The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in January 2022*
Sermon Audio: To Die Is Gain (Phil 1:18-23)
“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.” So explains Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost. Wilde, a profligate man who lived a notorious life of wealth, fame, and debauchery faced death at the early age of 46. His last words while laid up in a hotel in France were, “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.” His sense of humor and courage displayed to the very end have long been a model of facing death with a brave face. But hear another perspective on death:
“Picture the universe as an infinite globe with [a] very thin crust on the outside. But…its thickness is a thickness of time. It’s about seventy years thick in the best places. We are born on the surface of it and all our lives we are sinking through it. When we’ve got all the way through then we are what’s called Dead: we’ve got into the dark part inside, the real globe…That’s why it’s so important to live as long as you can. All the good things are now–a thin little rind of what we call life, put on for show, and then–the real universe for ever and ever. To thicken the rind by one centimeter–to live one week, one day, one half-hour longer–that’s the only thing that matters.”
This comes from the villain, Weston, in C.S. Lewis’ wonderful work of science-fiction, Perelandra. Which of these two is a more accurate perspective on death? There is something in this perspective here, the clawing, grasping desperation to extend one’s life even by a matter of minutes, that sounds crude—cowardly, even—to our ears. We admire courage in the face of death, a settled resolve to face death with peace and equanimity, but we dislike craven fear that would sacrifice others to save oneself.
We like Oscar Wildes, we don’t like Westons. Why? Perhaps we are unsettled by the wild-eyed individual grasping for a few more minutes of life because they remind us of the power of our own fears—fears we have tried our best to ignore. No one wants to think about death. We don’t talk about death. We use every possible opportunity to push our mortality from our mind—medicine, makeup, plastic surgery, etc. We like the image of a man peacefully welcoming death because it subtly telegraphs to us maybe it isn’t so bad after all, maybe I have nothing to be afraid of. But do we? Does Weston have a better apprehension of the facts than Wilde?
Wilde represents a naïve romanticism about death and Weston represents a bleak terror. In the book of Philippians we see the apostle Paul provide an alternative. Like Weston, Paul wants to continue to live, but unlike Weston views death as an increase in life; gain. And like Wilde, Paul faces death with courage and joy, but unlike Wilde Paul’s confidence does not rest on a vague hope, but on a specific confidence in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored 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 live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. – Phil 1:18b-23
Here is the aim of my sermon today: I want to examine Paul’s perspective on death. The main focus of this wider section of Philippians is on how Paul lives his life—for me to live is Christ. But it is not until we understand what Paul believed about death that we will grasp how he lived his life. In other words, until you know how to die, you will not know how to live.
The call that Jesus places on my life and on your life from the outset, the metaphor he wants us to frame the whole of the Christian life, is a metaphor of death. Jesus taught, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it,” (Mark 8:34-35).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And this is, in a sense, metaphorical—Jesus does not expect that the instance someone becomes His disciple they are to be literally executed. Of course, many Christians across church history and to this day literally give up their lives and die because they choose to follow Jesus. But for many of us, our decision to follow Christ does not immediately lead to our death. When Jesus taught that we must “bear our cross” he meant that we relinquish the illusion of control over our lives by submitting to Christ and experience the “death” that comes with that. And that may mean that following Jesus leads to putting my physical safety and comfort at risk out of obedience to Christ. But, in another sense, this spiritual dying is merely a dress rehearsal for what will one day come. One day death will come for us all. And we have a choice today—we can choose to die now in our Savior, or we can die then in our sins. And if we die now in Jesus then we can live a life like Paul where we will see “death” as gain. So let’s look at how Paul viewed death here in Philippians. Paul believes that death is an opportunity and death leads to reward.
Death As An Opportunity
Paul is confident that through the prayers of the Philippian church and the help of the Holy Spirit (“Spirit of Jesus Christ” here, but just means the Holy Spirit cf. Acts 16:7; Rom 8:9; Gal 4:6; 1 Pet 1:11) he will be delivered. Now, this could be from his imprisonment he is currently in (as vs. 25 might indicate) or it could be more broadly interpreted to mean that Paul is being delivered from sin or judgment (since the word for “deliverance” is the Greek word soteria, most commonly translated as “salvation”). Either way, Paul is confident that it is through the prayers of the Philippians in concert with the Holy Spirit that he will be delivered. So, in verses 3-11, Paul explained how he was praying for them, and now he is insisting that he likewise needs them to pray for him.
Vs. 20 tells us what Paul is confident in most: “…it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death,” (Phil 1:20). Paul states his confidence first negatively and then positively. Negatively, he is certain that he “will not be at all ashamed”—what does that mean? Consider what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied,” (1 Cor 15:17-19). If Jesus has not been raised from the dead, then we are still in our sins. The gospel states that when Jesus goes to the cross, He takes us and our sins with Him. And when He is killed us and our sins are killed as well. And when He is buried we, with our sins, are buried with Him. But when He resurrects from the dead? We resurrect with Him, but our sins remain behind us in the grave! But if there is no resurrection? Then we are still in our sins, our faith is pointless, and we of all people are to be pitied. We will have lived our life for a lie and will be ashamed.
But Paul is confident that he will not be ashamed! Why? Because Jesus really rose from the dead. Paul met Him. Saw Him with his eyes. The Christian faith is built on a historical reality, not subjective hopes and wishes. Friend, if you are not a Christian here today and are considering whether or not Christianity is worth it, I’d encourage you to take some time to study the historical basis of the resurrection. Don’t take my word for it, read a book like The Bedrock of Christianity by Justin Bass and attempt to refute it, attempt to come up with an alternative explanation of the history.
Because Paul is certain that Jesus rose from the dead, he is very confident that he will not be ashamed, but not only that, he is also confident that “with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death,” Phil 1:20. Next week we will examine how Paul lives his life more directly, but here we see that Paul’s entire understanding of how he uses his body, whether in life or death, is aimed at one goal: honoring Christ.
Friend, do you know that you can honor Christ in your death? Of course this immediately makes us think of courageous martyrs who, when given the choice of recanting their faith in Christ or perishing, choose death. This will eventually be Paul’s story. He will, in time, be put to death by Rome—as were all but one of the other apostles. As are the myriads of Christians today in closed countries.
But there is another way you can honor Christ in your death, and that is by dying in Him. The book of Revelation reminds us: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord,” (Rev 14:13). In our Scripture reading, Jesus warned His listeners that, “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins,” (John 8:24). So, we have a choice today: we can die in our sins, or we can die in our Savior.
What does it mean to die in your sins? It means that you will go into the grave accountable and liable for our sins. Our sins are not only the things we have done in our life that we admit are wrong—which are themselves considerable—but are the things which God says is wrong. And friend, your conscience awareness of that is but a fraction of the whole. A small chink of light shines inward upon the dark waters of your soul; you have seen but a glimmer of the vast ocean of sin churning within. If we refuse Christ and His offer, then we will be handed over to be consumed with the whole of our sin, not just the part. We will be shut out into the eternal night, cast out from the presence of the God who is the source of light, shut out from the One who is the source of all joy, peace, and rest. We will stand before the holy God and answer why we spurned His Son.
This is why Oscar Wilde’s portrait of death as beautiful is a lie. Death is terrifying. To face death outside of Christ is not gentle, or peaceful, or restful—it is the deprivation of all those things. The hollowing out of life everything that is good, leaving behind only a crust of existence.
What does it mean to die in your Savior? It means that we put all our chips onto Jesus. It means that we trust Him and His work to pay the debt we owe, to be a colossal sponge by which the ocean of our sin is absorbed and taken away. It is trusting that in Jesus’ death our judgment day has already taken place, so that death is no longer the dark portal to judgment, but the bright gateway to life.
No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is power of Christ in me
Friend, are you ready to die? You can honor Jesus by dying in Him.
Death As Gain
Paul goes on, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” (Phil 1:21). For Paul, death isn’t merely an opportunity to give honor to Jesus—it is gain. Of course, from our vantage point, death is loss. Death is the extinguishing of earthly joys. But for Paul it is an increase in joy. Later he states, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better,” (Phil 1:22-23).
Here Paul picks up the truth of the psalmist: “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life,” (Ps 63:3). Life is full of a ridiculous amount of good things. The laughter of children, the joys of relationships, the satisfaction in completing a hard task, the pleasure of a good meal. We have a cornucopia of goodness in life—but to Paul, everything here is just a happy meal compared with the banquet awaiting him through death.
What makes death gain to Paul?
Of course, the Bible teaches that when a Christian days he is taken to a place sometimes referred to as Heaven in the Bible, but in the Bible this is actually a temporary holding place till the arrival of the New Creation. Of that place we are told:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
So death is the gateway through which all Christians must walk to inherit the glories of the New Creation. And that is gain. Heaven will not be an eternity spent floating on a cloud, but will be lived on a renewed earth, purged of sin. Our bodies will be glorified, our minds will be purified, we will be able to enjoy everything without being tempted to turn it into an idol. We will get to enjoy the blessings of relationships without worrying about what they think of us or being tempted to manipulate anyone.
Have you ever sat inside a car when the windshield is frost over and watched someone scrape the ice off? You can see fuzzy shapes and light through the frosted windshield, but you can’t see clearly. But as you see the ice scraped, line by line, your sight greatly sharpens. Friends, we now see truth, beauty, and goodness in the world around us like we are looking through a frosted glass. But one day, it will be scraped clean and what wonders shall await us! If the fuzzy images of joy and happiness and rest we experience now are so entrancing, what will it be like when we see? We are left only to tremble in joyful expectation.
But notice that Paul doesn’t say, “My desire is to depart and be in heaven, for that is far better.” Rather, he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” What makes heaven heaven?
It is better to be in any place with Christ than to be in heaven without him. All delicacies without Christ are but as a funeral banquet. Where the master of the feast is away, there is nothing but solemnness. What is all without Christ? I say the joys of heaven are not the joys of heaven without Christ; he is the very heaven of heaven.- Richard Sibbes
Notice what Revelation told us: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” Rev 21:4. Jesus will personally address your deepest wounds—He will embrace you. And we will feel all of twisted effects of sin, all our bitterness, all our malice, all our self-hatred, all our shame pour out of our hearts. We will be made new.
When you believe that, it will change how you view life. Death is gain.
God will have it so, for the comfort of Christians, that every day, they live, they may think, my best is behind, my best is to come, that every day they rise, they may think, I am nearer heaven one day than I was before, I am nearer death, and therefore nearer to Christ. . . . A Christian is a happy man in his life, but happier in his death, because he then goes to Christ; but happiest of all in heaven, for then he is with Christ. – Sibbes