Back in the 1960s and 70s, if I wanted to listen to music, I turned on the radio or played records (you know, those round black things with grooves in them — and yes, that’s the origin of the word groovy). I had a whole stack of 45 RPM singles that I bought for 25 cents each from the local discount store once they fell off the charts. Eventually, I started creating my own mixtapes on cassette (remember those?): tinny sounding compilations recorded off my radio’s speaker, often with annoying snippets of the DJ’s accompanying chatter. No matter. It was my music, my way.
The 1970s was also the heyday of K-Tel Records, the company that hawked its own “Various Artists” albums on TV. “K-Tel Records presents!” a voice would announce, and images of rock bands would appear one after another as the titles of their songs scrolled up the screen. Some of the collections seemed dreamed up by a middle-school think tank (“Hey, I know — how about one called Goofy Greats?”); others were albums of a band’s “Greatest Hits.” Not all the songs were chart-toppers, but there were generally enough good ones to convince people to part with a few bucks.
That’s why I sometimes think of the book of Philippians as “Paul’s Greatest Hits.” Some of the best loved and most memorized passages from Paul are in this letter. For example, there’s Philippians 1:6, which we’ve already seen: “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (NIV). Every chapter holds familiar gems of Pauline wisdom and devotion.
Today’s passage is no exception. In Philippians 1:21, Paul writes the justly famous words, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Here’s the whole passage:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If 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! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, 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 boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. (Phil 1:21-26)
In the previous passage, Paul suggested that he expected to be exonerated, and history suggests that he was right. But his main concern was never his own fate but the progress of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. That’s why in verse 20, he prays for the courage he needs for Christ to be exalted in his life and witness, “whether by life or by death.”
Verse 21, therefore, explains how he can say this: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
For us, life and death are opposites, and life versus death is the starkest of choices. Paul, however, sees things differently. His perspective on life is thoroughly eschatological, oriented toward the future that awaits beyond this life, a future of heaven and resurrection (e.g., 3:10-14). For Paul, to live is to follow, imitate, and embody Christ.
And to die? To die is to gain, or more specifically, to gain Christ. From an eternal perspective, death is not the opposite of life but the closing of one chapter and the opening of the next. Paul’s relationship to Jesus began on the Damascus road and has grown and developed throughout the years of his missionary work. Death doesn’t end that relationship; it only ushers in a new phase of it, one in which Paul envisions actually being with Christ in some way that he doesn’t explain further.
His “choice,” therefore, isn’t really between life and death (as if he actually had a choice in the matter). It’s between the Philippians and Jesus: with whom does he want to spend the next chapter of his existence? As much as he loves the Philippians, he loves Jesus more. As much as he knows they still need his guidance, he’d rather be with Jesus. And though he doesn’t quite say it here, the implication is that if the situation were reversed, and they were the ones in chains, he would want them to prefer to be with Jesus, too: Nothing personal, people. I hope you get it.
Paul, in other words, can only say “to die is gain” because “to live is Christ.”
If we want to face our own mortality well and faithfully, we may have to ask ourselves what our lives are truly about. Could we say that for us, “to live is Christ”? If we were to be perfectly honest, would we have to insert something else in that sentence, in place of Christ?
Because if we can’t see our lives as Paul saw his, we won’t see our death as he did either.