“To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
If police officers arrested you tomorrow and threw you in prison because you went to church last Sunday, what would your first letter to your friends and family sound like? Sitting on a concrete bench, staring at thick steel bars, wondering how long you will be held, you’ve been given a piece of paper and a pencil. How would you tell your family what happened? What would you say about the law, and your rights, and the officers who arrested you? How would you describe what you were feeling?
What you or I would write in that letter — from the bottom of our hearts — reveals something about how much (or little) we really trust Jesus. In one sense, we would have every right to protest and complain — it would be wrong for them to throw us in jail. But if Jesus is real, we never have a good reason to grumble or despair. If being falsely accused and wrongly incarcerated ruins our hope and joy and confidence, we have not yet discovered real hope and joy and confidence.
Never settle for a God who cannot satisfy you in a prison cell.
Paul’s Storm: Prison
When the apostle Paul said, “To me to live is Christ,” he was sitting in jail. Many of us sing and recite lines like that from the comfort and security of freedom — freedom to believe, freedom to worship, freedom even to share our faith with others. We could walk our neighborhoods rehearsing our hope in Jesus at the top of our lungs, and perhaps never receive worse than a curious stare or awkward conversation. Not Paul — and not Christians in many places around the world today.
When Paul said, “To me to live is Christ,” he wrote it from incarceration. He didn’t harm anyone or commit any crime. He simply refused to remain quiet about his greatest love. And sitting there lonely, uncomfortable, abandoned, and humiliated, he still refused to remain quiet about his greatest love. He worshiped. He didn’t write to the other believers to complain about how he had been treated, or to plead with them to petition for his release, or to wallow in self-pity as a prisoner. No, he wrote to tell them to rejoice in Jesus — to remember and proclaim his name.
He says later in his letter, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4) — from prison. Do not waste your heart worrying about me or pitying me. Enjoy Jesus with me.
To Live Is Christ
What does it mean when Paul says, “To live is Christ”? When we look at the verses before and after, we see that it means at least two things. In the verse before, he says, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20). “To live is Christ” means to live for Christ — to honor him with the life he has given us.
In the following verses, he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith” (Philippians 1:23–25). “To live is Christ” means to spend yourself for others’ faith in Christ — to work and sacrifice and plead for them to believe and enjoy him.
As we live, and rejoice in Christ even when the worst happens, striving to honor him in what he has called us to do while we are here, we are doing whatever we can to bring others to him.
To Die Is Gain
But up until now we’ve only sung half of Philippians 1:21: “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Christ will never be truly sweet to us while we’re alive here on earth unless we believe that life will get better with him after we die. Again, Paul says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” If we try to live for Christ now without wanting to be with Christ, we’re probably not really living for Christ. We’re probably living for ourselves.
The key to living for Jesus, even alone behind bars, is to anchor our brief life here in our joy in him. If we can begin now, by faith, to taste the better waiting for us in eternity, we will be better equipped and motivated to make the most of our circumstances today — whether they are good or bad, hard or happy, expected or unexpected, whether we are free or in prison.
Abandoned or Acclaimed
Some of you don’t need to be told to run to Jesus if you get thrown in prison. In fact, you only cry out to him when you’re in trouble. But this is a name for trials and victories, for abandonment and acclaim, for the lowest moments and the highest ones. Paul says in the same letter from prison, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12).
What is the secret of joy and contentment in the face of whatever life brings? It’s centering and anchoring our joy and contentment in Christ, rather than in our circumstances. John Piper says, “When we have little and have lost much, Christ comes and reveals himself as more valuable than what we have lost. And when we have much and are overflowing in abundance, Christ comes and he shows that he is far superior to everything we have.”