O Happy Death!


Philippians 1:18-26

So far in the first chapter of this letter Paul has greeted his friends in the church in Philippi and recalled with thanksgiving their participation with him in the work of the gospel. He has brought them up to date on his situation and, in particular, sought to encourage them by telling them that one result of his imprisonment is that the gospel has spread through the Praetorian Guard, the elite imperial bodyguard in Rome. There is some petty jealousy among some gospel workers, to be sure, but the main thing is that the gospel is advancing in the capital of the world. In the next paragraph Paul continues to give his friends an account of his present state of mind. He is still at work putting to rest their understandable concern for him.

Text Comment

v.19

The thought continues from the previous verse. Paul rejoices because the gospel is advancing and for an additional reason. The repetition may suggest a very human touch. Paul is crushing the personal annoyance he feels at the jealous antagonism of his adversaries within the church with another, higher consideration. [Lightfoot; Silva]

The NIV has taken Paul to mean that the things that have transpired will result in his deliverance, that is, in his release from prison. The word, however, is the ordinary word for salvation and that, almost certainly, is Paul’s meaning here. What we have here is the often repeated teaching of the Bible that our trials and difficulties are part of the means the Lord employs to carry us safely to the end of our pilgrimage. And, as Paul goes on to say in the next verses, this salvation, this deliverance will come whether or not he is released from prison, whether or not he dies there. As Calvin comments: “…it is evident from what follows, that he is not speaking of the safety of the body.” [NT Commentaries, xi, 237] In other words, whatever may be the judgment of the human court in Rome, Paul is confident he will be vindicated in the court of heaven. [O’Brien, 108] Paul is talking about his perseverance in faith and in the accomplishment of his life’s purpose which is to give glory to Jesus Christ. It is remarkable and very important to hear no one less than the great Apostle to the Gentiles say that he will continue to be faithful to the end only through the prayers of his Christian friends and by the help of the Holy Spirit. Even Paul’s growth in grace and faithfulness in life does not come to pass in isolation, but through the support of the church. The godly Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch in the early 2nd century, on his way to martyrdom in Rome, wrote to the church in Philadelphia, “Your prayer will perfect me.” [Phild. 5:1; cited in Silva, 72]

v.20

He will not be put to shame, that is, before God. Paul, the servant of Christ, would be ashamed if his Lord was not glorified through his life and death. [O’Brien, 114] The startling new thought, which is now to be developed in the following verses, is that Paul’s salvation, his deliverance doesn’t depend upon whether he lives or dies. [Silva, 72]

v.21

The precise form of this famous statement must mean, as the following verses demonstrate, that while life in this world lived in fellowship with Christ has incomparable advantages, death is even better.

v.26

Paul was a man whose life had been lived and was then being lived in the service of others. He was not a man who lived for his own pleasure or made decisions based on what would be happiest for him. He expects not to go to heaven immediately – his personal preference – but to remain for the sake of the Philippians (and others) who were still in need of his ministry.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians he was under arrest in Rome. We know little of the precise details of his imprisonment, but there is reason to think that by this time Paul was reasonably confident that he would eventually be released. In those days one could never count on a just outcome – Paul had certainly not done anything remotely deserving of Roman punishment – but Paul was hopeful, rightly as it turned out. He would be released and enjoy several more years of ministry before being arrested again and executed in Rome, almost certainly during the reign of the emperor Nero, sometime in the mid-60s, perhaps as early as the year 64.

But meantime he considers the two possibilities and frankly confesses that he would prefer death because death would take him immediately to Christ and to heaven. Death, he says, is not only “gain,” but “better by far.” Now, it is one thing to say that death is to be preferred to life if life is dark and cheerless. There were those in the ancient world who thought death would be a gain for that reason. In one of Plato’s dialogues [Ap. 40, C-D] Socrates says, “And if there is no consciousness, but it is like a sleep when the sleeper does not even see a dream, death would be a wonderful gain.” There are many people in the world for whom life holds little attraction. Many of the suicide bombers in the Middle East prefer death, not only because they have been promised Paradise if they die for the cause, but because they have so little to live for otherwise. Many of them, by all accounts, are alienated, frustrated young men looking for a purpose in life. The new novel, Terrorist, by John Updike, trades on this now familiar profile of the young male terrorist: a young man, Ahmad Mulloy, the son of an absent Muslim father and a lapsed Christian mother and alienated from his American culture and longing for identity, finds his sense of self and meaning in his role as a champion of Islam and enemy of all things Western. Here death is welcome in some large part because life holds no promise.

Long before terrorism there were others for whom death was thought to be a gain because it is an escape from the present world and one’s situation in it. No one has put this thought more memorably than Shakespeare in Hamlet.

To be, or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep –
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep –
To sleep – perchance to dream; ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. …
Who would [burdens] bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than to fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all…

In Hamlet’s immortal soliloquy, Shakespeare has given a near perfect expression of the worldly mind in the face of death: attraction and repulsion at one and the same time, and fear overcoming hope. Hamlet, torn by loneliness, sadness, and guilt, contemplates suicide. He craves release from the miseries of his life. But he cannot bring himself to take that fateful step because he doesn’t know for sure what death will bring. Will it be, as he would fondly wish, “a sleep which ends the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks which flesh is heir to?” If so, he would welcome it. But perhaps death is not extinction after all. As he puts it, “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come…must give us pause.”

He suffers from what Chesterton called the most universal experience of mankind: an uneasy conscience. And that guilty conscience made a coward of him. He suspects that if his existence does continue after death, it will not go well for him; he has too much to answer for.

But that was not Paul’s situation. He was living a life chock full of the highest conceivable purpose. He had friends all over the world. He was involved at the very center of what God was doing in the world. He had experienced in his life as a Christian the most astonishing things and had seen the power of God at work in the most dramatic ways. He was a success in every conceivable sense of the term. Life was full and rich and important. Even in prison he had a purpose and was seeing it wonderfully fulfilled. His captors were becoming Christians, for goodness sake! As many difficulties and hardships as he had faced, his life was full of joy: the joy of believing, the joy of salvation, the joy of Christian friendship, the joy of bringing life to others, the joy of anticipation of things to come.

And yet, full, rich, and happy as Paul’s life was, he was still eager to leave this world. It was not just that he was ready to die or willing to die. That doesn’t put the point strongly enough. Paul says it plainly: he wants to die! He was eager to die! To die in Christ is better than to live even the noblest life; better by far.

Now, let me ask you: do you want to die? Are you getting closer to having Paul’s mind about death? Paul was happy to go on living – rich and important as his life was – but he would have been even happier to learn that he was to die. Now, to be sure, Paul was facing execution, a swift death. No one is being asked to look forward to the slow, lingering, painful deaths that are now so commonly the lot of Christians and non-Christians alike in our modern world. For Paul death would come swiftly; but, then, death by fire, or beasts in the arena, or, God forbid, by crucifixion, was nothing to look forward to. But, as for death itself, Paul not only does not fear it, not only is not repelled by the prospect; he is actually looking forward to it and eager to experience it. Finding himself between the two alternatives of life and death – both of which had great attraction to him – he was like a great athlete being courted by several prominent universities, or a graduate at the top of his class at Harvard Law being courted by a number of prominent firms, or a beautiful girl who can have her pick of suitors. His options were alike wonderful and whatever ensued for him would be someone else’s dream come true. Life or death: this representative Christian is torn between the two; wants both, but prefers death.

Now, most of you, I gather, aren’t really thinking in these terms. I remember as a boy or young man sometimes lying in bed at night and having come over me the terrible realization that I must die. It was not a welcome thought at all. Death is, after all, as the Bible itself says, an enemy. But in the maturity of his Christian life, Paul has come to the place where he actually welcomes death, looks forward to it, anticipates it.

And why? Because if he lives he is with Christ, but if he dies he is much more with Christ. For Paul it was proximity to Christ, nearness to Christ, communion with Jesus Christ that was the measure of everything! In fact, Paul says, for a Christian, to die is to get to be so completely with Christ that, in comparison, all of our fellowship with Christ, all of our being with him in this world in the Word, in prayer, in worship, in the sacrament, in the communion of his heart, and all of Christ’s daily presence by the Holy Spirit, all of that is so much less than what we will have after we die that it must now be called something else. After all, as the Bible often says, Christians are with Christ now, in this world, this life. But you’ll never think of it as being with Christ after you are with Christ in the way you will be after you die! That is the point. The Christian after he or she dies is with Christ to a degree utterly unprecedented in this world. The separation between the visible and the invisible world will be overcome. And all that makes Christ here in this world a distant and shadowy figure, even to earnest Christians, will have been overcome and you will see him in his glory and the sight will drink up all your powers and make you in an instant a different and a wonderfully better person than you are now! No wonder Paul is looking forward to it!

It is interesting, by the way, that the same phrase – “to be with Christ” or “with the Lord” – is used in the New Testament both to describe the result of a Christian’s death and the result of the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus. [1 Thess. 4:17] When Christ comes again we will be with Christ – we have some idea of what that means (physical sight, proximity, and presence in perfect, sinless communion – the glorious Son of God and your Savior, your friend will be standing right there and you will be looking right at him!) – but the same is true when we die! In other words, the being with Christ that comes to pass when a Christian dies, is much more like the Second Coming than it is like our communion with the Lord by faith in this world. And, for Paul, that settles the matter. The opportunity to be with Christ in that more visible, direct, complete, personal, intimate, and perfect way transcends any blessing that a Christian might enjoy living with and for the Lord in this world. Remember, here we are talking about what “we” get, not what we do for others. Here Paul is talking about what will make him the happiest and fulfill him the most wonderfully. He’s talking about his own greater blessing and his own greater happiness and that, he says, comes with my death.

If you remember, our Savior said a very similar thing to his disciples the night of his betrayal. He had been speaking to them about his leaving them to go to his Father and they had, understandably, been upset by that. They didn’t want him to leave. His presence had been their life for those three years. And so to comfort them he said,

“You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.”

That is, the disciples had been concentrating solely on the prospect of their own loss. If they truly loved Jesus, they would also think of his gain, going back as he was to his home, to his Father, and to the far greater glory of heaven. Paul had the same mind as Jesus. Going to heaven is the greatest conceivable privilege. Next to it anything that a man might experience or accomplish in this world pales in comparison. Christians are absolutely right to think this way about the death of their Christian loved ones. They may be desolate at the loss, at the separation, but death being what it is for a Christian, they could never ask that their loved one be given back to them, made to return to this world for their sake. The Christian knows that death is a very different thing for the one who dies than it is for the one who is left behind!

Loved while on earth, nor less beloved tho’ gone!
Think not I envy you your crown;
No, if I could, I would not call you down.
Tho’ slower is my pace,
To you I’ll follow on,
Leaning on Jesus all the way,
Who now and then lets fall a ray
Of comfort from his throne.
[Augustus Toplady (1740-1778]

Paul’s welcoming of death, his desire to die may take us aback, but there is nothing morbid here. Paul has nothing of the suicide bomber’s alienation from the world or Hamlet’s melancholy distaste for life. He is, in fact, happy to stay and work on for the gospel’s sake, which, in fact he expects to do. He is not worried about being exposed to shame should he live or should he die because he is confident that God will approve him, first because of Christ’s perfect righteousness which is his by faith, but also because he has served the Lord, certainly not perfectly but faithfully. That is what he means when he says, in v. 20, that he expects not to be ashamed because he will continue courageously to give glory to Christ. He would later say, in his last work, 2 Timothy, written shortly before his death, that he had fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith, and so there is laid up for him a crown of righteousness. That is the idea here too. He is not celebrating his achievements; he is simply saying that he has lived the life of a follower of Christ. With all his imperfections and failures – and Paul is not shy about admitting those – he has been a Christian man and lived a Christian life and done a Christian’s work by the grace of God and as he was helped by the prayers of the saints. Such a life will be followed by vindication and death is the doorway to that happy triumph.

Nor is there anything superficial here, as if Paul is blithely dismissing the pains and sorrows of death. He knows those well enough and speaks of them honestly in his letters. Death is bitter; but here he is saying that it is bitter-sweet. The experience of dying is no fun; not for the dying and not for his or her loved ones. We know that. I have witnessed death and shared it enough now to know that dying is bad business. But the fact is, that painful, mournful journey is, at last, only the last difficult climb to vistas of unimaginable beauty. As Bunyan beautifully put it in Pilgrim’s Progress, where he describes the pilgrims’ crossing of the last river:

“…when they tasted of the water of that river over which they were to go, they thought that it tasted a little bitterish to the palate, but it proved sweeter when it was down.”

Paul is not talking about dying, he’s talking about death!

Now it requires no particular daring on my part to say that few of us can honestly claim completely to share Paul’s cheerful and eager anticipation of death. Our lives are so full of what we can see, hear, and touch; our faith is so weak and our sight of the unseen world so dim; we have invested so much of our hope for happiness and reward in this life and this world that it is hard for us to have the same relish for death as did the so clear-sighted apostle. But there is no doubt – no Christian can doubt – that we ought to think about death as Paul did and we ought to welcome it as cheerfully as he did and we ought to contemplate it with as much anticipation as he did. Anyone who believes the gospel knows that!

We certainly want Paul’s peace and joy do we not? He begins this paragraph talking about his own joy and ends it talking about helping the Philippians onward to joy and the entire section drips with the happiest, healthiest outlook on life. He’s untroubled no matter what comes! We want to be like that. Take the worst – death itself – and Paul is looking forward to it! We want that for ourselves. And, obviously, taking the sting out of death is a large part of what makes possible such a happy outlook on life, even amidst its difficulties and disappointments. If there remains at the end of our pilgrimage a black curtain, guarded by a grim reaper, and if each hour and each day takes us closer to what we fear, then having a genuinely sunny outlook on life is not easy, not unless we do what most do and simply ignore the fact of death, deny it by resolutely turning our minds away from it. But happiness of that kind is a sham. It is only happiness because we refuse to face facts. We are all going to die and that is the fact. And death is coming fast to everyone of us. That is the simple truth. Happiness based on the denial of death can last only so long and support only so much. It is a sham happiness and won’t stand up to the rigors of life in this world. But the real thing stands any test. Paul was happy while looking death straight in the face: it posed no threat to him. So little was it a threat that he found himself wishing he could die sooner rather than later. Happy to live so long as we can live for Christ; eager to die when the time comes so as to be with Christ. That is the recipe for the human life every Christian wants to live and every Christian ought to live.

So how do we come to have Paul’s mind about death? How can we come to think of it as he did, to welcome it as he did, to be so happily indifferent as to whether we live or die? Well, Paul had advantages. Let’s not kid ourselves. He had seen the Lord Christ in his glory on the Damascus Road. He knew something of the Lord’s glory and, like all who see the glory of God, he longed to see it again. He had also been given a vision, he was taken up into heaven and given to see and hear things: things so wonderful, he tells us in 2 Cor. 12:4, that he was not permitted to describe them to others. He knew that heaven was real; he knew something of how inexpressibly glorious it is. He had been given a taste of the greatest things human beings ever experience and it was entirely natural that he wanted more.

We haven’t had such visions. We have not seen the glory of Christ. But that does not mean we cannot seek for ourselves the same mind about death that Paul had. He took a trip to heaven – whether in his body or out of it he wasn’t sure – and we can do that, at least by faith.

If you were going to take a trip, say to Europe, you would buy and read in advance some guidebooks in order to make the most of your journey. Your anticipation would build as you read of the wonderful things you would soon see. Well, every Christian is going to take this journey sooner or later and there are guidebooks to be read in advance that will wonderfully spark your anticipation.

As my sister was dying, now some ten years ago, through the last month of her life, I called her every morning and, for half an hour or so, read to her from some of these guidebooks. From the Bible of course, the best guidebook of all, and its glorious descriptions of the heavenly country and the life of the world to come. The Bible has much to tell us about both the journey and the destination. But from many others books as well. I read to her the river-crossing scenes from the two parts of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I read to her from Alexander Whyte’s sermons and Samuel Rutherford’s Letters, from Dante’s Paradiso and Adolphe Monod’s Farewell. And all of that, I found, made me think very differently about my sister’s death and about my own. I found in my own heart and mind, I think for the first time in any powerful and lasting way, at least the beginnings of an anticipation of death and of being in heaven with Christ.

But, remember this, it is Christ that draws Paul’s attention forward through death to what is beyond. The more you are with Jesus here, the more you will crave to be closer to him, to know him better, to see him more clearly, to be with him the way the saints are with him after they die. The way to Paul’s mind about life and death is the way of communion with Christ. Seek him and find him in your daily life and the prospect of seeing him on the other side will make death seem like little more than a door through which a happy man passes to still more wonderful things.