“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” With these words, Gabriel García Márquez begins his famous novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. It takes more than a hundred pages of telling the mythic saga of the Buendía family before we get to the actual scene when the Colonel faces that firing squad, but even at the beginning we see how facing death reframes life for this character, causing him to reflect on what truly matters from his past. Another famous novelist—Dostoevsky—employs this trope about a near-death experience, writing in his novel The Idiot of a character about to be executed on a scaffold, at which moment the man ponders what life might look like if he were to survive: “I would turn every minute into an age, nothing would be wasted, every minute would be accounted for.” In this case, facing death allows for a renewed experience of life, bringing everything into sharper focus and instilling it with greater meaning.
Paul too writes Philippians under the shadow of execution. He’s chained up, awaiting the verdict of his Roman trial where the chances are strong that, just like his Lord, he’ll receive the verdict of a capital punishment. And just as for these other men, facing death guides Paul to rethink life.
At this early point in Philippians, Paul is writing a report to his friends concerning the news about how things are faring with him in prison. But whereas most people would focus on all the ups and downs faced in the squalid prison setting, Paul instead shifts the focus away from his own experience and over to the prospects of the gospel about Christ. Much less concerned with how he himself is faring, he highlights the advance of the gospel, and even hones in on how his own body will hopefully serve as the physical space at which Christ will be exalted—most likely through Paul’s public testimony about Christ at the soon-coming trial. Notice how Christ’s magnification will occur through Paul’s “not being ashamed” but instead by his “boldness” (1:20). Paul feels supported and encouraged in this upcoming public task through the support of his friends—they are praying for him, and because of that God’s Spirit is strengthening him (v.19), and this is cause for great rejoicing.
In addition to the exaltation of Christ that will come from his spoken witness at the trial, the apostle also looks ahead to the aftermath of the trial, which seems to present two very different possible outcomes, marked by the clause “whether by life or by death” (1:20). That is, after speaking up for Christ at the Roman trial he is about to face, the verdict will go either one of two ways: he’ll survive (“whether by life”), or he’ll be killed (“whether by death”).
Interestingly, faced with such a drastic situation, Paul begins to reflect on the meaning and value of each of these two options. He seems almost to present a sort of soliloquy (like Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”) in which the apostle is “thinking out loud” in front of his Philippian audience, pondering and evaluating between the pros and cons of the two options presented to him: either that of living, or that of dying. But, just as Paul does with everything else in his life, these two options of living and dying are passed through the grid of Christ, since for Paul Jesus controls every aspect of reality. Indeed, the person of Jesus looms large across every page of this short 4-chapter letter, with either Jesus’s name or a pronoun referring to Jesus occurring in almost every sentence! Christ reigns supreme for Paul, and so when he’s analyzing the prospects of his own living or dying, it is always and only in relation to Christ that these two options acquire their meaning and their significance.
What I want to look at in what follows will thus track with this two-part structure, learning from Paul how Christ reframes life and death. Such reflections on “The Christ-Life” draw on Paul’s well-known maxim in Phil 1:21 (“Living is Christ and dying is gain.”). Our reflections will actually start, though, with the second of these re-framings, that regarding death, because it is in the way that Christ forces Paul to reimagine what death is that the truly radical nature of Paul’s vision of Christ rises to the surface.
Christ Reshapes Death
The first way that Christ has reshaped everything for Paul is that he has changed how the apostle imagines death. For many, both in Paul’s world and in our own, death is the ultimate enemy, the thing to be avoided at all costs, and that which hurts the most once it strikes. Why does death hurt so bad? Because it slams the door on so much of what we have come to regard as our own. It is the final bow before the curtain closes, and once off stage, the fear is that our story will be over. Humans, just as their lower counterparts in the beasts, have a strong, inborn instinct for survival, and we will fight with ferocity when we feel our life is being threatened.
There have been some who were able to fight back against this natural instinct to fear death, who were strong enough to welcome it as “gain.” We read in Torrey a play by the Greek play-write Sophocles about a girl named Antigone who chooses to rebel against what she feels to be a wrongful law denying burial to her brother. Out of fierce loyalty to her kin, she flouts the law and buries him anyway, accepting whatever consequence might come from it. When threatened with execution for her crime, she exclaims, “If I die before my time, I say it is a gain (κέρδος αὔτ ̓ ἐγὼ λέγω). Who lives in sorrows many as are mine (ὅστις γὰρ ἐν πολλοῖσιν ὡς ἐγὼ κακοῖς ζῇ) how shall they not be glad to gain death? (πῶς ὅδ ̓ οὐχὶ κατθανὼν κέρδος φέρει;). And so to me to meet this fate’s no grief.” Plagued by the sorrows of life, Antigone welcomes gladly the gain of death, especially since she will be dying in the right, having refused to cave to the pressures of injustice surrounding her. Others too have followed Antigone’s lead, imagining death as a welcome guest because it provides release from the troubles and sorrows of life. It is an escape, a way out, and so death means gain.
For Paul, though, this is not the case. For Paul, death is not a way out; instead, it is a way in. The apostle speaks here of his “desire” to depart life, and that desire is locked onto a specific goal: being “with Christ” (1:23). Paul’s idea about post-mortem existence allowing for individuals to be “with” the divine has an important parallel in Plato’s philosophical presentation of post-mortem existence. In the … Continue reading Often times in Christian settings effort is taken to combat our desires, to curb our longings and to restrain our passions. What I love about Paul’s reframing of death here is that his scenario actually chides us for not desiring strongly enough. C. S. Lewis says it well: “It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot
imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” Paul gives the strongest affirmation I can think of for fostering a deep longing and desire within us, one that’s directed at relationship. Paul’s is not a longing for stuff; it’s a longing for being “with” someone, the Lord whom he has come to know as the most beautiful one, to know whom represents the most “surpassing” knowledge available for us, for the sake of which it would be right to count all else “loss” (3:9), indeed, Christ is so valuable that it should cause us to sell everything so that we might purchase this pearl of great price.
Paul is not the only one to direct his desires toward death and the grave. We read of characters in stories who love someone so strongly that when that lover dies, they long to follow them down into the grave. This is powerfully presented in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame novel at the end of which the hunchback Quasimodo is so grieved by the loss of his beloved Esmerelda that after her tragic death and then burial he actually digs up her grave to climb in and die alongside her. Heathcliff does something similarly morbid in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. And even our own father Abraham in Genesis, when he thinks his favorite son Joseph has died, exclaims: “I shall go down to Sheol to my son” (Gen 37:35). But Paul’s longing for death is not like this—his love is not a clinging to the grave, but is actually a yearning for renewed life. Not the laying down with a corpse, but instead the rising up to join “with” his resurrected lord, to enjoy pleasures at his right hand forevermore.
Thus, when Paul says in his powerful yet compact language that “death is gain” (1:21b), what he is saying is that the gain of being with Christ amounts to the highest, most satisfying, happiest experience that we as humans can have. “Being with Christ” is truly “better by far” than every other experience a human might encounter. If it takes death to enter into this state of bliss and deep joy, then Paul will accept it gladly, because death is not an exit but an entrance, not a way out of life but rather a way into the truest life there is.
Being with Christ is Paul’s greatest longing. Here he tells us that he can only have it if he “departs” from life. At other points, Paul indicates his close and intimate connection with Christ even now during his lifetime. And there is joy and richness available for him and other believers even now through fostering a closeness with Christ. But our fleshly bodies do prove a hindrance that finally must be overcome by passing through that final death. There is a closeness and intimacy with Christ that awaits us yet, and for this we long with eager expectation and desire.
So for Paul in chains, facing the executioner’s notice, death is no threat but instead is a welcome comrade. J. K. Rowling, in the seventh book in her Harry Potter series, tells the story of the three Peverell brothers. All three of the brothers find different ways to try outsmarting death: one brother tries to beat death through the strength of a powerful wand; another brother tries through using a stone that can raise dead loved ones back to life; but the third brother tries a more roundabout and subtle method, employing an invisibility cloak to hide from Death. But after time, that third brother realizes that death is not quite the enemy that they all thought he was, and at the end of his life the brother takes off the cloak and, “[greeting] death as a friend, [he] went with him gladly.” We too as believers can greet death gladly, not because it’s desirable in itself but because it provides us access to that which is most desirable: being with Christ. Death is gain, because to be with Christ surpasses all other of life’s goods to such an extent that it turns them into loss.
Christ Reshapes Life
And so we’ve seen how facing death prompted Paul to rethink death—it brought him to a radically altered perspective about what death means. It means not loss, but instead great gain. And insofar as Paul is comparing, in soliloquy fashion, the two options of either living or dying, it would seem that it’s a slam dunk as to which of the two is the better option. On that basis, one would think that his choice (should he have a choice in the matter) has already been made: of course, he will opt for death, since that will bring him to his greatest desire, being with Christ.
We’re in for a surprise, though, here. After having radically reshaped what death means, now Paul’s also going to fundamentally reshape what it means to live, and this will impact then the comparative valuation that he’s making between the two options.
Recall that what gave to death such a radically different significance was its relation to Christ—it provided access to being with Christ which made all the difference. Well, now too the idea of living must also be placed in relation to Christ. Think about how that survival instinct I mentioned previously works: it prompts the individual to fight to maintain her own existence, so as not to let anything deprive her of life, holding onto it as her own possession. But what if your life was not your own? What if, rather than a thing to be possessed and held onto, life was primarily something to be given away for the sake of others?
When Paul imagines the prospect of Christ being magnified in his body at the upcoming trial by means of his life, the way he describes this is “living is Christ.” If Paul makes it through the trial, the life he then starts living will not be his own; it will be the Christ-life, a life so characterized by Christ that its very meaning and significance are anchored in who Christ is and what he stands for. It may be cheating a bit to look ahead in the letter, but Paul is about to give us in chapter 2 of Philippians a gripping portrait of who Christ is and what he’s about, and it’s a portrait that bleeds outward to form and shape all the other contours of the letter.
If living is Christ, then what is the Christ-life all about? Fundamentally, Christ lives his own life not for himself, but for the benefit of others. First and foremost, Jesus submits in obedience to his heavenly Father. Rather than holding tight to his own privileges and rights as the God-man, Jesus willingly takes up the role of a slave, undergoing a death that will benefit the very ones who are persecuting him. Every consideration of Christ is taken up with the “interests of others,” turning away from any “selfish ambition” that might “exploit” his legitimate prerogatives so as to improve his own lot at the expense of those around him. Far from it, Jesus instead undertakes a life of service, taking on the “form of a slave” (2:7), and in so doing he shows us what the true human life should have been from the get-go. It is this servant way of living that then acquires the Father’s official stamp of approval, since only the servant-human receives exaltation and resurrection, with the name of the slave-turned-Lord Jesus Christ emblazoned at the top of the universe, with every creature, in heaven, and earth, and under the earth, bowing in worship to the servant king.
And so life as it’s been redefined by Jesus is a servant way of being. The Christ-life is a servant life; a life lived not for self but for others. Paul appropriates this version of life—which is the true version of life—for himself in our passage in chapter one. Though death would have been “far better,” life becomes “far more necessary,” and this new category that the apostle introduces—that of things “necessary” or beneficial when referred to someone else—actually trumps the “more satisfactory” category. To make decisions solely on the basis of that which is most pleasing to oneself would be to fall into the trap of the sinful human, to go one’s own way at the expense of one’s brother (this is the way of Cain). Desires are good, especially the desire and longing for relationship with Christ; but God has called us to a life of service and love, and this calling must ultimately take precedence over the life of satisfaction and pleasure.
Paul recognizes that his beloved friends at Philippi are relying on him, they need his help and support back there on the ground in their city. His returning back to them after release from prison would serve to advance their joy in the faith, and he is confident that God will work things out for this return to happen, since that result would be so beneficial for the lives of these women and men, these saints in Christ, whom he cares so deeply about. His renewed ministry labors among them will bear much fruit, it will produce great exultation and celebration among the struggling church—just what they need to help them through the difficult times of persecution and tension that they’re currently facing. And so Paul is sure—this has got to be God’s plan for the outcome.
Though when it comes to Paul’s own deep longings and desire he would wish that he could actually be released from his duties of service so that he can finally be present personally and intimately with the Lord whom he’s given his all to serve, yet Paul affirms that there is yet more work to be done, and he willingly and even heroically prepares to step back into the hard work of serving others. Such a servant-existence is precisely the life to which he is about to call this community a few paragraphs later in the letter, and so he prepares the way for that exhortation by modeling in his own life that which he hopes they would take on in theirs. Though filled with labors, such a servant-life is fruitful and so it’s full of joy.
Overall, when confronted with death, Paul helps us reframe how we think about these two key options—really the only two options—of life and death. Ironically, both options mean Christ. To go on living is to embrace the Christ-life, a life of service for the sake of others, foregoing one’s own desires so as to regard others better than self. On the other hand, to die is to enter fully into relationship with Christ, to leap over that final barrier between us and our Lord and to directly and intimately be “with” Jesus. Lord, may it be soon, for us all!
|↑1||Paul’s idea about post-mortem existence allowing for individuals to be “with” the divine has an important parallel in Plato’s philosophical presentation of post-mortem existence. In the Phaedo, Socrates defends the claim that his upcoming execution is not a “misfortune” by mentioning the swans, who “sing most beautifully” when “they realize that they must die,” for “they rejoice that they are about to depart (ἀπιέναι) to join the god (παρὰ τὸν θεὸν) whose servants they are” (85a).|