For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
The brave apostle, awaiting the slow issue of his case at Rome, has been speaking of the good effect of his imprisonment upon the promulgation of the gospel. He can see the good beneath the apparent evil. And now he speaks of the life he lives on earth and of the other life beyond the shadow of death. Let us notice the lessons as they are set before us here.
I. PAUL'S SELF-ABANDONMENT TO CHRIST. (Ver. 21.) He surrendered himself in a spirit of entire consecration to Jesus, that he might do as he pleased with him. As in the parallel passage, "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Galatians 2:20), Paul's life was one of inspiration. Christ's Spirit entered into him and took possession of it, and moulded it according to his own gracious purposes. Of course, Paul's life was not a perfect realization of this inspiration, but it was an approximate realization. "Τὸ ζῇν signifies here," says Rilliet, in loco, "the life par excellence - the life alone worthy of this name, in opposition to τὸ ζῇν ἐν σαρκί - this life; it is Christ, Ὁ Ξριστὸς ἡ ζωὴ ἡμῶν (Colossians 2:4). But the Christian, so long as he is here below, so long as he lives in the flesh, possesses Christ only incompletely, and has, consequently, only an imperfect life (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:6 - 8)." Yet there is nothing that helps this approximation more than to face honestly the ideal that our lives ought to be lives abandoned to Christ and inspired by his Holy Spirit.
II. PAUL'S GAIN AFTER DEATH (Ver. 21.) For it is the aorist which is here used, τὸ ἀποθανεῖν and so the apostle's meaning manifestly is, to use Alford's words, that "the state after death, not the act of dying," is the gain. Death in itself is no gain, but it leads to gain beyond it. The imperfect conditions of the present state being removed, the inspiration will have freer play, and all the gain which it necessarily entails. We can only feebly image the glorious condition beyond death; but to escape sin and be filled with the Spirit of Christ must be gain incalculable.
III. PAUL'S PAUSE UPON THE BRINK. (Ver. 22.) He now speaks about the probability of his abiding some time longer in the flesh, and he shows that, if the fruit of his work depended upon this continuance in life, he dare not complainingly, desire to be released. He consequently pauses and leaves the issue in the higher hands of God. So that, as one writer sententiously puts it, he was "willing to wait, but ready to go." Bengel's remark is also most beautiful: "Alius ex opore fructum quaerit; Paulus ipsum opus pro fructu habet." Let it be ours not to seek our reward out of our work, but always in it!
IV. PAUL'S EQUILIBRIUM. (Ver. 28.) The two desires which were so nicely balanced were - to depart and he with Christ which is very far better, and to abide in the flesh. The one would be a personal experience altogether blissful; the other would be a patience still fruitful in the welfare of others. Between the two he maintains a holy equilibrium. In either alternative he can be happy with his Lord.
V. PAUL'S ASSURANCE OF MORE WORK IN THE PRESENT WORLD. (Vers. 24-26.) Paul did not hesitate to affirm that his life was a valuable one to the Philippian Church. There was no false modesty about the man. Moreover, his work for them would be with a view to their progress and joy in believing. Especially would this be promoted if he were allowed to visit the Macedonian Church again. If, then, this be the first Epistle of the captivity, as Lightfoot seems to think, the present assurance of Paul would correspond to these premonitions about recovery, which the Lord's servants often have in times of sickness. Is there not often an impression that a sick person will recover because of his own confident assurance of it? And when this is allied to such a holy and wholesome desire for the fulfillment of the Lord's work among men as Paul here manifests, it becomes intensely beautiful. We thus see that the life here and the life hereafter only tally when they are consecrated to Christ. It can consequently be left to the all-wise Lord whether meanwhile he would have our service there or here. Those who by his grace are willing to serve him with their whole hearts have nothing to fear, but everything to hope for, in the unending future with all its opportunities. - R.M.E.
Parallel VersesKJV: For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.