Friday, February 25, 2011
Yesterday we looked at Paul’s view of life and the future. He reminds the Christian that his life is caught up with God in Christ. Today we’ll consider what it is to die, that is to go to be in Christ’s presence.
II. To die is gain.
And it is that understanding that enables Paul to say a second thing, “…and to die is gain.” Paul is not saying for everybody in the world life is good and death is better, he is saying that only of those who have rested and trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel. He is saying that only of those, as he says in Galatians 2:20 and Philippians 3:8-10, only for those for whom this is true (that Christ is our life) can we say that real life is Christ, and death is even better. It is something, as far as Paul is concerned, that is universally true, but it is particularly experienced and it is only experienced by those who have placed their faith in Christ. And so this word of assurance, “...to die is gain...” is only for Christians. Paul is saying, ‘Because Christ is my life, because to live is Christ—because of that—death is even better.’ Paul is saying that he looks for a fuller experience of the knowledge and love, and glory and enjoyment, and communion and fellowship of Christ immediately upon his death.
Notice that Paul is not struggling between heaven and hell. This isn’t a struggle between heaven and hell, nor is it a struggle between hard, hard life...and some respite from that.
The struggle that Paul is having is between full life now and immediately fuller life upon death. Paul is wrestling between abundant life and fruitful, Christ-exalting ministry amidst sufferings and struggles and dangers and pain here on earth – that’s on the one side – and even more abundant life because of immediate enjoyment of Christ in His nearer presence, with none of the suffering and pain and struggle and toil and disappointment, in death. He’s come to realize this: ‘Whether I live or I die, no one can take Christ from me. No one can put me to shame; and if I die, I’m just going to be closer to Christ.’
Consider how radical this is both from the standpoint of the Old Testament and Paul’s culture and from our own.
In the Old Testament, you see this pattern that emerges in the Old Testament that to die is to be put to shame. One of the ways that God vindicates His Old Testament people against their enemies is He causes His people to live and His enemies to die. And so the psalmist will say in Psalm 118:17-18,
“I shall not die, but live, and declare the mighty works of God.”
In other words, he’s saying, ‘Lord, one of the ways You’re going to vindicate me is that my enemies are going to die, and I’m going to live to be able to tell the story of it.’ Look at Psalm 22:5 and Psalm 31:17, and you’ll see this same theme playing itself out in the Old Testament: to die is to be put to shame. That equation is made.
But Paul has come to the point where he’s said, ‘If I die, I’m not going to be put to shame, because to live or to die is Christ. The equation I face is not life with Christ and death without Him, life with honor and death with shame. Rather, it’s life with Christ, and in death more of Him. No shame, all glory, all Christ-exaltation: this is extraordinary. The Greeks in Paul’s day very often would talk about people who had had a hard life: ‘Oh, they’ve gotten rest in death. Their life was hard, but now they’ve got some rest in death.’ That’s not what Paul is saying. What he’s saying is better than that. Paul is not doing the same thing that Hamlet was doing in his famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy in which Hamlet thinks, ‘Well, maybe death will give me relief from the torture that I’m experiencing in life. But what’s death going to be like, asks Hamlet? Maybe, maybe,’ he says, ‘death is going to be worse than life!’
That’s not what Paul is doing here. Paul is doing something entirely different. He’s saying, ‘My deliverance does not depend on whether I live or die. In fact, death is advantageous to me. Christ is going to be glorified, no matter what the verdict is against me, and I am going to get the profit. I am going to get the gain, no matter what the verdict is against me, because death simply ushers me into the gain.’ What is the gain? It’s the personal benefit of being in the Lord’s presence. If for Paul this life is Christ, death is simply going to usher him into the presence of the One who is his life! That’s not a loss, it’s a gain.
And there’s the key: If to live is to know and to love and to glorify and enjoy Christ, then, and only then, is to die gain.
Of course it is only a gain for those who believe on Christ! What Paul is saying is universally true: the only people who know real life are those who have been granted it by Jesus, because He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father, but by Me.” So these words of comfort are lost on those who cannot say, “For to me, to live is Christ….” The first part of the sentence is necessary for the comfort of the second part of the sentence.
When we wrestle with this verse, we are wrestling with eternal matters. Life is short. Hell is real. And eternity is long. And your knowing the life of which Paul speaks in the first half of this verse is going to determine your experience of life here and hereafter. God grant that we would accept no substitute for the only One who can give us life.
Posted by Ligon Duncan at 5:25 PM