To Live, to Die
The coronavirus is another stark reminder that we are mortal. We are all going to die, one way or another, but in moments like these we are forced to consider the reality of our own death. For the vast majority of us, there is a good chance that this virus will not claim our lives... but you never know.
This is the situation Paul found himself in when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. He was in prison awaiting his trial before Caesar. He would either be acquitted and set free, or condemned and executed. He would either live, or die.
Paul was not sure which one it would be, but clearly he had thought about it. He had thought about what it would mean if he were to live, and if he were to die. And he concluded that both options were good. If he lived, great. If he died, even better. Either way, the apostle could not lose.
As Christians, we ought to have the same perspective as Paul on life and death. How exactly did Paul view life and death so that he was victorious in life or death? The answer can be found in Philippians 1:21: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
To Live Is Christ
What makes life worth living? There are many things that make life enjoyable, such as family, friends, sports, and music. If you took the time to write down your own answer, you would undoubtedly produce a lengthy list. But as we all soon discover, nothing lasts in this life. Nothing stays the same. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.
So, what happens when the Lord takes away? If we lose the things which we think makes life worth living, we may begin to think that life is not really a good option any more. Indeed, it is not hard to understand why people have at times seen death as preferable to life. Death is gain when life is pain.
However, death can only be seen as gain if a) we assume that there is no life after death, or b) if our life after death is better than our present life. The Bible addresses both assumptions. First, it teaches us that there is certainly life after death. Second, it instructs us that life after death is only good for those who are united to Christ. If we die in our sins, then we will enter into judgment; but if we die in Christ, we go to be with Christ in heaven. Death, therefore, leads to more and greater suffering for the unbeliever, but it is the end of all suffering for the believer.
Yet although death is gain for us in Christ, life is still worth living, even when it is hard. Paul says that both options are good; he is not saying that one option is good and the other bad, depending upon the circumstance. He is not saying that death is better when life becomes painful, or that life is better it is good; he is saying that life is always worthwhile, and that death is always better.
How can life be a good option when it is hard? Paul’s answer to that question is found in v. 21: To live is Christ. Paul viewed his life, every moment of it, as an opportunity to serve Jesus. Therefore, if he were to live, he could continue to do what Christ had called him to do. This is why he says in vs. 22: “if I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.” Further fruitful labor, however, would come at a cost. Serving Christ as the apostle to the Gentiles involved a lot of suffering (Acts 9:16). Thus, if he were to be released, he could expect further hardship. Nevertheless, life was still a good option for Paul, because to live is Christ.
The same is true for every Christian. We are not called to be apostles, but we are called to serve Christ in our homes, schools, workplaces, church, and in the world. Although we may lose many things on our list that make life pleasant, there is something—or rather, Someone—whom we can never lose in this life: Christ. Thus, for better or for worse, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, we can love and honor Christ. To live is Christ; you cannot lose in life when Christ is your all in all.
To Die Is Gain
For all the things that make life worth living, we may not find death to be a good option at all, let alone a better one. Nonetheless, Paul says, “to die is gain…to depart and be with Christ…is far better.”
What happens after we die? The Bible does not tell us everything we would like to know about life after death, but it does tell us what we need to know to die well. The key thing is that when we die, we immediately go to be with Jesus. Paul says in v. 23 that to die is “to depart and be with Christ.” The word “depart,” was used to refer to soldiers breaking camp and for ships leaving the harbor. Death is a departure; it is to break camp and travel to a new place. It is to set sail for a new land.
At the conclusion of the Lord of the Rings, Frodo, Bilbo, and Gandalf set sail with a group of elves, leaving their friends behind. Frodo and Bilbo have never recovered from their adventures with the Ring, and they can no longer stay in Middle-Earth. They are now bound for their new home, the Undying Lands. All this is a good depiction of what death is like for the Christian. We don’t cease to exist when we take our last breath. Although our body returns to dust, we depart. We go somewhere.
Where do we go? We go to be with Christ. Jesus told the converted thief on the cross that he would be with him in paradise that very day. Paul says in 2 Cor. 5 that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Through death, we sail to where Christ is, Heaven, which is God’s special dwelling place. It is a created place where resurrected human beings are able to go and live (Jesus is proof of that), and it is where Christians go when they die.
Paul says that to be with Christ in heaven is far better than life on earth. That is hard for us to grasp, because we do not know what life in heaven will be like without our body. Will we have a temporary body? What will we do? What will time be like? The Bible does not give us many details, but Paul does say that it will be far better, and we do not need to know more than that to face death well. Our life after death won’t just be better, but far better; we will be with Christ.
This fact also helps us to know what life will not be like after we die. We do not go to a place of temporary punishment (purgatory), because we are with Christ in heaven. Also, we will not be sleeping until the resurrection. If that were true, Paul could not say that to die is gain, because sleep is not better than knowing and living for Christ here on earth. Death is gain for the Christian precisely because it is to be with Christ in heaven, which is far better.
This is not to say that death itself is good. Death is not natural or part of God’s original creation. Death is the punishment for our sins, and is the last enemy to be destroyed. It tears us apart from our family and friends, and it brings an end to the joys and blessings of this life. We naturally recoil at death, not only because of what it takes from us, but also because of what it is as an experience. Death is not pleasant.
No, death is not good. Paul does not have a death wish; his desire is not to die for the sake of dying, but to be with Christ. Yet death is the dark door we must pass through in order to be with Christ. Thomas Watson put it this way: “Though death is a bitter cup, there is sugar at the bottom.” The sugar at the bottom is the reason we do not have to fear death.
Mehdi Dibaj was imprisoned by the government of Iran in 1984 on charges of “apostasy,” because he had converted from Islam to Christianity. It took a long time, however, for Medhi to have his day in court. He spent ten years in prison waiting for his case to come to trial. At his trial, he presented a written defense of his conversion to Christ. He echoed the words of Paul in the last few lines of his written statement:
“[Jesus Christ] is our Saviour and He is the Son of God. To know Him means to know eternal life. I, a useless sinner, have believed in His beloved person and all His words and miracles recorded in the Gospel, and I have committed my life into His hands. Life for me is an opportunity to serve Him, and death is a better opportunity to be with Christ. Therefore I am not only satisfied to be in prison for the honour of His Holy Name, but am ready to give my life for the sake of Jesus my Lord.…”
Medhi was found guilty and sentenced to death, but he was released in 1994 due to pressure from Western countries. Seven months later, he was found dead in a Tehran park.
Medhi’s enemies may have thought that they had gotten the better of him, but they did not. Medhi could not lose either in life or in death, because for him to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
If we contract the coronavirus or any other life-threatening disease, we will be confronted with our own mortality. Like Paul, we will not know for sure if we will live or if we die. But in end, if we are in Christ, we cannot lose. We cannot lose in life, because life is an opportunity to serve Christ. And we cannot lose in death, because death takes us to be with Christ, which is far better.
D. Patrick Ramsey (@DPatrickRamsey) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenants and author of A Portrait of Christ.
Mindscape: What to Think About Instead of Worrying by Timothy Witmer
"I Am Thy Shield: Calvin on Genesis 15" by Aaron Denlinger
"Facets of Faith in Crisis" by Bruce Lowe
 Thielman, F. (1995). Philippians (p. 89). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.