As it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Paul is fully confident in God’s deliverance, yet this does not stall his implementation or obedience. We must extinguish the false dichotomy of 1) God’s wrought salvation and 2) our diligent pursuit. The fact that God will glorify Christ in Paul at the final end only stirs the apostle to act in such a manner ‘even now.’ It is impossible for us to separate the hope from the action; to do so would render Christ asunder. The eschatological activates the immediate.
Moreover, we have the first hint at Paul’s deepest longing – that Christ would be μεγαλυνθήσεται (megalunthesetai, ‘glorified’ or ‘magnified’) through him. This is the aim of the Christian, to have Christ exalted, magnified, and glorified through their existence, by any means necessary – whether by death or life. This is God’s ultimate end in all things, that He would be glorified. So then, we must ask how do we glorify God through us? V.21 is Paul’s answer to how he glorifies God through himself.
‘For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.’ One thing Paul is not saying: I can hope in spite of death. No, death is more advantageous for me; it is the greater gain.
Why is death gain? How can death be gain? It all resolves back to the supremacy of Christ. Death is gain because death brings our union with Christ to glorification. Death is not gain if Christ is not life. Death is one’s absence from the body, and for the saint, presence with the Lord. The apostle calls death gain because he gets more of Jesus. Paul’s complete satisfaction is found in Christ; that is the only possible deduction from such a statement. So how is God glorified in Paul? It is through his complete satisfaction of Jesus Christ! In the words of John Piper, ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.’
How do we attain this perspective? It sounds all grand, dandy, and happy, but how do we do it? To live is Christ means Christ living in me – our union with Christ, to be ‘in Christ.’ How do we become in Christ? It is by faith (Gal. 2:20). What is faith? Faith is the substance of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1). How do we atain this faith? By grace, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17). Union with Christ is given to those who hope in the deep truth of the gospel, wherein this hope substantializes into belief and trust. Flowing from this trust comes the active embrace of Christ as the ultimate treasure. Christianity is about finding and valuing the greatest treasure. To be converted is to find Christ as your treasure. Paul’s life finds its total meaning in Christ.
Where does our valuation lie? To die is to leave a family, to leave friends, satisfying bodily pleasures, marriage, delicious meals, great books, money, possessions, insert whatever you value; yet Paul states that is gain to leave these things. How? ‘I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ’ (Phil. 3:8). It is not that these other things are not valuable; it is that Christ’s value surpasses them so much as to say that they are rubbish. May we seek and yearn to make Christ our treasure.