For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith; that your rejoicing may be more abundant in Jesus Christ for me by my coming to you again, (vv. 21-26)
To me to live is Christ” is Christian life and experience in its fullness. It has often been remarked, and is well worth remembering, that Christians have many experiences which are not properly Christian experience. The man described in Romans 7 is undergoing an experience which will be for his future blessing, but it is not proper Christian experience, though it is clearly enough the experience of a Christian. Christ Himself, so dominating and controlling the believer that his one object is to live to His glory, is what Paul has before him here. This should be the experience of Christians at all times. But, alas, how few of us enter into it in its entirety. It implies a surrendered will, and the body yielded to the Lord who has redeemed it, that it may be used only to His praise. This is life in its truest sense, and, probably, no one ever entered into it so fully as the apostle Paul.
We may, perhaps, better understand the experience, “To me to live is Christ,” if we consider for a moment what life means to many others. The Christless businessman, whose one aim and object is to obtain wealth, might well say, “To me to live is money.” The careless seeker after the world’s pleasures, if he told the truth, would say, “To me to live is worldly pleasure.” The carnal voluptuary given up to self-gratification, would say, “To me to live is self.” The statesman, exulting in the plaudits of the people and craving world notoriety, might truthfully declare, “To me to live is fame and power.” But Paul could say, and every Christian should be able to say, “To me to live is Christ.”
And it is only such who can heartily add, “And to die is gain.” Death is no enemy to the one to whom Christ is all. To live gives opportunity to manifest Christ down here; to die is to be with Christ, than which nothing could be more precious.
The apostle himself was in a dilemma as to which of these he would prefer, were the choice left to him. If permitted to continue in the body, he would have further opportunity of service for Him who had claimed him as His own and called him to this ministry. But, on the other hand, he longed “to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better.” His had been a life of toil and suffering for Christ’s sake, such as only a Spirit-sustained man could have endured without fainting. As he lay in the Roman prison, his heart longed for release—a release that would mean to be forever with Christ. Labor for Christ was sweet, but rest with Christ would be sweeter. Whitefield used to say, “I am often weary in the work, but never weary of it” and such was, doubtless, the attitude of our apostle. He loved to serve, yet longed too for the hour of release, with no selfish motive in it, for his one object was Christ, whether in life or in death.
It is amazing how anyone, with words such as these before him, could question for a moment that the Word of God teaches the consciousness of the spirit after death. Paul had no thought that his spirit would be buried in the grave with his body, or that his soul would sleep until the resurrection day. Death to him would be a departure, an exodus, a moving out of the travel-worn earthly tabernacle, and a going to be with Christ, until the first resurrection at the coming of the Lord.
As he weighs everything, the unselfishness of the man comes out strikingly. He sees the need of the church of God. As it is now, so it was then. There were many evangelists, or gospelers, but few teachers and pastors who really carried the people of God upon their hearts. He felt that to abide in the flesh was more needful for the flock than rest was for himself. So he says he has confidence that he should abide a little longer, and continue in this scene of labor for the furtherance and joy of faith of the people of God.
It is clear, I think, that he fully expected the Lord would permit him to revisit Philippi, that the rejoicings of the saints there might be more abundant in Christ Jesus on his behalf, through his coming to them again. They were his children in the faith: as a tender father he yearned over them, and longed to see them once more before closing his earthly ministry. We have no record in the Word of God as to whether this desire was fulfilled, but there are early church traditions which indicate that it was. At any rate, we know he was released from his first imprisonment and allowed to go about in freedom for several years before being again apprehended and martyred for the sake of Christ Jesus, his and our Lord, following Him thus even unto death.