Last week we looked at Paul’s attitude in the difficult times he was facing. We saw that Paul teaches us that though we cannot control our circumstances, we can control our response to them. We also learned that we need to look for opportunities rather than wallow in the liabilities of life. We were reminded that what is important is glorifying God and not promoting ourselves. They are solid truths but they are certainly not easy truths.
This morning we continue in our study of dealing with difficult times by looking at how Paul faced the most daunting trial of life . . . the prospect of death. Even in this circumstance Paul has joy. I hope you can see how valuable a text this is for us. We need to learn the lessons Paul has to teach us today. It is intensely relevant. Especially so for those who,
- are diagnosed with a terminal illness or who face an uncertain result from disease treatment
- have a body that is getting some age on it
- are facing a serious surgery
- are left behind after someone they love has died
In each of these situations we can no longer avoid the demon that dogs our lives. We can no longer pretend that the temporary nature of life does not matter. This passage speaks to our deepest fears and our most profound times of loss. Listen again to Paul’s words,
I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. (Philippians 1:19-26)
PAUL’S VIEW OF DEATH WAS KEY TO HIS JOY IN LIFE
Before we can understand Paul’s joy in difficult times, we must understand how Paul viewed death. How you view death is the key to how well you will enjoy life. When we don’t have a Christian view of death we end up living our lives afraid. Our life becomes paralyzed because of the dark shadow that may lurk around the next corner. We must deal with the shadow of death if we are ever going to be free to live.
Paul Viewed Death not as Loss but as Gain
As Paul sits in his jail cell, he knows at any moment his life could be snatched from him. He knows he is innocent but he also knows that Nero is on the throne and he was well known for his arbitrary executions. At any time, Nero could command his death on just a whim. But Paul did not have a sense of despair. We don’t see him withdrawing or being filled with fear and apprehension. Paul seems unconcerned about death.
The first thing he says about death is that he views it as “gain” rather than loss. This is not the prevailing notion. We talk about people “losing the battle” with disease. When someone we love dies we often say we have “lost them”. When treatments are exhausted Doctors say “there is nothing more we can do” in an attitude of defeat and resignation. We view death as the ultimate defeat. But this is not Paul’s attitude toward death. He sees it not as defeat . . . but he sees it as victory.
Paul talks about his desire to “depart” to be with Christ. The word translated “depart” is a word that is instructive. The word is the word that is used for “striking camp”. Another words it is the idea of taking your tent down and moving on. The word is also used for pulling up the anchor of a ship. Both words denote the temporary nature of their current stop.
In 2 Corinthians 5 we read these familiar words from Paul
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. (2 Corinthians 5:1)
Paul taught that life is just the first stop in the journey of existence. Death is the transfer point that leads us to home. To Paul, death was not an enemy. To Paul life was something we endured in order to get to Heaven. Death was graduation day.
Paul saw the gain that death had for the believer,
- in Heaven we will be free from sin and limitation
- we will be free from all doubts
- we will have all our questions answered
- we will be free of the Devil’s attacks
- we will be free from our suffering
- we will be in the company of friends and family who have gone before us
Paul Saw Death as the Blessing of Being With Jesus
Paul tells us that he desires to “depart and be with Christ”. It is not that Paul didn’t want to be with his fellow believers on earth . . . he loved them. It is not that Paul didn’t want to be with family and friends. He loved them as well. But IF HE HAD TO CHOOSE, Paul looked forward to getting acquainted with the one who had given His life for Him. He looked forward to meeting the one who had so changed his life.
I know I have looked forward to meeting authors that have meant much to me. As I approached them the first time, my heart raced and my mind became as jello. If we get this excited to meet those who have influenced us on earth . . . would we not . . . should we not . . . be even more eager to meet the one who has snatched us from the jaws of destruction? Are we not eager to meet the one who has loved us from before we were born? This was the kind of anticipation Paul felt as he considered death. He didn’t focus on the separation, He focused on Jesus.
Paul saw death as an immediate entrance into God’s presence
It is important, I think, to point out one more fact. There is a theological debate as to what happens when we die. Some have said that we will “sleep” until the time of resurrection. And there are many verses that may imply this concept of “soul sleep”. The idea here is that we will all be raised together at one time. But I do not believe this is what Jesus or Paul taught. The most famous passage is when Jesus talked with the thief on the cross. After his expression of faith, Jesus told him, “TODAY, you will be with me in paradise.” He did not say, “Some day you will be with me . . . it is TODAY.”
Truthfully the passage in Philippians is a much stronger passage. Understand Paul’s dilemma. The struggle is simple: is it better to go and be with Christ or to stay and continue to minister in His name? The whole debate would be a mute point. If dying wasn’t going to get Paul to the Lord any sooner . . .if he would be “asleep” until the resurrection, then what would be the gain of dying now? Certainly Paul would have said, “I desire to remain as long as possible so that I might have the opportunity to lead others to His grace.”
Practical Lessons About Death
Let me give you a couple of key truths we learn from Paul’s view of death,
First, we learn that we must expand our view of what “life” really is. We need to learn that this life is but the prelude to the life that is to come. We need to remind ourselves often that “this world is not my home . . . I’m only passing through.” The gospel message is not designed PRIMARILY to help us in this life. It certainly does help us but that is not the primary purpose. The primary message of the gospel is that through Christ we can know the glorious life beyond the grave. We must remind ourselves and remind each other that this is just the title page of the book called life. The real story is yet to come.
Second, we must deliberately focus on the benefits of Heaven rather than the pain of loss. If a high school student focused on the pain of leaving what is familiar they would never go off to college. However, if they focus on what is to be gained, it makes the leaving easier. If a person going into surgery thinks only about the process of surgery they will be filled with anxiety. Instead they must focus on the problems surgery will correct. It is the same way in life. We need to think more about the “gain” of Heaven. We need to develop that appetite for the eternal that makes death a time of anticipation rather than fear.
PAUL’S VIEW OF LIFE
If we understand Paul’s view of death it becomes much easier to discover how he found joy in living in difficult circumstances.
The struggles of life are viewed differently when we have a Christian view of death
for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.
I hope you see this as an obvious point. When we understand that death is not the enemy, but a transition and doorway to gain, we view the struggles of life differently. Tim Stafford gives a very helpful illustration of what I’m talking about
Pain and sorrow are transformed by the view from the end. If we walk through a hospital, we can encounter a practical example of this. There is one particular ward where moans are most likely to assault our ears. Young women writhe in severe and helpless pain. Their problem is obvious to the eye: their stomachs have swelled to the size of beach balls. The taut skin glistens. As the hours pass, the women’s faces grow increasingly worn with pain. If they were there with any other diagnosis, say cancer, the scene would cut our hearts.
Instead, we feel great joy in a maternity ward. The women there may be feeling as much pain as women with stomach cancer, but they look confidently toward a different end — a joyful end. Later, they will not even remember much of the process. How often have we heard a mother say, “Isn’t it strange how you can’t remember how much it hurt?” The pain that seemed so terrible has faded away because it came to its proper end: she holds her baby. [Stafford, THE FACE OF GOD p. 215-216]
Isn’t that a great picture? Life is sometimes painful but we endure it because we know what is on the other side of the pain. Like many women reaching the point of delivery we may face anxiety as we approach the day of death. We may want to say, “No, I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want to do it.” But we know that is no longer an option. Once we are born we know we will face death. When the time of “labor” comes, we must keep our eyes on the goal.
At the beginning of this passage Paul said that “through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.” Paul was saying that he knew he would get through this crisis (one way or another) through the help that they provided him in their prayers and through the strength the Holy Spirit gave him. As a mother in labor needs the help of a Doctor and a coach (and sometimes medication), so the believer needs the prayers of others and the expert help of God’s Spirit. When we pray for someone we hang on to the rope as they hang over the cliff of difficult times.
Paul is not saying that the difficult times were easy to endure. They weren’t. Paul needed support. He craved the prayers of the people. He knew that without God’s strength the trials of life would unravel him. Paul leaned on the strength provided him. He chose to focus on the blessing rather than the burden. He chose to rejoice in the promise rather than despair over the problem.
Paul’s Goal was to Live for Christ
Paul’s secret for joyful living was not just in his view of death . . . it was also in his view of life. He makes his grand declaration in verse 21. it is a verse well worth memorizing.
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
The Living Bible puts this real well, “For to me, living means opportunities for Christ, and dying — well, that’s better yet!” Paul saw life as having one primary purpose: “to honor, glorify, enjoy, and build a relationship with Christ.” These verses raise the inevitable question, What does “living” mean to you? If you were to fill in the blank: “to me, to live is ___________ .” What would you put in the blank? What does “living” mean to you?
Max Lucado writes,
Should a man see only popularity, he becomes a mirror, reflecting whatever needs to be reflected to gain acceptance. He is everyone and no one.
Should a man see only power, he becomes a wolf–prowling, hunting and stalking the elusive game. Recognition is his prey and people are his prizes. His quest is endless . . . As a result, he who sees only power is degraded to an animal, an insatiable scavenger, controlled not by a will from within, but by luring from without.
Should a man see only pleasure, he becomes a carnival thrill-seeker, alive only in bright lights, wild rides, and titillating entertainment. With lustful fever he races from ride to ride, satisfying his insatiable passion for sensations only long enough to look for another . . .
Seeker of popularity, power, and pleasure. The end result is the same: painful unfulfillment.
Only in seeking his Maker does a man truly become man. For in seeing his Creator man catches a glimpse of what he was intended to be. He who would see his God would then see the reason for death and the purpose of time. Destiny? Tomorrow? Truth? All are questions within the reach of the man who knows his source… [GOD CAME NEAR quoted in INSPIRATIONAL STUDY BIBLE]
Living for Christ is the key to living joyfully. Practically, living for Christ means several things,
- We will seek to know as much about Him as possible. If we live for Him we will want to know what He is like, what His will is, what brings Him pleasure and more.
- We will want to be like Him in our living. Living for Christ means we set Him up as our example and model.
- We will want to share Him with others. We naturally talk about the things that matter most to us. If we are living for Christ He will come up regularly and naturally in our conversation.
Paul was determined to live productively as long as He lived
If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose?. . . . I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.
I admire Paul’s attitude here. Paul is determined that if he is to continue on in life he was going to live as productively as possible. He believed if he was given more days on earth, it was for a purpose. So he intended to life productively while he was alive. Too many of us stop living before we die.
The Bible says nothing about retirement. Sure, we may retire from employment . . .but we do not retire from our service to the Lord. We must honor Him in all our ways for all our days. We must not waste the time God gives on earth. Perhaps you can’t serve him like you used to. Maybe you are living with some restrictions. O.K. . . . . so find new ways to serve!
- volunteer to cook meals
- transport people in need
- write letters to encourage others
- use the phone to minister to those who suffer
- pray, pray, pray
- put your faith story in writing
- help with projects at the church
- give financially to support a ministry
- deepen your faith by reading
- take time to visit with friends and look for an opportunity to share the gospel message
- volunteer to answer phones and greet people at the church or for some other ministry
- tutor a student who is having difficulty
- help support a single parent, financially or by helping with childcare
I hope you get the idea . . . you don’t have to stop serving the Lord simply because your body can no longer work the same way it used to work. Just because one way of service is closed, we shouldn’t give up. Paul was sure of one thing . . . if he was going to live, he was going to seek to be engaged in fruitful labor. This was his attitude whether he was in jail or on the road, whether he was applauded or despised, whether he was healthy or sick, whether he had money or didn’t.
And this needs to be our attitude as well. And it should be our attitude whether we have a disease or are healthy; whether we live in a nursing home or at home, whether our memory is sharp, or fuzzy. It doesn’t matter . . . as long as we live we should seek to live fruitfully. Our goal should be to honor our great Lord in all our living . . . right up to the last breath of our life.
I hope you have come to see this morning that Paul’s attitude toward life and death should be a model for our own attitudes. Those who see the future glory that awaits will be free from the fear of death and will know joy in this life . . . no matter what comes their way. To move us in that direction, let me suggest three final things.
First, be sure of your own salvation. The hope of heaven is ONLY for Christians. If you have not turned to Christ as your only hope of eternal life, then you can have no real hope of Heaven and consequently you will know no real joy in difficult times. Your goodness cannot earn salvation for you; your parents can not provide it for you; you have no hope apart from Christ.
So the first step then is to settle this issue. Turn away from trusting your own goodness and turn to Jesus. Confess your sin and your inability to earn salvation. Acknowledge Christ as God become man who has given his life for us. And then, rest and rely on what Christ has done for you. You must be His before you can know this hope of Heaven which yields joy in difficult times.
Second, think about Heaven. Read a book or two about Heaven. Read the Biblical passages that speak of Heaven. Try to imagine the glory of that day. Create an appetite and a desire for that which is to come. The more you yearn for Heaven, the less you will fear what earth throws at you.
Third, grow in your love for the Lord. Build your relationship with the Lord. Learn to converse with God in prayer, learn to listen to God through His Word, learn to adore God in worship. As we get to know Him, we will love Him more. And this love will help us look forward to being with Him. And if we continue to grow in our relationship with Christ perhaps we too can face death unafraid. Perhaps we can learn to live life joyfully, even in the difficult times of life. And maybe we will be able to say with Paul, “for me, to live is Christ, and to die . . . . is gain.”