Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"PAULíS VISION FOR LIFE: TO LIVE IS CHRIST AND TO DIE IS GAIN."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Psalm 73:8 (After sermon)
Psalm 16:2,3 (After profession of faith)
Psalm 119:19,22 (After Ordination)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
By the grace of our God, three young people wish today to profess the faith. Like so many millions of other young people, theyíve grown up in an apostate world. But the Lord God has used parental home and God-centered school and the work of office-bearers to work faith in the hearts of these young people. Today they want to profess that faith publicly, and so receive admission to the use of the sacraments. We praise God for His mercy upon them, and upon us all in granting a privilege as today.
But after the highlight of today, Cherrilyn, Annette, Laurette, life will return to normal. You Ėlike we all- will get caught up again in the demands of daily life. To live will be to go to work, to live will be courtshipÖ. Certainly, thatís the way of our society today; for so many "to live is my job" Ė and the job is their obsession. Or: to live is what you do on the weekend Ė and that weekend is their obsession.
Before us today is the word of Paul about living and dying. "To live is Christ," he says, "and to die is gain." Itís not so easy to get our minds around these phrases, but as you profess your faith this is what we shall need to do. Here the apostle reveals the agenda for his life, the vision that drives his life, and the Holy Spirit tells us of Paulís vision so that we today might work with the triumph of Christ in the same way as Paul does. Thatís true not just for each one of us in the general office of all believers, but also for those of us whom the Lord has called to a special office in the church.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
PAULíS VISION FOR LIFE: TO LIVE IS CHRIST AND TO DIE IS GAIN.
1. To live is Christ.
Just what, congregation, does Paul mean with those pithy words, "to live is Christ"? I can best answer the question like this. Paulís thoughts do not revolve around his house, or his work, or his holidays, but his thoughts revolve around Jesus Christ. So Paulís actions are not driven by his property, or a desire to climb a ladder at work, or an urge to make the most of a holiday. No, Christ is the center, the focus, of his existence.
Christ: thatís the One whom the Father anointed to be Savior of the world, the Chief Prophet who revealed to sinners the secret counsel and will of God about how God would redeem us, the Only High Priest who laid down His life on the cross of Calvary in order to pay for sins on sinnersí behalf, the Eternal King who ascended into heaven and now governs all the world from His seat at the Fatherís right hand. Paul is so taken by Christ and His work that Christ is his vision, Christ is his agenda, Christ is his life, Christ is the One who gives his life purpose and sense. Given what weíve heard in the last number of weeks about the ascension of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in floodlighting Christ, we can appreciate that Christ needs to be central not just in Paulís vision of life, but also in ours.
Christ is his vision, his purpose, his life. Those words are still vague. As it is, in the verses around our text, Paul puts color to what he means with his statement that "to live is Christ." In the verses 12-20 the apostle lays before us three examples of how his life is Christ, and after the three examples he states pointedly the message of the examples: "for," he says, "to live is Christ." We need to work our way through these three examples to appreciate the color of Paulís phrase "to live is Christ."
The apostle, we remember, was in prison for the sake of the gospel. Not that heíd done anything wrong, but there he sat, locked awayÖ; such was his reward for preaching ChristÖ. Natural human reaction to the unfairness of prison? We understand: this is enough to fill one with self-pity. Then oneís thoughts invariably revolve around oneself: poor me, I got the short end of the dealÖ. Christ says I have to preach, but here I am, locked away between these stone wallsÖ. And who visits me in my long days? Ah, a visitor here, a visitor there, but the days are longÖ, and life has no purposeÖ.
But see, beloved, this kind of reaction is so very foreign to Paul! For Paul to live is not to be free, to live is not to be able to come and go at will. No, for Paul "to live is Christ." Thatís to say: his eye is fixed on the Christ who triumphed on Calvary and now rules the world. Paul knows: if this Christ gives Paul a place in prison, then Christ has His sovereign purpose with that and it will somehow be fruitful in Christís kingdom. And the thing is: Paul sees the good of it. Vs 12: "I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel." His arrest and imprisonment, the fact that he has to go on trial: all, he says, have furthered the gospel, all have furthered the cause of Christ.
How so? In two ways. First vs 13: "it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ." The point here is that Paul was kept under guard, and these guards, by the nature of things, were rotated at the end of their shift with new guards. Paul took the opportunity to speak with these guards as they came and went, to tell them the good news of why the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross and what He accomplished and where He was now. How many of the guards came to faith is not Paulís department, and Paul certainly doesnít measure his success by how many people heís brought to Christ (to use a most unhappy modern expression); the fact of the matter is Ėvs 13- that these guards have heard the gospel and they know that he is in prison for the sake of Jesus Christ. So the word has been sown; by means of his imprisonment God gave the apostle a certain audience that God in wisdom judged ought to hear the good news. These guards in turn have spoken to others of they heard of Christ crucified, raised and ascended, with as result that "the whole palace guard", and many outside the palace guard also, have come to hear the gospel. Weíre to realize: this is an audience Paul could not have reached with the gospel had he not been in prison. But these guards had to hear, and so God used Paulís imprisonment to further the gospel.
Thereís a second way, vs 14. "Most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear." The reference is to the believers of town, the local church. Human nature would say: if your leader is arrested for preaching the gospel, the rest will become silent, go underground Ė for who wants to be arrested! But thatís not the reaction amongst the brethren around Paul! They see with their own eyes that in prison Paul is not silenced, not intimidated, yes, they hear with their own ears that the word of God is spreading through town as a result of the talk of the palace guards. So the Christians of town have become "much more bold to speak the word without fear." Again, hereís progress for the gospel!
Do you follow, brothers and sisters, the thinking of the apostle? He doesnít dwell on the adversity, on the chains, is not caught in a web of self-pity. O yes, he tells the Philippians about himself, but does so with his eye on Christ. So when Paul writes about himself he writes not so much about himself as about what Christ is doing through him. Thatís why he doesnít complain to the Philippians about his imprisonment, and itís why Paul is not busy with himself. Instead, he analyses his imprisonment from Christís point of view, and so Paul has an eye for the blessings that Christ works through Paulís imprisonment. The ascended Christ wished to advance the cause of the gospel, and He in divine wisdom determined that the advance of the gospel required Paulís imprisonment Ė for that way the rough and tough soldiers of the palace guard would get to hear the gospel and the elect among them come to faith. More, through Paulís imprisonment the Christians of town would become bolder to speak the gospel Ė and so again that gospel would spread. Paul has his eye on Christ, and therefore can be positive and upbeat in a situation that we would otherwise consider so negative and depressing.
"To live is Christ," says Paul. We get a little taste of what Paul means. In his prison cell he keeps his eye on Christ, and therefore can see purpose in his imprisonment, and blessings also. "To live is Christ," and therefore Paul can be content with his circumstances in the knowledge that the triumphant Christ makes no mistakes; this Christ has a purpose with Paulís imprisonment Ė and so the imprisonment is OK.
This wonderful flavor of "to live is Christ" comes out again in a second detail of Paulís life that he shares with the Philippians. Vs 15: "Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill." The Ďsomeí in this verse refer to the "brethren" of vs 14, the local Christians. These brethren, Paul had said, had become more confident by Paulís chains to speak the gospel themselves. But look: the motive of each brother was not equally honorable! Some of those whoíd become bolder to speak the word did so "from envy and strife." The words Paul uses here he includes in Gal 5 as works of the flesh (Gal 5:19f; cf 1 Tim 6:4). In other words: these brethren are distinctly driven by sinful purposes! What Paul says about it? Vs 16: these people "preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains." Try to picture it, beloved. These are believers, theyíre "brethren", persons for whom Christ has died. But these brethren are driven by envy and strife, and so seek to hurt Paul. Paulís reaction? Paul, congregation, refuses to be hurt. He doesnít get worked up on account of the barbs these brethren are tossing at him, doesnít feel personally offended. Why not? Vs 18: all that counts is that Christ is preached.
Do you see again, beloved, how Paulís mind operates? For Paul, "to live" is not that his personal integrity stays intact. "To live" is not that those around him are without fault. "To live" is not that all the people on the right side of the Great Antithesis treat him with respect and love. "To live is Christ," and thatís to say that Paul keeps his eye on the Christ who uses even twisted and sinful motives to cause the gospel of salvation to be heard on the streets of the world. The seed of the word is sown, by which the Spirit works faith and so Christís kingdom is made to come Ė thatís important. Very secondary is the motive of those who speak; central is that Christís work continues. You see the point? Paul has his eye on Christ, "to live is Christ," and so the brokenness of life does not bog Paul down. "To live is Christ," and Paul knows that the Christ is able - and does- make good come out of the thorns and thistles of Paulís life.
Again, thereís a third illustration in the words of the apostle as to what Paul means when he says that "to live is Christ". Vss 19,20: "For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death." Paulís in prison, and soon will go on trial. Then yes, Paul can speak the gospel to the judge Ėand he firmly intends to do so- but Paul has no idea whether heíll be acquitted or condemned, be set free or sentenced to die. But again, Paulís not busy with what the judge is going to say. One thing is important in Paulís mind, and that is that "Christ Ö be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death." To Paul, "to live" is not to regain freedom; "to live" is not to be found innocent of false charges. To Paul, "to live is Christ," and that means: everything is OK as long as Christ is magnified. You see, Paul is not busy with himself, Paul is not busy with things of this earth; Paul is busy with Christ, and Christ alone.
Annette, Cherrilyn, Laurette: today you profess the faith. God has given rich promises to you in your baptism, and through the working of the Holy Spirit you embrace these riches as true for yourselves; you know that you belong to the Christ who died for you, arose, ascended, rules the world. But you will experience Ėas you have already- that being a Christian has struggles, disappointments. I lay before you the example of Paul, how he worked in his circumstances with the reality of Christís sovereignty. His focus was not himself, not on his own popularity, not on having the toys that make this life so fun by worldly standards, not on having that job, that income, a partner, that holiday, etc. His focus was Christ; "to live" was "Christ", and so he measured the goings on around him in light of Christís work in his life and in light of Christís will for him. Thatís the vision you need to follow. In all the ups and downs of life as you shall experience it day by day, it is for you to keep your eye on Christ and to analyze what happens around you from the perspective of Christís triumph and sovereignty.
Brs Broere, Pitlo and tenHaaf: today the Lord lays upon you a special office in His church. You may have some idea of the work that comes with your office, may see particular problems and responsibilities on the horizon that youíd rather not encounter. I lay before you the vision of Paul. There were plenty of problems in his life, what with
the discomforts of prison, the strife between brethren, the uncertainty of the outcome of his trial. But the apostle got bogged down by none of it, didnít get bogged down because he kept his eye focused on the Christ who lived. He knew, he believed: the risen, ascended, victorious Christ controlled all things in his life and the lives of all around him in such a way that all had to contribute to the exaltation of Jesus Christ! To him, "to live" was not to have all the family time he wanted, "to live" was not to be free of responsibility in the church, "to live" was not to solve all problems in the lives of ward members. To him, "to live" was "Christ", doing the will of Christ, believing the gospel of Christ, entrusting himself and all the elect to the care of Christ. Then he was truly alive and could be content in the place His Savior was placed to give in His kingdom.
This, brothers and sisters, is true for us all. We know it: "to live is Christ," and so thatís how we speak. But the temptation and the tendency is to live otherwise. Itís so easy for the reality to be Christ Ė plus work or leisure or wealth or relationships, etc. And, if truth were known, all too often the plus factor becomes our primary passion: for me to live is my work, to live is to achieve my vindication, to live is to see my children grow up, etc Ė and Christ is the add-on, the insurance for the futureÖ. But the Lord, brothers and sisters, would have us adopt a vision for ourselves that is much bigger, much better, much more comforting, much more realistic than things of this life. To focus on self Ėyes, itís so human- to focus on own work, own vindication, own family, own pleasure is to set oneself up for disappointment Ė because it doesnít give due place to the reality of Calvary. Christ has triumphed, Christ is king, and He is now busy gathering, defending, preserving His church, and He is pleased to use us to bring glory to His name through whatever circumstance He in sovereign wisdom lays upon us. Work, reputation, children: all are secondary to what really matters, and that is Christ and His glory. Work, reputation, children: that can all turn out so differently than we wish, but that doesnít matter because Christ will use our circumstances to bring glory to His name. How different this world would be if the believers of today would all truly live by that motto of the apostle: "for me to live is Christ!" How much materialism would fall from Christiansí shoulders, how many petty arguments would evaporate, how different our conversations would be, with what enthusiasm we would seek and pursue the opportunities the Lord puts on our path!
I come to our second point:
2. To die is gain.
Again, congregation, itís a phrase with which weíre so familiar. In the midst of suffering Ėbe it from illness or persecution or such like- we readily grant that "to die is gain," and thatís because we see death as relief from suffering. But that, brothers and sisters, is not what Paul means. Remember: Paul in prison was not suffering under the frustration of imprisonment or the disappointment of insincere brethren (for he analyzed his circumstances with his eye on Christ!), and so he wasnít looking for the relief-from-suffering that death brings either. Besides, in vs 23 he pointedly explains why death is gain. He says: to depart means to "be with Christ," and itís being with Christ that is "far better." Why is it better? Because, brothers and sisters, his focus is Christ!
Christ is his everything, Christ is his pleasure and his treasure. But Christ is in heaven while Paul is on earth. That distance does not suit Paul, he wants to be there where his Savior is. To be with Christ, to see the face of Him who died to save Paul from the righteous judgment of God, to see the face of Him who rules all earthís domain: thereís nothing in all the world so desirable as that! Paul knows: "death is the wages of sin" (Rom 6:23). But he also knows that Christ has defeated death so that death is no longer Godís punishment on sin but is now the entrance into Godís glory. Thereís a trial around the corner for Paul, and he doesnít know whether heíll be acquitted or condemned, set free or sentenced to death, but the later is no problem at all for Paul Ė even though he has not yet reached the three-score and ten years God has allotted to man. Struggle to survive, to stay alive? No, not Paul; "for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." Gain, because then Paul will be physically with the Christ who is his everything today already! To see this Christ face to face, and to join the saints of all ages and the holy angels in singing His praise in all perfection: what could be better! We understand, beloved: this wish on Paulís part is the logical extension of the first part of his vision. For Paul "to live is Christ," and therefore for Paul "to die is gain" because then Paul will see and will be with the Christ who is today his focus, his delight, his everything.
We realize: hereís a perspective rather different than what we tend to cultivate. Young people profess the faith, and none of us expects them to say that they wish to die. Office-bearers are ordained, and none of us expects them to desire death either. We all have our place and task in life, and weíd be dismayed to hear that a loved one wants to die. Yet Paul says that "to live is Christ," and in direct extension of that statement he says that "to die is gain," gain because it means to be with the Christ for whom Paul lives in the first place. Here is indeed instruction for us. Christ: Paul would have Christ to be the focus of the believerís existence, and not children or retirement or marriage or sport. Christ: so much is He the focus of the believerís existence that the believer prefers to be with Him! Earthly things pale into relative insignificance compared to Christ, and so death represents no loss; for the child of God death represents only gain. See there the thinking of the apostle. And we understand: if Paul works in this way with the triumph of Christ on the cross, we ought to do the same.
Is Paul then saying that the Philippians Ėand we today- ought to distance ourselves totally from spouse and children, from pleasures and dreams, because we want to die, want to be with Christ? No, beloved, thatís not that the Holy Spiritís point here. For: "to live is Christ," and if Christ has a task for His people in His kingdom, then we can wish to be with Christ but shall be content to do the task. So it is with Paul. He wishes to be with Christ, but he recognizes that the Lord has a task for him amongst the Philippians. Vs 25: "to remain in the flesh is more needful for you." Paulís focus is Christ, and therefore heís content to "remain in the flesh" for Christís sake, as a means through whom the ascended Christ would continue to look after the Philippians.
So, brothers and sisters, it is for us. "To live is Christ," and thatís why Christ has priority in the Christianís life over family and recreation, over work and house; the Christian analyses the developments of his life from the perspective of Christ. Thatís also why the Christian readily concedes with Paul that "to die is gain" Ė for itís to be with the Christ is who is the focus of my existence in the first place. But being with Christ is not the Christianís obsession; Christ Himself is the Christianís obsession, and therefore the big question is: how can I serve Him? So as long as Christ gives a task in His kingdom on this earth, the Christian cheerfully stays on this earth to do the task, and do it with all he has. He knows: at His time Christ will make clear that He doesnít need me here anymore. Then, then Iíll receive the crown of glory Ė and no one will begrudge me that!!
"To live is Christ and to die is gain." We understand: what an all-encompassing vision Paul embraces for his life! This is living in a Christ-centered fashion, and puts every aspect of life into focus Ė including profession of faith and becoming an office-bearer and every other detail of your life and mine.
Christ: thatís life! Amen.