Philippians (4): For me to live is Christ
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1.21)
This doesn’t mean that nothing matters but ‘my religion’. The whole of life matters. Our families matter, our friends matter, our neighbours matter, our colleagues matter, our communities matter. We are neither disconnected from them nor indifferent to them. We share their joys and sorrows, their struggles against injustice, and the restrictions imposed by pandemics; and far from regarding society as a God-forsaken wilderness, we recognise, as Paul did, the presence within it of much that is true, honourable, just, and pure (Phil. 4:8). Even in the current coronavirus crisis, the milk of human kindness has been flowing freely, as teachers, nurses, doctors, carers, police-officers, bus-drivers and many others put their lives on the line for the benefit of others.
Nor is the Christian indifferent to their natural environment. God’s works are all around us, proclaiming his glory, and we should shut neither our eyes nor our ears nor our imaginations to it. We must share in the insatiable human curiosity to understand it; we must feel honoured by the divine command to subdue it; we must comply with the divine instruction to keep it; and we must recognise that we are servants, as well as tillers, of the soil.
All of this means, then, that the Christian should live life to the full; or, as Bishop Handley Moule puts it (Philippian Studies, p. 76), ‘the Christian is as much alive in human life as the worldling is, and more.’ This is what we see in the Apostle Paul. He lived in the very same world as he was evangelising, sharing it with many other believers whose admirable qualities drew forth his praise, but sharing it, too with soldiers, sailors, jailers, judges, hostile philosophers, uncomprehending pagans and angry mobs. This was all part of his ministry, and as he went about it he was guided by this principle, ‘for me, to live is Christ.’
We must not let ourselves be diverted here. We know from other passages that Paul, who had once been dead in trespass and sins, owed his life to Christ; and we know, too, that Christ lived in him. Here, however, he is talking specifically of the principle that governed that life; the ‘chief end’ to which all other ends were subordinate. Christ was 'the object, motive, inspiration, and goal' of all that the Apostle did (Peter T. O'Brien, Commentary on Philippians, p. 120). This was why he had set out on his first missionary journey; this was why he had gone over to Macedonia, including Philippi, in the first place ; this was why, years before, he had longed to visit the believers at Rome; this was why he had appealed to Caesar; this was why he rejoiced that Christ was being preached; this was why he was writing this epistle; and this was why, some years later he would write his last letters to Titus and Timothy. It was all because for him, ‘to live was Christ.’
And this resolved itself into one overriding determination: Christ must be ‘honoured’ (verse 20). The literal meaning is that Christ must be made great (megalunthēsetai). He doesn’t mean, of course, that he can make Christ greater than he already is. He is already mega, but Paul wanted the whole of his own life to be a witness to just how mega Jesus is; and what was true of the Apostle must be true of every Christian.
But what can it mean?
All thoughts of his own glory set aside
First, all thoughts of his own glory were set aside. He didn’t care for it, he didn’t seek it, he didn’t get it and he didn’t miss it; and this is reflected in the fact that there are so few recorded compliments in the life of Paul. No one spoke of him as a great orator, a skilled communicator or a commanding presence. Nor did he see himself as such. Instead he readily concurred in the prevailing judgement that his bodily presence was weak and his speech contemptible (2 Cor. 10.10, KJV). Nor did people speak of him as a well-rounded human being: a lover of music and literature, keenly interest in politics and sport, and fully abreast of the culture of his age. Far less can we imagine anyone paying him the compliment of calling him ‘woke.’ He may have been all of these things (except the last), but it never shows.
On the other hand, if Paul had been called to be an artist or a musician or a politician he would still have steered by this same compass, ‘for me, to live is Christ’; and it would have been equally true had he been called to be a teacher, a doctor, a nurse, a care-worker, a bricklayer, a bus-driver or the commander of a nuclear submarine.
It’s often been remarked that no preacher can simultaneously convince a congregation that he himself is very clever and that Jesus Christ is a great Saviour. St Paul could never have been accused of making that mistake. He had a message, something he was under compulsion to say, and his one concern was to say it as lucidly and as persuasively as he knew how. He didn’t subject it to the wisdom of his age or to its ideas of effective communication. He was only a herald, charged with blowing his Master’s trumpet. Yes, he was a powerful preacher, but the power lay in the message, and in the crucified Saviour it proclaimed. He was so proud of that cross (Gal. 6:14): so proud that, to the horror of the religious and the contempt of the cultured, he put it in the forefront of what he had to say. Secular historians had taken no notice of it, but Paul thought it was the greatest thing God had ever done, and he refused to keep quiet about it.
Secondly, Christ, and the honour of Christ, was his consuming passion. It wasn’t a case of fitting him into such bits of his life as were left over after he had attended to other more urgent and important interests and concerns. His priority was Christ, and everything that clashed with that had to be written off as loss (Phil. 3.7).
A personal plan?
But here we face a difficulty. It’s easy to imagine Paul as a man who had a personal plan and a personal routine to which he adhered with stern self-discipline, but the reality is quite otherwise. Paul had little control over such things as the work he did, where he did it, when he should move on, and how much time he should set aside for ‘devotions.’ He never believed in ‘the power of positive thinking’, and never sat down to ask himself, ‘Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?’ Had he done so, his expectations would have quickly imploded. He could never have factored in what happened on the road to Damascus; and he certainly couldn’t have factored in what happened afterwards. He never planned his first missionary journey, and when he and Barnabas set out, they had no detailed route-map and no schedule; and he never planned that a good way to honour Christ would be to get arrested in Jerusalem, taken under escort to Caesarea, and shipped as a prisoner from there to Rome.
Clearly, then, when Paul penned the words, ‘For me, to live is Christ,’ he wasn’t telling the Philippians to plan their lives carefully, putting Christ at the centre. His advice was governed by his circumstances, and what he was saying was that wherever we find ourselves, and especially when we find ourselves in places where we would much rather not be, it is precisely then that we must make the honour of Christ our first concern. He hadn’t planned on being flogged, beaten, caught in a storm at sea, shipwrecked, and seeing Rome for the first time as a prisoner in chains. But that was the reality, and it was in that reality that for him to live was Christ.
Few of us have as little control over our lives as Paul had. We are free to be pro-active and to make our own choices, and even to design our own lives in terms of relationships, careers, residences, and forms of ministry. These choices must all be made in the light of the overriding obligation to seek first the honour of Christ. But they must also be made with humility, knowing that the very best ‘design for life’ is subject to events or, from a higher point of view, to God’s ‘bright designs’; and his designs may often blow our plans to bits.
This is where Paul now found himself: not, as he had hoped, rushing from city to city to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, but confined, in chains, in a Roman prison. Had preaching as such been his life, his life was over; but it wasn’t, because preaching was his life. For him, to live was Christ, and he could do that in prison. Yes, he was in chains, but he was still Christ’s ambassador (Eph. 6.20) and his strategy was still the same. He would honour Christ in bondage as he had in freedom.
There are two great truths here. The first is that we design our lives at our peril; the second is that our lives can never, never lack purpose. Paul, too, had his dreams: the dream, perhaps, that God would use him for the conversion of Israel (Acts 22.18). But he didn’t; and many Christians know what it is for God to put up roadblocks and say, ‘Stop!’ Then, lying in a hospital bed, or weighed down with the burden of caring for someone we love, or stricken with grief and loneliness, or feeling useless and un-needed, ‘for me, to live is Christ.’ The Lord needs us to shine where we are.
The way he used his Christian liberty
Secondly, the principle, ‘for me to live is Christ’, governed the way Paul used his Christian liberty. That liberty was both true and important. Christ had died to make his people free, and that freedom included freedom from human taboos and traditions; or, as the Westminster Confession (20.2) puts it, ‘from the doctrines and commandments of men’. But sometimes our freedoms have to be sacrificed for the honour of Christ.
There is a clear instance of this in 1 Corinthians 10.31, where Paul lays down the principle, ‘Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.’ By ‘whether you eat or drink’ Paul doesn’t mean that however trivial any single action may be, you must do it to the glory of God (for example, you mustn’t drink a cup of cold water without saying grace). That would be a yoke of bondage. The reference is much more specific: was it lawful for the Christians at Corinth to eat food that had been offered to idols, or even to accept an invitation to a meal when you knew that such meat might be offered?
For Paul personally, it wasn’t a problem. An idol was a nonentity, and any incantation in its name made no difference to the meat. In the abstract, then, a Christian was free to eat or to drink as he chose. But it wasn’t just a matter of his own freedom. As a missionary and as a Christian, he had to be all things to all men, and this meant adjusting the exercise of his own liberty to the circumstances, avoiding any action that would prevent the gospel getting a hearing, whether from Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, Humanists or unbelievers from a Christian background. ‘Though I am free from all,’ wrote Paul, ‘I have made myself a servant of all, that I might win more of them.’ (1 Cor. 9.19, italics added). We have to subordinate the exercise of our personal liberty to the furtherance of the gospel.
On the other hand, sometimes we have to assert our liberty for the sake of the gospel. For example, Paul would not consent to demands from the Judaisers to have Titus, a Gentile, circumcised, because this would have reinforced the false doctrine that circumcision was essential to salvation; and for the same reason he rebuked Peter and Barnabas for pretending that they never ate with Gentiles. Sometimes we have to give offence even to fellow Christians in order to conserve the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2.14).
In Protestant theology there is a clearly defined concept of ‘things indifferent’: actions which the Bible neither commands nor condemns. But this doesn’t mean that in such cases we can do as we please because, in the last analysis, no action is indifferent. Even where divine law has left our consciences free, every action is either right or wrong; and which it is, depends on the circumstances. Do I join a political party, and if so which one? Do I join a choir, or a Walking Club or an Angling Association? Do I stand for public office? Do I go for promotion? It is not even enough to avoid what would give offence. Living under the rubric, ‘For me to live is Christ’, we have to ask which course of action would give the greatest opportunity to honour him, be most edifying for the church, and most helpful to those affected by our decision.
‘I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of [the] many, that they may be saved.’ (1 Cor. 10.33)
To die is gain
Thirdly, the principle, ‘For me to live is Christ’, will govern our attitude to life and death; and here Paul faces a dilemma so serious that he is hard-pressed to decide which he would prefer. The outcome of his trial is uncertain. It may issue in his being released, or it may issue in his being condemned to death, and he cannot make up his mind which appeals to him most. He does indeed say that to depart and to be with Christ would be far, far better, but even that does not settle the issue, because, despite his suffering, it’s not a case of ‘life bad, death good.’ Both living and dying have their advantages, but the key point is that when Paul does eventually state his preference, it has nothing to do with his own feelings. It is governed by the fact that, for him, living is Christ.
What, then, can be said for continuing to live? It would be profitable for others because it would mean that he could continue his ministry to them. This is not a matter of a proud cleric confident that he is still needed and still has something to offer. Yes, he knows that he could still be of some use, but what we hear above all is the voice of a pastoral, and even of a parental, heart, that not only wants his spiritual children to grow, but wants to be spared to see them grow; and alongside this lies a concern about what may happen when he is no longer there. This is why, when he urges them to work out their own salvation (Phil. 2.12), he immediately adds, ‘not only while I’m with you, but even more when I’m gone’. He expressed the same sort of concern in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders, warning them to care for the church because, he said, ‘I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock’ (Acts 20.29). It’s not that he thought himself indispensable and irreplaceable, but that the one thing that made life precious was that it have gave him the opportunity to encourage his friends, to prepare them for the evils to come, and to contribute his own moiety to the advance of Christ’s kingdom throughout the world.
What can be said for dying?
And what can be said for dying? It would be ‘far better’, and if he had no one to think of but himself it would be his choice. But there were two aspects to this.
First, what being dead meant to him. Underlying the word ‘depart’ there is a Greek word used by soldiers in the sense of ‘striking camp’ and by sailors in the sense of weighing anchor or slipping the moorings and setting out to sea. But (and it is an important ‘but’) when death comes to the Christian, they are not setting out on an uncharted sea to an unknown destination. We are going home to our Father’s house to be with Christ, and for Paul that was preferable by far to ‘life in the flesh’. Christ has already gone home, he has taken the same route, and he will be there to welcome us (Jn. 14.3). Then we’ll see him as he is (1 Jn. 3.2), no longer from a distance and through the distorting atmosphere of this world, but face to face.
Secondly, there is the act of dying itself. If he dies, it will be as a martyr, and for him that would be a gain – the – gain because it would be a pre-eminent act of witness. Rome would know why he died, and his ‘children’ would know how deep and sincere was his faith, and how mighty the grace that upheld him.
We know nothing of the details of St Paul’s death. We do, however, have some details of the last moments of the 20th century martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis at Flossenbürg concentration camp on 9th April 1944. The execution was witnessed by the Camp Doctor and ten years later he wrote:
Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this unusually lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the short steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man so submissive to the will of God.
(Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, pp. 927-8)
He was thirty-nine years of age, he loved life and he lived it to the full as both man and Christian. He never courted martyrdom, and neither should we. When it comes, it is incidental to our witness, not the aim of it; and we have every right to pray that it be not asked of us, because it might be a test greater than we could bear. But above all we have a right to pray that however we die, the end may come in a way that honours Christ, grateful in our last breath for the life he gave us, and fortified by the knowledge that we are going home.