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We continue here our study in Paul's Epistle to the Philippians.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. 20I 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. 21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Paul ended the previous section of Philippians with: "And because of this I rejoice." (vs. 18); he begins this one with: "Yes, and I will continue to rejoice..." His repetition is for emphasis: Paul was actually, sincerely rejoicing while he sat in Roman captivity. He goes on to enumerate three reasons for his joy: the prayer support of the Philippians, the "help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ", and the hope he had for deliverance.
First, Paul rejoices because of the prayer support from the Philippians. He says, "For I know that through your prayers..." Paul's wording shows us that he fully expected the Philippians to pray for him. Also, his wording would have had the effect of encouraging those who were praying for him and convicting those who were not, so as to spur them on to also pray for him. Paul valued, and put much stock in, the prayers of his brothers. Paul often spoke of how he prayed for his brothers (see Rom. 1:9,10; Eph. 1:16; Phil. 1:9; I Thess. 1:2; 3:10; II Thess. 1:11), and strongly encouraged others to pray for him (see Rom. 15:30; 6:18-19; I Thess. 5:25; II Thess. 3:1). Prayer for your brothers, especially those from whom you are separated, establishes a sort of cosmic fellowship, a comradery from afar, a helping hand where hands cannot reach. "It is hardly possible to over-estimate the value of prayer, when some kindred soul really unites itself with us, in our temptations, sorrows, and efforts in the service of Christ."[Footnote #2] Indeed, it is clear here in Philippians that Paul viewed his brother's prayers as effective. He attributes them (as well as the Spirit of Christ) for his eventual deliverance.
Second, Paul rejoices because of the "help given by the Spirit of Christ." Where would Paul be without the Spirit of Christ? He would be just another groaning prisoner in Rome. The Spirit of Christ was everything to Paul. It was not through his own strength that Paul was able to rejoice, it was through the Spirit of Christ. It was not through his own ability that Paul would be delivered--he was not in his own power to lead a daring rebellion to escape the chains of Rome--rather, it was through the Spirit of Christ that he would be delivered. Paul knew this; Paul banked on this; Paul could continue to rejoice in his chains because of this.
Third, Paul rejoices because of the hope that he had for his deliverance. Paul's God is the God of salvation, and so he knew that deliverance would come. This shows Paul's faith. Even in his situation, he had hope. With such faith, who could keep Paul down? Paul would say with Job: "Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him" (Job 13:15); Paul would say with David: "The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?" (Ps. 118:6).
Most in Paul's situation would be concerned about their own welfare. However, Paul's immediate concern was not for his own well-being, but that his behavior during his trial would exalt Christ. He says: "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" (vs. 20). Make no mistake: Paul's joyful attitude during affliction did not come easy. Paul had weaknesses, and so here he is expressing his desire that he would "have sufficient courage" in order that, even through his situation, Christ would be exalted. In fact, Paul himself felt "ashamed" when Christ was not exalted. That Christ would be exalted was Paul's overriding concern. This is not the way of the world. The world seeks to minimize Christ. The world tries to say that Christ was just a good man, nothing else. The world, instead, exalts many others, much else besides Christ.
Paul desired that Christ be exalted "in [his] body". Our bodies were purchased for this purpose: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body" (I Cor. 6:19-20). There are many ways to exalt Christ in our bodies: through bodily worship, voices raised in song, hands lifted in praise; through service, shoulders bearing one another's burdens, lending helping hands to those in need; through obedience, bodies consecrated to holiness, pure lips and clean hearts.
Paul here, though, is specifically speaking of exalting Christ in his body through his suffering. He is hoping for "sufficient courage" during this time of suffering, which could very well lead to his death. Christ can be exalted even through our suffering, as the world sees how we bear suffering. "Nothing magnifies Christ like a Christian deathbed."[Footnote #3] Paul shined in this, using his suffering body to exalt Christ. The letter to the Philippians is an example of this: a letter full of joy, written in the midst of an adverse situation. We can attribute much of the growth of Christianity to the exalting of Christ in the bodies of the early martyrs through their deaths: through Stephen crying out in his death, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (speaking of his persecutors in Acts 7:60); through James, son of Zebedee, who's very accuser, it is said, repented and was martyred with him;[Footnote #4] through Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna during the fourth period of Roman persecution, who (when arrested) prayed with such fervency that his guards repented and when asked at the stake to reproach Christ, answered, "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, who hath saved me?";[Footnote #5] and so on through the ages.
Paul was certain to fulfill his hope of exalting Christ in his body, because of his attitude toward life and death, which is summed up in verse 21: "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." Paul's life was Christ: united with Him, devoted to Him, obeying Him, worshiping Him, waiting on His plan, serving Him. Christ was the essence of his life, the model of his life, the aim of his life, the reward of his life.[Footnote #6]
Despite the suffering and depravity of the world, Christ makes life worth living. "Life is not worth the trouble of living for any other object."[Footnote #7] Life for life's sake is nothing, for Christ's sake everything. Through Christ, our life can have meaning, joy and fulfillment. Unfortunately, most (even Christians) live for themselves, paying minimal heed to the call of God, seeking to find life for themselves. But, as Christ Himself told us: "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it" (Matt. 10:39). Despite this, very few will lose their lives for Christ; very few are able to say, as Paul can, "To live is Christ." We all must examine ourselves in this light. Can you say of your life, "To live is Christ"? Is Christ your life? Are you even living your life differently than if Christ had not lived and died for you? What do you live for? Is your quest for worldly riches ever satisfied? Is your thirst for worldly power ever quenched?
When life is Christ, to die is gain. One leads to the other. Right living makes for right dying. Christ gives life meaning, thus fulfillment; Christ gives death hope, thus joy. We must all consider this in light of the fact that we will not live forever on this earth. Life and death are very close neighbors; we must plan for the eventuality of death. Death is something that many people try to ignore as they are wrapped up in living. The irony is that, if they would stop living for themselves and live for Christ, they would no longer have to worry about death, for through Christ and Christ alone, "to die is gain."
22If 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! 23I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.
Paul's attitude, "to live is Christ, to die is gain", presents him with a dilemma: "If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me...I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far." Oh, that we would have the same attitude toward life and death: to desire to live to serve Christ to the fullest, to desire to die to be with Christ forever. Fortunately for Paul in his dilemma, he did not have to make the decision of whether he was to live or die. His fate, he knew, was in God's hands.
We see in these verses what Paul meant by "deliverance" back in verse 19. By hoping for his "deliverance", Paul was expecting either to be released in order to have more freedom to serve Christ, or to be released through death into the presence of Christ. We should not mourn too greatly the death of Christians. Through death, they enter the presence of God into an existence free from the cares and suffering of this world. We should mourn our remaining more than their departing! For the worldly, death is destruction; for the Christian, it is to be set free.
On the other hand, to live is a good thing. Life is our only chance to serve Christ on earth, to a dying world; thus Paul's dilemma concerning life and death. Paul preferred to be with Christ, but he also desired to serve Him on earth as long as he is able. He writes: "If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me" and "I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me." Since Paul foresaw that there was still valuable work for him to do on earth in service of Christ, he was convinced that he would remain to complete it. This supports what Paul said earlier: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion" (Phil. 1:6).
From a worldly point of view, Paul's attitude toward life and death is unusual. To desire death is unnatural, and is found in two differing situations. Desire for death is found either in the misery of life (as Shakespeare's Hamlet had), or in the hope of heaven (as Paul had). There are some in the world who also view the choice between life and death as a dilemma, but they see despair in both. They have the same dilemma as Paul, but for different reasons. They hate life and fear death. Paul on the contrary does not despair of either. He is eager for life and eager for death; fervent for service in life, having a fervent hope for what death will bring.
27Whatever 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 one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel 28without 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. 29For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
Here, Paul switches from focussing on his own situation to that of the Philippians. Paul exhorts: "Whatever happens" (that is, whether Paul lives or dies) "conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ." In other words, Paul does not want his departing to have an effect upon their holiness, or the godliness of their church. Paul is pleading that they would present a consistent witness to the world, regardless of where he is. Many times, when the leader of a successful church departs, there is a fear that the church will fall apart. If the church is truly successful in the eyes of God, this should not be a concern because a truly successful church is under the leadership of Christ, in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
To "conduct [oneself] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" entails that one's behavior, speech, attitudes, expressions, values and activities be Christlike. The "gospel of Christ"--the "good news" that Christ died for our sins and reconciled us to God--is extremely valuable, and so, our lives should reflect that we understand and appreciate what Christ has done for us.
Paul gives guidelines as to how a church would know that they are "conducting [themselves] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ." If they were, they would "stand firm in one spirit", "contend as one man for the faith of the gospel", and "[not be] frightened in any way by those who oppose [them]." These three characteristics describe the unity of a battling army, waging war for a cause that all the soldiers believe in. Many differences and petty quarrels are ignored, overlooked, and quickly forgiven when fighting under the same flag against a common enemy. Unity is crucial to the church, which is in the midst of a spiritual war. Dissension does great harm to church fellowships: ripping them apart, ruining their testimony. Unity is a crucial element to testify to the world that Christ is the Son of God. Christ Himself prayed to the Father: "[May] all [believers] be one, Father, just as You are in me and I am in You. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that You have sent me." (John 17:21). Paul emphasizes unity to the Philippians because, it seems, there were quarrels within their church (see Phil. 4:2).
To "stand firm" means to hold one's ground in the battle, without allowing the enemy to push back. This takes effort. For some reason, in our spiritual battles, it is difficult to keep from going backwards, losing ground; it is difficult to make consistent progress. "It is good to begin, but it is better to keep on steadily to the end."[Footnote #8] To "contend as one man" means to take up your brother's battles as if they were yours. Pray fervently for their spritual struggles, mourn over their setbacks, stand with them in the battle, lending any aid that you can. This is all to be done "without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you." To be frightened is to demonstrate a lack of faith in the cause of the battle, the strength of the army, and the wisdom of the general. Fear betrays a lack of faith. On the other hand, faith casts out fear. We in Christ, in the strength of Christ, and under His guidance, have nothing to fear from our enemies. If Paul was not frightened in his battles, why should we be? Indeed, what can our enemies do? Take our lives, at most, but "to die is gain."
Our courage in the midst of opposition is a great testimony to the world that our faith is true. As Paul goes on to say: "This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved--and that by God" (vs. 28). Our courage is proof of their condemnation, proof that they are allied against the True and Living God. It is also proof that "[we] will be saved--and that by God". Our courage is a sign to the enemies of God that our salvation is truly from God, and not a cleverly devised fable.
We need the faith to be fearless because, as Paul says, "it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him." We, the children of God in this wicked world, will suffer. This is not a secret. God has made this very clear in His Word. Christ Himself said: "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you" (John 15:20); and Paul reminds us: "In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (II Tim. 3:12). Paul here points out that our suffering (as well as our faith) is something that has been "granted" to us by God. So, suffering here is depicted, not as an unfortunate by-product of our faith, but as a manifestation of God's grace, a privilege. This being the case, we should rejoice in our sufferings. Paul tells us elsewhere: "[W]e also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:3-4). And Peter says: "[R]ejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed" (I Pet. 4:13). Peter practiced what he preached when, after being flogged by the Sanhedrin, he and other apostles "left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name [of Christ]" (Acts 5:41). This is a difficult thing to do: rejoice through suffering; but, through faith, we can. Given that our suffering is ordained by God, who does only what is best for us, we can find a way, through faith, to rejoice in the midst of it.
So, Father, give us the strength and the faith to rejoice, even through suffering. Give us the awareness in our affliction that You are in control and that You, in fact, have granted to us the suffering on behalf of Christ. Also, help us, by Your Spirit, to stand boldly, without being frightened, against those who oppose our service for You, not fearing ridicule or bodily harm. Finally, give us the right attitude toward life and death, that we would see life as the opportunity to serve You, and death as the blessing of being at Your side and in the presence of Your Son, in whose name we pray these things, Amen.
(We will continue our study of Philippians in the next issue.)
2. Meyer, Devotional Commentary on Philippians, pg. 48.
3. Vaughan, Philippians, pg. 49.
4. Fox's Book of Martyrs, Ch. 1.
5. Ibid., ch. 2.
6. Meyer, loc. cit., pg. 56.
7. Monod, cited in Moule, Philippians, pg. 72.
8. Meyer, loc. cit., pg. 66.
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