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Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility, Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians (10): To Be or Not to Be

Series: Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility, Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jul 8, 2007

Philippians 1:21-26

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The Lord's Day Morning

July 8, 2007
Communion Sunday

Philippians 1:21-26

“To Be or Not to Be”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Philippians chapter one, verse 21. For a number of months now we've been studying Paul's letter to the Philippians, and for the last month we've been looking at Philippians 1:21, which we have seen as something of a “life verse” for the Apostle Paul.

Today we're going to look at verses 21-26, and we're going to look at two things as we do that. I want you to follow Paul's argument–the argument that is going on inside his own heart in these verses. In fact, I'm going to outline them for you right now.

Look at verse 21. You’ll see what we might say is Paul's thesis, his theme statement. It's a truth claim which is life-changing as far as the Apostle Paul is concerned, and he states it here in Philippians 1:21.

Second, in verse 22, you see Paul articulate a dilemma that he has: ‘Is it better for me to die and be with Christ, or is it better for me to live and fruitfully labor? In light of the truth that I've affirmed in verse 21, is it better for me to fruitfully labor in life or to enjoy the immediate presence of Christ in death?’ And so he articulates that dilemma in verse 22.

Thirdly, he analyzes this dilemma, and you see this in verses 23-24. Here he breaks down the dilemma and puts a name on both sides of the dilemma.

And then, finally, in verses 25-26, we see a resolution of the dilemma.

Well, the first thing I want to do today is just walk you through Paul's chain of arguments so that you can feel and follow along the wrestling that's going on in his own heart as he speaks to the Philippians. The second thing I want us to do today is to draw a life-changing truth from the passage that we read together. So let's pray and ask for God's help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word; and because it's Your word and not the words of men, it is as important for us to hear and feed upon and believe Your word as it is for us to eat, for man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. So by Your Holy Spirit, feed us by your word, for we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear the word of the living God:

“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. And convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again.”

Amen. Thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

In that very famous Shakespearean soliloquy, Hamlet is wrestling with the same question that Paul is wrestling with here. Remember we said a number of weeks ago that the Greeks, in Paul's time when he was writing this letter, often viewed death as a relief from the hardships of life, and so they thought about death as comforting because it brought an end to the turmoil of this life. Well, Hamlet raises a question about that kind of thinking in the famous soliloquy when he says:

“To be, or not to be–that is the question.

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.
To die, to sleep–no more, and by a sleep to say we end the heartache
and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.
‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

Now to that point, the soliloquy is articulating precisely the prevalent Greek view of death which would have been common in Paul's day. But then, he asks this question:

“To die, to sleep–perchance to dream.
Aye, there's the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come
when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.

There's the respect that makes calamity of so long life.”

In other words, what if death is worse than life? What if there are things waiting for us in death that are just as hard or harder than life? And so he's wrestling with the question, do I want to live or do I want to die? And the Apostle Paul is wrestling with the same question, but in an entirely different framework. I want you to follow through his argument that the struggle that's going on in his own heart in verses 21-26.

I. Paul's core belief.

First, notice how he states his core belief about what the gospel has done for him in Jesus Christ: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” We've said all along that by saying that the Apostle Paul is affirming that real life means knowing, loving, serving, glorifying, enjoying, and communing with Jesus Christ. That is real life, and God has given him that real life in Christ, so that now Christ is more important to him in life than anyone and anything else, and that fellowshipping with Christ in life is the greatest joy that he has. And telling the whole world about Christ is the greatest service he can offer. For him, Christ is his life; and, therefore, the second half of the verse–to die is gain–means that because that first part of the verse is true: that real life is found in knowing, loving, and serving Christ, glorifying, enjoying and communing with Christ. Because that is true, death is gain, because death will usher us into the immediate presence of Christ where we will enjoy more of Christ, more joy of fellowship with Him, and undiluted by the problems and sins of this world. There's Paul's proposition.

II. Paul's dilemma.

But this leads him into a struggle. And here's the struggle. You see it in verse 22. Here's where he articulates the dilemma. To die is gain, he says at the end of verse 21.

“But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose.”

In other words, Paul is saying death will bring an inestimable gain for me. There's no questioning in Paul's heart. He's not wondering about what dreams he may encounter in that sleep of death. He cannot wait to be with Christ, because he knows that death is but the portal of entrance into the presence of Christ; and, therefore, he is not afraid of death. It's not that he wants to die; it's that he wants to be with Christ, and death is the transition that he must pass through in order to be with Christ. And so he's not afraid of death, and he longs to be with Christ, but he's got a problem. The problem is living here means for him fruitful labor, telling people about Christ, seeing people converted to Christ, seeing believers built up in Christ, serving the church, promoting the unity of the church, encouraging the Philippians who have sent him out to the mission field in the first place. And so he states his dilemma at the end of verse 22: ‘I don't know which of these things that I ought to long for. I don't know what to pray for. What should I pray? Should I pray, “Lord, at the end of this Roman trial and sentencing, I wouldn't mind it at all if I were sentenced to death, because that means that I would be with Christ.” Or, should I pray, “Lord, get me out of these bonds so that I may serve fruitfully here.” I don't know what to pray for.’

And then he begins to analyze this dilemma, and you see this in verses 23-24. “I'm hard pressed from both directions…” [No joke?]…

“I'm hard pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.”

So here's how he breaks it down: ‘To depart is better for me; to stay is better for you.’ Now, you don't even need to read verses 25-26 to know what Paul's resolution of this passage is, once Paul's stated the dilemma in that way, do you? Once he said, ‘To depart is better for me; to stay is better for you,’ you know how Paul is going to resolve this dilemma. And sure enough, if you look at verse 25, he says:

“Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again.”

In other words, Paul says it's a no-brainer. If to depart is better for me, but to stay is better for you, I know what I'm going to pray. In fact, he says, I know what God's going to do in His providence. If to depart is better for me, but my staying is better for you, I know what God will do. He will allow me to stay and minister to you for a while longer.

Of course, the Apostle Paul is just reflecting his Savior at that point, isn't he? Was it better for Jesus to stay in glory with angels worshiping Him and singing to Him, “Holy, holy, holy!” day and night in the halls of heaven, or to come to earth in our poor flesh and our poor blood to live and die in a fallen world, to be rejected by His own people, to be executed by the religious leaders of His day, to be dead and buried? No, it would have been better for Jesus to stay in the halls of glory, but it was needful for us that He come, and so in His love, He came. And in His love, the Father sent. And so the Apostle Paul is just drawing the same conclusion: ‘It's better for me to depart, but it's better for you that I stay; therefore, I know what God's going to do in this circumstance. I’ll be seeing you again.’ Paul is following in the footsteps of his Savior.

III. Paul's resolution.

But I want you to see the word that he opens verse 25 with: “Convinced of this….” And I want to pause and ask a question before we look at a very important truth that we learn from this passage, and it's simply this question: Are you convinced of the truth claim that Paul announces in verse 21? Because that truth claim is what starts this dilemma that the Apostle Paul is wrestling with. If the Apostle Paul didn't believe that to live is Christ and to die is gain, he wouldn't be having this argument with himself. And so I want to ask you a question: Do you believe the same thing that the Apostle Paul says that he believes in Philippians 1:21? If you do, it will change the way you look at everything you are and have and do in life. That fact has struck me over and over again over the last six weeks as I've read over this passage over and over again — that if I could simply live out the truth of Philippians 1:21, it would so dramatically change so much of what I am and do in life. And I think we need to pause and ask ourselves do we believe Philippians 1:21 like Paul believes Philippians 1:21? My guess is that most of us want to say, yes, we believe it just like Paul believes it. If that's your answer (and it's certainly mine), then I would challenge you to make a study of Philippians 1:21, and to ask God in prayer, “Lord, help me to believe Philippians 1:21 like the Apostle Paul believed Philippians 1:21 when he wrote it; and, correspondingly, change my life so that I'm really living my life in light of the truth of Philippians 1:21.” That would be a very profitable study for your devotional life, to go back to that passage over and over again and let the Lord, by His Holy Spirit, work it deep down into your heart so that you believe it more certainly than anything else–more than the air that you breathe, more than the pews that you’re sitting on. Do you believe the truth of that word?

The Apostle Paul is convinced of it, and it changed the way that he looked at life. As he faced the prospect of being sentenced to death and executed by the Romans, or the prospect of going back and doing missions work, he could say, ‘It's better for me to depart. I would love to be with Christ right now, but it's better for you that I stay.’ And therefore he did not look at life as miserable and fruitless, but as joyful and fruitful; and he could still anticipate death as full of an even greater joy. So there's the outline of this argument that the Apostle Paul has been having within himself, and that he's sharing with the Philippians.

But remember that the reason that he is sharing this struggle with the Philippians is for the increase of their joy. They were troubled by the fact that he was in prison; they were troubled by the fact that he was incapable of doing the mission work that he so much wanted to do; they were troubled by the fact that he was facing the prospect of death. And so he wrote to them to comfort them and to give them joy, and he reiterates that in verse 25. Notice why he says it would be good for him to stay and serve and come to them again:

“I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith.”

The Apostle Paul knows that it is good for him to remain, because in remaining he can serve the growth, the progress, and the joy of the Philippian Christians, and indeed of all who trust in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul sees his ministry as a joy-giving ministry.

Application:

Now here's the truth that we draw from this passage–and by the way, there are so many other things we could say, but this is the one thing I want us to focus on in the next few moments. Here is the truth: The gospel gives us a joy that allows us to be selfless and to seek the joys of others. And that truth had come home to the Apostle Paul. The Apostle Paul was a very religious man when he was a Pharisee named Saul, and the way that he thought that he could glorify God was by persecuting, hindering, haranguing, imprisoning and killing Jewish people who became followers of Jesus the Messiah. He tells us that he was holding cloaks while people picked up rocks and stoned Stephen to death, and he was heartily agreeing to what they were doing in his own soul. He was on his way, we know, to Damascus to persecute Christians when Jesus Himself met him and brought about a radical transformation in the Apostle Paul's life. He changed him from being an idolater. And despite being a religious man, He changed him from being fundamentally a selfish man to being a joyful worshiper of the one true God, filled with the desire that others might enjoy the same joy that God had given him by the gospel. In other words, he had experienced the truth that he talks about here, that the gospel gives us a joy that allows us to be selfless and to seek the joy of others.

The world we live in…the people that populate this world, long for joy. The world wants joy. The world wants fulfillment. The world wants satisfaction. The people who are in this world all around us–Christian or not, religious or not–want joy. They want satisfaction, they want fulfillment. But they seek for that personal joy at the expense of others. They look out for Number One, and in so doing they are idolaters. They have put themselves and their joy, their satisfaction, at the very center of life.

Now, the Christian message and the gospel message to that selfish, self-centered, joy-seeking world is not “Forget about joy; be good and do good to others.” That is not the gospel message. The gospel is that God has done something for us in His Son that we could not do ourselves, for ourselves or for others, and that something He has done in His Son has given to us the joy for which God created us, and so we are freed from seeking our own personal joy to be concerned about the joy of others because we have been given the greatest joy that we could ever have: fellowship with the living God through Jesus Christ–through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; through His substitutionary atonement on the cross; and, therefore, the gospel has given us a joy that allows us to be selfless, but also causes us to have a longing for others to participate in that same joy.

And the Apostle Paul is manifesting the fruit of that truth and reality in this passage when he says ‘You know, it would be better for me to depart and be with Christ. But it would be better for you for me to stay and seek your progress and joy. Therefore, that's what I'm going to pray for.’ Not because the Apostle Paul is renouncing joy, but because the Apostle Paul has found a joy that is beyond anything that he could have achieved by pursuing joy for joy's sake. He has been given joy from Christ, who said to His disciples, “I have come to give you life, and that abundantly.” He is the One who came and promised His disciples that in this world they could experience comfort and joy, even in the midst of tribulation, and the Apostle Paul knows that. And, therefore, having received that joy by grace from God through Christ in His death on the cross, now he is set free to seek the joy of others.

It would be very easy for us to draw the lesson from this passage: Paul was selfless; we ought to be selfless, too. Well, that's true. We ought to be selfless. But if that were the gospel, understand that we’d all be going to hell. Because we're not selfless. But the gospel is. Someone was selfless for us, and gave us a greater joy than we could ever have found in our own seeking, and has set us free now from our selfishness to enjoy the selfless pursuit of the joy of others in Christ Jesus. That's great news, and it's the news that liberated Paul from fear as he faced continued imprisonment and possible death. It's a joy that can liberate you from every fear you face, if you will but trust in Christ.

Now, at the end of the service we're going to sing a song that beautifully encapsulates it. I'd invite you to take a look in your bulletin at the words of In Christ Alone, and especially the first and last stanzas. The whole song is rich. The song, for instance, in verses 2 and 3 tells you the gospel. But here's the confession that sounds so much like Romans 8 and Philippians 1. You see it in stanza 1 and in stanza 4:

“In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What height of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when striving cease!
My comforter, my all in all,
Here in the love of Christ I stand.”

That's the confession of the Apostle Paul: “For to me, to live is Christ.” Bring the storm on. Bring the drought on. Bring the strivings on. My life is hid with God in Christ. He is my all in all. And then he concludes this…here's the conclusion of that. Because that's true:

“No guilt in life…” [my sin has been dealt with]
“No fear in death…” [I have nothing to fear from the grave.]
“This is the power of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.”

My friends, you could fill up years of meditation just on that sentence: “From life's first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.” Not the world, not the flesh, not the devil; but Jesus commands my destiny.

“No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand;” [Romans 8]
“ ‘Til He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand!”

That's exactly what the Apostle Paul is saying in Philippians 1:21-26. If you’re a believer today, I pray that you would be so captured by the glory and the comfort and the joy of that reality that you will determine to study it until it is more real for you than it has ever been real before.

If you’re not a believer today, it would be our hope and prayer as believers that you would come to know through trust in Jesus Christ this gospel joy that only Christ can offer.

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, as we come to Your table to commune with You through Jesus Christ, Your only begotten Son, we ask that You would by Your Spirit show us the gospel in this ordinance; and, grant that we would respond to that gospel in both faith and would receive assurance by Your Holy Spirit. We ask, O God, that You would cause us to esteem Christ more highly, to love Him more deeply, to understand the gospel and the truth of Your word more clearly, and to serve you more joyfully as we worship You this day in word and sacrament, in Jesus' name. Amen.

[Congregational Hymn: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross]

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© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.