Ministry Today and Eternity Tomorrow
Topic: Expository Passage: Philippians 1:21-26
Read vv. 19–26
I don’t have any data to back this up, but my observation is that no Christian discipline (and I do want to emphasize that it is a discipline) is more neglected in the American church than the discipline of hope—meaning that we intentionally live with an eternal focus.
This is especially clear among the prosperity preachers. They preach that the hope of the gospel is mostly in this life—that Christ died to make you healthy, wealthy, and happy today. And sadly, many evangelicals have a similar focus. Their entire gospel presentation is centered around selling what Jesus can offer today. Maybe you want a better marriage, wisdom for overcoming debt, inner peace, or purpose. And if you accept Jesus, he will be the answer to all of your felt needs.
It is true that the gospel does provide many temporal benefits, but we are fighting a losing battle if we try sell Christianity to depraved sinners based on temporal things. Rather, the unbeliever needs to understand as does every believer that the fundamental hope of the gospel is in eternity. The Scriptures are clear that the Christian life only makes sense, and it is only worth the effort and sacrifice from a crystal-clear eternal perspective. Therefore, we must discipline ourselves to view all of life in light of the hope of eternity.
Our text for today provides a wonderful example of how hope must shape our perspective. Remember that Paul is contemplating his coming trial before Caesar. We saw last Sunday that Paul’s highest priority for the trial was, as v. 20 states that, “Christ will be magnified…” Today, we will pick in vv. 21–26 where Paul builds on that very heavy last phrase, “whether by life or by death.” Paul knew that boldly declaring the gospel could lead to his execution. This would terrify most people, but not Paul, because gospel hope reshaped how he thought about death and, maybe even more importantly, how he thought about life. Notice first, the foundation of Paul’s perspective in v. 21.
1. The Foundation: Christ is my life (v. 21)
This is a remarkable little verse. It is short and sweet, and it is simple and clear, but it is also profoundly deep and personal. The phrase “for to me” indicates that Paul is giving us a very personal window into his heart. First, Paul tells us that for Paul and every Christian…
Today is about Christ. Paul literally says, “For to me to be living—Christ.” Paul is not saying that he was his head was in the clouds and that he was out of touch with the demands of life. Rather, Paul is saying that Christ defines his perspective and gives purpose to all of life. He is the hub around which life turns. Similarly, Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the lifewhich I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” In other words, Christ, who gave his life for Paul had transformed Paul. Now Christ lived through Paul.
To make it practical, Paul didn’t wake up in the morning and merely think, “I have to write this letter, make this phone call, cook this meal, and complete this chore.” Instead, Christ shaped his priorities, and he approached every task in the strength of Christ with the primary goal of glorifying Christ. And when temporal passions and fears conflicted with Christ’s priorities, there was no conflict. Christ always won out.
And if you are a Christian, then understand that Christ must have this same preeminence in your life. Paul is not describing an optional if you want to be a really serious Christian. No, 1 Corinthians 6:20 commands us, “You were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” We must embrace Paul’s heart.
And then we need to put it into practice every day. Every step of every day, we should be thinking, “To live is Christ. To live is Christ. So Christ, what do you want me to think? What do you want me to love? What do you want me to do?” And when his will and my will conflict, he always wins. But of course, that means that leaving behind a lot of gratification and pleasure, and it means inviting lots of sacrifice and heartache. But that’s okay because Paul goes on to say, “and to die is gain.” In other words, …
Eternity is my hope. To appreciate Paul’s testimony, we have to remember that he makes this statement knowing that in a short time, Caesar may kill him using one of several cruel methods of executing and humiliating criminals. Yet incredibly Paul calls death gain.
I do want to emphasize that human life is a precious gift rooted in the image of God on each human life. Furthermore, life and death are in God’s hands, not ours. Therefore, we should always celebrate life, protect life, and preserve life. Paul is not diminishing the value of life or commending suicide and especially not assisted suicide as good escapes from the hardships of this world. So, if your mind ever starts down those paths, do not use this passage to justify those thoughts.
That being said, our natural impulse is generally not to desire death, especially not an agonizing death like Paul was potentially facing. But Paul viewed death as gain, because with eyes of faith he could see what was on the other side. He could see life without pain and sorrow in a perfect environment. And above all else he could see life in perfect union with Christ.
As a result, Paul didn’t fear Instead, he saw it as a grace of God that frees the believer from the curse of this world and brings him into a far better state.
There is so much comfort and hope in this little statement. Maybe you are missing a loved one who is with the Lord. It hurts. But praise the Lord that while that person’s death is your loss, it is their gain. They are so much better off today than they were in this life.
And if you are afraid of death, remember that death is gain for the believer. I love the last verse of “In Christ Alone.” “No guilt in life, no fear in death, This is the power of Christ in me, From life's first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny, No power of hell, no scheme of man, Can ever pluck me from His hand, Till He returns or calls me home, Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.”
Praise the Lord that we have “no fear in death” only joyful anticipation of what is on the other side! So v. 21 provides the foundation of Paul’s thinking about his two options—life or death. But then Paul proceeds in vv. 22–24 to develop his conflict between life and death.
2. The Conflict (vv. 22–24): In these verses, Paul gives us another fascinating window into his heart. It’s important that we see that…
Paul was genuinely torn. There are 2 options on the table—life and death—and Paul says in 22, “What I shall choose I cannot tell.” Now, Paul is not saying that it was ultimately his choice. Nero would choose either to free Paul or kill Paul. And God would ultimately determine Paul’s fate. Therefore, Paul is simply reflecting on his preference.
And from his perspective the two options are pretty equal. He “cannot tell” which is better, and he says in 23, “I am hard-pressed between the two.” Paul uses a pretty graphic verb that pictures the two options as locking him into indecision. It’s as if Paul is in the bottom of a deep ravine and his two options are like two huge walls of the ravine that leave him trapped. Paul struggled. Do I want to remain, or do I just want heaven? And in these verses Paul ponders the benefits of both options. On the one hand…
There is much ministry to be done. Notice what Paul says in v. 22, “If I live on…” In other words, if Paul continued to live and especially if he gained his freedom there was an abundance of ministry that he could do.
Of course, this proved to be accurate. Paul was ultimately released, and afterwards he wrote 1, 2 Timothy and Titus. He almost certainly traveled east and enjoyed some very fruitful ministry among the churches he had established. He may have even gone west and fulfilled his longstanding desire to take the gospel to Spain.
So, Paul is on target. He knew that millions needed the gospel, and the various churches he had established and their leaders were still very young and could really benefit from his continued ministry. Paul zeroes in on this factor in 24. The Philippians were struggling with division and the threat of heresy. They could really use a visit from Paul.
So, as Paul weighed life or death, the gospel and the health of the churches was a huge factor in his thinking. And I hope that we will feel the weight of Paul’s testimony. In particular, we have to remember that Paul’s ministry was extremely demanding. It’s not like he’s looking forward to some victory tour of the Mediterranean. No continued ministry meant exhausting and uncomfortable travel. It meant enduring the hatred and slander of enemies. It may even mean hunger, cold, beatings, and imprisonment. That’s not the kind of stuff most people desire.
And Paul was not a young man anymore. He was at the stage of life where most people in our culture are ready to retire and take it easy. Many believe, “I’ve put in my time, and now this is my time to relax and enjoy myself.”
But not Paul. “For to me to live is Christ.” His fundamental reason for wanting to live was so that after sitting in jail for so long he could throw himself back into the meat grinder of ministry and serve the people whom he loved for the glory of Christ.
So I want to ask you, why do you want to go on living? What are your ambitions? What are your dreams? What is the aim of your life? Is it about getting married, getting a great job, making lots of money and buying lots of toys? Is it about spending time with family and enjoying your friends? Of course, I’m not saying we should feel guilty about enjoying those things. But whether you are young or old, remember that to live is Christ. And the primary way we honor Christ is by investing in the Great Commission.
And there is an endless supply of GC ministry for all of us. Your family needs discipleship. There are thousands of people around us who need to hear the gospel. There are people in this room who need your love and encouragement and especially your prayers.
Therefore, whether you are young or old, there is much ministry to be done, and we need to see all of life with this perspective. So ministry had Paul contemplating life. But Paul was torn, because on the other hand…
Heaven will be much better. Notice in 23 how Paul contemplates death. Paul’s language is jam-packed with significance. For one the word for desire (epithumia) describes a strong impulse. Again, Paul had lived a hard life for a long time, so he longed to be with the Lord.
As well Paul uses a fascinating verb to describe death. The verb is analuo, and it could be used of an army breaking camp or of a ship loosing from dock so that it could depart for sea. So, Paul is saying that he was ready to be loosed from all the agonies of this world, which again Paul knew all too well.
But notice that he didn’t merely see death as an escape from pain. There is a tight grammatical connection between the desire “to depart” and in its place to “be with Christ.” That’s what Paul desired above all else. Ever since his conversion life had always been about Christ. “For to me to live is Christ.”
And as Paul contemplated eternity, he wasn’t mostly looking forward to golden streets or life without the effects of the curse. No, above all else, Paul wanted to be with Christ. He wanted to see his Savior face to face and enjoy a complete union with him.
And notice that Paul describes this perfect union with the understatement of the year. It is “far better.” So, I’d like to ask you to think about what you want most out of this world. What do you really enjoy or really crave about life? If you could imagine, “Your Best Life Now,” as Joel Osteen says, what would it look like? Whatever it may be, I promise you that it cannot even remotely compare to the joy of being with Christ in heaven. It is “far better.”
There are so many applications I could make. In particular, what a blessing it is to know as Christians that we have no reason to fear death. If anything, we should be thankful that this life does not continue forever. Death is God’s gracious means of escape. But maybe you are afraid of death. You are getting older or you are dealing with some scary health issues. If you are in Christ, he will give grace to endure to the end, and “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
If you are missing a loved one who is already with the Lord, take comfort in the fact that your loved one is in a much better place. He or she is with Christ, loosed from the effects of the curse. Praise the Lord!
But the biggest takeaway is how our hope of eternity must shape life today. I said in my introduction that the Christian life only makes sense is from a crystal-clear eternal perspective. The only way you will think rightly about the pleasures of this world is if you see them in comparison to eternity. So, understand that success at work, stylish clothes, new cars, fame, sex, or whatever else grabs your heart is like monopoly money—it’s worthless—in comparison to the joy of eternity.
In light of that, don’t let the passions of this life get in the way of your true joy, your real purpose, and your only hope. You don’t have to feverishly pursue every pleasure of this world, because you know that you will have all of eternity to enjoy far better things. Instead, live a holy life. 1 John 3:2 says, “Everyone who has this hope in Him, purifies himself, just as He is pure.” Be holy, hoping the superior joy of heaven.
And then because our hope is with Christ, be ready to minister sacrificially. This is such an important aspect of this text. The reason Paul was content spending (in the sacrificial sense) his life in ministry was because he knew he had all eternity to enjoy himself. So what if he lived a hard life here? So what if people got mad or weren’t appreciative? Those were all such small things in comparison to eternity with Christ.
So, I want to challenge you to follow Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians 12:15, where he says, “I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls.” Spend yourself in service of Christ, because you have eternity to enjoy yourself. And as an added benefit, I can about guarantee that you’ll have more joy today if you devote yourself to ministry than you ever will if you live as a slave to the passions of this world.
And if you have never received Christ as Savior, I want to urge you to see the incredible value of eternity with Christ. There is nothing in this world, no excuse you could ever contrive that is so valuable that it would be worth rejecting Christ and missing heaven. It is far better.
And I also want you to see that heaven only belongs to those who know Christ. The only way death is gain is if Christ is your life today. So forsake whatever excuse you have and repent of your sin. Tell the Lord that you are sinner who needs forgiveness. And put your faith in Christ’s death and resurrection as the only hope of salvation. If you do, you will be in Christ, you can live for Christ, and you can be with Christ forever. Please, come to Christ today and be saved. So returning to the text, Paul contemplates his conflict in vv. 22–24, and then notice finally in vv. 25–26, Paul’s surrender.
3. The Surrender (vv. 25–26)
Explanation: After acknowledging that death would be a far better option for Paul personally, he now says that he is confident that it’s not his time to die. Notice this is not because Paul has some grand defense that he is sure will convince Nero to let him go. No, it’s because, “for to me to live is Christ,” and Paul is convinced that Christ has more for him to do.
Specifically, Paul believes his continued ministry is “necessary” for the health of the Philippians. Then he goes on to mention 3 ways he believes God will use him for their edification. First, God will use him for their progress in the faith. This is a reference to their continued maturation in Christ. There was a lot of discipleship to be done.
Second, Paul believed God would use him for their “joy of faith.” This phrase is a reminder that Christian joy is not just in eternity. There is joy in our faith today. But it comes from a very different place from worldly pleasure. The world seeks joy in circumstances, but Christian joy is a fruit of God’s Spirit, and it is immune to the circumstances of life, because it is based on faith in God’s sovereign purpose, our eternal reward, and an eternal perspective on this world. Paul wanted to see the Philippians develop this kind of joy.
Third, and very similarly, Paul wanted to cause “rejoicing” among the Philippians by visiting them again. The idea is probably that they would rejoice over how God answered their prayers regarding Paul’s trial through his deliverance. And in so doing they would glory in the Lord over what he had done. Paul wanted the Philippians to see God’s glory in his deliverance. He wanted Christ to be magnified for them. There are 2 big applications I’d like to make from vv. 25–26.
God is sovereign over life and death. One of the most fascinating aspects of Paul’s contemplation of his future in vv. 22–26 is who is not named. Paul never even acknowledges Caesar as a factor in whether he lives or dies. Why? Because God’s sovereign will was all that mattered. What God determined would happen, and Caesar would just be the means God used either to bring Paul to heaven or to free him for ministry.
So often we live afraid of this person or that person. As it relates to death we fear a car accident, cancer, heart disease, or a stroke. But we are invincible until Christ calls us home. And when he does, there is no resisting his will. Praise the Lord that our lives are in the hands of a sovereign God.
Devote your life to discipling others. Again, as Paul contemplated his release from 2-4 years of unjust incarceration, he didn’t dream of a long vacation on a Mediterranean beach. No Paul had one ambition for being released. He wanted to magnify Christ by ministering to the church. Vacation and pleasure could wait for eternity.
How we need to mimic Paul’s example and give ourselves to ministry. Share the gospel, make disciples, and pursue the maturity of the church, because “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Last week, I mentioned the story of Jim Elliot, who gave his life when he was only 28 years old trying to take the gospel to people who had never heard the name of Christ. And in one sense it is a great tragedy that he died so young and left his young family behind. But it was not a loss for Elliot, and he knew that going in. Several years earlier Elliot wrote in his journal, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” This world is passing away, and you cannot keep anything here. So, give everything to Christ in hope that someday you will see Christ, and you will gain an eternal prize that you will never lose. Minister today like you are going to heaven tomorrow.