Commentary on Philippians 1:21-30
“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” ~ Paul (author’s translation).
For us who read from a context of relative ease, these words are jarring. Paul writes from prison (Philippians 1:7, 13-14, 17), uncertain whether he will die (verses 19-20), hoping only that “Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (verse 20). The circumstances have not dampened Paul’s joy (see 1:18; 3:1a; 4:4, 10). Perhaps they have even clarified his focus. Regardless, Paul’s words in this passage crystallize two of the greatest takeaways from Philippians.
Takeaway #1: The centrality of Christ (1:21-26)
In case you didn’t notice, Christ is a big deal for Paul. And Philippians showcases that. Christ is the one for whose sake Paul has deemed all past trophies and treasures “dung” (skybala, NRSV “rubbish,” 3:8). What is more, Christ exemplifies both the “mind” believers are to have (2:5) and the general pattern they are to live (2:1-4, 5-11).
Here in our passage, Paul attributes Christ with the significance of all living: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (NRSV). The verse’s brevity, alliteration, and assonance (in Greek) make for an emphatic point — one the original hearers would have noticed.
Later Paul professes a desire to depart “and be with Christ, for that is far better” (verse 23). Only the prospect of “fruitful labor,” invested in the Philippians’ progress and faith, keeps him contentedly present (1:22-26). Even so, between life and death, Paul confesses “I do not know which I prefer” and “I am hard pressed between the two” (verses 22-23).
However surprising (and potentially dangerous if taken out of context) Paul’s flippancy about death is, his rhetorical point is not about death but about Christ — and his power over death. Paul writes as one seasoned in life-threatening situations for Christ’s sake (2 Corinthians 11:23-29), making this instance nothing new. Over the course of these hardships, Paul has embraced the motto: “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (my translation; see also Romans 13:7-9).
Christ at the center
One of the most striking features of Philippians is how it places Christ at the center: at the center of worthy pursuits (3:4b-14), at the center of thinking (2:5), at the center of ethical reflection (2:1-11), at the center of life (1:21-26), and at the center of worship (2:9-11). Gordon Fee points out: “On anybody’s reading, Christ plays the absolutely central role in Paul’s life and thought, and nowhere is that more evident than in Philippians.”1
Whatever our reactions to Paul’s flippancy about death (Philippians 1:21-24), his rhetorical point is clear: to glorify Christ (1:18, 20) and credit him with the meaning of life. This relentless focus on Christ is worth our extensive meditation.
Takeaway #2: A life reflective of the Gospel (1:27-30)
Philippians 1:27 issues the letter’s primary appeal: “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” After the initial greetings (1:1-2), thanksgiving (1:3-11), and circumstances (1:12-26), Paul here begins to direct hearers toward specific behavior (see 1 Thessalonians 2:12 for similar language).
The verb for “live” (politeuesthe) is not Paul’s typical word choice for patterns of living (see also peripateite, Galatians 5:16; Philippians 3:17, 18). It is the language of public citizenship or civic loyalty, with political overtones. Later Paul uses the same root to remind the Philippians “our citizenship (politeuma) is in heaven” (3:20). These word choices together issue a politically-laden charge to those in a city with strong Roman loyalties: “live in a way that honors the message of Christ” — a message that proudly calls him (not Caesar) “Lord” (1:2; 2:11; 3:8, 20; 4:5, 23).
Paul observes “you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:30). Given his circumstances, this must mean harassment at the hands of Roman authorities (see also 2:14-16; 3:2-4a). Elsewhere Paul reports “we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi” (1 Thessalonians 2:2), and Acts records experiences of this kind (16:19-40). To believers in this city, Paul encourages standing firm, trusting that suffering for Christ’s sake is finally a privilege (Philippians 1:27-29).
Suffering for Christ
Paul’s positive spin on the Philippians’ suffering does not condone suffering of all kinds — nor does it attribute it to God’s will. His goal in Philippians 1:28-29 is for distressed believers in Philippi to see their hardships for professing Christ as Lord as proof of the certainty of their future hope: salvation (see also 2:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15). Paul depicts this suffering for Christ’s sake as a “privilege,” given to accompany faith (Philippians 2:12-13), probably because it fosters conformity to Christ, who himself suffered and was raised (Romans 6:1-6).
Many of us today do not often suffer for the gospel. But Paul’s charge to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” still stands. His appeal calls us to a faith that is public (vs. private), a witness that “strives side by side” with others for the gospel, and a devotion to Christ as Lord that governs all other loyalties — despite the consequences.
Preachers may compare Philippians 1:21-30 with Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-16, where unanticipated hardships (or grace toward others) become testing grounds for thankfulness, faith, and loyalty. They also show how prone we are to respond ungraciously to hardships, despite God’s generosity. The call to honor God above all others shines through all readings, not because we are well able, but because God in Christ first graciously acts on our behalf.
1 Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 49.