The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in January 2022*
Sermon Audio: To Live Is Christ (Phil 1:18-26)
“Life is meaningless….I lived for thirty or forty years: learning, developing, maturing in body and mind, and…with matured mental powers reached the summit of life from which it all lay before me, I stood on that summit — like an arch-fool — seeing clearly that there is nothing in life, and that there has been and will be nothing… I could give no reasonable meaning to any single action or to my whole life. I was only surprised that I could have avoided understanding this from the very beginning — it has been so long known to all. Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (they had come already) to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort?… How can man fail to see this? And how go on living? That is what is surprising! One can only live while one is intoxicated with life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud…there is nothing either amusing or witty about it, it is simply cruel and stupid.”
So writes the Russian author, Leo Tolstoy in his short book A Confession. Tolstoy, who had rejected belief in God at a young age, had risen to become one of the greatest writers of Russia, arguably one of the greatest of all time. With works like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he had galvanized his place in the halls of the great thinkers and authors. He had wealth, status, fame, and a strong reason to believe that his works were elevating the consciousness of his countrymen, contributing to the betterment of mankind. And yet, in his early 50’s he suffered a total collapse, an existential crisis. It dawned on him that soon he would go to the grave, and then what? What would matter? His works would be remembered for a time, sure, but “sooner or later” he will be forgotten. And if there is no afterlife, no God, and all we have is this blip of time in the oceans of the billions of years this universe is going to exist after we die, then who cares what kind of life you live? But, Tolstoy begins to ponder: what if God did exist? What if there was life beyond death? As he teases this possibility out in his book he confesses that it would appear that life would suddenly become suffused with meaning.
The book is a fascinating reflection on an honest look at what life looks like when someone consistently applies the logic of atheism to life. Tolstoy’s theory is that there is a necessary connection between a meaningful life and a belief in God or an afterlife. Something that we can all agree on is a desire for our life to count, to matter. No one wants to be lying on their deathbed and realize that their life was meaningless. But what must occur in your life to be certain that your life “counts,” that it “matters”?
Travel the world, explore, and experience every adventure and spectacle there is? Must you become successful in your career, wealthy and influential? Get married, work hard, and provide your children with a quality of life you never had? Maybe you must help alleviate suffering, contribute to the betterment of mankind? Maybe move to a foreign country to become a missionary or retreat into the mountains to become a monk? How do we not waste our lives?
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. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. – Phil 1:18b-26
Life in Christ
What does the phrase “to live is Christ” mean? “Christ” is a title—we would certainly find it very odd if someone were to tell us “to live is King.” But for Paul, Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, He is the One that Paul will elsewhere exult in: “For from him and through him and to him are all things,” (Rom 11:36). Everything exists for Him, thus it is fitting for the whole of our lives to be absorbed in Him—we bear His image, He is who we are made for. When someone says something like, “basketball is life,” they are saying that basketball has taken such a serious role in their life that it has become the animating energy that propels them through life, their reason, their goal, their highest pleasure. Paul is simply saying that is what Christ has become to Him—only, Christ isn’t a hobby or game, He is the Creator of the universe, the holy God.
Perhaps the best commentary on this phrase comes from another letter Paul wrote to a church, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” (Gal 2:20). We know that for Paul, because he knows that Jesus is his God, everything in his life is aimed in service to Him. But here we see that for Paul “to live is Christ” also means that our lives are not only aiming at, but residing in Christ. To live is Christ, for Paul, means life in Christ, the way a letter is in an envelope, or a character is in a story. Paul has been, so to speak, swallowed up by Christ so much that he can say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” In other words, Paul’s entire notion of identity has been permanently altered. Which is good news for sinners like me. In Martin Luther’s commentary on the book of Galatians he explains, “When the devil accuses us and says: ‘You are a sinner; therefore you are damned.’ ‘No,’ I say, ‘for I take refuge in Christ, who has given himself for my sins.’” In other words, that isn’t who I am anymore. We are sinners, true. And yet, sinner though we are, we have been so enveloped into Christ that Paul can say that in Christ there is “no condemnation” (Rom 8:1). Satan has no basis for an accusation.
In Christ’s death, Paul sees his own death occurring; in Christ’s resurrection and new life, Paul sees himself rising and possessing a new life—the life of Jesus has become the controlling rubric for Paul to not only aim his life at as a model, but more deeply, it is a map by which he can understand his life now. And the life that Paul lives is a holistic life, a meaningful life, and a communal life.
“…that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death,” Phil 1:20. Why does Paul use the phrase ‘in my body’ here? It seems at first glance to be an odd way of speaking. If I told you, “I want Christ to be honored with my life,” that would seem sensible; but if I told you, “I want Christ to be honored in my body,” that sounds odd for some reason. Why not just say “life”?
Paul, actually, refers to the body often in his letters. Twice in the book of Romans he makes this clear:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship,” Rom 12:1
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness,” Rom 6:12-13. Note: “members” here refers literally to the members of your body. Paul believes that God cares about what we do with our body.
But Paul’s emphasis is seen most clearly in 1 Corinthians 6 where he discusses the Corinthian false teaching that what we do with our bodies, particularly when it comes to what we do with them sexually, doesn’t matter. The Corinthians thought that there was a sharp divide between our souls and our bodies, and therefore what we did with our bodies was irrelevant. But Paul strongly responds:
“The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body…Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body,” 1 Cor 6:13, 19-20
Again, Paul believes that God really cares about what we do with our bodies. This means that whatever we do with your body we are to use it in such a way that God is honored. So when Paul tells us that his aim in life is that “Christ will be honored in my body” he is demonstrating that you can’t worship God in your heart while you defy God’s commands with your body and God be pleased with that. The individual who thinks that they can do something to or with their body that does not affect their soul does not understand what Paul is teaching us.
So this means that whatever we do with our body—which is everything; my actions, my thoughts, my desires; whatever we do—we are to honor God. But what does that mean? Obviously this means that I don’t do things that dishonor God. I don’t use my body to exploit or hurt others; I don’t use my mind to entertain false and untrue ideas; I don’t gratify cravings and urges that God forbids, etc. And I proactively use my body in clear opportunities to honor God; I pray, and come to church, and give my money away, etc. But in-between those two poles, there is an awful lot of other stuff. Paul tells us elsewhere that, “Whether or eat or drink, do all things to the glory of God,” 1 Cor 10:31. How do you eat and drink to the glory of God?
We eat and drink in such a way that demonstrates that food and drink is not our god, but God is our God. We enjoy friends and sex and work and children and leisure that demonstrate that we are not looking to those things to be our gods, because God is our God.
When we see this it unlatches a thousand opportunities in our life that we hadn’t thought about being a way of “honoring God.” You can honor God by working hard at your job. You can honor God by wrestling with your kids, by enjoying a bowl of ice cream, by listening to a piece of music. The Christian life is not for superheroes, it isn’t just for those who live remarkable lives of slaying spiritual dragons. It is for all of us. So whatever we do, we aim to honor God.
Paul continues: “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me,” (Phil 1:22). What is fruitful labor? It is when you do something that matters, something that counts. We all know the frustration of fruitless labor. Spinning your wheels and going nowhere. Last Summer our family took a vacation to the beach and my four-year-old got the chance to build a sand castle. We heaped up a giant pile of sand, shaped it into a castle, dug a big moat around it and then collected seashells to decorate the sides of our walls. Suddenly, a wave out of nowhere surged past our ankles and completely swallowed up our sandcastle. All that was left was a wet mound of sand and scattered seashells. Our son was crushed—all that hard work for nothing. But, rather than giving up, he defiantly began building another sand castle—despite our warnings—just a few feet behind our first. Again, in a few minutes a wave washed over and erased all his work. That is fruitless labor.
Paul does not think the life he is living is pointless. It is not an exercise in futility. He thinks that what he is doing is actually accomplishing something, actually moving the needle, actually going to matter beyond his own life. Have you ever been tempted to think that what you’re doing in your life doesn’t matter? Maybe you are convinced that you don’t want to waste your life, that you want to honor God in your body, that you don’t want to settle for half-hearted, mediocre Christianity, so you throw yourself out into the world and…it doesn’t look like what you expected. Sure, you live a decent life, you try to do good to others, you try to share the gospel, you try to work hard at your job, you try to disciple your children—but maybe you’ve gotten to a point where deep down you wonder, Does any of this matter? Is any of this actually doing anything or am I just spitting into the wind?
I just want to encourage you that if you feel that, that is totally normal. But it isn’t true. Consider how many reasons Paul would have had for thinking that his work was really all in vain. Many of the churches he plants, after he leaves, falls into error or immorality. Many of the times he speaks and shares, he is ignored. Many of the times he tries to be obedient, he suffers and is persecuted. In Philippi itself, after Paul delivers an enslaved woman from a demon, the town responds by attacking Paul, beating him with rods, and then throwing him in jail! Paul is currently writing to the Philippians in jail once again and he hears that there is a group of people who are excited that Paul is in prison and are hoping to make matters worse for him (Phil 1:12-18). How easy would it have been for Paul to say, What am I doing here? I’m obviously not cut out for this. I gave up an opportunity for a family and a quiet life, for what?
But Paul doesn’t say that. He says that though he desires to depart to be with Christ, he knows he must remain behind because he has so much fruitful labor in front of him. Paul’s metric for understanding “fruitful labor” has less to do with the immediate results and more to do with obedience to Jesus’ commands. I just want to remind you of what Paul informed the Ephesian elders of back in Acts 20 when they warned him that if he were going to go to Jerusalem he would die: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God,” (Acts 20:24). Going to die somewhere does not seem like a terribly fruitful ministry growth plan. And yet, Paul’s confidence rests more in fulfilling the ministry that Jesus gave him—testify to the gospel.
“…we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal,” 2 Cor 4:18. Pauls eyes, ironically, are not fixated on what can be seen, but are fixed on the unseen. Paul is not a fair-weather fan who is feeling out “how things are going to go” before he commits. He knows that there is an eternal kingdom beyond this material realm and that when he dies, he will inherit that. Further, he knows that what he does now–even if it is marked by suffering and futility–he will receive a heavenly reward.
The book of Revelation tells us that in heaven the righteous deeds we committed on earth will clothe us like bright robes (Rev 19:8). Jesus promised that even a good deed as small as giving someone a cup of water would be rewarded in heaven (Mark 9:41). Your work, Christian, is going to last forever. Tolstoy was wrong! Death is not the end, it is but the bright gateway to life everlasting.
So, we do not despair. Though we fight the long defeat, though we hit wall after wall, though persecution rises and seems to wipe away our labors–we do not look to what is seen to determine whether or not our life counts. Our life matters because God has suffused our labors with, literally, eternal significance.
The only way to have a fruitless life as a Christian is to not labor.
Thus far this has been relatively theoretical. “To Live is Christ” means that all our life in Christ is aimed at honoring God; we recipients of the grace of God now want to honor our loving God. So, whatever we do with our bodies, every part of life is lived for Christ, and because our life for Christ stretches into eternity, it all matters, it all is fruitful labor. But what is the bullseye that Paul is thinking of for his own life? What is it that is pulling him back down to earth after contemplating the joys of heaven?
“But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again,” Phil 1:24-26
Life in Christ is life together.
So this week, you are set, you want this week to be aimed at Christ, to honor him, to live a life that matters and is fruitful—what do you do? Help others progress in the faith, point others to Christ. Friend, what are you doing right now to help the other members of this church make progress in their faith and joy in Christ?
Here are some things you can aim at doing this week:
Read the bible together
Come to church