Paul writes in Phil. 1:18-26 of his conflict between bearing fruit for God in this life and departing to be with God for eternity. He rests in God’s sovereignty with joy and hope, encouraging us as believers to live a life set apart for Christ in all circumstances.
Part 4 of a whole book study series called “Joy in Christ: A Study Through Philippians.”
18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 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. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
I included the entire verse 18 so that you could see where Paul has come from and where he is going next. As we saw last time, he rejoiced that in spite of opposition, imprisonment, and self-seeking preachers, in all ways the gospel was proclaimed. We have both a present rejoicing (I rejoice) and, at the end of the verse, a future rejoicing. I will rejoice, he says, because he is certain of deliverance.
Delivered From What?
Paul probably speaks of an immediate deliverance from his present circumstances of imprisonment. However, he then speaks of the future hope he has in Christ and the honoring of his body in life or death, so he could also be thinking of salvation. In fact the Greek word translated deliverance here has both physical and spiritual connotations, benefits for both the present and the future.
In other words — and we say this along with Paul — whether I am delivered from present problems or not, I will never be lost from Christ. Paul accepts the absolute sovereignty of God over all things and over his life specifically. He then goes on to talk about two means by which God works, prayer and the Spirit.
How Will Deliverance Be Accomplished?
Through their prayers. Prayer doesn’t manipulate God into changing you or changing a situation to be the way you want it; rather, prayer expresses your trust in and dependence upon Him in such a way that it strengthens the relationship you have with Him. It gives the Father your concerns and cares. It also glorifies God to answer certain prayer (and in turn, I believe it glorifies Him not to answer prayer at other times).
In writing to the Corinthians, Paul expressed a similar theme — the idea that deliverance from God was a blessing and showed God’s mercy, showed that God heard their prayers:
You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. [2 Cor. 1:11 ESV]
He saw prayer and the subsequent outcome, whatever that was, as a way to point to God’s power, so that many would praise God, not their own efforts.
Through the help of the Spirit. The provision (Gr. epichorégia), lavishly given, and the administration of the Holy Spirit (in a rare usage here called the Spirit of Christ) directs our attention to our special and definitive supply of help and power. It points to Christ as the ultimate source of help for all that we face in life and the ultimate source of hope in contemplating and experiencing death.
John Calvin rephrased it this way: “I know that all this will turn out to my advantage, through the administration of the Spirit, you also helping by prayer,” — so that the supply of the Spirit is the efficient cause, while prayer is a subordinate help.” [Calvin, Commentary on Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians]
An Unchangeable Hope
20 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. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Paul moves into a section of the passage that focuses on the exaltation of Christ, whether in life or death. In simple terms, he tells us, Christ is my life. Preaching the gospel of Christ is my life. Christ is exalted when I preach Him, and will be exalted whether I live or I die. He conveys the deep passion and joy in his spirit for what he is privileged enough to do and say to bring glory to God.
His joy is marked by several things:
Eager expectation and hope, not ashamed. Here is a hope Paul is confident about and awaits with longing. He encourages us by saying, I will not be ashamed in all that I believe. I will not be ashamed of Him in whom my faith rests. I will not be ashamed because I know He has hold of me now and forever. (related: 1 John 2:28, Ps. 119:116; Rom. 5:1-5)
Full courage. The words here convey a “free and fearless confidence, cheerful courage, boldness, or assurance” (Thayer’s), especially in speaking. This same courage and confidence is found in Paul’s earlier letter to the Corinthians and is connected to thoughts of ultimately being at home with the Lord:
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. [2 Cor. 5:6-8 ESV; boldface mine]
Paul Barnett rightly says that “certainty about the future enables believers to be courageous in the present in the face of conflict and pain.” (Barnett, The Message of 2 Corinthians) When you have that kind of certainty, it puts the things of this life in a much different perspective. You have more courage to speak the truth without fear.
Christ being honored in my body. We find the idea of honoring Christ in his body in Romans 12:1, too, where Paul implores believers to…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. This means more than just showing up at a building each week and singing songs. This is about how you live your life in Christ.
Being a living sacrifice and honoring Christ in your body is striving, in His power, to be conformed in thought, word, and action to Him. Holiness and pleasing God doesn’t mean checking off items on a list or following rules. It means that we intentionally place ourselves — body and spirit — at the feet of Him to whom we belong. It means that we are a reflection of Him each moment of each day until we die.
Life and Death in Christ
21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
This isn’t some handy Christian catch-phrase or a 1:1 give and take. Christ is your life and you are living for Christ. And it is no longer your old self sitting on the throne, ruling all that you do, but Christ living in you. (related: Gal. 2:20; 1 Peter 4:1-2)
With Paul, when we cry out this verse, we say, “my life is devoted to Christ, Christ is the aim, the goal, of my life.” (Thayer’s) In other words, we’re not in this life to get all the stuff we can, earn all the money possible, and gather to ourselves popularity and adulation.
7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. [Rom. 14:7-8 ESV]
In death, we gain everything that we hope for in life. Everything, that is, of actual significance. Yet in renouncing the things of the world as our source of ultimate satisfaction, we should not be then led to the opposite extreme of dour cynicism and withdrawal. Instead we can view the things of the world from the standpoint of how they can be used to honor God. We can see His hand in all the small and large things, not for the sake of over-spiritualizing, but for the attribution of rightful glory to their Creator.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
The more you cling to Christ, the more you know Him through His word, and the more you see His faithfulness in all areas of your life, the more that this world and all that it supposedly offers fades away (I have found at least). Your perspective on what is really important changes. Yes, you still want to love God and love people. But there’s a longing inside you for the “more” that is beyond this earthly existence. That is the tension Paul wrestles with when he says to be with Christ would be far better. (related: 2 Cor. 5:1-10)
Living “Set Apart”
Do we really live like this? As Jesus said, in His high priestly prayer, we are not of the world. But we cannot leave it at that. We must have the rest of the context so we understand our place and perspective, just as Paul did. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. That word sanctify in Greek is hagiazó, meaning “set apart.” We are to be set apart in and by the truth found in the word of God. Further, as Christ was sent into the world, we also are sent into the world. [John 17:16-19 ESV]
Why is this critical to understand in the midst of Paul’s letter to the Philippians? It is critical because we need to see that we are caught in a tension. We are set apart, i.e., different from the world, as believers. Yet we are sent into the world to show that difference, to show and to tell people who He is. And over it all, we have the strongest desire to be out of the world and with Christ — the greatest joy we have to look forward to!
Hopefully this helps you understand Paul’s struggle in verse 23. In essence, he is saying, I know I am supposed to be here. I know what I am supposed to be doing while I am here. I take great joy in working and producing fruit for the glory of God. Yet the appeal of continuing to exalt Christ through my preaching is in conflict with the appeal to actually be with Christ. He wrestles with it and comes up with the resolution in the next verses.
For the Sake of Their Faith
24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
Paul concedes he must and will stay for the sake of the believers, to continue to be an instrument in building up their faith and of partaking in the joy of seeing them progress in their spiritual walk with Christ. He hopes that in the end, they will all have cause to glorify Christ for his power in delivering Paul and for their reunion in fellowship.