23. Sermon Text - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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23. Sermon Text

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Text:   Phil.1:21-26

"For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour 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. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again."

All For Christ

I sometimes wonder just how they do it. Week after week, in normal times when COVID-19 doesn’t stop them, the fervent football fan is present to support his team. The team may be playing away but he is there in the section set aside for the visiting supporters. He travels the length and breadth of the country and if his team is really successful he travels around Europe to watch them too. And it all costs time and money. How do they do it? How do they manage to fit it all in and keep their jobs? They are certainly committed to their cause as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Paul was that type of person. He was committed and 100% so but he wasn’t committed to some sporting activity even though he did pepper his writings with sporting allusions using language that belongs in the sporting arena as he referred to running races, to boxing, to training etc. Paul also travelled widely in Europe too but he wasn’t chasing sporting glory he was committed alright but his commitment was to the Lord Jesus Christ.

In some ways Paul was obsessed with Jesus even before he became a Christian himself. At that time he had tried his hardest to eliminate this fledgling Christian movement but when he met Christ this obsession became a passion. All his opposition to Christ was abandoned to be replaced by a 100% positive commitment. Paul was by no means perfect but his motivation was definitely now pointing him in the right direction. Paul wanted:

  • To know Christ

  • To serve Christ

  • To enjoy Christ

  • To make Christ and his religion known

Paul’s fervour had landed him in prison. Committed to telling others about Christ he had been arrested in an attempt to silence him and to frustrate his endeavours. But it hadn’t worked. Paul was a difficult man to intimidate.

It wasn’t that Paul didn’t think about the dangers he faced or that he failed to understand what the immediate future might hold for him because he did. But as he put it elsewhere in his writings, compared with what he gained in Christ these dangers and difficulties, even serious threats to his life were but "slight momentary afflictions" and they merely served to prepare him for an eternal weight of glory, a blessing that was beyond all comparison.

This morning as we continue our studies in Paul’s letter to the Philippians we’re going to look at how Paul thought carefully about just what the immediate future might hold for him. He wasn’t a "head-in-the-sand Christian" who refused to live in the real world, he was a committed follower of Jesus Christ and he knew that Jesus was in charge of that real world in which he lived.

Weighing up the Options

Paul was facing a trial and he didn’t know whether he would be set free or whether the sentence would be passed requiring him to pay the ultimate price for his loyalty to Jesus. As he contemplated the possible outcomes one thing took precedence for him. It was Jesus’ glory that mattered. Paul was Christ-centred and Christ-centred he would remain.

I want the same to be true of me and I hope you want the same to be true of you too. Circumstances come and circumstances go but one thing remains constant and we can build our lives upon that sure foundation. And what is it? It is this:

Heb.13:8 "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."

And because he is we can confidently say,

Heb.13:6 "The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?"

Paul knew this and lived by it:

v.21 "For me to live is Christ" he said and he meant it.

If he were to be set free from his imprisonment and allowed to go on living it would mean that he would have more opportunities of serving Christ and this would inevitably mean fruitful labour. For Paul being a Christian meant active service and not idleness and apathy.

We mustn’t treat Paul’s "for me to live is Christ" as though it were a clever philosophical statement, a first century sound-bite from some arm-chair theologian. Paul was simply speaking very practically about what going on living would entail for him as the apostle to the Gentiles. For Paul to go on living meant going on serving the Christ who had so transformed his life.

I wonder, is that how you think about your life and in particular your remaining years?

If there was to be more life for Paul in this world he knew that it would have to be filled with fruitful labour for Christ. It had to be fruitful because, although one might sow and another reap, it was God who gave the increase and Jesus was the One who had committed himself to building his church. Paul’s labour would be fruitful, not because he was called to be an apostle but because his work, just as the work of any Christian, would be done in the strength of the Lord. Do you remember what he wrote to the Christians in Corinth on this subject?

1Cor.15:58 "Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain."

And a similar idea is also to be found in his letter to the Galatians:

Gal.6:9 "And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up."

Paul’s confidence was not that of the blind optimism of someone refusing to face reality. Paul’s confidence was forged in the furnace of real life trauma and trial. Paul had looked to what the immediate future might hold for him and knew that it could easily involve his death. Whatever the outcome might be however, whether he would live or die, Paul was determined to glorify Christ.

Thinking About Death

As Paul reflected on the possible outcomes of his upcoming trial he knew that death was a real possibility and it didn’t faze him at all. In fact we find that Paul couldn’t really make up his mind whether he wanted to go on living or whether he preferred to die. But when he carefully contrasted life and death he came to the conclusion that on a purely personal level death would be great!

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

And this provides us with the opportunity of focusing our own thoughts on the important subject of death. Unless Christ returns before all of us will die and we would be foolish not to spend at least some time in our lives considering what the Bible has to say about something that will inevitably affect us all. Specifically this morning we will think about what death means for the Christian.

The first thing for us to note here is that according to the Christian Paul death is "a gain". Paul compared living with dying and affirmed that to die is better than the joy of serving Christ in this life, it is even better than fruitful labour for Christ in this life. We might want to ask how this can be true. What can we learn from this?

Well we can learn this:

  • Death is not the end – life, for the Christian will not be snuffed out and extinguished when he physically dies

  • There is something to look forward to

  • And what we have to look forward to is great

What else does Paul have to say that might help us understand how this can be so?

Well, as Paul thought about the future he knew that the alternatives were that of living and of dying. And as he thought about them both he couldn’t say which was the best! When he spoke about which option he would choose he wasn’t thinking about ending his life by suicide or anything like that – his future was out of his control – no, he was rather asking himself which of the two alternatives he would personally prefer. He knew God was in charge.

In vv.23&24 Paul describes these two alternatives in a slightly different way that helps us to get a better grip on just what he meant.

In v.24 he writes "remaining in the flesh" and quite simply this is another way of thinking about going on living.

But in the preceding verse though he referred to dying as a departure:

v.23 "My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better."

The word he used is worth taking a look at. Outside of the NT this word was used in a couple of interesting contexts:

  • A ship slipping anchor. The picture is of a ship ready to set sail on a homeward journey from a foreign port – what a relief to slip anchor and to head for home.

  • An army breaking camp – at the end of a long period of service the time has finally come to return home. The breaking up of the camp should not be seen as some sad event but the joyous preliminaries that have to be completed before the soldiers can head off to see wives and family again.

And this is how Paul envisaged death – we’re talking now about the fact of death and not the process of dying. For some the process of dying can indeed be painful and distressing. Paul is not talking about the process of dying but about the fact of death itself and this held no fear for the apostle. And it need not cause fear for any believer. Dying may be a bitter experience but even this is sweetened as the believer considers what he is being led towards.

Now sometimes people will talk in terms of dying as a happy release, an end of the pain and struggles of this life. But that really is a million miles away from how Paul envisaged death. For him to die did not primarily mean an end to struggles and hardship (though as a by-product this would doubtless have been agreeable to him). No, for Paul to prefer death didn’t involve a rejection of his current life with is various ups and downs; rather it expressed his intense desire for Christ. You see death for the Christian means moving into the conscious, direct presence of Jesus and that for all eternity. With such an expectation surely we can begin to understand just why Paul is anything but frightened and ready to choose death as his personal preference!

Death is an awesome subject and the Bible does not treat it lightly: it is a formidable enemy, the last enemy we will have to face and even though it is a defeated enemy it remains nevertheless a serious one.

Death is significant because it is fundamentally all about separation. The soul is separated from the body and we are separated from family and friends, all the people and things that matter to us. But for the Christian believer death does not mean separation from God but rather it signifies entry into his beneficent presence. The Christian dies knowing that he/she will be raised to the newness and vigour of resurrection life and that at the last day he/she will finally receive that new resurrection body which is fully adapted to life in the new heavens and the new earth. This confidence flows not from wishful thinking but from the fact that Jesus himself conquered death and has already himself been raised from the dead.

It is because of our Saviour’s own experience, along with the promises that he has made to his people to raise them up at the last day, that death no longer marks the final destination of the Christian believer. This explains why the Christian believer’s death can comfortingly be referred to as "falling asleep". This expression doesn’t mean that when a Christian dies, or "falls asleep", that his soul sleeps until the end of time only to be woken up at the last day. The Bible doesn’t teach that sort of soul sleep but rather it teaches that when a Christian dies/sleeps his/her soul passes immediately into the presence of the Saviour where the believer begins to receive his reward.

Do you remember how Jesus spoke to the repentant thief who was being crucified, put to death, on the cross alongside him? His words are to be found in:

Lk.23:43 "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

And here in this letter Paul can refer to dying as a departure in order to be with Christ. And this departure he considered to be much better for him than more years of fruitful service of the Lord. It is hard to understand how being unconscious through soul sleep could be in any way better than active communion with Christ in ministry let alone better by far!

It is a wonderful truth to know that death has, for the Christian, lost its sting; it has been swallowed up in victory:

1Cor.15:57 "thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."

The Christian then is safe and his safety is entirely due to his union with Christ, he is only safe because of the promises made to him and he cannot attribute this safety to anything he himself might have done or achieved.

But the same is not true for everyone. Death remains a dreadful enemy for the unbeliever because death is followed by judgment:

Heb.9:27-28 "And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him."

The unbeliever, who has no faith in Christ and doesn’t in any way look to him, will stand at the bar of God on his own with no Saviour and Redeemer to speak a word in his defence. If you have not yet called upon Jesus to save you then don’t delay any more, the stakes are simply too high, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved!

Paul knew that he had a Saviour, and what a Saviour he was! And so Paul was not only ready to die he was eager to do so and yet he also knew that his personal preferences were not what were going to determine his immediate future.

Aspects of Guidance

Living in the affluent west our cultural values are influenced by the culture we find ourselves living in and individualism is one of the values that dominates so much of what we think and do.

The individual freedoms that we enjoy in the west are in many ways the fruit of Bible teaching and we are right to enjoy them and celebrate them. But these freedoms can be, and  so often are, abused. Personal freedom is great until it becomes an excuse for ignoring the just and valid claims that others might have upon us. The good use of personal freedom can, if we are not careful, be diverted into the cruel and deceptive cul-de-sac of self-centredness and self-absorption. And if we are driven only by what we think will be the best for our own immediate benefit and satisfaction then we mustn’t be surprised if we shut ourselves off from God’s guidance for our lives.

Had Paul only considered his own interests he wouldn’t have been willing to settle upon a course of action where others factors played a more important role. And yet as he reflected on the likely outcome of his own court-case he came to believe that there was something else apart from his own personal interests that had to be taken into account – and this was the interests and well-being of others.

v.24 "But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account."

As he thought about this he became convinced that the most likely way he would be called upon to glorify Christ was by continuing to bring glory to him as he ministered to others including the Christians in Philippi. In writing to the Philippians about this Paul was setting his own life before them as something of a model of the service driven life.

vv.25-26 "Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again."

This ought to lead us to pose the question "Whose interests do I take into consideration when I have an important decision to take?" Do I think about how Christ might be glorified? What if I were to actively choose to serve others? Or do I simply determine what I’m going to do by what feels good to me, to what takes my fancy? Do my personal preferences always sit at the top of the table when it comes to deciding what to do?

In the following chapter Paul will call upon the Philippians to make sure that they include the interests of others when they have decisions to take, so we are surely right to apply the same criteria to ourselves:

Phil.2:4 "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."

Paul was only asking the Philippians to do what he himself did and later in the letter he would go on to write of others who did just the same as him: Timothy and Epaphroditus. But we must always remember that the example that these men themselves followed was of course that of the Lord Jesus Himself!

And Paul believed that as he followed the example of the Lord Jesus Paul the Philippians would be glad to see him again and their joy would lead them to give glory to the Saviour, the very thing that sat at the top of Paul’s list of priorities! I hope that sits at the top of mine. I hope it sits at the top of yours too.

And to God be the glory.


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