Ready to live, ready to die

by Keith Bassham

But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; So that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places; And many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will:

The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds: But the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel.

What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice. For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith

Philippians 1:12-25

In the earliest days of Christianity, if there were such thing as an indispensable person, it was the man writing these words. He, with the help of others, had been turning the world upside down, or at least this was the testimony of his critics. The message that God was in Jesus Christ, creating a new world and setting things right, and all the while taking care of the problem sin had made of things, and that no matter who thought he was in charge, Jesus had been made Lord — these ideas were taking hold all over the empire.

But, as we can tell from this document, Paul the author, the indispensable man, was being shut down, and for his followers, you may well think the gospel itself was shutting down. Paul is, after all, held in a first-century prison, and this is Rome, where people who go to prison tend to stay there until … well, they don’t always leave alive.

And so his friends and followers are worried. They’re shaken. What if Paul never gets out? What if they kill him? This is not the way things are supposed to go. And that is one of the big reasons this letter is written to these Christians in Philippi, a colonial outpost of Rome and Caesar, a place where the populace is familiar with both. They are having a crisis of confidence … things they have depended on are being shaken … things are not going the way they are supposed to … and now might be a good time to get away from it all, one way or the other. Either by just chucking what they’ve been believing, or by ignoring what’s going on, hunkering down, getting their minds on heaven, and perhaps just holding out for the deliverance that was sure to come. Those, Paul says, are not the proper responses.

But I am ahead of myself already.

Who are the people in this story, who is Paul, what is Philippi, why do we have such an ancient document in our hands, and what relevance does it have for us?

First, let’s talk about Philippi.

In the final verses of the 15th chapter of Acts, the archetypal missionary team of Paul and Barnabas was splitting up, just as the pair had determined to make a trip to see how their newly planted churches were faring. When chapter 16 opens, we see the trip begins, Paul with a new companion named Silas, and soon Timothy joins the party. Churches are encouraged, people are saved, and Paul plans to head north and then east to open some new areas to the gospel.

And then, God put a stop to it all. Yes, that’s right. They were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to move that direction. And so, instead of making a right turn into modern-day Turkey and perhaps even some ways along the Silk Road, they turn left toward Europe. And a vision came to Paul, a vision of a man of Macedonia in northern Greece, calling for Paul’s help. The missionaries immediately cross over into Greece, “And from thence to Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony: and we were in that city abiding certain days” (Acts 16:12).

Philippi was at one time called “The Springs.” It was renamed Philippi by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. It was an important city on and off, but it becomes a little more interesting to us because of something a Caesar named Octavian did.

Octavian was the nephew of Julius Caesar. If you don’t know much about him, I should mention that he was the general who knocked off Marc Antony a few years before the birth of Jesus, and that after that victory, he did two things that you will know about. First, he assumed the title Augustus, something akin to a god. That’s right. He’s the Caesar Augustus of Luke 2 who made a decree that sent Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. And the second thing to note is he rebuilt the city of Philippi in Macedonia and established it as a Roman colony. That meant several things.

After establishing the city of Philippi as a colonial military outpost, Augustus populated it with retired soldiers, thus helping to ensure loyalty. Residents, though they were actually in Greece, could become citizens of Rome, with the freedom to buy and own land and property. They could engage one another in civil lawsuits, and they were exempt from several types of taxation.

As far as religion goes in a Roman colonial outpost like Philippi, Octavian either invented, or more probably stumbled upon, the value of integrating religion and politics, and that brings us to his new name. Augustus means, in Latin, to be venerated, consecrated, or even holy. In other words, Augustus became an object of worship. That meant to citizens in the Roman Empire, Caesar was not only king — he was also lord.

We now know that the worship of the emperor and its enforcement was a political tool, useful for keeping order, and that it was a more important factor than we thought. There were of course other gods in the pantheon, and not a little good old-fashioned superstition and occult practice going on, but the main event in religion was the worship of whoever occupied the imperial palace in Rome. Caesar was lord and god. A well-placed statue in the center of Philippi could effectively turn a colonial outpost into a “little Rome,” and as one writer asks, “Who needs armies when you have worship?”

Citizens of Philippi, especially those considered Roman citizens, could look to the statue and be reminded of who they were, and who was their king. They would know that should the outpost be attacked by a foolish enemy, Rome and Caesar would come to the rescue. If disease or famine or other disaster struck, their lord and king would be there for them.

And finally, the precedent having been set, the veneration and worship of Caesar was transferred from emperor to emperor upon accession to the throne in Rome. This imperial cult was the dominant religion in nearly every place Paul worked during his ministry, and this was certainly true in Philippi, a “little Rome” and a city especially linked with Augustus.

Imagine then the impact these words would have upon a community accustomed to worshipping Caesar and the other gods of the day:

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him [Jesus], and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

That is why in another Macedonian city, when Paul and Silas began preaching, they were accused of turning the world “upside down” and of behavior “contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus” (Acts 17:6,7). According to Paul, Caesar had a competitor, and the wording in the Philippian letter pulls no punches. Paul is not exaggerating, and in fact his language reads very much like the language of Isaiah 45:

“ …there is no God else beside me; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside me. Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else. I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (Isaiah 45:20-23).

Read carefully that passage in chapter 2 above. Paul took all the titles and postures of worship Caesar claimed for himself, and said to the Philippians, Jesus is Lord, and that certainly must mean Caesar is not.

So, to summarize and to introduce Paul’s unique response to the Philippians, we need to remember a few things about Philippi, how Paul got there, and what he did there. When Paul was kept from going into Asia Minor and called instead into Europe, the first major city he visited was Philippi, a colonial outpost and a dress rehearsal for his eventual journey to Rome itself, which is where we began the article — Paul in Rome.

And everything that Paul will write to the Philippians will have these things in the background. For instance, just as Philippi is a colonial outpost for the Roman Empire, the church in Philippi is a colonial outpost for the empire or kingdom of Jesus. Furthermore, it is the primary task of that colonial outpost to take that message — Jesus is the resurrected Lord and King over all creation — to other places where the message is not yet known and believed. To send out pioneers who establish other outposts in other places, and then those outposts, churches really, do the same thing, until the earth is filled with the praise and glory of God.

So, the story of Paul going into Philippi is a story about the conflict of the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God, and it’s a story about missions, and it’s a story about us, who we are and what we should be about, even in troubled times.

So, how are the Philippians to view this imprisonment of Paul, perhaps the most troublesome times they have experienced?

First of all, Paul says that even though it looks pretty bad on the surface, and for him personally and physically, this whole prison thing has been good for the advance of the gospel.

How’s that? Well, for one thing, stories about Paul and his gospel have been going around the palace, as our translation says, but the word Paul uses has the idea of the palace guard — the soldiers in charge. They’re hearing the word, and they’re spreading it around.

And then, for whatever reason, outside the prison, even Paul’s rivals are somehow able to advance the gospel. Then there are Paul’s supporters and helpers who are emboldened by what they see happening to him. Paul says, “I rejoice when the gospel gets out there no matter who or why they’re doing it.”

This reveals the true heart of the Apostle. In verse 18, he asks, “What then?” In other words, what does it matter? It doesn’t matter if I’m in prison. It doesn’t matter if I don’t get out. It doesn’t even matter if I live or die. What’s important is that the gospel of Jesus gets out. So, people of the church in Philippi, and for that matter, people in your church, be busy making the gospel and honoring Christ in all you do the main thing for yourselves.

That’s the first response God wants us to have when we’re knocked back some. Honoring Christ and getting the gospel out is the most important thing.

The second thing Paul wants to say to us in these troubled times is that it is important that we live in such a way that we are not ashamed before God. He says, “My hope is … that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death.”(Philippians 1:20)

You know what it is to be ashamed and embarrassed. It’s what happens when you don’t measure up. When you forget the lines to your song. Or you lose control of your temper. Or you get caught in a lie.

Paul loved Jesus Christ, and the last thing he wanted to do was to let him down, and the most important thing he believed he could do was to lift him up and magnify Him. And so even now, even in prison and when his life might be hanging by a thread, people would ask, “Okay Paul, where’s your confidence now? Do you still want to make a big noise for Jesus?” and his response would be, “I hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, and Christ will be magnified whether I live or die.”

And, as if to put a great big exclamation point on it, he says in verse 21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

It is a very compact statement that needs some unpacking. For most, nothing is more terrifying than death, and nothing is more tragic. And yet Paul says, “You know, I don’t know what I would choose if given the choice.” Fascinating. In verse 23 he says he is undecided, and even goes so far as to say, “I have a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better.”

Do you believe that? Do you believe that right now, right here, because you believe in Christ that leaving this life and going to be with him is actually preferred? Let me say this carefully. I’m not talking about suicide. But, if your departure from this life is a matter of God’s timing and His decision, I say yes. It is better. And I say that knowing that a good bit of my readership consists of seniors, and God’s Word tells you and tells me that the best is yet to come. You tell that to your kids and your grandkids. They need to know that.

But that’s not the total of Paul’s message. He is not saying, “Well, things are pretty bad for us these days, so it would be better for us to go to heaven, so let’s just talk about that.” He doesn’t just let it go at that. He says even though it would be a good deal for him if he did depart and go to be with Jesus, we need to take seriously the first part of verse 21: “For me to live is Christ.”

No matter how old you are, or how young you are, Paul is not saying to put heaven at the front of your thinking. Paul is saying that we need to put magnifying Christ and advancing the gospel at the front of our thinking. That’s the issue. It makes us happy to talk about heaven and escaping troubles through the rapture, but that’s not to be our focus. For me to live is Christ, and in verse 22, Paul mentions fruitful labor, and in verse 24 even goes so far as to say this is for the sake of others.

So Paul says, “Do I want to go to heaven? Sure, but right now, today, I have this longing, this desire to be fruitful for Christ more than anything else in the world, and will therefore,” in verse 25, “stay around and help you with your faith and joy.”

Going to heaven would be cool, but if you want to magnify Christ, show his love to others, have any effect on others, on your family, on your children, on your grandchildren, on hundreds of people you will never ever meet, you have to do that on earth. You have to stay around, because once we leave this earth, the ability to craft a heritage and to leave a legacy and to take others with us to heaven is over.

Paul says to the Philippians, and to us, whether we live or die is not an issue. Whether we have an enjoyable or comfortable life is not an issue. Whether we magnify Christ through our lives, in the good times, and in the troubled times — that’s the only issue.