In Philippians 1:21 Paul is facing serious difficulties, and he is wondering whether he should wish to die, or to continue to live. Paul says, “For to me, to live “is” Christ, and to die is gain.” Most of the time we tend to lend our focus to the latter portion of this verse, “to die is gain,” and go on to contemplate the joys of heaven. However, we should, be careful not to overlook the former “to live is Christ” if we do, we will surely miss the wonderful journey. The simply phrase “to live is Christ” has proved to be an elusive phrase throughout history, not many have mastered it or even began to live it. This is one of the most important phrases in the word of God for a Christian; in fact, it is to be fully embraced as central to every Christian’s life.
Paul has a desire to “depart” or die (verse 23). As the Broadman Bible Commentary explains, “to depart translates a Greek term which was used for the loosing of a ship from its moorings and also for breaking camp or ‘striking tent.’ The term came to be a metaphor for death (2 Tim. 4:6).” Paul knows that in case of his death, he would be “with Christ” (verse 23) in the next second of his consciousness, as a resurrected immortal spirit being in the Family of God at the time of his resurrection from the dead (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17; 1 Corinthians 15:35, 42, 49-53). This would have been his “gain” (Philippians 1:21) — it would have been “far better” for him (verse 23), as his fate of being changed into a spirit being would have been sealed and unalterable. This is of course by no means saying that Paul was thinking of committing suicide. He understood that it is a sin to take one’s own life, as this would constitute murder. He knew that he belonged to God, and that only God had the right to determine when he would have to die (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 7:23). At the same time, he realizes that it is “more needful for” the church members that he “remain in the flesh,” that is, to keep on living (verse 24).
Still, though, exactly how are we to understand the phrase in verse 21, “to live “is” Christ”?
Although most translations render the phrase exactly in that way, as quoted, a few translations render it slightly differently. We should remember that the English word “is,” in verse 21, was added twice in the English translation for clarification to give the sentence the intended meaning.
The Lamsa translation and the German Luther Bible, as well as the German Menge Bible, state: “For Christ is my life, and to die is gain.” This rendering is interesting in light of Colossians 3:4, which states: “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”
However, what does it mean, “Christ is our life”? The Swiss Zuercher Bible renders Philippians 1:21: “As for me, life “is a service for” Christ, and death is gain.” Having added “is a service for” in an attempt to provide additional clarity without altering the intended meaning of the text. The commentary of Jamieson, Fausset and Brown agrees with such a rendering: “… whatever life, time and strength, I have, is Christ’s; Christ is the sole object for which I live.”
Every Christian today should be able to say meaningfully “to me to live is Christ.” Nevertheless, what does this expression mean?
WE ARE WILLING TO GIVE UP ANYTHING THAT PREVENTS US FROM HAVING CHRIST. Paul’s testimony in this regard: “Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:7-9). We cling to the promise of our Lord in Mark 10:29-30 that our sacrifices for Jesus’ sake will be repaid a hundredfold.
A RELENTLESS DESIRE TO KNOW CHRIST. Paul said “I count all things to be loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ,” and he sought to “gain Christ” through this knowledge (Phil. 3:8). To “know” Christ here means more than a passing acquaintance of him. It means to know him intimately. One knows Christ intimately only by doing his will. “And hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (I Jno. 2:3).
WE PURSUE THE KNOWLEDGE OF CHRIST. We want to know Christ better and better each day. Not just a set of facts about Christ, but Christ Himself. “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).
WE IMITATE THE EXAMPLE OF CHRIST. Everything that Jesus did and said, that’s what Paul wanted to do and say. The church benefitted from his godly example: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). What would Jesus do? That’s what we want to do.
TO DERIVE ONE’S STRENGTH FROM CHRIST. There are many problems and situations to bear that the Christian feels inadequate to bear alone. But he does not bear them alone. Paul said, ‘3 can do all things in him that strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13).
TO HAVE THE MIND OF CHRIST. Paul told the Philippians to “Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5-11). The mind of Christ was one of humble submission to the will of God. Jesus prayed “not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk. 22:42). Submitting his will to that of God, he became “obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross.” The Hebrew writer stated that Jesus “learned obedience by the things which he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). Our perfection, like that of Christ, comes by learning complete obedience to God’s will.
TO TRUST HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS. The Christian has learned -that he cannot be saved of his own righteousness, for the righteousness of man are as filthy rags in God’s sight (Isa. 64:6). He realizes that if he ever stands before God righteous (justified) it will be through Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:9). He is aware that those who seek to establish their own righteousness in the sight of God do not subject themselves to the righteousness which is of God (Rom. 10: 3). God’s righteousness is revealed through the gospel (Rom. 1: 17).
TO REJOICE IN CHRIST. The Philippians were told “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord” (3: 1), and to “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, rejoice” (4:4). One of the fruits of the Spirit is “joy” (Gal. 5:22). Thus the Christian should have an abundance of well-founded joy. It is interesting to read in several of the cases of conversion that after one had obeyed Christ, “he went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39; 2:46; 16:34). The only place that one can have well-founded joy is “in Christ.” Those outside of Christ have no hope and are without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). Such a condition is not a joyful one.
Paul adds that Christians “should no longer live unto themselves, but unto him who for their sakes died and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:15). Moreover, Paul practiced what he preached. He said of himself, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ liveth in me: and that fife which I now live in the flesh I live in faith, the faith which is in the Son of God who loved me, and gave himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). Truly such a person can say, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” The simplicity of the phrase is found in its meaning it means that Christ is our focus, our goal, and our chief desire. Christ is the center point of our mind, heart, body and soul. Everything that we do, we do for Christ’s glory. As we run the “race marked out for us,” we lay aside the entangling sin and worldly distractions, “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
The complexity of the phrase comes in the action portion, which is completely on us.
We are called to constantly remember our life….He is our life.