22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.
1:22 – Paul continues to explain the reasoning for his eternal joy. As he has noted, nothing will rob him of his joy, and his satisfaction in Christ is rooted, free from circumstantial damage. 1:21 was the first reason for his ‘eager expectation,’ and now Paul continues to reveal the tension of that desire for ultimate presence with Christ. This verse is Paul’s acknowledgment of the tension. The tension is revealed in δέ (but) employed at the beginning of 1:22. Death is certainly gain, ‘but’… and here comes the tension.
For the sake of sparing you from the Greek syntactical discussion, good scholarship suggests that the verse be translated with this phrasal progression: ‘But if living in the flesh means fruitful work for me, then I do not know what I would choose.’ This is what we call in English an ‘if, then’ statement. It begins with a protasis, extending from ‘if’ to ‘fruitful labor’, and ends with an apodosis, which is the last five words following καί (then).
More than this intriguing syntax, however, Paul’s grammar reveals a more important truth. The phrases are short and somewhat scattered. The apostle is apparently ‘babbling,’ running back and forth, getting tossed up in the emotive topsy-turvydom, thinking out loud; the grammar exposes this. The apostle is not putting forth a theological treatise. He is exposing the burden of his soul to his fellow brothers. We not only deduce a tension; we feel the tension, and we are even permitted to because the grammar suggests that this was Paul’s intention. The apostle is in the middle of a sanctified dilemma.
So then, what is the tension? What are the two opposing sides, pulling him in their direction? It is between 1) his personal desire to be with Christ, and 2) his indebted ministry to others. Note that this is not a choice between a rock and a hard place; it is between two great desires.
1:23 – This verse is a further description of the tension. 1:22 was the acknowledgment of the tension, and now in the next two verses comes the detailed description. The apostle notes that he is in a ‘strait’ (συνέχομαι, synechomai) which intimates an intense hard-pressed situation of constant pressure (cf. Luke 19:43, where Jesus is predicting the destruction of Jerusalem). Again, the idea is this is not a simple pros and cons list that the apostle can draw up over a nice cup of coffee. He is being pressed and constricted with this decision; it is passionate. Paul continues to unpack this tension.
This verse determines that the former (to depart with Christ) is ‘very far better.’ Notice the compiling of comparatives, which is allowed in the Greek, and it provides great emphasis. There is no need to repeat what we have said, but it is obvious that Paul’s full satisfaction is in Jesus Christ, not in his own life. The apostle does not want to give the Philippians the idea that he loves them more than Jesus. So then, if the quality of the two choices were the sole conditions of Paul’s choice, then it is obvious that he would depart to be with Christ. Death is Paul’s gain because Christ is there, and He is full satisfaction! We must view death as God’s way of taking us home to see His unadulterated immediate glory. It is not the end of life. Death is simply a departure to be with Christ. The mirror dimly lit removed – perfect communion, face to face – complete fulfillment. This world is incomplete, but a pilgrimage; yet in heaven we find fullness of joy. The groanings turn to songs. The desires fed with fullness. There, ‘more than a conquerer’ flows into a culminating share in the triumph of Christ. This is the urging that is governing Paul’s ultimate longing, yet he is pulled back to the ground by the pendulum swing: the ‘obligation’ of his Christian service.
1:24 – His ‘remaining’ is more necessary for the Philippians. The ministry that Paul offers to the Philippians in love is more necessary than his departure with Christ. What is this but another reference to Paul’s deep love for the Philippians? He is practicing what he is urging them to do – i.e., he is ‘regarding them as more important than himself’ (Phil. 2:3). The apostle is forgoing that which is ‘far better’ for that which is more ‘necessary’ for the Philippians. He is esteeming them higher than his personal interests. It is the apostle’s humility that governs his choice. The godly man does not embark on his choices simply based on personal gain. The dilemma is only resolved in Paul’s focus on the needs of others. My death, a greater advantage for me, or my remaining, a greater need for others, which of these governs our decisions? An answer to that question could reveal the rotten root of selfish ambition that is reigning in our hearts.
The only hindrance to Paul’s death is his Christian service. We are invincible until our labors are completed according to our godly calling. Gravity holds no bearing in comparison to God’s calling on a man. Paul is satisfied; there is nothing left on this earth that fastens him to the ground. He is ready. He is prepared, sealed and equipped for glory. Yet there is more to be done, not for his sake, but for the sake of others. God is free to take up Paul’s soul, and there would be no harm to the apostle; yet there is still more harvest. Listen to the apostle’s words in Romans 1:14, ‘I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.’ That word ‘obligation’ is the Greek word ὀφειλέτης which literally means ‘debtor.’ Paul is a debtor to others, and his payment is the preaching of the gospel. The debt between Paul and God is paid in full by the blood of Christ. Paul’s standing before God is debt-free, yet Paul has a debt to his fellow man. We often live the complete opposite. The typical idiom: Christ has done this for you, so what have you done for Him? Though the intention is good-natured, it prescribes a damaging ideal, as if we still have a debt to God. This is called the debtor’s ethic. It turns grace into a business transaction – i.e., God gives you this, so you owe Him your life. Make no mistake, grace is free. To give God any payment for His grace is to defame His free gift, and it is ridiculous in regards to the qualitative value of such a transaction. Being that Jesus Christ settles the debt between God and Paul, Paul states that his debt is to his fellow man. This debt, however, is not an effort of duty, but of love (1 Cor. 13). It is the debt of the apostle’s love for his fellow man that urges his obligation.