As we focus our attention this morning on the last five verses of Philippians 1:12–26), I’m reminded of a great expositor and exemplary man of God who called this text Paul’s sanctified dilemma. Now we understand what a dilemma is: it’s a situation that presents with itself a perplexing choice between two alternatives. Many times we conceive of the most difficult decisions we have to make in life as “dilemmas.”
And the word is often understood as having a negative connotation. The popularity of the phrase, “I’m between a rock and a hard place,” illustrates that. I’m in a dilemma: if I go one way I run into the rock, but if I turn to the other I hit the hard place.
But the choices of a dilemma don’t always have to be negative. You could face a dilemma between two very positive alternatives as well. For example, let’s say someone has invited you out to dinner at your favorite restaurant. They’ve assured you that the meal’s on them and to get whatever you’d like. When you look through that menu, the pictures of almost every meal seem to be competing with one another, vying for the opportunity to tantalize your taste buds. And your eyes dart from page to page and from description to description, and you send the waitress away four times: “Just one more minute, thank you.” You have a dilemma: The filet mignon or the baby back ribs?
Or, for those of you who aren’t big fans of barbecue, maybe you might relate better to the decision you face at the end of the meal when the waitress returns with the dessert menu. Will it be the peanut butter cup sundae or the strawberry cheesecake? Or, should we take the kids for a vacation to Disneyland or to Yellowstone? Or, should we spend the holidays visiting this family member whom we love, or that family member whom we love? You get the picture.
Well in our text this morning, the Apostle Paul faces his own sanctified dilemma—a situation in which he is torn between two very positive prospects—each of which is infinitely more desirable than a hearty meal, a scrumptious dessert, or even vacation plans with family. The heart of this passage is expressed in the second half of verse 22 and into the first half of verse 23. Paul says, “And I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions.” And to understand the full significance of Paul’s dilemma—to understand properly the two directions in which his affections are being pulled, we need to remember the context in which he’s writing.
As we’ve mentioned, Paul is writing this letter to his dear friends in Philippi, as he is under house arrest in Rome, chained to a Praetorian guard, and waiting to stand trial before Nero. And as the Philippians heard of his imprisonment, as an expression of their love for Paul they sent their beloved brother Epaphroditus to make the 40-day journey from Macedonia to Rome so that he could deliver a financial gift to Paul, as well as minister to any of his physical needs. And of course they expect that when Epaphroditus returns to Philippi, he’ll be able to bring news of Paul’s situation—how he is holding up, whether he expects to live or die, what the future will hold for the ministry of the Gospel that they had all come to trust and treasure.
And Paul does them one better than sending news by Epaphroditus. He writes this letter to them himself, and sends it back with Epaphroditus to deliver it. And after his customary greeting, thanksgiving, and prayer, Paul begins the body of this letter by immediately seeking to calm any worry they might have experienced on account of his trials. He begins, in verse 12, by informing them. “Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel.” Paul’s imprisonment has presented the opportunity for him to preach the Gospel throughout the whole Praetorian guard, such that many of Nero’s own elite class of soldiers were getting saved (1:13). Besides this, his imprisonment was emboldening other Christians to preach Christ without fear (1:14). Even if some of them did so with impure motives, Paul continued to rejoice because the true Gospel was being preached (1:15–18).
So far from hindering the spread of the Gospel, like the Philippians might have suspected, Paul’s trials have actually served to advance the Gospel. And as a result, he has been rejoicing. And he writes to tell his Philippian friends that, and to encourage them to rejoice along with him.
But he also says that he will continue to rejoice, in the second half of verse 18. Paul has been rejoicing through all of his sufferings, and as he anticipates his trial before Nero he will continue to rejoice, because his joy is rooted—not in freedom from conflict, personal prominence, or the pleasantness of his circumstances—but in the glory and magnification of Christ. Verse 19: “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that [my circumstances] will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”
Whether Paul is exonerated and released to live on and once again minister the Gospel freely, or whether he is condemned and dies at the hand of Nero, Paul’s joy is unshakeable! Because whether he lives, or whether he dies, the passion of his life, the very foundation of all of his affections would remain constant. And that is that Christ will be magnified.
And why will Christ be magnified in Paul’s body, whether he lives or whether he dies? The answer to that question is the treasure chest that is verse 21: Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death, “for—or because—to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
And in that sentence we penetrate to the very heart of Christianity. The essence of Christianity is the worship and magnification of Jesus Christ. And according to Philippians 1:21, how does the Christian magnify the supreme worth of Jesus? How do we make Christ look as great as He is? By experiencing, or esteeming, or counting Christ as such a treasure, that we can honestly feel, think, speak, and act in accordance with the statement that to live is Christ and to die is gain.
As we said last time, “To die is gain” means to survey all the wonderful things of this life that death can take from us, and to prefer Christ as more valuable, so that death is not loss, but gain. “To live is Christ” means to survey all the wonderful things that this life can offer, and to prefer Christ as more valuable, such that laying down your life in service to Christ and His people is not losing your life, but finding your life (Matt 16:25). It’s not the loss of deeply cherished treasure. It’s the forsaking of rubbish, so that you can gain the surpassing value of knowing Christ (Phil 3:8).
Paul can be absolutely certain that Christ will be magnified in his body, whether by life or by death, because He is more satisfied by Christ than by all that life can offer and all that death can take. The Christian glorifies or magnifies Christ when he is more satisfied by Him than the pleasures of sin, or the comforts of this life.
So that was last time. And I would encourage you, if you haven’t heard the message on that text, to get a copy and really pray and meditate on this passage. These are some of the most foundational realities—the most precious truths—that relate to our walk with the Lord Jesus. And I’ve tried my best in that message to bring them out of the text faithfully.
But as we come to verses 22 to 26, Paul turns to elaborate further on what it means that for him to live is Christ and to die is gain. And in doing so, he lets us in on an inward deliberation of his own heart as he contemplates his sanctified dilemma. Should he set his hope on leaving this world—to die, and to enjoy unhindered fellowship with the Lord Jesus face-to-face? Or should he instead cultivate his affections for remaining in this life, and laying down his life in fruitful service to Christ and His Church?
In this passage, Paul finds his heart gripped by these two holy ambitions, each so attractive and so compelling that he’s torn between them and he’s not sure which one he should set his affections on. And as we examine Paul’s sanctified dilemma, we will discover that these two sanctified passions characterize the soul of true godliness. Those who endeavor to be godly men and women—those for whom it can be said that for them to live is Christ and to die is gain—they will recognize something of these two holy ambitions in their own hearts. And not only this. We will also discover the Christian’s philosophy, or proper perspective, of both life and death. How should a Christian view the prospect of dying? And how should he view the prospect of living? These are questions that will be answered by our exposition this morning.
The Statement of Paul’s Dilemma (vv. 22b–23a)
But before turning immediately to consider the first of those two holy ambitions, I want to look briefly at the way Paul describes this dilemma in which he finds himself. We read his description again beginning in the second half of verse 22. Paul says, “And I do not know which to choose. But—or better rendered, indeed—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.”
Paul says he doesn’t know which to choose. And that can potentially be confusing, because when you translate it that way it makes it sound like Paul actually had some choice as to the outcome of his trial—some say in whether he would go on living or go on dying. But this is speaking less of Paul making the decisive choice that will determine his fate and more of his personal preference and how he should direct his heart. He’s saying, “If you were to give me the choice between (a) leaving this life and going to unhindered fellowship with Christ on the one hand, and (b) remaining on to make His name famous through all the world and to strengthen his Church, I wouldn’t know which to choose. I don’t know which outcome to hope for.”
He says he was hard-pressed from both directions—literally, “pressed between the two.” This is the same word that Jesus used when He wept over Jerusalem and foretold their destruction in Luke 19:43. He said, “For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side.” It’s the word used to describe a debilitating sickness that “oppressed” (Matt 4:24) or “afflicted” (Acts 28:8) those who were ill. Paul also uses this word in 2 Corinthians 5:14 to describe how the love of Christ compels him to minister the Gospel. And so we have to understand the intensity of this dilemma that he faces. He is hemmed in, he is afflicted, he is constrained by these two ambitions.
And remember what I said earlier: these are holy ambitions. These are two positive, attractive alternatives. The choice that Paul is at a loss to make is not which misery he can avoid—the miseries of life, or the misery of terminating life by death. No, his indecision comes as a result of being unable to choose which blessing he prefers! For so many people—even many professing Christians—the prospects of life and death present themselves as a choice of the lesser of two evils. But this statement from Paul offers us a loving rebuke for such a sluggish frame of heart. For the Christian—one who’s greatest passion is the magnification of Christ, the one who is satisfied more by Christ than all that life can offer and all that death can take—the prospect of life or death is a dilemma of delight.
John Calvin said this in his commentary on this passage: “As persons in despair feel in perplexity as to whether they ought to prolong their life any farther in miseries, or to terminate their troubles by death, so Paul, on the other hand, [and we could say, “…so the Christian, on the other hand”] says that he is, in a spirit of contentment, so well prepared for death or for life…that he is at a loss which to choose” (42). He was so well prepared for death or for life because for him to live was Christ, and to die was to gain even more of Christ. Another commentator wrote, “On either side of the veil, Jesus Christ is all things to him” (Moule).
Are you so prepared? Is Jesus Christ all things to you, whether in life or in death? Is this a delightful dilemma for you as well? I pray that as we look more deeply into these two holy ambitions that your hearts would be ignited to share them—that you would know the joyful tug of your affections between the blessing of immediate, face-to-face fellowship with Christ and the blessing of life-laid-down ministry to God’s people.
I. Paul Longs to Depart and Be with Christ (v. 23b)
Let’s look now to the first of those holy ambitions which demonstrate the soul of true godliness. Number one: Paul longs to depart and be with Christ. To depart and be with Christ. Verse 23: “But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better.”
Now the first thing to notice here is how Paul speaks of death. He says that he has the desire to depart and be with Christ. This word “depart” is the Greek word analuo, and literally means “to loosen up” or “to untie.” It is used in a military context to refer to packing up a tent. After dwelling temporarily in a particular camp for some time, the time would come for the soldiers to break camp, pack up their tents, and depart for their next expedition. The word is also used in a nautical context to refer to the releasing of a ship from the moorings that tied it to the dock. The time has come to set sail and depart, and so the moorings that tied the ship down must be cut. By using this word to speak of his death—both here and in 2 Timothy 4:6 when he says that “the time of my departure has come”—Paul teaches us that death, for the Christian, is simply the breaking of camp—the packing up of our temporary earthly tent, and moving on to our heavenly home. It is simply the cutting of our moorings, so that we might be free to set sail to the place our Lord has prepared for us.
Notice, also, the close connection between the reality of death and fellowship with Christ. “…having the desire,” Paul says “to depart and be with Christ.” That phrase is to be read as a unit. The grammar of the original makes that abundantly clear in a way that unfortunately can’t quite be expressed in an English translation. The grammatical explanation is that the two infinitive phrases, “to depart,” and “to be with Christ,” are connected by a single article. But the point is that it is impossible for Paul to conceive of the Christian’s death apart from being immediately in the presence of the Lord Himself. He says this elsewhere, in 2 Corinthians 5:8, that familiar passage that says, “to be absent from the body [is] to be at home with the Lord.”
And while we could embark at this point into a glorious study of the intermediate state and the state of the soul and the body before and after the return of the Lord to earth, suffice it to say, simply, that this text absolutely obliterates all so-called teaching of soul sleep. The idea that after death our soul merely lapses into a state of unconsciousness that awaits the future resurrection is entirely foreign to Scripture. The same can be said for the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory—the idea that between death and paradise the soul must undergo a further purging of sin in preparation for Heaven. Both of these doctrines are absolutely repugnant to the clear teaching of Scripture. For the one who has repented of his sin and trusts Christ for righteousness, to leave the present state of this life is to enter immediately into the presence of the Lord Jesus.
It is no wonder, then, that Paul longs for death with such intensity. The intensity of Paul’s yearning to be with Christ is expressed in the phrase, “having the desire to depart and be with Christ.” This word for “desire” is epithumia, which describes an intense longing and a yearning. In fact, this is the normal New Testament word for sinful lust, such as the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes in 1 John 2:16. But it’s also used in a good sense of a strong desire with no sinful connotations. Luke 22:15 tells us that Jesus earnestly desired to eat the Passover meal with His disciples. In this same way, then, with this same intensity, Paul longed to break camp—he longed to cut his moorings—so that he could be in the presence of the Savior he so loved and cherish. This was not a casual preference, like, “Oh, that’d sure be nice!” This was an intense longing, a yearning homesickness and lovesickness for the Savior that was at the bottom of his affections.
And yet, so many of us, even as Christians, know nothing of such intense yearning. We have allowed ourselves to become so distracted and enchanted by the allurements of this life—our affections have become so attached to the pleasures of this world—that the idea of death and reunion with Christ is viewed as an undesirable consolation prize for the failure to realize our worldly ambitions! “Oh I can’t die yet! I’ve got big plans for my retirement!” “Oh I can’t go to Heaven yet! I still haven’t made a name for myself in the world!”
C. Death for the Christian
For those of you whose hearts have grown so cold to your Savior, we need only to press them to the fire of Scripture to have them warmed with love again in the light of what God has revealed that death will be for the Christian.
First, death will mean the end of our limited knowledge and finite understanding. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 verse 12: “…now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.”
That is just an amazing statement. One day we will know just like God knows us. One day, we’ll finally be able to see the wonderful, grand mosaic of history from the perspective of the Divine Designer. And on that day, all will make perfect sense. Every trial, every tear, every grunt in the battle against sin, and every groan in the endurance of suffering will arrive perfectly at home in our understanding. Experiences that we do our best to avoid at all costs now—experiences which God nevertheless ordains that we receive—will at that time seem to us to have been so necessary that we won’t be able to imagine that it could have been any other way. We will know with perfect clarity how a sovereign, righteous, and wise God can ordain for His greatest glory the massacre of 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Connecticut. Oh, don’t you long for the day when the cognitive and emotional dissonance that is produced by what seems to be such senselessness is banished by the gift of heavenly knowledge! And as a result of all of the circumstances of this life that now perplex us, we will see in greater measure and fullness the glory of God.
Secondly, death will bring the end of sin. And, as James Montgomery Boice said, “The Christian who has tasted the delight of God’s righteousness longs for a purity that he will never have on earth. He longs to be free of sin…and he knows that death brings [this]” (82). In 2 Corinthians 5, building on the metaphor of “departure” as breaking camp, Paul actually describes our present bodies as earthly tents—temporary dwelling places that will one day give way to heavenly dwellings. 2 Corinthians 5, verse 1: “For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven.” Romans 8:23, Paul says, along with creation “…we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.”
And I want to know: Do you groan? Are you tired of the fight with sin? Are you wearied by the war that is waged between your flesh and the Spirit? I am! I want to be done! I want to serve and worship Christ in perfect purity and holiness! And the promise that one day I will—that one day by God’s grace I will finish this race—gives me the strength and power to keep running, and keep fighting, and keep battling, with my eyes fixed on Jesus, and the rest to be had in Him at the finish line.
And that leads us to the greatest benefit of all. Ultimately, death is gain for Paul because it brings more of Christ to Paul, and more of Paul to Christ (Hendriksen, 76). Death for the Christian is not merely the escape of the worst this life has to offer; it’s an improvement on the very best this life has to offer, because it brings us to unhindered, unmediated, sin-free, face-to-face fellowship with our Lord Jesus. He is the great gain and the great glory of Heaven. He is the great end of the Christian life. And that is why death is “very much better,” as Paul says in verse 23. Literally, “much more better.” That’s bad English, but good Greek. Paul just piles on the comparatives one after another to try to find some way to express how wonderful it will be to finally be with Christ. Just as much as marriage is “very much better” than the engagement, so is death “very much better” than life, if it means that it will bring us to Christ.
The Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes, in a sermon on this text, puts it like no one else can put it: “Why doth [Paul] not say, I desire to be in heaven? Ans. Because heaven is not heaven without Christ. It is better to be in any place with Christ than to be in heaven itself without him. All delicacies without Christ are but as a funeral banquet. Where the master of the feast is away, there is nothing but solemnness. What is all without Christ? I say the joys of heaven are not the joys of heaven without Christ; he is the very heaven of heaven. … To be with Christ is to be at the spring-head of all happiness.”
And the Scriptures agree with him. Listen to these passages from the worship songs of the saints of old:
- Psalm 16:11 – You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.
- Psalm 17:15 – As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake.
- Psalm 27:4 – One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD And to meditate in His temple.
- Psalm 65:4 – How blessed is the one whom You choose and bring near to You to dwell in Your courts. We will be satisfied with the goodness of Your house, Your holy temple.
- Psalm 73:23–28 – Whom have I in heaven but You? … My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
- And as the Apostle John brings his glorious report of his heavenly vision to a close, he speaks, in Revelation chapter 22 verses 1 to 5, of the great end of God’s people, he summarizes the consummation of their entire lives lived by faith when he says in verse 4: “They will see His face.”
Oh friends, Jesus is what makes Heaven Heaven! Jesus is what makes death “much more better” than the best this life can offer! And I ask you this morning: Is He enough for you? If He is, then there’s no need to slavishly cling to this life. Everything this life could offer you is dwarfed in the light of Christ’s glory. If He is enough, then there’s no need to fear death. By repentance and faith in Christ, the death which was once our greatest and final enemy has now become our friend, as it is merely the passageway to our greatest delight.
But what if He is not that for you? What about those of you sitting here, who, when I read those Scriptures, and ask those questions, are simply saying to yourselves, “I don’t feel that way. He is not more precious to me than all that life can offer. Heaven could be Paradise if Jesus wasn’t there”? What do I have to say to you?
Well, the first thing I have to say to you is that it’s very possible that you need new eyes. And that you need a new heart. If death is not gain for you, because Christ is not life for you, you need to be born again. You need to put away all of your idols—all the things you worship in Jesus’ place—and you need to go to Him in repentance and beg Him to open your eyes—beg Him to show you His glory—beg Him to win over your heart from sins than can never satisfy you. You need to go to His Word and saturate your mind with the revelation of His glory, and pray that God would grant you the eyes to see Him, so that you might finally, for the first time in your life, repent and believe the Gospel.
And what about those of you who are in between? Those of you who say, “By God’s great grace, that is me, He is my greatest gain, He is what makes Heaven Heaven. But I have let such thoughts and affections fly so far from my consciousness that I need to be refreshed and restored.” What do you do? How can you cultivate your affections for the One for whom your affections were created? How can Christ become the gain of your dying?
The answer is similar. You need to saturate the eyes of your heart with the glory of Christ. It means going to the Word every single day—not just reading to check off the boxes on the reading plan. Not just reading for exposure. Not just reading to learn new theology or find new arguments in support of doctrines. It means going to the Word every day to see Jesus. To get to know Him. To follow in His footsteps, as it were, observing His behavior and paying attention to His words. To admire Him. And to be asking the Lord the whole way: “Father, open my eyes that I may behold, not just wondrous things from Your Word, but a Wonderful Savior from Your Word. Give me the eyes to see Him as He is, and give me a heart to treasure and worship Him for what I then see.”
And I trust that by the power of His own Word, the Holy Spirit will kindle in you a holy ambition to depart and be with Christ, just as He had done with Paul.
II. Paul Rejoices to Labor for the Benefit of God’s People (vv. 22a, 24–25)
Well then, we come now to Paul’s second holy ambition as revealed in this passage. On the one hand he longed to depart from this life and be with Christ. But on the other hand of this sanctified dilemma, we learn that Paul also rejoiced to labor for the benefit of God’s people. He rejoiced to labor for the benefit of God’s people. Read with me, starting in verse 22: “But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me.” Skip to verse 24: “…to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith.”
As much as Paul yearns to die and be with Christ, he also recognizes that his continuing on in the flesh will mean fruitful labor and increased benefit for the people of God. And as he considers and assesses the situation, he recognizes that the Philippian church is a young church—only about 10 or 12 years old—and that there are issues that exist within the church that indicate they’d greatly benefit from apostolic instruction—issues like the importance of steadfastness in the face of false teaching and persecution (1:27; 4:1), unity among disagreeing brothers and sisters (1:27; 2:2; 4:2–3), humility and regarding one another as more important than oneself (2:3), and the importance of rejoicing amidst trials (2:18; 3:1; 4:4).
And without any direct revelation from God, but with a keen understanding of God’s providential workings as Christ builds His Church in those formative days, Paul becomes convinced that God’s sovereign plan includes his remaining and continuing on in his ministry. Again, this is not because of any special revelation, otherwise there would be no reason to say that he didn’t know which to prefer. If God told him directly, he’d set his heart on what God told him. But because of his perception of the situation, he comes to a conviction that he will most likely be released from prison, and will continue on for the benefit of God’s people.
And so as we considered the first holy ambition of this sanctified dilemma, we got a fuller understanding of what it means for the faithful follower of Christ that “to die is gain.” Now, as we turn to this second sanctified passion, we discover more of what it means for the godly person that “to live is Christ.” In other words, how does the Christian who would be overjoyed to depart and be with Christ forever—how does that Christian live faithfully, when he realizes that, at least for now, it’s not God’s will that he be taken home? What is the Christian life about?
Well the first thing that Paul speaks about in verse 22 is “fruitful labor:” “But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me.” He’s speaking there of the toilsome labor of Gospel ministry. In verse 25, he calls it laboring for the Philippians’ “progress and joy in the faith.” The point is: Paul’s alternative to dying and being with Christ did not mean an easy, refreshing retirement! To live on in the flesh did not mean playing relaxing games of shuffleboard while he cruised the Mediterranean! It meant work. Labor. Toil. Striving. He wrote in Colossians 1:28: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” In Galatians 4:19 he compared his travail on behalf of the church’s spiritual progress to a mother’s labor pains. The ESV translates it: “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” This is the picture of one for whom to live is Christ. It is the laying down of your life in order to aid in the progressive sanctification of God’s people.
And he regards none of this as a grim, burdensome duty! It was simply the working out of his own salvation with fear and trembling, as God graciously worked in him (Phil 2:12–13; cf. 1 Cor 15:10). As one commentator points out, he didn’t complain about “all the physical ailments and the emotional turmoil that he would surely have to endure if he continued to live” (Hansen, 85). In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. His own desire and longing for this difficult, toilsome, wearisome, diligent labor rivaled his desire to die and be in Heaven with Christ face-to-face! Oh may we get to that place where difficult ministry is a labor of love!
But perhaps the most important thing to note, though, is that Paul’s sanctified dilemma was not a battle between being with Christ and not being with Christ. It was not a choice between (a) Christ and (b) the people of Christ. Rather, to minister Christ to others—to labor so that others would come to treasure Christ as more valuable than anything—is itself an act of worship and fellowship with Christ. As H. G. Moule said, Paul’s “was a dilemma between Christ and Christ, Christ much and Christ more, Christ by faith and Christ by sight” (257). For Paul, to die was to gain more of Christ, but to live was Christ also! And so Paul was not choosing to serve the people of Christ over serving and worshiping Christ Himself. He was choosing to worship and serve Christ by serving Christ’s people.
And that’s how this text fits with the previous one. In verses 19 to 21, we stated a number of times that “to live is Christ” means to be more satisfied by Christ than by all that life can offer. So, verses 19 to 21 teach us that the first great duty of every Christian is to open his own eyes and tune his own heart to the Word of God, so that he is more satisfied by Christ than by anything else in this entire world. But now, what we learn from verses 22 to 26 is: if for you to live is Christ, such that all the world and even your very life is counted as rubbish so that you may gain Christ, then you must lay down your life in diligent labor so that others will come to have that same passion—so that others will see Christ clearly and be so satisfied in Him that for them He is more precious than all that life can offer and all that death can take.
This is exactly what Paul means when he says he labors for their “progress and joy in the faith.” What is spiritual progress but growing to worship Christ more fully in all areas of life? And what is joy but the experience of satisfaction in Christ that magnifies His worth? Put simply, as we pursue our joy in Christ above all else, we diligently labor to help others pursue their joy in Christ above all else. We live to put Christ on display as magnificently glorious. And that means that living for God’s glory, and living so that others come to find their joy and satisfaction in Christ, are not two separate pursuits. They’re the same! We live for the glory of Christ when we surrender our lives to make others glad in God, because it is their enjoyment of and satisfaction in God that glorifies Him most.
And so, following Paul’s example of godliness, as we continue to live on in the flesh, our lives must be characterized by the diligent labor of Gospel ministry, for the increasing progress and joy of God’s people.
Now you say, “That’s great, Mike. But what’s the application for those of us who aren’t pastors, missionaries, and seminary professors?” And the answer is: the application is the same. Because all of you are ministers of the New Covenant, 2 Corinthians 3:5 and 6. The entire church is called a royal priesthood, 1 Peter 2:9, which means that every individual Christian is a priest of God to bless the world. When the application of Scripture seems to fit most naturally for those who are “in ministry,” rejoice! Because you’re in ministry! Everywhere you are! You may not earn your living from the Gospel, but you are all called to ministry as members of the body of Christ.
So the first way to apply laboring for the progress and joy of God’s people is to be actively involved and actively participating in the ministry of the local church. That starts with committing to being here every Sunday, under normal circumstances. And it means getting up early enough to make it to GraceLife, or another of our fellowship groups, every Sunday. It means making yourself known to the pastors and shepherds of that fellowship group, and especially to other members of the group. It means developing relationships with other believers through Bible studies. It means involving yourselves in discipleship relationships—ideally where you are being discipled by someone more mature in the faith, and where you are discipling someone less mature in the faith. And it means finding a way to employ your spiritual gifts in a manner that builds up and benefits the body.
And as you minister this way in the church, the question you must continue to ask yourself is, “How can I put the glory and the worth and the loveliness of Christ on display? What can I do or say to draw attention to Him? What can I do or say that will help others come to see and savor Him for who He is?” If you’re faithful to ask and answer those questions often, and then put those answers into practice, you will labor faithfully for the progress and joy of your fellow believers.
And this can be done outside the church as well. If you have a job during the day, recognize that the Lord has sovereignly placed you in the context of relationships with non-Christians in order for you to bear witness to His worth by proclaiming the Gospel. This is the beginning of laboring for people’s progress and joy in the faith. First they have to be “in the faith.” And that happens by evangelism. Now, I don’t mean that you should neglect your responsibilities and turn every single conversation into a Gospel presentation. Your employer is not a missionary agency. But you should wisely and winsomely build relationships with the unbelievers God has put in your life so that you might take an appropriate time to introduce your friends to Jesus.
If you’re a mom, and your primary context of life is in the home with your kids, consider how you can use that time to labor for their progress and joy in the faith. They’re your own little mission field or discipleship group—and maybe even a mixture of both! And even besides your kids—or maybe if you’re a homemaker with no kids in the house—there are neighbors, friends, grocery store workers that you can intentionally cultivate relationships with in order to speak the Gospel to them.
It really is the case that every Christian is called to ministry—that every Christian is called to live on in the flesh to fruitfully labor for the progress and joy of God’s people!
Conclusion: Glorying in Christ as Revealed in His People (v. 26)
And what is the end result of ministry that labors for the benefit of God’s people? Ultimately it is so that God’s people will come to boast all the more in Christ. Here is a literal translation of verse 26: “…so that your proud confidence may abound in Christ Jesus in me through my coming to you again.” The point is: God’s people see clearly the grace of God that is evident in the diligent labor of ministry, and their perception of that grace gives occasion for their boasting in Christ.
Such a fitting end to Paul’s report about his own circumstances, that began back in verse 12. The Gospel is advancing, Christ is being preached, and Christ will be magnified in Paul’s body, whether by life or by death. Therefore, far from worrying, being discouraged, or being ashamed of Paul’s chains, the Philippians should boast—confidently and joyfully—in all that Christ is accomplishing, and will continue to accomplish, through Paul.
Do you know something of Paul’s sanctified dilemma? Have these two holy ambitions that revealed the soul of true godliness made a home in your own heart? Do you think of life and death in the way that Paul thought of them?
For Paul, the most important thing was to magnify the worth of Christ. To live was Christ, and to die was gain because it brought more of Christ. To die was to go and be with Him face to face—to serve Him and worship Him, unencumbered by sin and suffering. To live was to spend his life laboring so that others would come to worship Christ in the manner and to the degree that He is worthy of.
My final question to you is the same as it was last time: What are you living for? In what are you pursuing your satisfaction and joy? And what are you dying for? I pray it’s Jesus.
 Albert N. Martin, the longtime pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Montville, NJ.