Can It Be Better to Die Than Live? – Philippians 1:22-26
By: Northern Seminary
All of us face dilemmas from time to time. Dilemmas are decisions, but they’re not decisions where one thing is obviously right and another obviously wrong. It’s a dilemma when either option might be right. Both may have good or bad consequences.
An early major dilemma for me was whether to stay in my first career which was journalism, or leave to train for pastoral ministry. In the years that followed there were dilemmas about getting married or not, moving home or staying put, stopping after we had one child, then after two children, then after three children, then after four children. (We did stop after four children!) Life has brought me many dilemmas, each one complicated because a ‘yes’ answer had pluses and minuses but so did a ‘no’ answer have pluses and minuses. There was never only one obviously correct answer, and that’s what makes dilemmas difficult.
But nothing that challenged me compares to the dilemma faced by Paul. The Christians in Philippi loved him and supported him, so with remarkable candor he shared a huge dilemma with them.
22 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! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 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, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.
Paul’s dilemma is whether to continue in this world or leave for the next. Superficially, that seems strange. Is Paul in control of that choice? He’s a prisoner of the Romans, so surely they’ll decide whether he lives or dies? And, of course, they will. But their judgment will be influenced by the actions he takes, and especially the words he speaks. But what should Paul aim for? What does he want? What does he believe is best? Like all dilemmas, there isn’t just one answer.
Paul very openly explores all the angles with this church. We’ll explore that through five questions, and then draw one conclusion.
Question 1 – What will it mean for Paul if he keeps living?
He’s not sure whether he’ll live or die. If he dies he goes to heaven and he’s with his Savior, and he’s already said that’s the best (Phil. 1:21). If that happens, he has no decisions to make.
But, if he lives, what will he do? What will his purpose be? He answers that in verse 22: “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.”
Paul was a prisoner. That was hard. All prisoners experienced multiple and traumatic deprivations. And this moment wasn’t the beginning of a tough life for Paul. For years he’d suffered difficulties and hardships. So, if he was set free, he might just want to hide away and live at peace. He could retire, and hope that some people would be so grateful for his past work they’d support him as he lived out his quiet senior years.
Paul wasn’t interested in that. He wanted “fruitful labor” and that meant more evangelizing, more church planting, and more teaching new disciples about the faith. There would be no retirement from the work of God.
I’ve known people who retired in their early fifties. “I was excited,” they told me. “I planned to play golf every day.” That didn’t sound too bad!
“How did it work out?” I asked. “Terrible,” I was told. “Within two years I was applying for jobs. I needed to do something again that had purpose.”
We’re wired to want significance and therefore to do things which matter. For Paul, nothing was more significant than bringing people the gospel and then teaching them how to live for Jesus. If Paul keeps on living, he wants “fruitful labor.”
Question 2 – Is Paul clear about what should happen next?
He hasn’t yet been tried, so Paul can’t know the decision his judges will reach. But is he sure about what he wants? Paul is innocent of any crime, and if that was me I think I’d be very sure what I wanted. I’d want to be set free! But Paul isn’t at all sure. “Yet what shall I choose?” he asks. “I do not know!” (v. 22).
Should he live? Or should he die? He’s not clear about which is right for him.
It’s worth noting that here’s an apostle; here is someone whose life is given over to God; here is someone filled with the Spirit and a powerful servant of the Lord; and here is someone unsure about what should happen next in his life.
Every time I’ve struggled to know what God wants me to do, there’s been the nagging thought: ‘If only I was more spiritual… If only I spent more time waiting on God… If only I could unclutter my mind and hear God’s voice better, then I’d know what to do.’
Paul had everything we think we lack. He was truly spiritual, an apostle who’d met with Christ. He was in prison, so he had plenty time to wait on God. For him “to live is Christ” (v. 21) so he wasn’t cluttered in his thinking. But he still did not know what he should choose. He had an idea, and he will describe that to the Philippians in a moment, but he didn’t know what was best.
We imagine we should always know what God wants, and we feel bad when we don’t. Why? Well, surely intelligent and prayerful people like us should know, shouldn’t we? And surely not knowing is a sign that we’re not spiritual enough. If only we prayed more. If only we were better at listening to God. Not knowing God’s will must be caused by culpable ignorance or spiritual negligence.
But not necessarily. There is another reason for not knowing and it’s very obvious.
Often we don’t know because God hasn’t told us. We imagine God must have put a note under a rock, and that note tells us the next part of his will for our lives. If only we turn over enough rocks we’ll find the note and know his will.
But what if there’s no note? If it’s not yet God’s time for us to know his will, no amount of rock-turning will find a note God hasn’t left.
We can’t rush God. He is wise, and we can’t force him to tell us his plan any earlier than he decides.
Paul wasn’t clear what should happen next. Often, we won’t be either.
Question 3 – How did Paul feel about the options he faced?
Paul may not have known what would happen, but he was in no doubt it was either life or death. He called death departing to be with Christ, and he called life remaining in the body (vs. 23-24).
Knowing which was right was a real dilemma because he saw advantages in both. To die was to be with Christ, and that’s what he desired. But living seemed more necessary for the sake of the Philippians and other young churches he’d planted.
So, if Paul was allowed his own choice, he’d rather die to this world and come alive again with his Savior. But if he chose for the sake of the Philippians, he’d go on living so he could strengthen them in their faith and through their trials.
Deep down, how did he feel about those options? Answer: absolutely divided. The NIV translates Paul as writing, “I am torn between the two” (v. 23).
Paul uses just one word in Greek to describe that feeling of being torn apart, the word sunechomai. It’s a word that carries implications of violence, or control by an external power. Paul is caught between the pull of death and the pull of life. Each has a hand on him, and the more that departing this world attracts him, the more the need to keep living and serving pulls back the other way. No wonder he feels torn apart.
We will never fully understand his dilemma unless we understand that Paul didn’t see this world as the place where the Christian really belongs. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” (Phil. 3:20) he wrote later. That’s where Paul’s real home was.
The International Space Station is now the largest artificial body in orbit around the earth. It’s a research laboratory in space and can carry up to six astronauts at a time. Most expedition crews spend about five and a half months on the ISS, but some stay longer. For a time, that’s where they live. But no astronaut thinks of the space station as the place where they belong. They have a job to do there, but one day they’ll come back to earth.
Paul saw this world like an astronaut sees the International Space Station. It’s where he was put for as long as God needed him, but it wasn’t where he belonged.
That’s the underlying issue behind his dilemma, the divide between where he belongs and where he may still be useful. He’s content to be in this world as long as the Lord has work for him, but this world is not his home and he’d rather be in heaven with his Savior.
So, should he choose to stay, or choose to go? He was torn. The deciding matter would be what God still had for him to do.
Question 4 – What conclusion did Paul reach?
He is quite clear on that matter:
“…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.” (vs. 24-25)
I loved my children when they were young, and I love them just as much now that they’re grown up and busy with careers and families. I’m privileged to have a great relationship with all of them. But there is a price to pay for being close to your children, and you pay it no matter how old they get or how independent they get. The price? You still worry about them! Yes, they’re very competent. Yes, they must go their own way in life, make their choices, celebrate their triumphs and learn from their failures. But because I love them I will always be concerned for them.
Paul was very honest when he wrote that every day he faced “the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). Those churches were made up of people he saw as his spiritual children, and he cared about what they did and about what happened to them. The people he’s writing to now are one of those churches.
He would prioritize their need over any personal desire he might have. He’d stay in this world longer in order to serve them. There were things he could teach that would help them progress in their discipleship to Jesus Christ.
What’s interesting is how he reached that conclusion.
- He hadn’t hired the ancient equivalent of a top lawyer who’d promised he could get him released.
- He hadn’t got news that the judges were going to acquit him.
- He hadn’t had any revelation through prayer that he’d be set free.
Paul didn’t reach his conclusion that he’d have more time to continue his work from any source like those. He believed he was meant to stay longer because he’d analyzed the Philippians’ needs and he’d analyzed his skills, and he was convinced there was still a job to be done.
Jesus said the greatest commandment was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37).
Sometimes we forget the last of those. Yes, we must pray and listen for God’s voice, but his whisper of guidance can come by assessing facts right before our eyes. Paul did not see it as a failure to be spiritual because he used his mind. God had spoken to him through the need of young followers of Jesus, and by knowing he could meet that need.
Question 5 – What help did Paul believe he could still give to others?
The letter writer, Paul, was going through a tough time in his life. But so were the letter recipients, the Christians in Philippi.
Just a few verses later Paul tells them they must work together “without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you… For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have” (Phil. 1:28-30).
The Philippians had always known that following Jesus was not easy. But perhaps at first they’d had all the blessings of salvation but now they’re experiencing the hardship of opposition. These were young Christians being tried in the fires of persecution.
Would they lose heart? Would they give up on their faith? Would they doubt Jesus? The pressure was immense, and those against them could be very cruel. They needed to know that Jesus was King, so they could trust in him to carry them through any trial.
Therefore Paul longed to be released:
“So that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.” (v. 26)
Certainly he would teach them more about Jesus, but perhaps the greatest gift he could give them was simply to be with them. Paul had been through more suffering than any of them. When the Philippians saw his deliverance from death and heard his testimony of God’s goodness, they’d lift their heads up high, rejoice in God and boast of Christ’s salvation.
Leadership isn’t only about giving direction, or orders, or instruction, or correction. It’s first and foremost setting the example of how to think and how to live.
In this letter the Philippians were learning Paul’s experience of God at work while he was in prison. Now he longed to be back with them, so that they could hear his story first hand, see he’d not just survived but come through strong in his faith, and so that they would know Christ had won a great victory. He wanted their boasting in Christ Jesus to “abound” on account of him. He didn’t just want a party. He wanted a new confidence in Christ and new strength in them to live boldly for Christ.
There is a final challenge from this part of Paul’s story. Paul would not have faced any dilemma about whether to live or die except he was willing for either. Actually he had a preference to die, because this world wasn’t where he belonged and he wanted to be with Jesus. Yet, he knew the Philippians and others still needed him, so he was convinced he’d be set free to bring them new hope and encouragement.
Here is our challenge: Would the choice between leaving or staying in this world be a dilemma for us? Nothing is a dilemma if there’s only one answer which is right or acceptable. So, if we had to choose between life or death, would there be a dilemma?
Of course, most of us have a strong sense of things we still need to do and people who depend on us. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Unless, that is, what those purposes mask is a wrongfully deep attachment to this world. If we make this world our home and fail to recognize we’re just passing through, we’ll never want to leave. We’ll always long for more of the trappings or excitement of the things of earth, rather than being thrilled by what God has for us, a home in heaven in the presence of our Savior and Lord.
Paul didn’t have a death wish, and nor should we. But he didn’t live in order to live more. If God had further work for him, he was content. If not, he’d rather go to his real home in heaven and share eternity with his God. The challenge for us is to be equally willing to travel that path.