5. Paul’s Perspective on Life and Death (Phil. 1:18b-26)
I am going to do something that I have never done before in more than 25 years of preaching. I am going to dedicate this message to a woman who knows far more than I the meaning and the comfort of Paul’s words in our text. I dedicate this message to Kathie Keathley, who from the founding of the Biblical Studies Foundation has been responsible for preparing thousands of manuscripts for the Biblical Studies Foundation website.23 Hundreds of these messages have been my sermons from the past 20 years or more. Kathie and her husband Hampton have diligently labored to provide quality materials for students of the Scriptures. At this moment, she appears to be in the final days of her sojourn on this earth, rejoicing in her Savior, and looking forward to being in His presence for all eternity.24 To Kathie and Hampton Keathley, the words of Paul in our text beautifully describe the hope and the joy that the Christian should experience in the face of death. May their comfort be yours as well, as you consider the truths of this great text.
In the providence of God, today is Easter Sunday, and no text could be any more appropriate to Easter and the resurrection than Philippians 1:18-26. If this is not a resurrection passage, I don’t know what is. Paul’s perspective on life and death is founded upon the bedrock certainty of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and from that, the certainty that all the dead will be raised—some to eternal life, and some to eternal torment.
From what we read in Romans 15:22-33, we know Paul had long hoped to visit the saints in Rome. This was a city he had not yet visited; it was a church he had not even planted. Nevertheless, Paul knew a number of the saints in Rome, and he knew about many others. He prayed for them by name, and he wrote one of his finest epistles to the church in Rome, the Epistle to the Romans. Paul hoped to visit Rome soon after he completed his ministry to the saints in Judea. He was taking a gift from the Gentile churches to the saints in Jerusalem, who were in great need at the time. Paul knew the dangers involved in returning to Jerusalem, but he hoped for a favorable reception by the saints. He also hoped that those who opposed the gospel would not be successful this time. Paul hoped to visit Rome, to encourage the saints there, and then to press on to places where the gospel had not yet been proclaimed.
Paul did make it to Rome, but in a very different way than he had expected. He arrived in the custody of Roman soldiers, and he was not free to travel about. He was confined in some form of incarceration because he was a prisoner, awaiting trial before Caesar. The Jews in Jerusalem had falsely accused him of treason against Rome. After months of waiting, Paul was virtually forced to appeal to Caesar, and after various difficulties, he arrived in Rome, under house arrest. The Philippian saints had stood behind Paul from the beginning, and they were most interested to hear from the apostle how he was faring in the midst of his incarceration.
In verses 12-18a, Paul described his response to his present circumstances. His guards and those who came into contact with him had watched Paul closely. If anyone were to look upon Paul’s arrest and trial with cynicism, it would be these prison guards. (“Sure, Paul was innocent, just like every other prisoner they had worked with.”) Even though many of them were unbelievers, they realized that Paul was no criminal. They seemed to grasp the fact that the real issue was the gospel itself, and Paul’s freedom to preach about Jesus Christ. Believers, too, were impacted by Paul’s circumstances. They were motivated to proclaim Christ much more boldly. Not all the Christians who preached Christ were prompted by pure motives, however. Some were jealous of Paul and sought to capitalize on his troubles. They used Paul’s incarceration as an opportunity to question Paul’s character, and perhaps to gain a larger following for themselves. Paul did not waste his time or energies agonizing about such innuendoes or allegations. Paul’s great desire was for the progress of the gospel, and whether rightly motivated or not, the gospel was being proclaimed and advanced. And because of this, Paul rejoiced.
But what of the future? While the gospel was making great progress, Paul was imprisoned, soon to go on trial before Caesar, and his future was cause for great concern—for some perhaps, but not for Paul. After Paul presented his case to Caesar, he could be found guilty, and if so, he would be executed. He might also be declared innocent and set free. The mere possibility of death would be enough to send some into a deep despair. In the last part of verse 18, Paul takes up the subject of his outlook on the future. Paul would not only rejoice about his present circumstances, he will now tell us why he is able to rejoice in his future, whether that be life, or death. Let us look carefully at the words of our text and see why Paul has such great joy.
An Uncertain Future, But Certain Joy
18 What is the result? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed, and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the support of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 20 My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or death.
I found Gordon Fee’s translation of verses 18-20 fascinating and very enlightening:
For I know that through your prayers and God’s supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ ‘this shall turn out [as with Job] to mean vindication for me,’ which will also be in keeping with my earnest expectation and hope, namely, that in no way will I be brought to shame, but rather that with all openness/boldness—as always so now—Christ will be magnified in my ‘body,’ whether I am released or executed.25
Paul is joyful because he is certain that his present and future circumstances will turn out for his deliverance. The question we must ask and answer is, “What does Paul mean by deliverance?” As a concordance search will indicate, this word can refer specifically to one’s salvation (Acts 4:12; 13:26, 47:16:17; Romans 1:16), but it is also used with a broader meaning of “deliverance” or “rescue” (Acts 7:25), or “preservation” (Acts 27:34). From what Paul will say in verses 20-26, we know that the meaning of the word must be broad enough to encompass anything from his release from prison (due to a verdict of “innocent”) to his release from this life, by his execution.
The key to understanding Paul’s words is (as Fee suggested above) to be found in the Book of Job. We need to understand that the phrase, “this will turn out for my deliverance,” in Philippians 1:19 is identical with Job’s words in Job 13:
12 Your maxims are proverbs of ashes; your defenses are defenses of clay. 13 Refrain from talking with me so that may speak; then let come upon me what may. 14 Why do I put myself in jeopardy, and take my life in my hands? 15 If he slays me, I will hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face! 16 Moreover, this will become my deliverance, for no godless person would come before him. 17 Listen carefully to my words; let your ears be attentive to my explanation. 18 See now, I have prepared my case; I know that I am right. 19 Who will contend with me? If so, I will be silent and die (Job 13:12-19, emphasis mine).
This is no accident! Paul intended for his readers to understand that his choice of words was deliberate. He purposely chose to employ the very words of Job, because they applied to his own situation as well. Think about it for just a moment. Job was a righteous man, whose suffering was not due to his sin, but because of his piety (see Job 1 and 2). God was demonstrating to Satan that the righteous worship Him because of who He is, and not simply because God blesses them. Job’s friends then came along and accused him of wrongdoing. In various ways, they told Job that his suffering was the result of his sin, and if he would confess his sin and forsake it, God would once again bless him with prosperity.
In the context of Job 13, Zophar has taken up accusing Job of sin (Job 11:1-20), and in chapter 13, Job responds to Zophar. I wanted to be sure that I was right in assuming Paul was claiming that his suffering, like Job’s, was innocent, and that his accusers were wrong. I consulted one of my old and favorite works, Explore the Book, by J. Sidlow Baxter. Listen to what Baxter has to say about Zophar:
Zophar is less courteous and more drastic than either Eliphaz or Bildad.… Zophar, like the other two, has his distinguishing feature. Eliphaz, as we have seen, bases his view on observation and experience. Bildad rests on tradition. But Zophar is content with mere ASSUMPTION.… He is the pure dogmatist. From beginning to end of his speeches there is not a semblance of reasoning.26
Baxter then goes on to say:
… All these three men are committed to what is substantially the same fixed theory of life, namely, that calamity is always the direct outcome of sin, and that the Divine favour or disfavour is indicated by a man’s material prosperity or adversity. . . They all want to prove that goodness and wickedness are always rewarded and punished in this present life: they are all silent concerning human destiny and Divine retribution in a life beyond this present one. Their philosophy and doctrine have no horizon beyond this earth.27
Job’s response to Zophar (and the others) might be paraphrased this way:
Your accusations that I have sinned and need to confess are empty and without grounds. Be quiet and let me speak. I am ready to face whatever comes my way. Why do I put myself at risk as I do? Because I have entrusted my life and my eternal destiny to God. If He chooses to take my life, that will be fine with me because I believe that I will stand justified before Him. I believe that my circumstances will turn out for my deliverance, whatever form that may take. Ultimately I will stand before Him without fear. And so you had better listen to me, instead of urging me to heed your words. My own defense is clear in my mind, so that no man may shake me with his accusations. If need be, I will willingly die (Job 13:12-19, my paraphrase).
Now, with Job’s situation and response in mind, let us consider how Paul meant for us to see his response to his circumstances and his accusers. In Philippians 1:12-18, Paul wrote about his present circumstances and the various responses others had to his incarceration. He said that even cynical guards had come to see that the real issue was not an offense against the state, but the offense taken by the Jews, because of the gospel Paul preached. Most of the saints were encouraged by Paul’s boldness in proclaiming the faith, and in the advance of the gospel. But some, sad to say, had used Paul’s suffering as a pretext for accusing him of wrongdoing. Are these folks not just like Job’s “friends,” who accused him of wrongdoing?
Paul chose his words very wisely when he borrowed from Job’s own words of defense. Like Job, he knew that he was not guilty of wrongdoing. Like Job, he was ready to die, if necessary. Like Job, Paul was ready and willing to stand before Him and make his defense. Like Job, he knew that somehow God was going to make his circumstances turn out for his deliverance. In the end (if not in time), he would be vindicated, and his enemies would be silenced. In the end, God’s purposes and promises would be accomplished through his innocent suffering.
I believe Paul is clear in verse 19 that his “deliverance” is not his spiritual salvation, but rather his vindication. I say this because Paul’s salvation was not dependent upon the prayers of the saints. He was saved, once for all. The prayers of the saints and the support of the Holy Spirit were those things that strengthened him in his times of adversity, and which gave him courage to stand firm for the gospel. And because of this, he would not be ashamed when he stood before God. His goal was to glorify God in his body, whether this was by life or by death (Philippians 1:20).
Death: Friend, Not Foe
21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me; yet I don’t know what I prefer: 23 I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, 24 but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body.
Paul’s statement in verse 20 leads to the words of verse 21, which is surely Paul’s life motto, and the key to his boundless joy, even in the face of death. Verse 21 is probably one of the most well known verses of all Paul’s writings. I fear, however, that like John 3:16, it may not be well understood, even though it is well known. For many years, I read Paul’s words in verse 21 something like this: “For to me to be able to live is wonderful, And to die will be better.” I have now come to see it in a different way. Allow me to explain.
I want to first of all show you a picture of what I am about to say. This can be done by thinking of God’s blessings as two circles. The first circle represents the blessings we have in Christ, now, in this present life. The second circle represents the blessings we have in Christ, which we will only receive in eternity, after this life is over:
Christians don’t differ over the fact that we have these blessings, but they do differ greatly over the relationship between these two blessings. There are some who believe that these two circles almost overlap, something like an eclipse:
Many sincere Christians believe that most of heaven’s blessings are intended for us to enjoy now, if we but have the faith to claim them. We know that in heaven there will be no sin, but some saints believe in sinless perfection now. We know that in heaven there will be no sickness, sorrow, or death, but some believe that if they have enough faith, they will be healed of their illnesses now. In short, some folks believe that because there will be no suffering in heaven, there should not be any suffering here, and now, if you are a Christian and have enough faith to claim God’s blessings. Some people call this mistaken viewpoint “triumphalism.” By this, they mean that future blessings are available to Christians now.
Paul gives us a very different picture:
In verse 23, Paul amplifies on this word “gain.” Paul says that to die is “better by far.” We do a great disservice to the Scriptures, to the Christian life, and to ourselves when we seek to move future blessings into the present. Paul could look forward to death because the blessings which lie ahead, after death, are vastly greater than the blessings of this life, great as they are.
What does Paul mean, then, by the words, “for to me to live is Christ”? As mentioned earlier, I used to think that Paul meant, “Life is just wonderful!” Well, it is wonderful in many ways. But Paul is saying that for him to live is to live out the life of Christ: “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Living out the life of Christ means living out the life that Christ lived here on this earth. It does not mean living out the glorified existence of our exalted Lord in heaven. Over and over again, this truth is reiterated in the New Testament. Let me cite a few examples.
In His Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17), Jesus made it abundantly clear that His disciples would experience what He had experienced at the hand of an unbelieving world:
18 If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you do not belong to the world, but I chose you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they obeyed my word, they will obey yours too. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. But they no longer have any excuse for their sin. 23 The one who hates me hates my Father too. 24 If I had not performed among them the miraculous deeds that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen the deeds and have hated both me and my Father. 25 Now this happened to fulfill the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without reason’ (John 15:18-25, emphasis mine).
1 “I have told you all these things so that you will not fall away. 2 They will put you out of the synagogue, yet a time is coming when the one who kills you will think he is offering service to God. 3 They will do these things because they have not known the Father or me. 4 But I have told you these things so that when their time comes you will remember that I told you about them.…33 I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have trouble and suffering, but have courage—I have conquered the world” (John 16:1-4, 33, emphasis mine).
How much clearer could our Lord be than He is here, speaking to His disciples? He tells them to expect to be treated as He was. He tells them to expect suffering in this life, because they have identified with Him. He was telling them, “To live (as one of My disciples) is Christ (to experience what I did).”
Peter was a fellow who did not want to hear about suffering. He rebuked our Lord when Jesus began to speak about His suffering:
21 From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what does it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but forfeits his life? Or what can a person give in exchange for his life? 27 For the Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16:21-27, emphasis mine).
Peter wanted nothing to do with our Lord’s talk about His own suffering. Jesus rebuked Peter, and then told him that anyone who would follow Him must also take up their cross. His disciples must not seek to spare their lives, but must be willing to lay down their lives. And notice especially verse 27, where Jesus makes it clear that the rewards (the blessings) come then (in heaven), not now.
It is this Peter who will later write these words about suffering in this life for Christ’s sake:
12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests on you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or thief or criminal or as a troublemaker. 16 But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear such a name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin, starting with the house of God. And if it starts with us, what will be the fate of those who are disobedient to the gospel of God? 18 And if the righteous are barely saved, what will become of the ungodly and sinners? 19 So then let those who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator as they do good (1 Peter 4:12-19, emphasis mine).
Paul reiterates this theme of Christian suffering for Christ’s sake over and over in his writings:
18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance (Romans 8:18-25).
7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are experiencing trouble on every side, but are not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are knocked down, but not destroyed, 10 always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our body. 11 For we who are alive are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal body (2 Corinthians 4:7-11).
From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body (Galatians 6:17).
10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11).
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you and I fill up—for the sake of his body, the church—what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24).
And so we can see that when Paul says, “to live is Christ,” he means that he has the privilege of walking in the earthly footsteps of his Lord. He, like Christ, is committed to preaching the good news of the gospel. He, like Christ, groans due to the fallenness of man and of creation, yearning for the coming of God’s kingdom. He, like Christ, gives up his life sacrificially in service to others. And he, like his Lord, suffers persecution and rejection for exposing sin and the righteousness of God. Paul is joyful, in the midst of his troubles, because in the course of his suffering for Christ, he enters into a deeper level of intimacy with Him (Philippians 3:10-11). For the Christian, joy is not the absence of suffering and adversity, but the nearness of God in our adversity.
One can see, then, how it is also true that “to die is gain.” To die is to leave behind the suffering and groaning of this life, and the rejection and persecution of unbelievers, and to immediately enter the presence of God, where sorrow, sadness, sickness, and tears do not exist:
12 As a result, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. 13 But since we have the same spirit of faith as that shown in what has been written, “I believed; therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak. 14 We do so because we know that the one who raised up Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 For all these things are for your sake, so that the grace that is including more and more people may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God. 16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:12-18).
1 For we know that if our earthly house, the tent we live in, is dismantled, we have a building from God, a house not built by human hands, that is eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this earthly house we groan, because we desire to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed, after we have put on our heavenly house, we will not be found naked. 4 For indeed we groan while we are in this tent, since we are weighed down, because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now the one who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave us the Spirit as a down payment. 6 Therefore we are always full of courage, and we know that as long as we are alive here on earth we are absent from the Lord— 7 for we live by faith, not by sight. 8 Thus we are full of courage and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So then whether we are alive or away, we make it our ambition to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be paid back according to what he has done while in the body, whether good or evil (2 Corinthians 5:1-10).
God was so gracious He even gave him a “sneak preview” of what lay ahead:
1 It is necessary to go on boasting. Though it is not profitable, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know that this man (whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows) 4 was caught up into paradise and heard things too sacred to be put into words, things that a person is not permitted to speak (2 Corinthians 12:1-4).
No wonder Paul did not fear death, and even welcomed it, when it was God’s time.
You may be familiar with the expression, “Heads, I win; tails, you lose.” This is just another way of saying, “Either way, I can’t lose.” This was never more true than for the Apostle Paul. No matter what the verdict, no matter what the outcome of his trial, Paul could not lose; he could only gain. If Caesar pronounced his innocence, Paul could continue to live out the life of Christ. If Caesar found Paul guilty and sentenced him to die, then Paul gained even more. He would go to be with his Lord, forever leaving behind his earthly body and all the trials and tribulations of this life. The alternative was not between “bad” and “good,” but between “great” and “far better.”
25 And since I am sure of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for the sake of your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that because of me you may swell with pride in Christ Jesus, when I come back to you.
Paul did have a dilemma. It was the same dilemma I would face if you asked me whether I would prefer a BMW or a Lexus. His dilemma was that he had trouble deciding between one good and another. Paul knew, of course, that “to die” was better than “to live,” so far as the benefits for him were concerned. But Paul was like his Lord in that he was a humble servant, who put the interests of others above his own (see Philippians 2:1-30). He sensed that, while death was better for him, if he were to live on, he would be able to continue to minister to the Philippians and others. The choice, then, came down to what was best for him, versus what was best for the Philippians. And being the servant that he was, Paul’s preference was to live on, and thus to continue to serve his Lord and those he loved.
I don’t think Paul was absolutely certain that he would be found innocent, but I do believe this is what he sensed would be the outcome. He did not presume upon God in this matter, but he did prepare for the possibility of his release. Paul’s ambition was not for his own advancement, but for the advancement of the gospel and the spiritual growth of the saints.
In verse 26, Paul speaks of the Philippians “swelling with pride” at his return. Some of the saints had drawn back from Paul, due to his arrest and incarceration. Some may have been ashamed to associate with Paul the prisoner. Not the Philippians! These folks were apparently the first to give and the last to ignore Paul’s needs. They had identified with Paul when it was not the popular (or even safe) thing to do. If Paul were pronounced innocent by Caesar, Paul would return to them in victory. He would have been vindicated of wrongdoing, and he would have proclaimed the gospel boldly to Caesar. The Philippians would certainly be able to hold their heads high in Christ upon Paul’s return to them.
First, let me conclude this message by pointing out an application to this text to which Paul would say, “God forbid.” Every truth is capable of being distorted in its application, and the truth of Philippians 1:21 is no exception. To die is to gain, when death is the result of our faith and godliness. The same cannot be said for death at our own hand—suicide. Years ago, a young man called me, informing me that he was holding a 45-caliber automatic in his hand, and he was trying to decide whether to live or to die. Fortunately, he decided to live. But not long afterward, another young man did take his life. And here is the tragic part of the story. This fellow was kneeling beside his bed, with his Bible turned to Revelation 21. He was a Christian, and his life was in turmoil. He knew that for the Christian, to die was to gain. And so he pulled the trigger as he read the promises of God’s Word about the blessedness of heaven.
The problem is that this fellow did not truly understand what Paul was saying in Philippians 1:18-26. Paul would have been horrified to think that someone would use his words as an excuse for committing suicide. Our text is a strong argument against suicide. If you are suffering for Christ’s sake, then you should also be rejoicing in your adversity. If you are suffering because of your own folly, then you should repent, confess, and seek God’s enablement to turn from your sin to righteousness.
Suicide is sin because it doubts—indeed, it denies—the goodness of God and the blessedness of suffering. Suffering comes from the hand of a loving and sovereign God to strengthen us in our faith (James 1:2-4). We are to call upon God in the time of our need, and He will provide wisdom and all that we need to deal with our troubles (1 Corinthians 10:13; Philippians 4:6-7; James 1:5-8). Our focus is not to be on ourselves, but on others. We should be willing to suffer so that we may be able to minister to others. Suicide doubts and denies the goodness and sovereignty of God, and selfishly seeks to relieve our pain at the expense of others. Paul’s words in our text are no pretext for sin, no excuse for suicide.
Second, on this Easter Sunday, let me remind you that Paul’s words are based on the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and His promise that He will raise every believer from the dead to enter into our eternal blessings. To die is to gain, because those who are in Christ will be raised from the dead.
13 Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians. 15 For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord always. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Third, the resurrection of our Lord is not something we should celebrate annually; it is something we must experience daily. We are commanded to “take up our cross daily and follow Christ” (Luke 9:23). We must die daily (1 Corinthians 15:31). We must come to see that, in our flesh, we can do nothing. So far as practicing righteousness, our flesh is dead:
21 So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. 23 But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Romans 7:21-25).
The good news is that the same Spirit who raised the dead body of our Lord to life (the resurrection we celebrate at Easter) is the One who raises our dead bodies (so far as doing good works is concerned) to life:
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit. 6 For the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace, 7 because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is your life because of righteousness. 11 Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through his Spirit who lives in you (Romans 8:1-11, emphasis mine).
Fourth, the truth of this text should transform our perspective about living. It may sound strange, but I’m convinced it is true: It is only when we are free to die that we are free to live. Imagine how one would feel about standing before Caesar if he were afraid to die. One would be completely preoccupied with saying the right thing—the right thing being words that would not offend the emperor. You would not be as concerned with speaking the truth as you would be with speaking that which was acceptable. Not so with Paul, and not so with Christians who are not afraid to die. Paul’s great concern was that he would not be put to shame (Philippians 1:20). Being put to shame would be the result of failing to proclaim the gospel clearly and with conviction. Because death was better than life for Paul, he could speak truth with conviction, having no fear of the outcome.
Christians who embrace the truth of our text can live dangerously. I do not mean to say that we should live foolishly. But we are free to go places, to speak words, and to practice righteousness where it is dangerous to do so. I am reminded of the words of David in Psalm 56:
8 You keep track of my misery. Put my tears in your leather container! Are they not recorded in your scroll? 9 My enemies will turn back when I cry out to you for help; I know that God is on my side. 10 In God—I boast in his promise—in the LORD—I boast in his promise—11 in God I trust, I am not afraid. What can mere men do to me? 12 I am obligated to fulfill the vows I made to you, O God; I will give you the thank-offerings you deserve, 13 when you deliver my life from death. You keep my feet from stumbling, so that I might serve God as I enjoy life (Psalm 56:8-13, emphasis mine).
Fearing God, trusting in His saving grace and resurrection power, we are free to live dangerously.
Finally, the truth of this text is the key to our freedom from the fear of death. Reading a sermon on this text by Steve Zeisler of Peninsula Bible Church,28 I was reminded of a text I have often used, but had forgotten in connection with this text:
10 For it was fitting for him, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For indeed he who makes holy and those being made holy all have the same origin, and so he is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you.” 13 Again he says, “I will be confident in him,” and again, “Here I am, with the children God has given me.” 14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), 15 and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:10-15).
I remember all too well how much I feared death as a young boy, before my conversion. In order to get to my grandparents’ house, we had to pass by a very large cemetery. I used to play all kinds of mental games to avoid looking at that cemetery, and seeing those graves. I was afraid to die, and I did everything I could to avoid death, and even the idea of death.
One of the ways that a Christian is distinguished from the unbeliever is by his attitude toward death. For Paul, death was a promotion. For the unbeliever, death is a terrifying thought. May I ask you, my friend, “How do you deal with death?” Do you seek to avoid it, or to deny it? Then I would suggest that you may need to experience the same conversion that Paul did, as he describes it in Philippians 3. In his case, Paul was a very religious man, zealous about his religious deeds. But he was also very lost. Those whose sins have been forgiven and who are assured of eternal life need have no fear of death. Those who are trusting in their own good works, and who have not come to faith in Christ, have everything to fear:
3 We ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith flourishes more and more and the love of each one of you all for one another is ever greater. 4 As a result we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and afflictions you are enduring. 5 This is evidence of God’s righteous judgment, to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which in fact you are suffering. 6 For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. 8 With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed—and you did in fact believe our testimony. 11 And in this regard we pray for you always, that our God will make you worthy of his calling and fulfill by his power your every desire for goodness and work of faith, 12 that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:3-12).
24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with hands—the representation of the true sanctuary—but into heaven itself, and he appears now in God’s presence for us. 25 And he did not enter to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the sanctuary year after year with blood that is not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the consummation of the ages to put away sin by his sacrifice. 27 And just as people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment, 28 so also, after Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many, to those who eagerly await him he will appear a second time, not to bear sin but to bring salvation (Hebrews 9:24-28).
11 Then I saw a large white throne and the one who was seated on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. Then books were opened, and another book was opened—the book of life. So the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each one was judged according to his deeds. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death—the lake of fire. 15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15).
I urge you, my friend, if you are terrified of death, to find the freedom that only Jesus Christ can give. You must acknowledge your sin and your guilt before God, and trust in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. Accept His sacrifice for your sins and His provision of righteousness. It is only through faith in Jesus Christ that you can be delivered from the fear and the power of death.
My Christian friend, ours is a text which should give you great freedom as well, the freedom to face death without fear. This past year I lost a good friend to cancer. I can tell you that some of the sweetest times of fellowship were those that others and I experienced at our friend Bill Humphries’ bedside. His faith enabled him to face death, and to minister to others in the process. Now, another friend, Kathie Keathley, is waging a battle against cancer, and all appearances are that she will soon see our Lord face to face. What a wonderful text this is for her. And what a wonderful commentary her last days have been on this text. She can testify far more forcefully than I the comfort Paul’s words can be. To Kathie, as to every Christian, “To live is Christ; to die is gain.” To God be the glory.
24 This sermon was preached on April 23, 2000, but I am finalizing this message in print in mid-September of 2000. Kathie’s health is deteriorating, but her letters are filled with hope and joy and comfort, as she awaits her upward call.
28 Steve Zeisler, “Rags, Riches, and Relationships.” http://www.pbc.org/dp/zeisler/3734.html.