Commentary on Philippians 1:21-30
The lectionary passage Philippians 1:21–30 starts with an impressive statement about life and death.
The Apostle Paul wrote these lines during his imprisonment in Rome, probably some time between 61 and 63 C.E. This specific situation is important to understand our text. Most likely, Paul’s imprisonment was rather a situation of house arrest under military custody that would have allowed him certain privileges, for instance visits of Timothy with whom he penned this letter.
It is nevertheless clear that Paul’s theological reflections are a response to the imminence of death, which was a potential outcome of this predicament. (His death in Rome just a few years later is the topic of the 2nd century apocryphal writing called Martyrdom of Paul). In our pericope, Paul provides an impressive reevaluation of death (Philippians 1:21–26) that leads to an exhortation of the congregation to suffer for Christ (1:27–30). The passage is followed by the famous hymn celebrating Christ’s humility until death (2:6–11), the lectionary text of the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Our pericope starts with the following sentences: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:21–23, NRSV). When hearing such a statement, some might be impressed by Paul’s religious enthusiasm. Others may feel uncomfortable or might even want to accuse the apostle of boasting. I feel compelled to ask, “Are you sure, Paul, you don’t hang on to life more than that?” What kind of principle is “dying is gain” anyway?
Most of our modern culture is dominated by countless efforts of making life more gratifying and fulfilling while eliminating the threat and experience of death. We tend to admire people who succeed in life or who live their lives to the fullest. There are not many role models for the idea that “dying is gain.”
So how could the Apostle Paul make such a statement some 2,000 years ago? We find the answer first in his situation of imprisonment mentioned above. It came with the potential of death, and thus it was only appropriate for Paul to reflect on death instead of adopting a state of denial. We encounter the result of his reflections in verse 23: “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
Second, it is clear that Paul’s reflections hinge on the presence of Christ. Paul is absolutely certain that death is not a transition into a state of non-existence; hence, he is not afraid of it. Paul does not doubt at all that death can only be the moment when he will be united with Christ. This is a faith perspective the apostle has developed earlier: “ … we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 NRSV).
The test of such faith comes in a situation of impending death, be it in the first century C.E. or more recently. In the spring of 1945, the last message written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer before his execution in a concentration camp in Nazi-Germany demonstrates a similar kind of confidence: “ … for me this is the end but also the beginning. With him (sc. the bishop of Chichester to whom this message was addressed) I believe in the principle of our Universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests, and that our victory is certain.”
For our perspectives on death, the centeredness on the resurrected Christ can make a big difference. It turns typical human perspectives on life upside down. Attitudes of ‘living life to the fullest’ suddenly become questionable. The quest for more material possessions suddenly becomes vain. In the Letter to the Philippians, Paul turns his attention instead to the people who had gathered around him to hear the message of Christ. He wants to be their servant. He therefore makes a few recommendations on how followers of Christ should live (1:27–30). His words convey expectations of an endearing relationship between the members of the congregation in Philippi, who are to be “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (1:27).
Again, I am not certain whether everybody feels comfortable with such a statement. These are high ideals for communal life. Yet do we not all know how divided our church congregations are today? Divisions because of worship styles, dogmatic issues, dress codes, or matters of life style are ubiquitous, leaving the ‘body of Christ’ separated into different denominations and sub-groups. It might help to reflect on the fact that this situation in the Christian Church is not recent; it probably existed already during Paul’s time.
If he reminded the congregation in Philippi to be unified, did this not imply that there were divisions? Were not the opening chapters of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians also dealing with the problem that people there followed Christ but declared they belonged to Paul or Apollos or Cephas (1:12)?
In the end, the crucial question is whether essential or secondary aspects determine corporate church identities. There can never be enough of a focus on Jesus Christ, that is, on the story of his life, suffering, and death, and on the gospel of salvation through faith in him (see, for example, Philippians 2:6–11). Only when we hear this gospel time and again will we be able to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). Those called “Christians” should always strive to learn more about the person after whom they are named.