“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
The Word of God before us has been and continues to be one of precious comfort to God’s people throughout the ages. For what it does is connect both life and death together in one sentence. Therefore, its scope is all-comprehensive. It addresses all our life and living, in every sphere and department; and it addresses our death as well. It speaks to us all because all we who live, young and old, unless the Lord returns in our lifetime, must die!
This verse we consider begins with the word “for.” That tells us that it is the reason for what Paul had written in verse 20. Paul says there, at the end of the verse, that he knows and is confident that Christ will be magnified in his person. The reason for that is that for Paul, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
What an astounding confession Paul makes when he says, “to die is gain”! It is an astounding confession in the first place, when you consider his difficult circumstances in life. Through no fault of his own, he was a prisoner awaiting sentencing, not knowing whether he would live or die. Paul was not trying to escape his difficult circumstances. There are some who wish that they could die, and who consider it to be a profit to die because, in their estimation, earthly life is no longer worth living. Perhaps the “quality of life” is no longer what it was. Perhaps there is what appears to be nothing but agony and suffering in one’s life. For whatever reason, a person’s perspective on life is gloomy and dark, and one might be led to say, “to die is gain.” But this was not Paul’s perspective. Nor was Paul wanting to end his life when he said “to die is gain.” For that would make no sense at all and would be in contradiction to what he had said earlier, “For me to live is Christ.” Paul was content with life and lived a purposeful life in Christ!
In the second place, and much more, Paul’s confession “to die is gain,” is astounding when we consider what it means to die. What is the fact and reality of death? Death is a dissolution! The apostle himself put it this way when he said that “our earthly house” will be “dissolved” (cf.). That refers to our earthly body. In death, this earthly body of ours dissolves! What was once flesh and bones, what was once warm, alive, and moving ceases to be! It is no more! This earthly body of ours is no more. And when our earthly body dissolves and we are no more, so also our earthly relationships dissolve and will be no more! No more will there be the husband-wife relationship. No more will there be relationships to children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. And yes, in the case of a child who has died, no more will there be relationships to grandparents or to parents who are given the task to bury the child!
The reality of death is experienced, no more keenly and painfully than by those whom the deceased leaves behind, in a threefold way. First, the experience of death by those left behind is final. No longer will the person’s smile be seen; no longer will the person’s voice be heard; no longer is he around. His seat at the dining table will be empty. His absence is permanent, lasting, final. Second, the experience of death by those left behind is loneliness. That absence of the one who is deceased is felt every moment, every hour, every day. All that is heard in the home is the sound of a ticking clock. The company, companionship, and friendship that are lost is especially felt by the spouse left behind. He or she is lonely. And therefore third, the experience of death is also one that causes great sadness to those left behind. How real and true an experience this is for all who have experienced the loss of a loved one!
And so, from all we have said about death, how can the apostle say, “to die is gain”? Everything we have said would lead us to conclude that on the contrary, death is a loss! Is that not the experience of the loved ones left behind? Is that not the language of the obituary? Is that not what is communicated by those who offer their condolences and sympathies in Christ, “Sorry for your loss”? And to be sure, death is a loss—when you look at it from the viewpoint of man in every way. For the worldly man who died, he has lost all he has worked for. He has lost his earthly possessions. He has lost his status in society. He has lost all that he has accomplished. He is all but forgotten as the sands of time bury him among the sons of men who have gone on before him. It is all a loss! And for such a one who dies in his sins, and dies apart from Christ, it really is all a loss! For such a one who knows not that sin is his true misery, that death is nothing but a carrying out and completion of the death sentence that began long ago from fallen father Adam, it is all and only a loss! And yet, there is the astounding confession in holy writ, “To die is gain.”
Why? The reason Paul gives is the first half of verse 21, “For to me to live is Christ.” That goes hand-in-hand with and is the reason for Paul saying, “To die is gain.”
What Paul means when he says, “For to me to live is Christ” is this: Christ was Paul’s all in all. Christ’s goals were his goals. Christ’s words were the very words by which Paul lived. What Christ loved, Paul loved; what Christ hated, Paul hated. Paul found all his meaning in life in Christ. Paul’s life and purpose for living was to glorify Christ. This is clear from all that Paul writes under divine inspiration in Philippians. It is evident in chapter 1, where Paul tells us he was content and joyful to see Christ’s gospel being preached, albeit not by him but by others. It is evident in chapter 2, where Paul calls the Philippian saints to let “the mind of Christ” be in them, to govern their thoughts and attitudes towards one another. It is evident from and so powerfully expressed in chapter 3 especially by verses 7-10: “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.” And it is evident from and concisely put where he tells us, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Christ was Paul’s all in all! So for Paul, to him to live is Christ!
This explains why Paul or anyone can truly say, “to die is gain”! And it is not so hard for us to see why this is and must be so. We see this plainly and easily by replacing “Christ” in the verse with something else. For to me to live is to obtain enough wealth and have a nice house or two, and to die is gain? How can that be, when one is separated from all earthly possessions at death? For to me to live is to have success and recognition in my job and career and to die is gain? How can that be, for worldly success and recognition from peers will also die with us when we die? For to me to live is to satisfy the lusts of my flesh, the lusts of my eyes, and the pride of life, and to die is gain? How can that be, when Jesus commands us to love not the world, and also tells us, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (cf.a). No, for Paul it was clearly, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Because his life on earth is defined as a co-extension of Christ, he can make the astounding confession, “To die is gain.”
It was so for Paul. Is it for us? What word or words would we fill in the blank with, “For me to live is _______”? Only when our answer is truly and sincerely Christ and Him alone can we truly say together with Paul, “Yes, for me too, to die is not loss, but gain”!
And yet, there is a deeper reason and explanation for the statement, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” It is none other than the great love of our heavenly Father in Christ our Savior at work in us! That is the deepest reason and explanation! In His great love to us from all eternity, God gave us to Jesus to redeem by His death. Because of that, our redemption was accomplished at the cross. Because of that, the grace of the Holy Spirit of Christ Himself lives and works faith in us so that we know Him and love Him. We love Him because He first loved us! We live in Him because He lives in us! We live for Christ and confess Him to be our all in all because He lives in us! And because Christ has conquered death and the grave for us by His death on the cross, death for us who believe is no longer a frightening judgment and wrath of God as it is to all the impenitent, but a door that leads into heaven! That is why the children of God say, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” You say that, do you not, dear reader?
The truth and confession of our text is a truth of abiding comfort and unspeakable joy! Certainly, it was so for Paul. Whether he lived or died, there was blessing in store for him. If God would have him continue living, he would continue living for Christ, in Christ, and by the power of Christ, doing His will, and be used to advance God’s cause and church on earth. And if God would have him sentenced to death, it would be far better for Paul because his faith would become sight when he would go to be with Christ in heaven! What joy and gain it would be either way for Paul! And so it will also be for all of us who truly share in Paul’s confession. May it be that we do so and grow in embracing it more and more!