Right now, all over the world, there are men and women who know nothing of Jesus Christ. They know nothing of the glory of the gospel, nothing of the good news. Yet God has providentially put a process in motion that will end in the proclamation of the gospel and, ultimately, their salvation. In places where we can’t imagine, our God will reach out his hand and lay claim to his sons and daughters.
And in a crazy twist of “Take Your Kid to Work Day,” God invites us into this plan. How crazy is that? Like the shepherds in the Nativity Story, we get to herald the good news. We get to lay down our lives, to suffer and to labor — it’s a beautiful thing to give our lives to. As Paul writes in Philippians 1:21, “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Or said another way, “A life worth living for Christ is a life worth losing.”
The Arm of the Lord
The apostle Paul wrote these words. If you know much about Paul, you know that before he was an apostle, he was Saul of Tarsus and had a bit of a grimy reputation.
We see evidence of this in Acts 7 when Stephen gave a thunderous, non-seeker-friendly sermon out in Jerusalem — a sermon that enraged the crowd. Enraged is the correct word. They weren’t just annoyed. They didn’t just e-mail him the next day. There wasn’t a heated debate on the Internet. Acts 7:58 says, “They cast him [Stephen] out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Then just a few verses later, Acts 8:1 says, “Saul approved of his execution.”
Notice Saul’s reaction to the stoning of Stephen. He didn’t see it as grotesque. It didn’t shock or appall him. He wasn’t wondering how he had gotten caught up in the mob. Acts tells us that he heartily agreed with the execution. He might have even enjoyed himself.
Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. (Acts 8:1–3)
Saul of Tarsus gladly watched Stephen’s execution. From there, he began to ravage the church, which means his approval of the stoning actually emboldened his rage against Christianity — so much so that he dragged people out of their houses and tossed them in prison.
In Acts 9, Saul’s rage continued.
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1–2)
Saul’s heart was dark. After his conversion, he described its darkness in stark terms, calling himself a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent opponent (1 Timothy 1:13).
We sometimes think of those who not only aren’t interested in the gospel, but are actually violent toward it, as unreachable. Instead, we should think immediately of Paul. Is he not the objective evidence that, no matter how dark the heart, God might reach, God might save, God might deliver, God might transfer out of the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of his beloved Son?
I’ve always marveled at that scene on the road to Damascus because Paul certainly wasn’t a seeker. On the road to Damascus, he wasn’t reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God or dialoguing with someone who had just studied up on John Frame’s Apologetics to the Glory of God. He wasn’t struggling with the truth of the gospel, doubting his doubts. Paul was not the least bit worried about Jesus as the Messiah.
And God was not the least bit worried about Paul. The Triune God didn’t lament, “What are we going to do? We had all these plans for him, but he’s not interested!” No. God knocked Saul off his horse and blinded him.
Talk about electing love! Talk about a confidence that God can save! This is the kind of love described by the prophet Isaiah when he said the arm of the Lord is not too short to save (Isaiah 59:1). God doesn’t have tiny T-rex arms. He can reach out and grab. He can gather. He can hold to himself.
In his electing love, God reached out and grabbed the most violent, aggressive, rage-filled, anti-Christian man on record in the Scriptures during the first century. The long arm of God’s saving love caused Saul to fall off his horse and fall hopelessly in love with Jesus Christ.
Those people are out there in the world — hearts still in darkness yet set apart before they were born — sons and daughters purchased by his blood. They will be found. They will be saved. They will be rescued. They will be ransomed. And he will use many of us — many Christians — to do that. We get to play a part. We get to go. We get to pray. We get to send. Every believer gets to be caught up in the mission.
What It Actually Means
It’s easy for us to hear the words, “For me, to live is Christ,” and miss their significance in light of Paul’s story. We might even speak those words lightly ourselves. But Paul wrote those words out of the deep conviction that all other paths were bankrupt. At the church in Philippi, he became acquainted with Lydia, a woman of wealth and property. His team even stayed in her house. Yet he knew her wealth was bankrupt. He saw her wandering the outskirts of town searching for God.
Every day, the world attempts to disciple us into its view of what life is about. Commercials, movies, sitcoms, billboards, talk show hosts, and, yes, even some in Christian ministry tell us that the way to live is like Lydia did before Jesus: a life of toys and trinkets. The god of our generation is comfort. Suffering is seen as a problem to be solved, unless the solution itself is painful. Then we’d rather stay in our suffering. We don’t want pain to free us from pain. We just want no pain.
From this perspective, suffering becomes problematic, not providential. God becomes this weak God in the heavens who’s always huddling up the Trinity and saying, “Hey, who let that guy get cancer? Who let that woman get in an accident?” We have to be careful with this kind of thinking. It disciples us in the belief that comfort, wealth, trinkets, and toys are the sum of life.
“Every day, the world attempts to disciple us into its view of what life is about.”
Paul knew that everything was rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ. To live is Christ. You might say it too, but you won’t get it in your guts until, like Paul, you see the surpassing value of Jesus above and beyond everything else the unbelieving world exalts. Our culture exalts human relationships, achievement, skill. It says, “To live is my family, to live is my job, to live is my talent.” It makes good things ultimate instead of letting good things point us to the ultimate good of Christ.
It’s interesting that, for all the “to live is Christ” agreement among Christians, so little of our lives are actually about Christ. So little of our lives are actually shaped by him, informed by him, and driven by his Word.
We may say, “To live is Christ,” but what we mean is, “To live is my version of Christ” — not the Jesus we find in the Bible but, instead, some god we create in our minds, some god that will make us “cool.” But here’s the thing: You’re never going to be cool. It’s junior high nonsense. May it die before you get in your late 20s or early 30s because it’s incredibly sad to be 40 and still want to be cool. Jesus doesn’t need a makeover. He’s not meant to be hip. He’s the Alpha and the Omega. He transcends that nonsense. To live is Christ means that we have seen the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus above every other valuable thing known to man.
It’s not that there aren’t good things. It’s not that there aren’t blessings to be had or gifts given to us by God to be enjoyed. Of course, those things exist. But none are greater than Christ. Those gifts are given so that our worship and enjoyment of Christ might increase, and sometimes they are withheld so that our worship of Christ will stay where it should. In fact, Christ alone is worthy of an entire life’s affection and devotion — and he’s worthy of an eternity’s more.
An Unordinary Idea
To die is gain. The idea is so out of the ordinary — nearly nonexistent in current streams of evangelical thought. I’ve never heard it addressed at any conference. Never heard it celebrated. Never heard it called precious in the eyes of the Lord. So few want to depart and be with him. But Paul said it because in his guts, he had seen the bankruptcy of everything else. He had seen the slavery in everything else — the total vanity.
And Paul wasn’t being morbid or suicidal when he wrote those words. He wasn’t disrespecting the life that God gave him. To understand that death is gain is to finally be free from fear in any capacity. The way to fullness of life is to understand that dying is gain.
In the second century, early Christian apologist Justin Martyr said, “You can kill us but cannot do us any real harm.” What fearlessness we should walk in! What’s the worst someone could do? Kill our bodies and torture us first? Yes. They could. That’s true. But you have to believe that, in those moments, the Holy Spirit of God is present in profoundly powerful ways, as he has been throughout history.
In Hebrews 11, we see men conquering armies and shutting the mouths of lions. We see women receiving back their dead by resurrection. We see people who are tortured, cast out, and even sawn in half. We see Christians who are hard-pressed on every side, but the Holy Spirit is sufficient in the day of trouble. Throughout history, as men and women have been killed for loving Jesus, serving Jesus, and proclaiming the gospel, the Holy Spirit has sustained them in the day of trouble.
In her book Shadow of the Almighty, Elisabeth Elliot says, “Is the distinction between living for Christ and dying for him so great? Is not the second the logical conclusion of the first?” If Christ himself is our treasure, is it not the logical conclusion for us that our lives will be marked by him and our death viewed as a good thing on the day it occurs?
We don’t die early. We don’t die before our time. God knows all the days that he has for us. In 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul says that we are of good courage because “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Again, the Word of God thrusts this idea upon us: If Jesus is our ultimate treasure, then to depart from this body with all its limitations is a good thing.
A Better Day
For young and healthy people, the idea of death isn’t even on the radar, except for those who struggle with misplaced fear and anxiety. Everyone agrees that someone will die this year, but no one thinks it’s him or her. In reality, if Christ is our treasure, there should be no fear of death. And if to live is Christ and to die is gain, and to be absent from this body is to be present with Jesus, then we shouldn’t be afraid to go. Ten thousand years from now, we won’t be dreaming about the cool car we could have had if we’d lived just a little longer.
No. As Christians, we believe that a better day is coming. The better day isn’t today. It isn’t tomorrow. It might not even be a year from now or ten years from now. Eventually our weak and failing bodies will give way and go into the ground, and then at Christ’s return, we will rise from the dead with new, imperishable bodies.
On the new earth, the wolf and the lamb will lie down together. The lion will chew hay like the oxen. The mountaintops will produce sweet wine. The deserts will bloom with roses. We’ll have no need of the sun because the glory of the Lord and his presence will be our light. To die is gain. And we’re getting closer to it every minute.
There’s this profound passage in the Bible that’s simultaneously beautiful and haunting — Revelation 6:8–11:
And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth. When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
The nations will be reached. They will be made glad in Jesus. The glory of God will cover the earth like the waters cover the seas. There are an appointed number of martyrs to achieve that, and not one martyr already under the altar has regrets. Not one is saying, “Lord, I didn’t get to be married. I didn’t get to walk my daughter down the aisle.”
No, it’s “How long until justice prevails? How long until your rule and reign is known by all? How long?” And the compassionate response from the King of glory is, In a little while. An appointed number of brothers and sisters will spill their blood to this end also.
Ravi Zacharias once talked about how ineffective it would be to threaten Lazarus after Jesus raised him from the dead. What would you say to intimidate him? “Hey, you’re going to get yourself killed”?
He’d probably laugh. Similarly, the reason Paul was one of the most effective yet most frustrating missionaries the world has ever known is because his enemies couldn’t do anything to him. Put him in prison! He’s converting the imperial guards. Beat him up! He doesn’t care. Put him in the stocks! He’s singing songs. Imagine the frustration his torturers felt. If they let him live: “To live is Christ.” If they killed him: “To die is gain.”
Our Motivation and Treasure
But there’s a flip side. Until Christ is our treasure, any other motivation for mission work becomes a fool’s errand, built upon the motivations of man and not the call of God. That type of romanticism is doomed to fail.
“The way to fullness of life is to understand that dying is gain.”
Missions can become a kind of touchdown in the football game of faith, the end-all, be-all. “Where’s the hardest place to go? The place no Christian survives? That’s where I’m going — I win.” Our motivation must be that Christ is the treasure, and that going there is out of glad obedience to Christ.
So ask yourself the hard questions. Is Christ truly your treasure? The heart is deceptive above all things. Is Jesus what you want, or are you trying to use Jesus to get what you want — to get to heaven, to get a spouse, to look respectable, or any number of other things?
Jesus urged his followers to have eyes to see that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37; Luke 10:2). In that verse, Jesus prays for more workers to be sent out. We too must ask him to do a work in our hearts so we might get to a place where we could gladly say, To live is Christ, and to die is gain!
We love our lives more than we should. We fear our death more than we should. We need the Father’s help — to pray for a growing zeal for Jesus’ name and renown. Where we have laid up other treasures, we must pray that Jesus crushes them. Where we have been seduced by lives of comfort and wealth, trinkets and toys, we must pray that God would free us from seduction. Where we have bought into the idea of “cool,” we must repent. May we treasure him above all things.
Workers are needed in the harvest, and some of them will receive the title not just of worker, but of martyr. I pray that we would not love our lives more than we love God. Imagine five hundred years from now, five thousand years from now, ten thousand years from now, how trite and silly the luxuries of today will seem! Let us be motivated by his love, for his glory, through his transformative grace. Right now, in the hardest places in the world, among the most unreached of peoples, the Father has sons and daughters. They will be saved. He will gather them. And we should be humbled and overwhelmed to be invited in, to participate in the greatest mission the universe will ever know.
Victory is sure because it has already been secured by the shed blood of Christ. May men and women from every tribe, tongue, and nation on earth pour out their time, energies, talents, giftings, passions — their very lives — for this mission. To live is Christ, and in him, to die is truly gain.
Chapter versions of these messages now appear in Cross: Unrivaled Christ, Unstoppable Gospel, Unreached Peoples, Unending Joy (B&H Publishing Group, 2015).