Philippians 1:21

Sermon preached on February 14, 2010 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2010. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

Pistol Pete Maravich was one of my favorite basketball players. He could do incredible things with the basketball, handle it like no one else I ever saw. He was a guy that you could say, "Ate, drank, and slept basketball." He was almost totally fanatical about it. His father once described him as, "All basketball." (Pistol, p. 51) The reason he was all basketball was partially due to the fact that his father was a basketball coach. There are stories told about how his father was obsessed with making his son into a star. When Pete was just a young boy his dad would take him to the gym where his father's team was going to board a bus for an away game. Rather than take Pete with him, his father would leave him in the gym, at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and say, "Play." Pete was expected to play basketball by himself for the next 7 to 8 hours, until his father's team bus arrived back to the gym between midnight and 1:00 a.m. Pete did practice. That's why he became such a great ball handler. When he was only seven or eight years old he could dribble the ball while he was walking down a flight of stairs. Pete went on to become one of the greatest basketball stars in the world. In 1976-77 he lead the NBA in scoring and he thrilled the fans with his unbelievable moves and passes.

But it wasn't all happiness. His father drove him so hard that Pete took to heavy drinking. It took a toll on their home life as well, his mother battled depression and committed suicide in 1974. Basketball ultimately didn't satisfy. Sadly, it didn't bring Pete lasting happiness.

The apostle Paul was focused on one thing as well, only it was something that greatly satisfied, something that was exceedingly worthwhile—consequences that exceed this life. In Philippians 1:21 he wrote,

"For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain."

The first thing we see here is that

Christ was the singular passion of Paul's life.

Paul tells us that Christ is everything to him. Christ is the meaning, purpose of his existence. On one level I am reminded of the great hymn by Will L. Thompson which expresses part of what Paul tells us here. It's called, "Jesus is All the World to Me". Part of it says,

"Jesus is all the world to me,My life, my joy, my all;He is my strength from day to dayWithout Him I would fall.When I am sad to Him I go,No other one can cheer me so;When I am sad He makes me glad,He's my friend."

But Paul's statement goes beyond that. J. B. Lightfoot paraphrases Paul's sentiment here,

"I live only to serve Him, only to commune with Him; I have no conception of life apart from Him."

Hermann Ridderbos described Paul's life as, (Galatians, p. 106)

"a consciously Christ-oriented life."

D. A. Carson interprets Paul's words here in terms of ministry. He writes, (Philippians, p. 29)

"In the context, 'to live is Christ' surely means that for Paul to keep on living here means ministry, Christ-centered ministry, Christ-empowered ministry, Christ's presence in his ministry."

MoisÈs Silva says of Paul, (Philippians, p. 74)

"his life finds total meaning in Christ…”

Gordon D. Fee summarizes Paul's statement as, (Philippians, p. 140)

"Christ is the singular passion of his life…"

Paul was totally focused on the glory of Jesus Christ. For him to live was Christ.

It is interesting that Paul uses the name, 'Christ' here. He didn't use the name 'Jesus'. 'Jesus' means "Savior". The reason Paul used Christ and not Jesus could be due to how it sounded in the Greek language. Gordon D. Fee writes, (Philippians, p. 140)

"This sentence, striking for its laconic style and focused content, would have been even more striking to its original hearers, because of its alliteration and assonance which are impossible to put into English. In transliteration, the two lines go:to zen Christos to live Christ =to apothanein kerdos to die gain"

But by using the name "Christ" here Paul could also be drawing our attention to the exalted nature of his new life. Christ is none other than 'the anointed King'. The 'Christ' referred to the fulfiller of Israelite expectation, the Anointed One, the Messiah. Paul is telling us that the life of the Anointed King and His redemption have broken through into his own life by means of His Spirit and that Christ lives in him. (Ridderbos, on Galatians 2:20) As Paul wrote in Galatians 2:20,

"I have been crucified with Christ
and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.
The life I live in the body,
I live by faith in the Son of God,
who loved me and gave himself for me."

Gordon D. Fee says of the term Christ and what it meant for the apostle Paul, (p. 141)

" 'Christ' —crucified, exalted Lord, present by the Spirit, coming king; 'Christ' the one who as God 'emptied himself' and as a man 'humbled himself' —to death on the cross— whom God has now given the name above all names (2:6-11); 'Christ' the one for whom Paul has gladly 'suffered the loss of all things' in order to 'gain' him and 'know' him, both his resurrection power and participation in his sufferings (3:7-11); 'Christ' the name that sums up for Paul the whole range of his new relationship to God: personal devotion, commitment, service, the gospel, ministry, communion, inspiration, everything."

The great lesson for you here is that

you should be exactly like Paul.

You should be able to say,

"For to me, to live is Christ…"

You may think, it was all right for Paul to be like that because he was an apostle. But that such sentiments are not for ordinary Christians. After all, people today will tell you that you shouldn't become a fanatic about Christianity.

But nothing could be further from the truth. This is obvious
if you consider the many ways in which Christ is your life.

On the one hand, God is the One who gives physical life to all of us.

As the apostle Paul said about God in Acts 17:25,

"he himself gives all men
life and breath and everything else."

All men derive their lives from God. In Genesis 2 we read about God breathing the breath of life into Adam and Adam becoming a living being—but even then Adam did not live by his own power. Moment by moment God gives men and women life. He gives us life and breath.

Colossians 1:17 and Hebrews 1:3 relate this specifically to Jesus Christ. They tell us that He holds all things together, He sustains all things. It is through Jesus that we have physical life. Moment by moment your life is sustained by God. The cells in your body don't hold together on their own but moment by moment God's power holds them together.

Not only that, the reason you were created, the reason that Jesus sustains you is because He wants you to live for His glory. We were all created for the glory of Jesus Christ. As we read in Colossians 1:16

"For by him all things were created:
things in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible,
whether thrones or powers
or rulers or authorities;
all things were created
by him and for him."

You were created for the glory of Jesus Christ. He gives you your life for that very purpose.

Now isn't that fact enough to make you realize that you should be like the apostle Paul? That in itself ought to make you say, "For to me, to live is Christ."

But there's even more.

You who are Christians also get your spiritual life from Him.

Jesus is the source of your spiritual life. We see this from John's words in 1 John 5:12.

"He who has the Son has life;
he who does not have the Son of God does not have life."

We get our spiritual life from Jesus. He is the One that gives us the new birth. In John 14:19 Jesus said to His disciples,

"Because I live, you also will live."

And in Colossians 3:4 the apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians Christians and said,

"When Christ, who is your life, appears,
then you also will appear with him in glory."

As F. F. Bruce writes,

"Christ is the life of all those who are united to him by faith, members of his body."

So it's not just your physical life that you have from Jesus, but your spiritual life as well. Because of the work of Jesus, in dying and rising again—you have new life, the resurrected life of Christ. You Christians will not experience the second death. You will never be told to depart from Christ. You will never face the loneliness that will come to many because of the curse of sin. Instead you have Christ's righteousness, you have His joy, His peace, true contentment and satisfaction. You have been given new life, a new heart, a new spirit—the life from above. You get that from Jesus Christ.

To sum up, Jesus Christ gives you physical life and everything that you enjoy. Not only that, if you're a Christian, He gives you spiritual life. Now this demands that you live for Christ, for His glory—that everything about your existence be devoted to Him. As the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:19–20,

"Do you not know that your body
is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you,
whom you have received from God?
You are not your own; you were bought at a price.
Therefore honor God with your body."

You are not your own. You belong to God. Thus in 1 Corinthians 10:31 Paul wrote,

"So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do,
do it all for the glory of God."

And in Colossians 3:17 Paul wrote,

"And whatever you do,
whether in word or deed,
do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him."

That's what Paul did. Paul made Christ the singular passion of his life. For him to live was Christ.

But of course not every Christian lives that way.

Not every Christian can say with Paul,

"For to me, to live is Christ…”

Many Christians aren't nearly as zealous for Christ and His glory as Paul was. In his message to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 Jesus had some serious criticisms of the way that many of the Christians in those churches were living. Many in Ephesus had forsaken their first love. The Christians in Pergamum had tolerated false teaching regarding sexual immorality. The church in Thyatira tolerated the false prophetess Jezebel and permitted her teaching to led many into sin. The Christians in Sardis were dead and their deeds were greatly lacking in the sight of Jesus. The church is Laodicea was lukewarm, and did not realize that she was wretched, poor, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.

On the last day Paul was going to receive the crown of righteousness. On the last day Paul was going to hear the words, (Matthew 25:34)

"Come, you who are blessed by my Father;
take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you
since the creation of the world."

But what about you? Are you going to hear those words? Is Christ the singular passion of your life? Are His commandments your joy and delight? Is He the focus of your life? If He's not there's something wrong. As a Christian you are called upon to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. You are called to live in such a way that other people see Christ living in you. (Colossians 1:27) Jesus is to be your life.

For those of you who are not Christians, I ask you, what's the focus of your life?

What is the singular passion of your life? With some people it's their family. With others it's the accumulation of money. With others it's power. With others it's their own pleasure. With others it's the accumulation of knowledge.

Know assuredly that whatever you are focusing on is not going to ultimately satisfy. It's going to disappoint. If you cannot say with Paul,

"For to me to live is Christ…”

you are going to be thoroughly disappointed. You were created for God's glory. He gives you your life. To focus on yourself or on the empty things of this earth, like money, power or pleasure, or even family—is utterly foolish. If you don't have Christ you're going to lose all.

Go to Jesus. Turn from your sins and turn to Jesus. He will give you life, life to the full.

The second thing that these words tell us about Paul is that Christ was so central to His life that

even to die was gain.

The apostle Paul contemplated death much differently than most of us. Paul was in jail when he wrote this and he didn't know if he was going to be released. He knew that he could be taken out and executed.

Many people today fear death. Many view death as something to be avoided at all costs. Even when Christians get sick they view death as something that they hope that God will spare them from. They look for healing, for prolonged life.

That's understandable. We were never meant to die. Death is unnatural. We even see some small reluctance about death in Paul. He wanted to continue to live in order to help other Christians.

But he didn't see death as a threat at all. He didn't even view death as a negative. He viewed it as, '

Hermann Ridderbos tells us that both of the parts of verse 21 are, (Paul, An Outline of His Theology, p. 498)

"certainly not to be taken as an antithetic parallelism, in the sense that they set life and death over against each other. The intention is simply to say that (continuing) to live or to die makes no fundamental difference. Living (Christ) and dying (gain) are accordingly not placed over against each other, but the latter is rather the result of the former."

Death is gain because Christ, by His death and resurrection, has conquered death. Death for a Christian is a doorway to Christ. When Stephen lay dying he saw heaven opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, ready to welcome him. (Acts 7:55) For a Christian, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. And as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:8

"We are confident, I say,
and would prefer to be away from the body
and at home with the Lord."

Or as he wrote a few verses after our text, in Philippians 1:23,

"I am torn between the two: I desire to depart
and be with Christ, which is better by far;"

Death for a Christian has been defeated. As Paul said to Christians in 1 Corinthians 3:21–23,

"All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas
or the world or life or death
or the present or the future—all are yours,
and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God."

Death is gain because it means that he will be with Christ, he will be at home with the Lord. William Hendriksen writes, (Philippians, p. 76)

"Death will be a distinct gain because it will be the gateway to clearer knowledge, more wholehearted service, more exuberant joy, more rapturous adoration, all of these brought to a focus in Christ."

D. A. Carson writes, (p. 29)

"To die is to bring that ministry to an end. But even so there is only gain, since the ministry is not an end in itself, and it is now swallowed up in the glorious delight of the unshielded presence of the exalted Jesus himself."

Christianity is more important than whether we live or die on this earth. You see, the life that Paul lived was the resurrected life of Jesus Christ. Paul realized that in a certain sense he had already been raised with Christ and seated in the heavenly realms with Him. (Ephesians 2:6) Paul's life was elevated beyond the ordinary physical life of non-Christians. He had the life of Christ in him. He was already participating in the life to come. Hermann Ridderbos writes, (Galatians, p. 106)

"Christ and His redemption break through into the life of His own by means of His Spirit, and that so Christ lives in them. So they are liberated from the curse as well as from the power of sin, and so their life can be a life unto God."

Christians, realize the life you have in Christ. Give yourself totally to Christ's glory. Make Him and His glory your singular passion. Whatever you do, do it for the glory of God.

D. A. Carson tells the story of a Christian he knew of, (p. 26)

"who always gave the same response when he was asked the numbing vocational question, 'What do you do?' Invariably he would reply, 'I'm a Christian.' 'Yes, but I didn't ask your religion; I asked what you do.' 'I'm a Christian.' 'Do you mean you are in vocational ministry?' 'No, I'm not in vocational ministry. But I'm a Christian, full time.' 'But what do you do vocationally?' 'Oh, vocationally, Well, I'm a Christian, full time, but I pack pork to pay expenses.'"

I'm not recommending that you become obnoxious in your answers to questions about what you do—but I am recommending that you have the attitude that that man did. May all of us be able to say, like Paul,

"For to me, to live is Christ
and to die is gain."