How Not to Care Whether You Live or Die – Philippians 1:20-21
By: Northern Seminary
Some people are changed for the better while in prison. It happened to Eugene Brown. Jailed for a botched bank robbery, he played chess while in prison, and learned a deep lesson from it. He saw how aimlessness in his life was the root factor which had got him into trouble. When he was released he founded a chess club, enrolled many of Washington DC’s troubled youth and taught them the key life lesson, “To Always Think Before you Move.” That new way of thinking and the support of the chess club transformed many lives which were on a very wrong path. Brown’s story was told in the 2013 movie, Life of a King.
Frank Abagnale was a confidence trickster, check forger, and impostor – and all of those before he was twenty-one. His story was made famous by the 2002 movie, Catch Me If You Can. Less well known is that after prison Abagnale worked for the federal government, became a consultant and lecturer for the FBI Academy, and founded his own financial fraud consultancy company.
The lives of Brown and Abagnale were changed for the better by being in prison.
But many are not changed like that. Many prisoners become confirmed in their criminal behavior, or, if they recognize the wrong they’ve done, they’re consumed with regrets. They’re distraught that they’ve lost their families, and they see nothing good in their future. Despair grips them, hope disappears, and life isn’t worth living.
Paul was imprisoned and very possibly would be sentenced to death. All he’d done was witness for Christ, but now he’s in chains. He was a prime candidate to be a prisoner who abandoned all hope, maybe even blaming God for the mess he was in.
But he neither abandoned hope nor turned against God. His attitude was very different.
20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
These words are remarkably positive, optimistic, brave, and faith-filled. Hope is not destroyed in Paul. Instead he soars in his ambition that everything about his life, or even his death, will honor Christ.
How can he be like that? There are two major insights in these verses.
One is Paul’s single-minded focus on acting with courage.
Paul writes that he ‘eagerly expects’ that he will not be ashamed. Those two words, ‘eagerly expects’ are just one long, compound word in Greek. When the elements of the word are put together, it means straining the head to look at something intensely.
That phrase sounds clumsy, so let me illustrate. Picture a train arriving at the platform. That train is bringing a war hero home after years of captivity, at last to be reunited with his wife. As the train pulls in, the former POW pulls down the window and pushes his head out to search intently for his loved one. That would an example of the ‘eager expectation’ this word describes.
Or another illustration: A large crowd is gathered round the final green of a major golf championship. People stand on tip toes to be an inch taller than those in front, desperate to watch the champion golfer sink the final, winning putt. That’s also ‘eager expectation.’ The war hero arriving by train and searching for his love, or the crowd craning their necks to watch their favorite golfer are both examples of straining to focus on something or someone that matters very much to them.
Paul’s meaning here is exactly that. He ‘eagerly expects’ something. He’s completely focused on it. And he adds another word. “I eagerly expect and hope,” he writes. He may be in prison, but he hasn’t given up. He isn’t slumped against a wall, resigned to any fate handed down by the authorities. God hasn’t given up on him and he hasn’t given up on God.
So Paul is completely focused and full of hope. But what is he focused and hopeful about? Answer: That in no way he will bring shame to Christ, and in every way will honor him. He’s sure and he’s determined that everything which happens next with him will exalt Christ.
At the heart of that ambition lies great personal courage.
Paul told the Romans: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God…” (Rom. 1:16). He meant it. Or did he? It’s one thing to say you’re not ashamed when life is settled and there’s no threat, and another to say those words when you’re in jail with your life on the line.
But Paul was not ashamed only at the best of times, he was also not ashamed at the worst of times. He is focused on being bold, committed to having courage. He won’t shirk or back down. His beliefs won’t change. His message won’t change. He won’t compromise and won’t retreat whatever happens.
I played rugby in my youth. Often I was the full back. The full back takes up a position behind everyone else on the team, and that makes him the final person to stop opponents when they attack. If the ball is kicked over the heads of all your team, you are the only one left to catch it. If the other team’s strongest and fastest players break through, only the full back can now stop them scoring. Being full back is a responsible but also terrifying position. I knew that when the ball was kicked over the heads of my team, rushing after that ball would be the biggest and ugliest of my opponents. Was I really going to catch that ball, knowing that I’d immediately be thumped to the ground and trampled on? Or, if the opposition broke through, was I really going to tackle their largest and meanest forwards intent on scoring? Faced with a situation just like that, I have seen players literally throw the ball away rather than be hit by the hulking giants of the other side.
I never did that. I was the full back who always caught the ball and always tackled the opponent. I could do that because of two things: 1) I had accepted the position in the team knowing what it would mean; 2) before the game began I always took a moment to imagine that high ball or that breakthrough by the opponents, and I made up my mind that I would catch the ball or tackle the player. Before the match started I was completely resolved. I knew what I would do before it happened.
Paul knew exactly what he would do. Before he stood before magistrates, he knew. Before anyone threatened to take his life, he knew. He could eagerly expect and hope never to be ashamed but to have courage, because from long before he’d known this time would come and he’d decided he would be bold and show courage. Christ had given his all for him, and he would give nothing less for Christ.
He had a single-minded focus on acting with courage.
Second, Paul has a godly indifference about his future.
A ‘godly indifference’ doesn’t sound like an experience worth having, but in this case it describes something very exciting and deeply moving.
Paul’s focus is on courage, “so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (vs. 20-21).
His ‘godly indifference,’ then, means simply this, that he has a God-inspired peace about whatever lies ahead. If he lives, it will be for Christ. If he dies, it will also be for Christ because he will go to be with Jesus in glory. Paul can’t lose. When you can’t lose, it makes no difference which of two alternatives happens. That was how Paul saw it, hence he has a ‘godly indifference’ about his future.
His ‘can’t lose’ statement comes in verse 21. In Greek the words are almost staccato. Literally he says: “For to me to live Christ and to die gain.” His sentence is very brief and a little awkward, but it’s an amazingly powerful statement.
He’s writing a letter, but I prefer to imagine Paul addressing a large crowd, whether friends or foes. In a thundering voice, he shouts “To live..?” and he pauses with just the hint of a question mark in his voice, and then answers: “Christ!” He draws breath, and again in a voice strong and confident he shouts, “To die..?” and they wait for his next word, “Gain!” Paul’s words would be electric, and his message either comforting or disturbing to his audience.
His equal acceptance of living or dying is in sharp contrast to what most people would say, or at least to what they’d say if they were being one hundred per cent honest. Not many could truly say their whole existence revolves around Christ. And not many could truly say they’d gladly let go of this world and all its attractions and they’d welcome death in order to be with Christ.
All the evidence suggests we’re very much in love with this world and want to postpone moving to the next as long as possible. Millions are invested into making people look younger. More millions are invested into supplements and exercise programs to maintain life. And even more millions are spent on treatments, surgeries and equipment to stave off death as long as possible. We want to go on living. We shun death.
Aren’t some – the old or terminally ill – at peace about dying? Yes, they are, but there’s a difference. I’ve talked with many who knew death would come soon, and some had faith and knew that after death they would go to heaven and be in the presence of their Savior. That gave them great comfort. But they’d still have wanted to go on living. They did not have Paul’s ‘indifference’ about living or dying. They didn’t want to leave this world. Yes, they gave thanks there was a wonderful life beyond, but they’d rather have stayed here for as long as they could. Almost no one was indifferent, happy to stay and serve Christ more but seeing death as the better option, something to be welcomed.
So why could Paul be so much at peace about what came next, whether life or death? The answer is simple.
Paul had no other purpose in his life than to glorify Christ.
In the past he’d thought of Jesus as a dangerous insurgent, and he persecuted his followers. But that all changed on the day when the risen Jesus met and spoke with him on the road to Damascus. In that encounter Paul was recreated and reoriented.
It was as if Paul’s life had been in orbit around his Judaism, especially as a Pharisee with all that meant in dedication to learning, legal observance and a fight to retain the purity of the faith. But on the Damascus Road he collided with Jesus, and was thrown into a new orbit with Jesus at the center. Transformed, nothing else had a stronger pull on his life than Christ, and the things that attracted him once lost their allure and he came to see them as garbage to be thrown away in order to circle closer and closer to Christ (Phil. 3:7-8).
Christ has become his all-consuming love.
Christ has become his all-consuming purpose.
He lives for no one else.
He lives for nothing else.
He desires no goal other than to serve Christ.
He desires no end other than to be with Christ.
To some, this can seem extreme. But a judgment of what is ‘extreme’ depends on where you start from. For those still in love with this world, an all-consuming passion for Christ will seem extreme. For those who have given up everything they have to be Jesus’ disciple (Luke 14:33), centering every goal, every standard, every action on Jesus isn’t extreme. It’s the normal Christian life.
Paul’s goal is that “Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” He doesn’t write that for any self-oriented reason. He doesn’t want either to live or die for his sake. It would be understandable if he had a personal motive. Life would mean freedom for him; death would mean the end of a cruel imprisonment and the end of the many other hardships he’d endured as an apostle. But, Paul would say, none of this is about me. Everything is about Christ. He needs to be lifted up. He needs to be glorified. Whatever comes, it must be for him.
In a world – and especially the western world – where Christians are too easily camouflaged by ambition, possessions, and standards not very different from the rest of society, what would it take for us to be more like Paul: indifferent about our own life and passionate for Christ to be exalted through us?
It would require intense ruthlessness. A major revival broke out in Wales in 1904 and 1905. A key figure in that revival was Evan Roberts. Roberts had a very ordinary background as a miner and a blacksmith’s apprentice, but he read widely and had a deep passion for God. Roberts was greatly used by God after the revival broke out. He taught several things that needed to happen in the life of a person who would live for God. One was that all known sin must be confessed and forgiveness found through Jesus Christ. The next was that a Christian must remove anything from their life about which they had any doubts. If they were at all unsure whether something was right, get rid of it.
Removing anything about which you are unsure feels very radical. Who has no qualms about how they spend their money? Who doesn’t have uncertainties about the amount of time they give to prayer or study of the Bible? Who feels comfortable with the habits or influence of their friends? Who has complete confidence that their choice of lifestyle is wholly right? To probably most of us, Roberts would have said, “But how can you honor Jesus as Lord and not put right anything about which you have doubts?” It is a challenging question.
Paul was not perfect. But he had no wish to tolerate anything in his life that did not exalt Christ. No personal ambition, or position, or comfort could be greater than glorifying Jesus. That’s the ruthlessness of the person who would give their whole life to God.
It would require intense desire. The longing to spend time with Jesus, to please Jesus, to serve Jesus would come before all other longings. No wish, no goal, no desire would be greater. All of life would be filled with what it takes to love Jesus.
For a time in my late teens I stayed in the home of Bill and Dixie, a delightful Australian couple who had come to Edinburgh, Scotland. Bill and Dixie were the kind of people everyone relaxed with. Talking with them about any subject was always easy. There were no formalities, and within ten seconds you could move from opening pleasantries to the deepest of subjects. I loved being in their home, and they had a huge influence on my decision to follow Jesus Christ.
But I also learned about love and relationships from them. One time I asked, “How do you know when you’re in love?” They had lots of good advice, but Bill said that, for him, a key sign was when his life began to revolve around being with Dixie. He’d drive past her house each morning and wait until she came to the door and waved. He’d call her several times through the day. They’d be together every evening. They’d go places, work together on projects and talk with an ease he’d never found with anyone else. “That’s how I knew I was in love,” he said.
Well, I was aware that was Bill’s experience, and it might not be like that for everyone else. Yet, what he said made sense. To truly love someone will mean your life becomes caught up in their life. Real love ends an old pattern or individualism, and creates a new pattern of living for each other.
Paul’s old life had ended, and his new life was given over to Christ. He has no ambition other than to be with Jesus, to witness for Jesus, to serve Jesus, to suffer for Jesus, and ultimately to spend eternity with Jesus.
It was an intense desire. It’s the passion of anyone who would be close to Jesus.
Paul’s imprisonment was as serious as any incarceration could be. He was a victim of religious persecution because he was a prisoner for his faith, and might die for his convictions.
He could have protested to the authorities and to God that it was all so unfair. He’d only wanted to preach about Jesus and to do good in people’s lives. But now he’s a prisoner and others will decide his fate. Faced with that, Paul might have withdrawn into a terminal depression.
But he didn’t. Paul wasn’t changed by prison, but in prison he became more and more determined to be bold and brave about his faith with no concern whether he lived or died. Nothing was more important than dedication to Jesus. Nothing could steal his heart given in deepest love to Jesus. And nothing – not even whether he lived or died – would ever cause him to distrust God’s will for his future. Paul’s model of the normal Christian life challenges us profoundly.