To Live is Christ (Philippians 1:20-30)

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.

27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

Ever heard the cliche that “some people are so heavenly minded that they’re of no earthly good and some people are so earthly minded that they’re of no heavenly good”? It’s kind of cheesy and cliche and narrow, but as with most of these cliches, it does carry some significant truth under its “kitschiness”.

When we read Philippians we realize that Paul has an underlying tension in his theology. We generally assume the word tension is a bad thing. But sometimes it just means being drawn to two separate but, both good things, and sometimes it just means we’re having a hard time sorting out something really complex, it means we’re asking questions. Tension is bad when it leads crippling anxiety and panic, but when it pushes us to seek and hunger for truth, it’s actually a good thing. Paul is admittedly stuck in a weird place between passionately engaging the world he is in for the sake of the Gospel, and wanting to escape the struggles and experience the fullness of union with Christ. He knows there’s a promise that after death comes life through sharing in the resurrection of Christ. Jesus was raised from death to life and lives forever, and he is the “firstfruits” of the resurrection to use Paul’s terminology (1 Cor. 15:20) and by sharing in him, we will eventually fully share in his resurrection and eternal life. But that comes through death, so death brings life eternal. Death, through Christ will be undone and done away with. But what happens in the mean time? Do we crave to be released from struggle and limitations? Or do we long to stay here as part of what God is up to?

Paul admits being torn between these two things. He is “heavy pressed” is another way to translate it. He is convinced that unless he sees the return of Christ, he will physically die at some point, and through dying and entering into eternal life by the resurrection will find the fullness of Christ. He will be fully present with Christ there. So, dying would be to his advantage, as the existence beyond death is better. So “to die is gain”. If he is not released from his imprisonment, and instead is executed by the powers that be, he will not only be present with Christ, but will also have share in the same sort of end as Jesus. So, there would be a distinct advantage if he were to die.

But he also says, living life now will bear fruit for the Gospel. He wants to see Christ’s Church blessed, and wants to be an encouragement to the Church, and share the Gospel and glorify Christ through the life he lives. So we too are left with a tension. Christ has led us into this ministry of the Gospel, to live it out, to be disciples who makes disciples. There is work to do in obedience to God’s calling. So Paul decides to live in that tension. He says his desire is that whether through living or experiencing physical death he wants nothing but to glorify God with his body. Using his physical life for “fruitful labour”, or using physical death to become united fully to Christ, either way he has confidence. He knows God is at work in him and through him and his Philippian friends to complete the good work he began (1:6), but also, he knows that Christ has demonstrated the power and victory of God by the resurrection. The pursuit of Paul and hopefully of each of us, is to make our lives a glorifying testimony about Jesus, in which we draw closer to the prize of full Christ-likeness.

Christianity is not about getting to heaven when we die. It’s about having the life of Christ in and through us. It’s about that future reality of the fullness of Christ breaking into the present. It’s about finding Christ in the now, living in and through him by making him the object of our lives. It’s about reframing all things to Jesus. And we’re told later in Philippians that the reward is not life in heaven, but the reward at the end of all this is sharing in Christ. Our prize at the end is Jesus and his resurrection. When Paul says to die is gain, that same word gain occurs later in 3:8, he considers everything rubbish “in order that I may gain Christ”. Dying means gaining Christ. Christ is both giver and gift (F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983. p.153). So, now, we are in Christ, and then we’re in Christ, so the difference isn’t quite what we might think it is- context not content. Then we will be in Christ, but without the presence of sin and death. It is not something entirely different, but life redeemed and liberated.

So Christianity doesn’t mean we stop living. No, we still have jobs and families and chores. It’s not abandoning life now to focus on heaven and we’re just killing time until then (that’s gnosticism). To live is Christ. We walk in the life of Christ. Life now is a theater for the wonderful, beautiful, redemptive life of God to be revealed. Paul is saying here that “every aspect of his present, bodily, earthly existence is completely permeated by Christ” (Hansen, Philippians, 82).

But we sometimes have a poor theology when it comes to these things. Turn your eyes upon Jesus we sing… and the things of earth will grow strangely dim… Not really no. Turn your eyes on Jesus, and the things of earth will be seen from a different perspective, more clearly even. We are not given escapism in the New Testament. Paul says “It is my eager expectation and hope that.. Christ will be exalted now as always in my body” (1:20). The things of earth matter, they are relevant, and we are to be engaged with our world with eyes wide open. The eternal Kingdom of God has begun already. The eschatalogical reality of the future has become present now. We experience the scandalous saving grace of Christ poured out to us now. We are given the foretaste of of our future bounty now. Christ said that with his coming to us “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Mk. 1:15). The promise of the Kingdom is fulfilled in Jesus, and it’s right there now.

So we have this tension of encountering the foretaste of eternity now, but not the whole thing. Here we have the “at hand” of the Kingdom breaking in. There is the fullness of the promise still on the horizon. This is a tension we all have to wrestle with. The fact of the matter is, we are in a place where we look forward to what lies ahead, but we’re here, in Christ, now, and to live is Christ.

Paul is not suggesting he is suicidal, or is hoping for his life to be over so he can go be with Jesus. Instead, he is trying to make sense of this tension. He knows what lies ahead of him, and desires for that reality, but to get there requires him to walk faithfully in the now. His love for Jesus creates this desire to share in the fullness of Jesus, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly,but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13). But the love for Jesus means a desire to be obedient, to live for him, to honour him, to glorify him always. So, he lives in this “in between” place. Wanting to be united to Christ fully and completely, but also wanting to be a fruitful labourer for Christ. So, Paul says his life and his death is to be oriented around the Gospel.

So Paul says live. To live is Christ. Well actually the verb isn’t really there. Literally it says “To live- Christ; to die- gain”. To continue on toward what is ahead in spite of the struggles between now and then is to be like Christ. Next week we’re going to look at the beautiful Christ hymn of Philippians 2; one of the most beautiful portions of Paul’s letters. It declares that Christ was in very nature God, but chose to be like us. He chose struggle. And his obedience is rewarded with the highest exaltation. Jesus knew what was ahead of him, what he was, and where he belonged, and  he lived. We too then should live, live abundantly.

“Only live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel”. Only, only. Only is “lifted like a warning finger” (Barth, quoted in Fee, Philippians [IVPNTC], 77). So this is a big thing here. It’s like “if you forget everything else, get this one thing”. The NIV says “Whatever happens”. So whether I live or die, whatever happens, here’s what I want you to do. No matter what, here’s a non-negotiable.

Paul here uses some unique terminology, πολιτεύεσθε (live a life in manner) means “be a citizen” or “live as a citizen”. Paul only uses this verb in Philippians. The nouns citizenship (3:20) and Citizen (Eph. 2:19) are used elsewhere. But this verb, be a citizen, is used just this once in Paul’s letters. He uses it with regard to the Philippians for good reason. When Ocatvian Augustus defeated his enemies to take control of the Empire, the decisive battle happened in Macedonia, on the plains near Philippi. In celebration of this victory, Roman citizenship was given to all eligible individuals. Philippi became a Roman colony, meaning it was given all the same benefits enjoyed by the cities of Italy. Philippi touted this status, building temples and monuments to celebrate Augustus and his family. Philippi boasted in their citizenship. And Paul writes to the Christians there and says be citizens worthy of the Gospel. Roman citizens were expected to live like Romans, and Paul says Gospel people ought to live like Gospel people, Jesus people ought to live like Jesus. When Paul was in Philippi, he and Silas were arrested, and the accusation against them was “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” (Acts 16:20b-21). In other words, they are being unRoman, and trying to persuade others to be unRoman. The Philippian people knew what being a Roman was supposed to look like.

So what does a life “worthy of the Gospel” look like? Well, that’s what chapter 2 is about, so you’ll have to wait until then to find out in detail. But I’ve addressed this before and will take slightly different angle next week. But to give you a basic intro, a spoiler if you will, a life worthy of the Gospel is a life committed to serving the interests of others, of putting love above selfishness, and making love the greatest good. It’s a life of living in mutual submission with the koinonia of Christ. It means being part of the people of the Gospel, a people who assist each other, who love, show grace and compassion and patience and forgiveness. People who love the way Jesus loved, and served the way Jesus served. It’s a life filled with hope and joy given from God. It’s a life free from shame and disgrace because we are loved and graced by God through Christ. That is a life worthy of the Gospel. It is being part of a community which is “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.” (1:27)

That sounds pretty good to me.

And then Paul gives the Philippians a promise. The call to live out the Gospel is a tough challenge, for the Philippians then and for us now. It’s good, but it’s tough. But there’s a promise which comes with it. As we live in faithfulness our ultimate direction is made certain. Our ultimate salvation is made clear to us. We dwell now with salvation as a certainty, because we have been marked by Christ through the Spirit (cf. Eph. 1:13-14). Our lives reflect the evidence of our salvation. Our lives don’t save us. Let’s be clear. Salvation depends only on the grace of God revealed in Christ. It is by grace we are saved. The grace of God is scandalous because it proclaims that the tax collector who prays Lord have mercy on me a sinner is justified by God. But as we live in that grace which saves us, something happens. Something very scandalous happens. Grace does something in us and to us, not just for us. Remember- God began a good work in you and he will see it through to completion (1:6). So as God continues that good work in us which is grace transforming us and building our character, as that happens, we may face difficulties, but the perseverance we show, demonstrates to us and to everyone else that God is at work in us, it is the evidence of the salvation being worked out in us, and He will certainly, certainly see that through to completion. The life we live in and by the Spirit, which is given by grace, proves to us that God is doing what he said he would do. We’re called to live as citizens of Jesusland if you will. Citizens of heaven means we live in accordance with the one who reigns in heaven. We live as Jesus people in a land which is still not finished becoming Jesusland. But Jesusland is coming. So we live the Jesusland life now.

Do not be frightened. Do not be intimidated. “Perfect love drives out fear” says the Elder (1 John 4:18). We are being perfected by the love of God. We’re not there yet. We’re still chasing that prize. But we’ll get there. He will drag us there kicking and screaming if he has to. He emptied himself of his own authority to come to us, and experience humiliation and death. And God says to us all as I raised Jesus from death to life, as Jesus went down and back, so I will raise you up too. We dwelt in death and Jesus says death no longer has power over us. Life is in us.

Jesus offers life in abundance (John 10:10). The abundant life promised begins now, and we live now in Christ. To be like Christ is to live.

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