What does Paul mean in Philippians 1:21 when he says, "For to me, to live is Christ"?


Let us notice the entire passage in Philippians 1:19-24: “(19) For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, (20) 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. (21) For to me, to live [is] Christ, and to die [is] gain… (23) For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. (24) Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.”

Notice that in verse 21, we placed the word “is” in brackets twice, indicating that there is no word in the Greek text, representing the English word “is,” and that the English word “is” was added twice by the translators.

Paul is facing serious difficulties, and he is wondering whether he should wish to die, or to continue to live. He has a desire to “depart” or die (verse 23). As the Broadman Bible Commentary explains, “to depart translates a Greek term which was used for the loosing of a ship from its moorings and also for breaking camp or ‘striking tent.’ The term came to be a metaphor for death (2 Tim. 4:6).” Paul knows that in case of his death, he would be “with Christ” (verse 23) in the next second of his consciousness, as a resurrected immortal spirit being in the Family of God at the time of his resurrection from the dead (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17; 1 Corinthians 15:35, 42, 49-53). This would have been his “gain” (Philippians 1:21) — it would have been “far better” for him (verse 23), as his fate of being changed into a spirit being would have been sealed and unalterable. This is of course by no means saying that Paul was thinking of committing suicide. He understood that it is a sin to take one’s own life, as this would constitute murder. He knew that he belonged to God, and that only God had the right to determine when he would have to die (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 7:23). At the same time, he realizes that it is “more needful for” the church members that he “remain in the flesh,” that is, to keep on living (verse 24).

Still, though, exactly how are we to understand the phrase in verse 21, “to live [is] Christ”?

Although most translations render the phrase exactly in that way, as quoted, a few translations render it slightly differently. We should remember that the English word “is,” in verse 21, was added twice, as there is no equivalent in the Greek. This means, something has to be added in the English translation to give the sentence the intended meaning.

The Lamsa translation and the German Luther Bible, as well as the German Menge Bible, state: “For Christ is my life, and to die is gain.” This rendering is interesting in light of Colossians 3:4, which states: “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”

But what does it mean that “Christ is our life”? The Swiss Zuercher Bible renders Philippians 1:21, including the phrase in brackets: “As for me, life is [a service for] Christ, and death is gain.” The commentary of Jamieson, Fausset and Brown agrees with such a rendering: “… whatever life, time and strength, I have, is Christ’s; Christ is the sole object for which I live.”

The Broadman Bible Commentary adds the following intriguing statements: “The oft-quoted v. 21 shows Paul at his best. He stood before life and death and found both inviting. His mood is the opposite to Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ Hamlet found life such a disillusionment that he considered suicide, yet the unknown realm of death was so foreboding that he drew back. Paul did not desire death as escape from life. He saw death as entrance into the greater fullness of a life that already was full… Whatever life may mean to others, to him it was Christ, i.e., Christ gave life its meaning for him and apart from Christ it had no meaning. Death meant not loss but gain, for the good life he now knew in Christ would be not only continued but heightened. This verse seems not to imply an ‘intermediate state.’ It is precarious to argue the point, for that is not Paul’s subject here; but it is hard to see how death would be gain if it led to an intermediate state, especially if disembodied!”

A similar comment can be found in The New Bible Commentary: Revised: “[Paul] weighs up in his mind now the two alternatives and can rejoice in both. To go on living in this world is to live in constant enjoyment of Christ Himself, and there will be further fruitful toil in his Master’s service. He knows, on the other hand, that death is sheer gain, because beyond death is [at his resurrection, which will occur in the next second of his consciousness] the immediate presence of Christ.” A similar rendition is given by the Living Bible: “For to me, living means opportunities for Christ, and dying — well, that’s better yet.”

These renderings would also make sense in light of Galatians 2:20, where we read: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith OF [as it should be correctly rendered from the Greek] the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Paul is saying in this passage in Galatians that Christ, through the Holy Spirit dwelling in Paul, was living His life in Paul. Paul’s “old life” had ended, and a “new life” — that of Christ living in him — had begun. Paul encourages all of us, in Romans 13:14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” John revealed the same truth in his third letter, when he warned of deceivers denying and not confessing “Jesus Christ AS COMING in the flesh.” Christ is coming in the flesh, by living His life in His human disciples. Paul did not want to live his old life and to submit to the desires of the flesh. He knew that his deliverance from his “body of death” would be “through Jesus Christ” (Romans 7:24-25).

In conclusion, Paul’s statement “for me, to live is Christ” is subject to several possible explanations: Paul might have wanted to emphasize that his life was to be a service for Christ. He could have also meant that his sole purpose and motivation of life was focused on Christ. In addition, he might have stressed that Christ was living in him, that he had “put on Jesus Christ,” and that his life was used by Christ to serve others. In living such a life, Paul would become more and more perfect, “possessing more and more of him, becoming more and more like him, until on his death the process is completed in one glorious moment” (cp. Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible) — at the time of his resurrection. As Unger’s Bible Handbook puts it: “Outwardly his one goal was Christ, inwardly Christ was living out His life through him. Living, he was blessed… Dying was ‘gain’ because it meant ‘to be with Christ,’ which was ‘far better’… To remain in this life was, however, more needful for the spiritual progress of the Philippians.”

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