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January 20th, 2019

By Life or by Death

Paul Copeland

Philippians 1:18b – 26

Writing from prison, St. Paul opens his heart to the Philippian church and shares the deep struggles of his soul.  In so doing, he not only informs them of his circumstances but, pastorally, he models the attitudes and outlook that he will exhort them to cultivate in their life as a church.  In particular, we may anticipate his call to rejoice.  In 3:1 he will write, “Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.  He repeats this exhortation in 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”  These words have made their way into more than a few hymns and praise choruses down through the years, perhaps most notably in our own hymnal, Charles Wesley’s “Rejoice the Lord is King.” 

As a prisoner awaiting a trial that will decide his fate, where so much is outside of his control and has the potential to bring greater discouragement, and even death, he finds reason to rejoice.   So, before he urges them to Rejoice in 3:1 and 4:4, he writes in 1:18, the bridge between this Sunday and last Sunday’s reading: “What does it matter?  Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.  Yes, I will continue to rejoice...”   Paul looks at his situation from the standpoint of Christ, and from that vantage point he is able to rejoice. 

Note that Paul’s own testimony in 1:18—whether by design or otherwise—corresponds to his double exhortation in 4:4 “Rejoice and again I will say Rejoice.”  Paul rejoices, and he rejoices again. First, he rejoices in 1:18 that Christ is preached; But then he says that he will continue to rejoice. This pertains not to Christ being preached by many, but to his anticipation of his trial and his confidence that, through prayer and the help of the Spirit, deliverance will come to him. As he elaborates the full significance of this he will ultimately model another attitude to which he will exhort them—namely, putting the concerns and needs of others ahead of themselves.   More on that in a few moments. 

That Paul can rejoice in his confidence that things will work out for his deliverance—literally, his salvation [soteria in Greek]—indicates that his rejoicing springs from deep faith.  Paul clearly has a deep faith in the power of the Gospel message, so much so that he is confident that it will bear fruit even when those who preach it lack integrity.  We recall that the Lord taught that there would be many on the judgement day who will be surprised to find themselves on the outside.  They will say, “Lord, did we not prophesy and cast out demons in your name,” and he will answer, “Depart, I never knew you.”  The name of Jesus is powerful.  The word of the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.  Its power does not lie in the messenger, so, as we read last week, Paul was able to rejoice that the Gospel was preached, whether by people of integrity or whether by people who could only be described as mean spirited.  This is faith.

Yet it is clearly not the will of God that character of those who bear witness to the Gospel should contradict the Gospel.  The Good News is that Christ saves us from our sins.  The working out of our salvation involves putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.  When St. Paul says that he rejoices because he knows that things will work out for his salvation, his principal thought is that he will not fail to bear faithful witness in his trial.  For Paul, in this particular context, salvation means that his courage will not fail before those who hold the power of life and death.  Salvation means that he will not be put to shame.  Salvation means that Christ will be glorified in his body.  

We should appreciate that his words, “This will turn out for my deliverance,” is in fact a quotation from the Greek Old Testament of the Book of Job 13:16.  The Hebrew text upon which our own Bibles are based is slightly different, but listen to how these verses read from 15-18:

15 See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face.
16 This will be my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him.
17 Listen carefully to my words, and let my declaration be in your ears.
18 I have indeed prepared my case; I know that I shall be vindicated.

Now, translating Job’s poetry is challenging and we have no way of knowing exactly how Paul understood this text.  But, it is fascinating to realize that this text has been in his mind as he contemplates his trial.  This much is clear, though.  In this text, he found confidence that he would be able to present his case and that he would be vindicated.

St. Paul cannot know infallibly know the outcome ahead of time by searching his own inner courage.   But he is confident of the prayers of the brothers and sisters and the help of the Holy Spirit.  He sees his situation with the certainty of faith.  He has found a scripture through which the Lord spoken clearly into his life.  So his rejoicing in advance, his rejoicing in hope, is grounded in faith.

Or, to put it in the language of Philippians 2:12, bearing faithful witness to Christ in his trial will be the working out of his salvation.  It may result in his death, but, to come through the crisis with his integrity intact, to witness without compromise will be salvation.  All of this is to say that it mattered deeply to Paul that he should be a person of integrity, a person of uncompromising loyalty to Christ.  God may permit people who are as lazy as the lazybones of Proverbs 6 or as divisive as the sower of discord among brothers to become preachers; yet the will of God is that Messenger should be the Message, should live the message.

Last week, elders and deacons promised to walk before you with exemplary piety.  This promise springs from the same consideration, from the same hope that we will not be put to shame, but commend Christ to the world.  The full answer, of course, when this promise is made, whether stated or not is, Yes, I promise, with the help of God and the support of your prayers.  These are promises, when rightly undertaken, that should bring joy to those who make them.

It is at this point that we come to the heart of today’s scripture, where Paul shares his thoughts about how the verdict might go and what that might mean for him.  He has told them that his expectation and hope is that Christ will be exalted in his body, whether by life or by death.  He is face to face with life and death.  He realizes that things could go either way.  But, with Christ as his ultimate point of reference, he sees both possibilities in a positive light.  “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  Christ is his reason for living; dying would be gain, because to die would mean being with Christ in a way that cannot be experienced in this life.

By the way, Paul refers to “gain” later on in Philippians.  In 3:7 he says, “But whatever things were gain to me, I have come to regard as loss.”  Why? vs. 8.  “Because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ my Lord.”

Considered strictly from the standpoint of what would bring him the greatest possible joy and delight, Paul affirms that to depart to be with Christ is far better than living on in this world.  On the other hand, he recognizes that living on would mean an opportunity for fruitful labor. So, this presents, somewhat speculatively anyway, a hard choice.  The NRSV translates, “I do not know which I prefer.”  I would suggest that it would be better to translate more literally, “I do not know which I should choose.”  After all, knowing what you prefer is not quite the same as knowing what to choose.   It seems to me that he comes close to stating his preference in v23 when he says that to depart to be with Christ is better by far.

Of course, all of this seems like a kind of devout speculation.  It does not matter that he does not know which he should choose.  Life or death is not his choice.  It will be the court’s choice—most likely Caesar’s choice.  Beyond that, it would be contrary the spirit of the 6th commandment to desire martyrdom simply as an expeditious path to heaven.  Martyrdom is an evil to be faced and endured for the glory of God.  Martyrdom is never something to be desired.  All that is to be desired is the courage to face it. 

But, Paul is not engaging in idle speculation.   He is just making it abundantly clear that he longs to be with Jesus.   He looks beyond the natural fear of death, even summary execution, and sees surpassing joy in the presence of Christ.  It seems clear that if he were free to choose, and if the way were clear, he would choose to be with Christ. 

But he is not free to choose as he pleases in the way our culture (and not doubt many others before ours) regards freedom.  In our society, “freedom of choice” is a by-word.  Today is Sanctity of Life Sunday.  We affirm the sanctity of life, over against abortion on demand, a practice that shelters under the umbrella of freedom of choice.  But, we need to appreciate that abortion on demand is a subset, or a particular instance, of a broader outlook in which the freedom to choose what seems best to the individual dominates all else.   Freedom in Christ, though, is freedom to pursue the great commandment, freedom constrained by love.  That is why in Philippians 1:9 Paul prays that their love might abound, so that they would be able to discern what was best.  As much as he can envision the joy of being in the presence of the Lord, Paul concludes his speculation with, “to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”  So, he will be staying around a while longer for the benefit of the Philippians, for the sake of their progress and joy in the faith.  I submit that this is St. Paul modeling the exhortation that will follow in Chapter 2, to regard the well-being of others, the interests of others, as having at least an equal claim upon us as our own.  

In closing, I would make two observations for further reflection.  The first is the significance of this passage for what we call the “intermediate state.”  This refers to our circumstances between the death of our bodies and the resurrection.  Or, more simply, what happens to us when we die?  The Apostle Paul understood the death of a Christian as a “departing” to be with Christ. (1:23)  The Greek verb for “depart” here has the basic meaning of “untie”—for example, untying a boat from a dock—and often is a figurative expression for death.   Paul uses the noun form in 2 Tim. 4:6, “The time of my departure has come.”   So, even though the resurrection is central in Paul’s hope for the future, he still sees the time between death and the resurrection as blessed.  He is confident that when he dies he will go to be with Jesus and, for him, this was far better than staying on in this present life.  Now, he does not elaborate on what this “being with Christ” will be like.  Clearly, that he will be with Christ is enough and we should avoid speculation.   The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 37 says that “the souls of believers at their death are made perfect in holiness and do immediately pass into glory, and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in the grave until the resurrection.”  Paul’s own testimony in Philippians 1:23 is one of several important texts that give us a clue about the hope of those who die “in Christ.

Paul’s “by life or by death” also confronts us in a very concrete way with the importance of nurturing a passionate spirituality.  Presbyterians are often perceived as being a bit on the intellectual side and not so interested in developing what we might call a deep, personal, passionate relationship with Jesus.  St. Paul clearly cares deeply about “knowing Christ” and is not hesitant to talk about his relationship with the Lord.

Two comments may be appropriate at this point.  First, Presbyterians, under the influence of early reformers like John Calvin, tend to regard spirituality through the lens of vocation.  Our spirituality (or piety, if you will) is lived out in daily life.  Thus, spirituality is not seen exclusively in terms of maintain certain forms of devotional practices, though these are important.  Instead, spirituality is viewed as a matter of serving the Lord in our daily work, in our family relationships, in our care for others, and in our faithful participation in the ordinances of divine worship. 

Second, on the other hand, there may be more at work in Presbyterians than the natural reserve that tends to characterize people of northern European (and especially Scottish) descent.  Our Westminster Shorter Catechism, for all of its wonderful insight and precision as a primer of sorts on the Christian faith, divides the Christian life into two parts: faith and duty.  The answer to the 3rd question, which focuses on the Bible, says that “the Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.”  So, the doctrine of God and the plan of salvation are explained under what we are to believe in questions 1 - 38.  Questions 39 through 107 are about our duty.   Thus, the 10 Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer (along with worship and the sacraments, of course) all fall under the rubric of duty.  This, of course, is not necessarily an error.  But, it is not the most inspiring way to talk about discipleship.  It lends itself, at the least to diminished enthusiasm and at worst to legalism.  

Paul’s faith in Christ goes with a joy in Christ and a passion to be with Christ.  He certainly thinks of Jesus as his “personal” savior.  Not in the way, though, that our culture might think of “personal.”  Business people might have a “personal” assistant.  Sports-minded people might have a “personal” trainer.  The list goes on.  Why not have a “personal” savior along with other folks who take care of important parts of life for us!

St. Paul is without doubt an extraordinary Christian.  We may not be able to preach like him.  We may not attain to his boldness.  But, we can all pray for a little more of his passion and learn to see and experience life with Christ more nearly at the center.   Amen.
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West Lafayette, IN 47906
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