Please read Philippians 1:18-26 in your own Bible. I’ve used the NIV to prepare these remarks.
Death is the consummation of life: God is in both.
We so typically think of death as an enemy (and biblically, it is) that it sounds strange to talk about “death benefits.” When I went looking for a definition of death benefits, I was surprised to find out there is actually a website called “Investopedia.” It seems Wikipedia has really started something and has imitators. Anyway, Investopedia defines “death benefits” as “the amount on a life insurance policy, annuity or pension that is payable to the beneficiary when the insured or annuitant passes away. A death benefit may be a percentage of the annuitant’s pension. For example, a beneficiary might be entitled to 65% of the annuitant’s monthly pension at the time the annuitant passes away. Alternatively, a death benefit may be a large lump-sum payment from a life insurance policy. The size and structure of the payment in either a pension or a life insurance policy is determined by the type of contract held by the annuitant at the time of death. It is also known as ‘survivor benefit’.”
<Retrieved from http://www.investopedia.com/terms/d/deathbenefit.asp on 10/06/17.>
So, once you can think of death as benefitting someone, perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to think of death as benefitting YOU. In this section of Philippians, Paul wrote about death as being a benefit to him, even something he desired. Why might he think that?
When you read 2 Corinthians 11:16-33, you get a summary account of all the things the Apostle Paul suffered as he was persecuted for his faith in Christ. He’d been through a lot and this might be a partial answer to the question of why Paul was entertaining these thoughts. You could understand if he welcomed death as a release from suffering, which it certainly is.
However, when you read this passage you see something more profound than relief being sought. Paul viewed death as a means of realizing complete fellowship with Jesus Christ. Paul was eager for heaven, but not as a place of escape. He was eager for heaven as a relationship with his Savior in all its fullness. We who share Paul’s faith must also share his hope. Let us be encouraged to learn that death is an enemy, but not one to be feared. Jesus defeated death. For people of faith, death is the consummation of life; a better life lies beyond this one. Also, God is with us in both death and life.
- Historical context: Paul was in a life & death situation.
Philippians is one of the last letters written by the Apostle Paul. It is part of a group of letters written while he was imprisoned in Rome awaiting trial by the emperor, AD 61-62.
The events that lead to his imprisonment have been preserved by Luke in the book of Acts.
Paul had been arrested under false charges in Jerusalem, the victim of a plot against him by the Jewish religious leaders (see Acts 21-22).
He endured trials under two Roman officials and a king (see Acts 23-26) until it came to Paul’s attention that the Jewish leaders had plotted to kill him. To save his life, Paul appealed directly to Caesar, which was his right as a Roman citizen.
The last two chapters of Acts (27+28) record Paul’s journey to Rome.
Conditions in Rome were not good at all for Christians. The ancient Roman historian Tacitus recorded some of the horrific persecution of Christians perpetrated at that time:
“Besides being put to death, the Christians were made to serve as objects of amusement. They were clothed in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs. Others were crucified. Others were set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display and was putting on a show and a circus where he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer and drove about in his chariot. All this gave rise to a feeling of pity, for it was felt that they—the Christians—were being destroyed not for the public good but to gratify the cruelty of an individual.
Nero was the very man to whom Paul had appealed. History tells us that Nero condemned Paul to death by beheading.
All that to say this – when Paul wrote to the Philippians about life and death it was because both of them were very real possibilities at that moment. This was not an academic discussion, but the wrestling of his soul.
- Jesus Christ is our reason to live.
In our world, people want to live for various reasons.
Death is an unknown; they fear it.
We dread separation from loved ones and/or have anxiety about how our loss with affect them.
The things of this world hold our attention and we hate to lose them.
Our ambition to achieve can be so great that we fear death will thwart or undo all our achievements. (This is the “legacy” talk we hear too often.)
Some fear God’s wrath on their sins.
Truth be told, we more often fear dying than we fear death. Dying is one of those transitional times we typically hate. We don’t like the thought that dying may involve pain and/or loss of our customary quality of life.
In faith, we have only one reason to live: to be of service to Christ His people: TO LIVE IS CHRIST. Paul recognized this fact among his deliberations. He foresaw FRUITFUL LABOR (v. 22) if he were to be released. Isn’t this the part missing in too many of our churches? He also promised, I WILL CONTINUE WITH ALL OF YOU FOR YOUR PROGRESS AND JOY IN THE FAITH (v. 25) if this imprisonment ended with his release. We long to experience progress and joy in church life but are so easily thwarted by sin and self-centered folk.
However, life – especially the Christian life – it is not just sorrowful obligation. As depressing as it may seem, Paul brackets this passage with expressions of joy. In the beginning (v. 18), he wrote I WILL CONTINUE TO REJOICE. What brought joy to Paul was the fact that the Good News was still going out; Jesus Christ was being preached. Would that make you rejoice? Toward the end of the passage (v. 25) he wrote, YOUR JOY IN THE FAITH. Of all people on earth, followers of Jesus have the best reasons to be joyful. What a shame when we aren’t!
Discussing death does not have to be doleful and dreary. Death gives meaning to life and it affirms the things that have been important to us in life. Paul saw life as ministry and ministry as joy. If anyone are not characterized by joy, something is wrong at the base of their spiritual life.
- Jesus Christ is our hope for life after death.
Paul’s “death benefit” as expressed in Philippians 1:21 is the most important: we will be with Christ. Jesus Christ is the focus of our hope and being with Christ is the summary of all our hopes for afterlife. In v. 19 Paul attributed his hope to the PRAYERS and PROVISION offered by that church. Because the Philippian church prayed, Paul had hope.
Paul predicted the result would be his DELIVERANCE. Is he talking about DELIVERANCE from Nero or going to heaven? Why not both? The text itself does not allow us to make a definitive choice of either, so hanging our hat on both actually makes good sense.
For example, the Greek word for DELIVERANCE has a variety of meanings, but most typically meant to be saved from dying. It is used in a phrase that is a quote from JOB 13:16. Perhaps Paul thought he would, like Job, be delivered from his trials and his faith vindicated.
The point is this: because of his faith, Paul believed he was in a “win-win” situation: if he was released from jail, he would win as he would continue to preach the Gospel. If he was executed, then that was a win, because he was released from the troubles of this life.
Its clear to me that this passage, Paul struggled for a clear sense of which he wants to happen, or which he thinks will happen. Note the way he described his thought processes. YET WHAT SHALL I CHOOSE? I DO NOT KNOW! (22) I AM TORN BETWEEN THE TWO. (23)
He is certain of one thing: in his life or death he wanted Jesus to be EXALTED. In either case, his fondest desire is to have SUFFICIENT COURAGE to remain faithful. His imprisonment was one of many trials Paul had to endure; each one was a temptation to call it quits. I guess you could say Paul saw benefit for himself and for the Gospel in his life or his death, so whichever one happened was incidental.
He resolved the struggle in vs. 25-26 where he expressed a confidence in his survival and even his release, resulting in continued ministry to them. Historically, we know that’s not what happened. He was a martyr for his faith. He never saw the Philippian believers again in this life.
Was Paul wrong? Did he display a false confidence to comfort the Philippians? I doubt it. Paul’s confidence lay in the truth, so even well-intentioned falsehood was out of the question.
This holds meaning for us as we have faith and pray: we want God to do specific things for us and we faithfully pray about them. But sometimes God has a different plan and those prayers are answered with a “no.” It’s tempting to abandon one’s faith in that moment and conclude God is not real or He doesn’t love us after all.
Paul had no such reaction. It’s clear in this passage he was prepared for whatever time would reveal as God’s will. Paul had his priorities in order.
“Death Benefits” are also promised elsewhere in the New Testament. (My thanks to John Piper, who identified four additional reasons that inform us of the biblical scope of Paul’s assertion TO DIE IS GAIN. In the following Bible quotes, the emphasis in italics is Piper’s.) (See http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/it-is-great-gain-to-die.)
Our spirits will be made perfect. Hebrews 12:22–23 = But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and the church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the just which have been made perfect.
We will be relieved of the pain of this world. Revelation 21:4 = He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, f/t old order of things has passed away.
We will receive profound rest for our souls. Revelation 6:9–11 = I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer.
We will experience a deep at-homeness. 2 Corinthians 5:8 = We are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.
I read a wonderfully illustrative story recently. “A bank in Binghamton, New York, had some flowers sent to a competitor who had recently moved into a new building. There was a mix-up at the flower shop, and the card sent with the arrangement read, ‘With our deepest sympathy.’
“The florist, who was greatly embarrassed, apologized. But he was even more embarrassed when he realized that the card intended for the bank was attached to a floral arrangement sent to a funeral home in honor of a deceased person. That card read, ‘Congratulations on your new location!’
“A sentiment like that is appropriate for Christians, because they move to a wonderful new location when they die. They go to be with Christ, and the sorrows and heartaches of this earthly existence are gone forever. Near the end of his life, Paul said that to be with Christ is ‘far better’ than to remain on earth (Philippians 1:23).”
<Retrieved from http://www.preceptaustin.org/philippians_illustrations_1 on 10-06-17.>
The point of Paul’s message is not to minimize the impact death has. It is devastating to be suddenly and completely cut off from our loved ones. The loss is real and we need to be gracious about it, assisting people in their individual expressions of grief.
However – contrary to those who refuse to have faith – we know that death does NOT have the last word. The word of God reveals to us the great and grand hope that death is a doorway that opens but once and leads us into the eternal presence of God. Beyond that doorway awaits Jesus and all our loved ones who trusted Him with their lives.
God gave Paul these words to comfort him and his church. He gives them to us as a living hope and a firm foundation for our faith.
Death is the consummation of life: God is in both.