A Man Ready to Die – Philippians 1:21-26

Well, I invite you to take your Bibles. Turn with me to the book of Philippians, Philippians, chapter 1. And I find myself unusually drawn to this book these days. And Philippians chapter 1, tonight I would like for us to look at verses 21 to 26, depending upon the time. And the title of message tonight is A Man Ready to Die, A Man Ready to Die. Philippians chapter 1, beginning in verse 21, the apostle Paul writes to the church: 
    21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain (referring to “remain on the earth) and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again.

What personal words from the apostle Paul.

It has been said that a person is not ready to live until they are first ready to die. That is to say, only once we are ready to die, are we in actuality, ready to live. Some people wait too long to come to such a place. Sadly, it takes them being on their deathbed for them to finally come to the place that they are ready to die, and then give their life to Christ. But sadly then there is no time for them to live for Christ. They have squandered their entire life. How wonderful it is for a person to come to the place that they are ready to die when they still have plenty of time to live. In order to be ready to die, one must believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ, who has conquered death and who holds the key of death. When a person is at that point of personal saving faith in Christ, he or she can face death fearlessly, because they know that death will usher them immediately into the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And it is when they are at such a place, they are liberated and truly ready to live every moment of every day because the end is settled. That is exactly where the apostle Paul is as he writes to the Philippians. He is a man who is ready to die, and because of this, he is also ready to live, if need be. In fact, Paul is so ready to die that he actually prefers death to life. Nevertheless, when he considers why it is more necessary to live, namely for the benefit of the Philippians, he decides to stay, or at least chooses life over death, knowing that it is ultimately in God’s hands whether he lives or dies.

Each one of us tonight, I would assume, is wanting to live, but willing to die. Paul was the opposite. Paul was willing to live, but wanting to die. The only way Paul could live this way was to have a strong faith in Jesus Christ that was so real and so deep that death was desirable to him over life, not in a sadistic, suicidal way, but because death meant for Paul the gateway to glory. It meant for him the immediate passage into the very presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the Lord Jesus was everything to him, and he was longing to be where Jesus is.

Here is the background for these verses. The year is 61 A.D. And the apostle Paul is imprisoned in Rome. He is awaiting trial before Caesar. And the charge is insurrection against the Empire, and it is a capital offense. Paul is faced now with the real possibility that his life will be taken from him, that there will be an execution, and he will be put to death. This is not theoretical for Paul at this point. This is not an exercise in philosophy. This is where the rubber meets the road, where Paul is as he is in prison, and he is awaiting his trial. The Emperor uses the power that he has either to spare life or to take life. And Caesar is the one before whom Paul will stand. 

It is a time of serious soul searching. A man, when he is confronted with death, it is a time in which he gives careful consideration to those issues that are most important in life. And Paul knows that his future hangs in the balance. Will he be sentenced to death? Will he be released to live? And as Paul sits in his confining quarters in this imprisonment, he writes this letter to the Philippians. For all he knows, it would be the last letter that he would ever write. And as Paul writes, he is not fearful; he is not filled with anxiety; he is a man at peace because he is living for Jesus Christ.

As we look at these verses tonight, there are three main headings I want to set before you that will help us walk through this text. And I want us to stay close to this text.

I. Paul’s Dedication (Phil. 1:21)

I want you to note first in verse 21, Paul’s Dedication. This verse begins with Paul making one of the most dramatic statements anywhere in the entire Bible, that really cuts to the heart of what genuine, authentic Christianity is. Paul says in verse 21, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” It begins with these first two words, “for me.” It is very emphatic. It is in the emphatic position. And what Paul is saying, from the depth of his soul, is, “Regardless of how anyone else is living, for me; regardless of what my friends are doing, for me. For me to live is Christ, whether anyone else lives for Christ, whether everyone else lives for Christ,” as if he is the only person on the earth, “for me.” “Regardless of what the world says, regardless of what the circumstances are that threaten me, for me to live is Christ.” When he says, “to live,” it is not referring to just a mere, empty, hollow existence, but for me to live, to truly live as God intended me to live, for me to live with singular purpose at the highest level, for me to live is Christ.

I need to draw your attention to the fact the word “is” is not found in the original language. As Paul writes this, he is so emphatic that he says literally, “For me to live Christ,” to make it even more emphatic. And as he says this, as he is waiting on death row potentially, as he will have his day in court, perhaps, that day never came for he would be later released. But at this point, as his life is flashing before his eyes, as he is staring death in the eyes, as a man is brought to consider matters of time and eternity, Paul concludes and says this to the Philippians for their encouragement and for our encouragement tonight. “For me to live is Christ. My whole life is Christ.” He is saying, “Everything I have and everything that I am is bound up in Christ. Christ is the goal of my life. Christ is the pattern of my life. Christ is the passion of my life. Christ is the pursuit of my life. Christ is the reason for my life.” Paul is saying, “The sum and substance of my life is Christ. The alpha and the omega and every letter in between, every moment of every day, the very essence of my being is Christ.” Paul’s entire life and reason for living is summed up in this one word, “Christ.”

Can you say that tonight? Is that your testimony? How that must be our testimony tonight. Not that we are perfect, not that we have arrived; not at all. But that we could truly say tonight as born again believers that my entire life is Christ, and not Christ and anything else, not Christ and anyone else. Here is the exclusivity of Christ, not only in salvation, but in sanctification. For me to live is Christ alone.

Paul would later say this from this same prison cell when he would write a prison epistle to the Colossians, in Colossians 3 and verse 4. He would succinctly state it this way, Christ…our life.” And to the Galatians, he had already written in Galatians 2, verse 20, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.” Once we lay hold of Christ by faith, we know that we have the treasure that was hidden in a field, that we have sold everything that we might have this treasure. Nothing else can ever begin to compare to the infinite value of knowing Christ. Everything else in life is but mere trinkets compared to the treasure who is Christ.

Back in Philippians 3, and verse 7, Paul elaborates on this. And we have looked at this before, but it would do our hearts I think a world of good tonight to see it again. In Philippians 3, and verse 7, Paul looks back at that time when he first came to the see this treasure who is Christ. On the road to Damascus, you will recall in Acts chapter 9, Christ suddenly appeared to him, and in that one moment, Christ became everything to him. In Philippians 3, and in verse 7, we read, “But whatever things were gain to me.” And all of that can be summarized in verse 5 and in verse 6: 

    5 circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of     Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to     the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.

That is what he is referring to in verse 7 when he says, “But whatever things were gain to me.” All of those things: my religious heritage, my religious tradition, my ancestry, my education, my upbringing, anything and everything that I once looked to to find value, and meaning in life, and that would commend me to God, he says, “these things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” In that one moment, everything that was gain, was now considered loss for the sake of Christ.

Verse 8, “More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” What will it be like for us one day to finally be in heaven and to behold the Lord Jesus Christ who died for us upon the cross, who was raised for our justification, this One that we live for, this One that dominates our life, this One whom we follow, this One whom we have entrusted our life to, to the finally be with Him and to finally behold Him. No wonder Paul would go on to say in this verse, “For me to die is gain, because I will be with Him who is everything.” But he says here in verse 8, concerning Christ:

    “For whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I     may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own de-    rived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ; the righteousness which     comes from God on the basis of faith. 

He says in the next verse, “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering.” Paul was a Christ man. Christ was everything to Paul.

That is what it means to be a Christian. The word “Christian” means, “a little Christ.” It was originally a term, I have told you, of ridicule and mockery and slander as the unbelievers would call the early disciples “Christians,” identifying them in a mocking way with this Jew who had died upon a cross as a criminal. And the early church so loved to be identified with Christ, they took this title of derision, “Christian,” and they embraced it. And they wore that title because they wanted to be so identified with Christ. That is Paul’s dedication. “For to me to live Christ.” And then he concludes, “to die, gain.” Again, the word “is” is supplied by the translators. Paul leaves out the verb. It is a sentence that lacks these two verbs in order to have an edge and a punch about what he is saying. “To die, gain.” This word “gain” means, “profit,” “benefit.” These are Paul’s death benefits. He is able to be in the very presence of Christ. For Paul, death would be a distinct gain because it would bring him into the immediate presence of Christ.

There are some here tonight who are facing death. There are some here tonight who have had diagnosis and will be soon seeing doctors, and in a very real way have given thought to their own soul and their life and death and eternity. A verse like this is like food for the soul. A verse like this is like an anchor for the soul. A verse like this is 10,000 treasures discovered. Gain? Can it be gain? That is what Paul says, and what Paul says should be our testimony as well.

William Hendrickson, the commentator, writes, “Death is gain because it brings more of Christ to Paul, and more of Paul to Christ.” The actual act of death in Paul’s eyes would be no tragedy. He would graduate to glory, and if Paul would be asked to come back to the earth, he would be shaking his head, “no,” because he is in a far better place. But it is not the place, it is the person. He is before the greatest Person, capital P, the God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ. This must be the dedication of our lives. We must live for Christ. We must live for Him exclusively, supremely, wholeheartedly. And if we live for Christ like this, then we can truly say when we die, it will be extraordinary gain. But if we live for anyone or anything else, to die is loss.

II. Paul’s Dilemma (Phil. 1:22-24)

Now, note second, Paul’s Dilemma. This put Paul between a rock and a hard place. As we come to verse 22, this purpose in Paul’s life created an inward struggle, almost like a tug-of-war going on on the inside of Paul. Notice what he says in verse 22. “But if I am to live on in the flesh.” As he is thinking about his life, “If after I stand before Caesar and after the evidence is presented, if my life should be spared, if I am to live on in the flesh,” that is what he is saying, “this will mean fruitful labor for me.” That is not bad. That is good. Paul understands that if his life is extended from a human perspective, then this will give him more time to preach the gospel. And as he preaches the gospel more, more people will be saved, and more churches will be planted and more disciples will be trained, and more young Timothies will be raised up. What greater fruit could there possibly be? And so, he says, “If I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose.”

How unlike Paul. Paul is a man who always knows what he is after. Paul is a single-minded man. He is a very decisive man. And here he is. It is almost as if he is paralyzed. “I do not know which way to go.” He says, “I do not know which to choose.” The choice is not really, ultimately Paul’s. His life will be in the hands of Caesar and the court. But ultimately, Caesar’s heart is in the hand of the Lord. Proverbs 21, verse 1, is, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as rivers of water, He channels it whichever way He wills.” But Paul is wrestling on the inside. And he says,  “I do not know which way to play this. I do not know which to choose. To die? I want to go be with the Lord, or to stay and to serve you with fruitful labor.” So he says in verse 23, “But I am hard-pressed from both directions.” The idea here is, when I first read this, I thought it meant that he is pulled in both directions, like he is a rope in a tug-of-war, and he is pulled in both directions. It is the total opposite. The more I looked at this and dug into this, it is as if he is on a narrow road, and there is a rock wall on both sides, and it is coming in on him, and he is hard-pressed from both sides. And life is pushing in on one side, and death is pushing in on the other. And he feels like he is in a vice grip within his own mind as he is playing this out. “I want to go be with the Lord, and yet, the need is so great here.” And so, he continues to be so transparent with the Philippians. And no doubt he is doing this in order to encourage them as they are beginning to suffer flack for their faith.

And so, he says, “having the desire.” Do you see that verse 23? “Having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is [very] much better.” These words need some commentary. The word “desire” is a very strong word. It means, “strong affections,” “intense longings.” This is not a mere whim. This is bubbling up from the depths of his heart, “having the desire to depart.” And that is a euphemistic word for “death.” The word “depart” literally means in the Greek language, “to loosen.” And the idea is a ship being tied to the dock with a rope. And a sailor or a captain would come and loosen the rope so that now the ship is no longer attached to the dock. And the current and the wind will take it out to the open sea. That is how Paul sees his life; that he is about to sail into glory. And this word “to depart” was also used of when one would set up camp, and when you would break camp, you would take down the ropes and the tent and move out. Paul realizes that his life is at the point where he is being loosened from this world. He has not left yet, but he can feel those ropes being loosened. “Having the desire to depart and be with Christ.” This word “with,” “to be with Christ,” denotes “association,” “companionship,” even “resemblance.” This departure would bring him to be with Christ in closest association, in closest fellowship.

And he says, “for that is,” please note this, “very much better.” Not just, “better,” but, “much better.” But not just, “much better,” “very much better.” If I had written this, an editor would have taken out one of those words. “Lawson, you sound like you are preaching. You have got to write succinctly.” Paul knew what he was doing. Those three words, “very much better,” is a way to express something to the superlative degree. “Good, better, best.” It is kind of like “holy, holy, holy,” meaning, “holy, holier, holiest.” It is the way to take something to the highest level. It is called a double comparative. It is the highest superlative there is in the Greek language. And what Paul is saying is, “For me to have those ropes loosened, and for me to sail out of here and sail into the good port of glory, that is very much better than hanging around here and being in prison cells and traveling dusty roads, and even preaching the gospel as glorious as it is glorious, but to be in the very presence of the One who is everything to me.” Paul’s heart is becoming even homesick for heaven, homesick for glory.

But then in verse 24 he says, “Yet.” And this is like a tennis match in his mind, back and forth, back and forth. He is arguing it both ways. “Yet, to remain on in the flesh,” meaning to continue to live is, note the next two words, “more necessary.” Why? He says, “for your sake.” So, here is this debate that is going on in the brilliant intellect of the apostle Paul. It is the debate between “very much better” and “more necessary.” Paul is pressed on both sides, one with the superiority of death to be with Christ; and the other is the necessity of living for the sake of the church, the necessity of continuing on here for the good of the believers. And so often this is a dilemma that you and I are faced with, the choice between what I want to do, and what is more necessary. And for Paul, as we will see here in a moment, at the end of the day, what he desires to do must yield to what is more necessary for the good of others in the advancement of the gospel.

I wonder what dilemma there may be going on in your life tonight. What back-and-forth you are wrestling with, something that you truly desire to do which is very much better, even with spiritual estimate. But on the other hand, it is more necessary for your family, it is more necessary for your wife, it is more necessary for your children, it is more necessary for your ministry, it is more necessary for the good of the gospel and the advancement of the kingdom of heaven. And what we will see with Paul is “more necessary” wins out over “very much better.”

III. Paul’s Decision (Phil. 1:25-26)

So, we come finally to verse 25, Paul’s Decision. We have seen Paul’s dedication, verse 21, and we have seen Paul’s dilemma, 22 to 24. Now Paul’s decision in 25 and 26. Given these two options between life and death, life and death. And with his preference being death, how sold out must Paul have been to Christ to actually prefer death? Paul now comes to the point in his mind where he is willing to postpone his inevitable trip to heaven in order to stay and serve the needs of the church. This is an act of self-denial and self-humiliation, and truly putting the needs of others before his own longings. So, in verse 25 we read, “Convinced of this.” The word “convinced” means, “Paul’s persuasion in this, the result of his thinking.” “Convinced of this.” And the “this” refers to that it is more necessary for Paul to stay and serve the Philippian church and to serve the other churches. “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all.”

Now, when he says, “I know,” he has not received some private revelation from God. When he says, “I know,” he is saying, “I know in my own thinking. I know in my own mind. I am persuaded of this, that I will remain and continue with you all. I will continue to preach to you. I will continue to teach the word of God.” And here is why, at the end of 25, and there is no other reason why Paul would want to hang around this earth. There is no other reason why he would want to be here. Here is why: “for your progress and joy in the faith.” That is a pastor’s heart. That is a minister’s heart. That is a shepherd’s heart: for the growth and the joy of the people you serve.

“For your progress” speaks of progressive sanctification, progressive growth in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is progressive growth in Christ-likeness. And we should always be making progress as long as we are on this earth. And we will never arrive. And even the most mature believer here tonight still needs to be making progress. I need to be making progress. You need to be making progress. We need to be ever continually growing and making progress in grace. And then note, “and joy.” The order is very important. Joy is the result of growing to become more like the Lord Jesus Christ. Joy is the result of growing closer to the Lord Jesus Christ. And as he progresses in sanctification, he progresses in joy.

So many times we look for joy in all the wrong places. Joy is found in the Lord, is it not? That is why Paul will say so many times, like chapter 3, verse 1, “Rejoice in the Lord.” That is why he will say it again in chapter 4, verse 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!” All joy is in the Lord. And the more we progress to know Him, and fellowship with Him, and grow closer to Him, and progress to become like Him, the more joy there is in our lives.

Also note this next prepositional phrase, “in the faith.” That is very important. One thing about epistles, it is such concentrated language that is just pressed down into such few words, different from all the other literary genres in the Bible. This tiny little prepositional phrase, “in the faith,” is referring to the Christian faith, the truth, the word of God, “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints,” the apostles’ teaching, sound doctrine. There is no progress in the Christian life without the consistent ministry of the word in our lives. That is why we are so big on the Bible here, because we want people to progress in their Christian lives, and we want people to have joy in their Christian lives. And the two are inseparably connected. And both are rooted and grounded in the faith. That is why I have said to you many times, “We don’t need less Bible-teaching; we need more Bible teaching,” because we need more progress and more joy in our Christian lives. And so, Paul says this to them.

Let me give you two cross-references that our progress is in the faith, or in the truth. John 17:17, Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” It is the word of God which is the truth that is the sanctifying means of our grace, of our growth. And then for joy, now John 15 verse 11, “These things I have spoken to you.” “These things I have spoken to you.” We are talking about the truth coming from the mouth of the Lord Jesus Christ. “That My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” It is the ministry of the word of God flowing into our lives that brings us so much joy.

Note verse 26, “so that.” That introduces what is known as a purpose statement. Everything that follows here is the purpose of Paul’s future release from prison, and his continued ministry with the churches. “So that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus.” Different translations in the English language spell this out in different ways. “Proud confidence” really is the idea of “rejoicing,” or “exulting in,” or “taking pride in.” And these two little prepositional phrases, do you see it here, “in me” and “in Christ Jesus.” In the original language, when Paul wrote this, there is nothing in between them, and the order is reversed. It reads, “your proud confidence in Christ Jesus in me.” I think the order is very important. The reason they have such confidence is because of what Christ is doing Paul. That is the point. They are not proud of Paul, and then, “Oh, by the way,” as an after note, “we are proud of the Lord, too.” No. The order in the original language is, “your proud confidence in Christ Jesus in me” abounds; it overflows. And what an encouragement it is to our hearts whenever we see God at work in the life of a Christian leader, or of a pastor, or of a minister, of an evangelist, a theologian, or a missionary. It causes our hearts to rejoice as we see God at work in their life. And that is what Paul is acknowledging here. And it is right, and it is good for them to feel this way about what God is doing in his life.

And then he ends verse 26, “through my coming to you again.” They will know that it is the Lord who sprang him out of jail. They will know that it is the Lord who released him. They will know that the Lord has great plans and great purposes for Paul to be let loose again; not to sail to glory, but to be let loose here on the earth to travel about, to preach the gospel, to see people come to Christ. It caused their hearts to be thrilled. And so, in Paul’s thinking, that is his decision. “In my mind I am going to stay here on the earth though I really much would rather go to glory,” not because he is wanting to just be in denial, not because he is wanting just to escape everything here. Listen, Paul lived to preach. Paul lived to bring people to Christ. The reason he wanted to go to heaven is because who is in heaven? The Lord Jesus Christ.


Every one of us here tonight needs to be like Paul. So, I want to ask you this very personal question. And some of you are young here tonight, young by my standards. Some of you are old, even by my standards. Are you ready to die? Are you? Have you put your faith in Christ? If you were to die tonight, the old diagnostic question and you stood before God; well, He is not going to ask you, “Why should I let you in heaven? He will do all the answering. But if you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven? If you put your faith and your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, you will go immediately into the presence of God. What a glorious way to live. And then we just work back from that. If we know the outcome, we know the end, that when I die, I will be released; I will depart to be with Christ, which is very much better. Now you can work back from that. And I can be in prison. I can be stoned. I can be persecuted. I can be opposed, because I know that God has purposes through all of this to advance the gospel, and advance the kingdom here upon the earth. I trust that you are ready to die. Because if you are, then you are truly ready to live. We need everyone in this church to be ready to die.

John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist church. In reality, I think George Whitefield was the founder of the Methodist movement. I will save that for another lesson. Whitefield was saved first. Whitefield preached first. Whitefield was used by God far more. But John Wesley, back to him, was asked the question, “What makes this movement so great?” He said, “Our people die very well.” It is the mark of a great movement, and great church. May we be a church of people who die very well in the Lord. And if we do, we will live very well until then.