongest man I’d ever known now fighting for his life. I know some of you have experienced this. When you’re growing up, Dad is the embodiment of strength, almost immortal. I mean what can’t Dad do? A toy breaks? Oh, Dad will fix it. Want to know what makes an airplane fly? Dad will know that. My three-year-old’s been worried that skunks are going to get into her room at night (longer story there), but I’ve said to her, “Honey, I promise, Daddy won’t let any skunks in your room.” And she believes me! Because I’m Daddy.

And then dads grow older, and their arteries fail — or they get really sick, or their minds begin to go. Slowly, they’re a little less superhero, and a little more human. And in the process, we realize just how human we are.

By God’s grace, my dad’s doing really well, but I thought of him leading up to this message because our conversations over these last couple of years (one in particular) remind me of these verses. He told me that he’s more aware than ever that every day he has is a day he’s been given for Christ, that however many days he has left — whether hundreds or thousands or just one — he wants them to honor Jesus. My dad came close enough to death to be able to remind his son how to live.

And that’s what we have in Philippians 1:19–26: we have a man, a spiritual father, who has come close enough to death that he’s able to tell us (whether we’re 8 or 38 or 68) how to live and die well.

The Happy, Driving Passion

As we’ve learned over the last several weeks, Paul wrote this letter from prison in Rome. The situation’s serious enough that his friends in Philippi are worried if they’ll ever see him again. And on top of the dangers and hardships of his imprisonment, he had enemies (even in the church) trying to make things even worse for him.

“Death, for believers, is better than life because death finally gives us Christ.”

I don’t want it to be lost on us over these next few months in Philippians that the most joy-filled letter in the New Testament was written in horrible circumstances. That tells us something, doesn’t it, about how much joy we can expect to experience even on our hardest days. Look how joyful he is even now, even in prison! And they tell us about how much we can still help others enjoy Jesus — even on our hardest days.

As Pastor Jonathan showed us last week, Paul responds to all of this — imprisonment, mistreatment, betrayal — in an otherworldly way, because he had a different passion than the world. And what was that passion? The glory of God magnified through the advance of the gospel. That passion is why he can rejoice while his enemies preach Christ (verses 15–18). That’s why he can rejoice even while he sits in prison (verses 12–14). That’s why he prays like he does (verses 9–11). That passion is why his love for these people runs deeper and richer than many of our relationships (verses 3–8). And now, in our verses this morning, he’s going to tell us about that passion. He leans in, after all of that, as if to say, Do you want the secret? “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

What Kind of Deliverance?

Our passage begins in verses 18–19:

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.

Now, right away, what kind of deliverance do you think he’s talking about? What’s he going to be delivered from? Is he talking about deliverance from prison (which is what we probably assume) — or is he talking about some other kind of deliverance?

Let’s keep reading: “I know that . . . 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” (verses 19–20). Why do I expect that all of this will turn out for my deliverance? He doesn’t go on to talk about judges changing their minds, or about him developing some goodwill with the jailers, or about a large group of Christians putting together a petition.

“No,” he says, “I’m confident this will turn out for my deliverance because I’m confident that, whether I live or die, Christ will be honored in me.” That phrase — “whether by life or by death” — is the biggest reason I don’t think he’s talking mainly about being delivered from prison. He can’t die in prison and be delivered from prison. “I might die here in prison,” he’s saying, “but I’ll still be delivered. Even if I’m never released from these chains, I’ll still be set free.” How could that be? How could he be delivered without being delivered?

I think that question is massively relevant for us, because some of you are praying for deliverance right now. Not from prison (because you’re here) — but what you’re suffering might feel worse than prison some days. Intense, prolonged conflict with someone you love. Hostility where you work. Cancer. A child who’s walked away from the faith — and maybe from you. By the end of this sermon, I’m praying that you’ll be able to say, to anyone who cares about you, “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that this pain, this conflict, this cancer will turn out for my deliverance” — not mainly because the pain might finally let up in this life, or because the relationship will necessarily get better, or because the cancer will go into remission, but because I believe my life, and my suffering, and even my death will say something true and beautiful and loud about how much Jesus means to me. About how much he’s done for me. About how much I’m dying to go and spend the rest of my life with him.

What kind of deliverance is Paul expecting? Not mainly deliverance from prison (although, as we’ll see, he clearly expects that too). No, deliverance from spiritual ruin, from the intense temptations that come with suffering, from walking away from Christ. “I’m confident I will be delivered,” he says, “because I’m confident that, whether I live or die, Christ will look great — and that’s all I really want.”

“I count everything as loss,” he’ll say in chapter 3, “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 and be found in him” (3:8–9). That’s what deliverance looks like, the most important kind of deliverance, the kind we all need, especially when suffering comes.

These next verses, then, are a mural of the delivered life — the life freed from self and sin and death, and filled with Jesus. Again, they teach us how to live and die well: “I know that . . . Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” Verse 21: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” We know that verse, and we think we get it — but do we really get it? Could you explain it to a seven-year-old? These next verses help us see both sides of this precious, life-altering (and death-altering) verse.

To Die Is Gain

Let’s start with death, though, with the second half of the verse: “I know that . . . Christ will be honored in my body . . . by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” How is Christ honored in a dying person’s body? Our death honors Christ, he says, when we begin to see our death not as loss — not as the end, not as defeat, not ultimately as a tragedy — but as gain.

So how could Paul look at death, even a death alone in horrible circumstances, and see victory, see reward? The next verses take us deeper. Beginning now in verse 22: “If I am to live in the flesh” — to live is Christ — “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.”

“Jesus is not just the only way to heaven; he is what makes heaven worth wanting.”

Now, of course, Paul doesn’t really get to choose. “Which of you by being anxious,” Jesus asks, “can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Luke 12:25). Paul’s not actually choosing life or death here; he’s just letting us see what he wants. “I am hard pressed between the two,” he says. “A big part of me wants to stay and live a little longer here with you” — and we’ll see why in a minute — “but if I’m honest, I’d rather go home. I’m so ready to feel my last aches and pains, to have my last hard conversations, to wipe away my last tears. More than anything, though, I’m so ready to finally, at last, see him, to set aside this old, foggy mirror and look at him face-to-face: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace in the flesh — the seeable, huggable, high-five-able God. To get to know him, to know Jesus, as well as he’s known me all these years (1 Corinthians 13:12).

“Oh, how badly I want to stay,” Paul’s saying, “and help you see more clearly, and understand more deeply, and love more fully, and obey more joyfully, but it will be so much better for me if this apostle left you (for now) and went on to be a kindergartner, a beginner, in glory.”

Better Than This World’s Best

Notice, he doesn’t diminish the goodness of this earthly life. From an earthly perspective, Paul’s life wasn’t all that great (it was horrible) when he wrote these verses — and he still wanted to stay. God has filled this broken, sinful world with people and pleasures and experiences — with really good gifts — that hint at heaven and help us long for heaven. I have three small kids, and there are moments every week when I stop and think, I just want this to last forever. (There are plenty of other moments when I think, When will this ever end? But there are so many moments I want to hold onto.) When we tickle them and they giggle until they cry. When they say certain words really wrong. When they learn how to do something for the first time, and then do that same thing a thousand times every day for a week. When they come, snuggle up next to you, and tell you they love you for no reason at all.

Having a Philippians 1:21 heart doesn’t mean you despise the God-given joys and giggles of life on earth — it means you realize that another life’s coming, another world, one that’s better than this one, even at its best. And not better by a little, but better by far. “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (verse 23).

And what’s the better? It’s not weeks without work or years without taxes. It’s not endless tee times on the golf course or more girls nights with your best friends. It’s not your favorite foods at your favorite restaurants (and you never have to wait or pay). (I, for one, by the way, believe all of that will happen in heaven, and that it’s all going to be better than we can even begin to think or imagine. Believe me, nothing you enjoy here is going to get worse in heaven.) He tells us what the best better will be, though, in the same verse: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” He puts a face to the gain. Death, for believers, is better than life because it’s death that finally gives us Christ — all of Christ, with all our senses, meeting all our needs and satisfying all our lingering, gnawing desires. He is our gain.

In college, I read a paragraph that I’ll never forget. It still haunts me, in the very best way. It goes like this:

Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. (God Is the Gospel, 47)

I still remember where I was on campus when I read that chapter. It felt like I had stumbled into a land I had never seen before, an ocean I’d never sailed before, a favorite meal I’d never tasted before. I really believe those were the moments when God became heaven for me. When he was no longer the God who makes heaven, or who lets sinners like me into heaven, but the God who himself is what makes heaven heaven — that he would always be (even after thousands and thousands of years) the best part of living there. This Jesus is not just the only way to heaven; he really is what makes heaven worth wanting. He is the great meal. He’s the ocean. He is the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price.

Doorway to Deepest Gain

And if that’s true — if we really think that way — how awesome will he look when we die? While everyone around us in the hospital clings to the last days they have here — while they scramble to try and make it to a couple more things on their bucket lists — we’re going to be the really strange people who have this deep and abiding peace, who talk about how much better life’s about to get, who feel free to spend the last days and hours we have on other people and their needs, who still smile even through horrible pain. We’re going to be the strange and beautiful people who use our last breaths — on the hospital bed, in hospice care, covered in wires and monitors — to sing. When we die like that, what will that say about Jesus? You know if you’ve ever seen a saint die well. In those moments, Jesus looks more valuable than anything life could ever give — or that death could ever take. Don’t you want to die like that?

As we turn to the first half of verse 21, then, I want us to see the relationship between these two phrases: “to live is Christ” and “to die is gain.” We’re about to see what “to live is Christ” means as a way of life — what strange people like this does with the weeks and months and years they have. But before we even get to that, to the kinds of things they do, we’re already seeing who they are — we’re seeing their heart, their passion. You see, the kind of people who honor Christ with their life will always be the kind of person who sees death as better than this life. They glorify God with their life because they want Jesus more than life. I first learned this, like many of you, from John Piper: “God is most glorified in us — in life and death, in joys and sorrows, in marriage and parenting and singleness — when we are most satisfied in him.” God will be most glorified in our lives when death is gain, when we know that the day we die will be the greatest day we’ve ever lived — yet.

To Live Is Christ

Now, in the next couple verses, he turns to explain “to live is Christ.” How does he explain that? He’s already said, in verse 22, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.” Fruitful labor — that’s the first part of our answer. But what does “fruitful labor” actually mean?

He goes on to tell us: “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” (verses 23–24). It would be better, far better, to go and be with Jesus, but I’m convinced it’s more necessary, for now, that I stay and keep laboring among you. And what is the labor? What does he need to stay and do for them?

Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith. (verse 25)

The fruitful labor Paul stays to do is to work for others’ progress and joy in the faith. He stays to help them grow in their faith in Jesus (progress), and to help them find greater joy in that faith. If we live for another day or month or year, it’s because someone needs help believing in and enjoying Jesus. That’s how Paul thinks about his life — and yours. This is why you’re alive: to help someone else keep believing in Jesus. Do you think about your life that way? Do you look at your days, or weeks, or decades of life as a gift God has given you to give other people God? To live is Christ — to hold up Christ for one another.

But what does it really mean, practically, to live for someone else’s “progress and joy in the faith”? Does Paul give us any hints about what we’re supposed to actually do? He gives us lots of hints. His letters are filled with this kind of life. But we’ll limit ourselves to just Philippians for now. What does it look like to live for one another’s “progress and joy in the faith”?

  • It looks like praying for one another, and especially for each other’s souls (1:9–11).
  • It looks like calling one another to obey Christ, to live a life worthy of the gospel (1:27).
  • It looks like meeting practical needs for one another, as this church did for Paul (4:14).
  • It looks like honoring one another, as Paul honors Epaphroditus (2:29).
  • Sometimes it looks like warning one another: “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (3:2).
  • It looks like reconciling believers with one another when there’s conflict or division, as Paul does in 4:2: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord.”
  • It looks like reminding one another of heaven: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (3:20–21).
  • It looks like, get this, just having more conversations about Jesus.

Any of you can do all those things. These aren’t things only apostles do, or even things only pastors do; these are things Christians get to do for one another. We live, for however long we live, for one another’s progress and joy in the faith — to live is Christ.

Paul strikes one more note here, in verses 25–26: “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.” “If I live,” he’s saying, “I want to give more reasons to worship Jesus — and not just a few reasons, but plenty of reasons” — “so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s not living for a bare-minimum Christianity, a bare-minimum spiritual influence on others. No, day by day, he wants to pile on the reasons, as many as he possibly can, for those he knows and loves to trust and enjoy Jesus.

So, when God brings others into your life, are they better off spiritually for being there? Are they a lot better off spiritually for being there? What if you started looking at your relationships — family, community group and life group, neighbors, coworkers, friends — and tried to give them ample cause to love and glorify Jesus? How much more spiritual good could you do? How might the good you do then multiply through them into all of their relationships?

“If we live for another day or month or year, it’s because someone needs help believing in and enjoying Jesus.”

Again, notice he says, “I am hard pressed between the two.” So even though to depart and be with Christ is far better, Paul really does want both. It’s gain to die, no question, but it’s not loss to stay and live for Christ. To live for Jesus — despite how much it cost him, despite how little fruit he saw at times, despite the fact that he might live the rest of his life in prison — to live for Jesus was its own reward. Therefore, he could gladly say, To die is gain for me, and to live is Christ for you, my joy and my crown (4:1).

Because You Pray for Me

Before we close, then, I want to go back briefly to the beginning of our passage and look at how this kind of Christ-honoring life and this kind of Christ-honoring death happen. If God delivers us from walking away from Christ, from giving into temptation, from slowly drifting into worldliness, if he helps us honor Christ until the very end, how does that happen? Where do we get the strength and focus we need to keep going? Paul gives us two quick glimpses (so quick we might completely miss them), but I think they’re too good to pass over as a church. You’ve already heard these verses, but we need to hear them one more time:

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. (verses 18–19)

Why is Paul so confident that he’s going to make it to the end, that he’ll keep honoring Christ, even in prison, even under persecution, even if it costs him his life? What does he say? Because you’re praying for me.

Do you ever pray like this church prayed for Paul? Does anyone pray like this for you? If we commit to praying like this for one another, Cities Church, we’ll be able to say things like we heard Paul say in verse 6: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” — because we’ve prayed for you. I know you’ll honor Christ, whatever happens to you, because we’ve prayed for you. Or, as in verse 19, “I know this horrible circumstance will turn out for my deliverance” — because you prayed for me. Prison can’t overcome these kinds of prayers. Cancer can’t overcome these kinds of prayers. All the armies in the world couldn’t overcome prayers like these.

Why? Because God answers prayers like these — and he doesn’t answer from afar. No, he comes and helps us from inside of us, by his Spirit (“through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ”). His Spirit lives within us. And as he does, his strength becomes our strength, his peace becomes our peace, his love becomes our love.

By the Spirit, right now, in whatever callings you have been given, you have everything you could possibly need to honor Christ — whether by life or by death — because that Christ lives in you. He’s going to help you.