I had a friend in fire safety who used to use the expression, “Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to go first.” I would dare say there is great truth in this statement. Think about it, most of us are excited about the prospect of going to heaven, of being in God’s presence surrounded by fellow believers. Yet there are so many things in this world that we want to experience first. We have what is often called a “Bucket List.”
For many we want to go to college. We want to get married. We want to have children. We want to see our children grow up. We want to see our children get married. For others there are things like, I want to see the Grand Canyon. I want to visit every continent. I want to climb a mountain.
So many things we have that we want to do in this life. Once we have done these, then we will be ready to go to heaven. Once we have experienced all this life has to offer, then we will be ready to experience the next life. Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to go first.”
So how is it then that Paul can declare with such confidence, in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” “To die is gain?” Is Paul saying that dying is better than living? Is he saying that he wants to die? I certainly don’t think this is the case.
When we take the time to look at this statement in context, the real meaning begins to become clear to us. Paul had been arrested, basically, for preaching the Gospel, for fulfilling the call that God had placed on his life. When he was about to be beaten for declaring the truth he revealed to the Roman guards that he was a Roman citizen. As a result he was not beaten, but taken in to be questioned. After bouncing around to a few different locations, it began to become clear that he was not guilty of what the others had charged him with. As the time went on he took an unexpected step, he chose to appeal his case to Caesar, the right of a Roman citizen. As a result he had been transferred to Rome where he was held prisoner awaiting trial. While he awaited trial, he continued to preach the gospel to those who would listen. While under house arrest in Rome he learned that others were continuing to preach the gospel with passion. This is where we find Paul. Invigorated by the opportunity to preach the gospel to those in Caesar’s palace. Encouraged by the news that the Gospel continued to be preached by others. Yet keenly aware that Caesar could quite possibly order his death.
It is in this light that Paul declares, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Paul realized that his whole life was declaring the gospel of Christ, and that as long as he lived he could continue to encourage others in seeking Him. “To live is Christ.” Yet at the same time Paul longed to be in the presence of his Lord and Savior, a place he knew he would be should the end result be death. “To die is gain.” What a position to find himself in. What an attitude to have. This is what Donald Sunukjian refers to as a “Win – Win situation” in his book, “An Invitation To Philippians.”
As I think about it, I have to ask myself, “Could I have this same attitude?” “What would it take for me to view my life the same way?”
I certainly understand the first part of embracing my life for what I value, what I find important. But how can I bring myself to see the end of my life being even better? Part of the answer is found in my embracing what is important to my life and what Paul embraced as important to his life. Paul did not say, “to live is to spend time with my family.” He did not say, “to live is to see amazing things.” And he did not say, “to live is to enjoy life.”
No, what Paul said was “to live is Christ.” Now do you see the difference, “Christ.” What was important in Paul’s life was Christ. This is not to say that he did not enjoy things of this world, but that he saw everything he did as being for Christ. Christ was the center of his life. “To live is Christ.” This is the key to Paul being able to say, “to die is gain.” For if Christ was his whole life, what greater conclusion could there be than to stand in His presence. What greater joy could there be than to hear his Savior declare, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23) It is no wonder that Paul could say that “to die is gain.”
As believers in Christ there is no doubt that we do want to go to heaven. I pray for the day that I shall stand in his presence and hear his voice welcome me home. But are we ready to say that to die is gain and mean it? Are we ready to set aside the things of this world that hold our attention and distract us from Christ? Only when we embrace that the purpose of our lives as believers is to glorify God and to make Him known. Only when we live our lives for Him will we truly be able to join with Paul and declare with true belief that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”