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Anticipating Life and Death

Philippians 1:21-24
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 labour 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. (NIVUK)

Persecution brings a mixture of thoughts about the future.  Suffering's worst fear is that everything will be lost at death, and its worst delusion is that nothing in life is worthwhile anymore.  The Apostle Paul robustly contradicts both. He says that for the follower of Jesus, life and death is a win-win situation: until death we have the constant presence, provision and protection of Christ; and after death there is so much more of Him, and all the glory to come (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).  Before our life is taken, we are here to work for the Lord, and even when death ends that period of ministry, our life with Christ can never be taken away.

These verses are preceded by Philippians 1:20, “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.”  His reason for that expectation is in today’s verse, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  And even greater than the benefit he gains from Christ, is the glory that Christ gains from the apostle’s life-style – “… that … Christ will be exalted in my body …”   The honour of his Saviour was always the driving motive in Paul’s life – a challenge to the often self-seeking, comfort-craving believers who are not being persecuted.

If Paul had to choose whether to live or die a martyr [none of us can, because nobody other than God has the legitimate authority to determine our lifespan: our times are in God's hands (Psalm 31:5)] he would not know what to decide.  Both this life and the afterlife are wonderful privileges for those who follow Jesus.  But Paul knew that he was not the only person involved.  Others depended on him.  God had given Paul the responsibility to preach the gospel and build up the churches (Acts 26:16-18); and he had no evidence that the job had been completed.  So, he concluded that it was better to stay and serve.

Hard times often encourage us to hope for a way out of the uncertainty for our own sakes. Although it is not wrong to seek God's blessings for ourselves, we are not just here for ourselves.  Paul is clear about his obligation to serve others for the Lord's sake.  Service for Christ will bring suffering in some way or another, but that is no reason to shrink back: Jesus did not (Hebrews 12:2-3).  So we may well need these verses to strengthen our resolve to serve faithfully each day and to leave the outcomes to the Lord, or to help others who need the steadying effect of God's Word, when they feel tossed about by their circumstances (James 1:5-6).

Dear Lord. Thank You for not giving me the right to decide my future; that secret is safest in Your hands. Forgive me for the times I have succumbed to the temptations of fear or despair because I have lost sight of Your commission to be Your servant in this world. Please help me to realise that You have set me here to serve others for Your sake, and that You will continue to give me the strength to do that each day. Give me wisdom to know how to help friends and colleagues at work as they go through hard times. May I point them to the Lord Jesus and seek their blessing. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
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© Dr Paul Adams