For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (Philippians 1:21–24)
In Philippians 1:21–24, Paul gives us insight into how he weighs the options before him: living versus dying. Since Christ is glorified in him in either case, and since the gospel is advancing whether he is free to participate or not, should he stay or should he go?
REASONING IT OUT
He could have simply told us his choice, but instead he walks us through his decision-making process. He takes up the first option of living in Philippians 1:22, qualifying it as in the flesh. This assures us he is talking about his present life—not about living in a glorified body after physical death. His ministry in this life means fruitful work for Christ—a bonus for the believers to whom he is ministering (Philippians 1:24).
Dying sounds like the better option. He would no longer have to be in pain or suffer imprisonment, nor would he have to deal with problems in the church. It would not be his problem anymore. On the other hand, remaining means more fruitful labor for Christ. Which will he choose? At this point, it sounds like he is leaning toward departing.
NO EASY CHOICE
Paul makes clear this is no easy decision in Philippians 1:22–23. Why is it so hard? Because life is hard! And who wouldn’t want to be in the heaven described in Revelation 7:16–17 — a place where there is no longer hunger or thirst, where God himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes? To Paul the prospect of heaven must have sounded better. He had been lashed, beaten with rods, shipwrecked, and even stoned (2 Corinthians 11:23–29). He knew hardship. Despite the potential for fruitful work if he remains, departing and being with Christ has its appeal. After all, if Christ is exalted in either case, if the gospel advances with or without him, why not be with the Lord?
OTHER PEOPLE MATTER
Other considerations are raised in Philippians 1:24. Paul mentioned earlier that remaining in the flesh and ministering would be fruitful. He uses the same “in the flesh” terminology to tie back to Philippians 1:22, but states that remaining is not just about fruitfulness—it is necessary for the Philippians’ sake. Just as his imprisonment was of less concern than the advancement of the gospel (Phil. 1:18), teaching the Philippians is higher priority than going to be with Christ. Their needs are what tip the scales in favor of remaining in the flesh. What is most desirable for Paul is secondary.
Paul uses the more attractive option of departing as a backdrop for disclosing his decision to remain and serve the church. Had he jumped ahead to deliver his final verdict without explaining the options, we would not understand what it cost him. Departing from his circumstances and being with Christ, while desirable, would have been selfish on his part. Instead, he opts for the same kind of sacrificial service that we will read about Christ offering in Philippians 2:5–11.
FOLLOW PAUL’S EXAMPLE
Paul opening up his decision-making process challenges us to follow in his path. How do we decide to get involved in a ministry or not, to minister to someone else’s needs or not? Do we consider only our own interests? What about the interests of others (Phil. 2:4)? Convinced that the Philippians’ needs outweigh his own desire to depart and be with Christ, Paul chooses to remain serving them.