If I had to choose a single verse to sum up the Christian life, it might be Philippians 1:21, which says, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.“
This verse, which has been tattoed on many arms, been the subject of many books, and had many sermons preached about it, is an absolutely glorious verse. It captures the sweet essence of what it means to follow Christ and the glorious future that awaits us.
But what exactly does the verse mean? If you read the verse without any context, it can be a bit confusing. Is Paul saying it’s better to live or die? Is Paul speaking out of both sides of his mouth?
If we live, we have Christ, if we die, it’s gain. What are we to make of all this? Let’s see what the Scriptures have to say.
To Live Is Christ
To get a clear understanding of what Paul means when he says, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain,” we need to look at the surrounding verses. This is the most effective way to interpret any verse. We always must look at the context in which it sits.
In the verse immediately following, Paul says, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.”
This, I think, is the crux of what Paul means when he says, “To live is Christ.” Paul was in prison and there was a good chance he was going to be executed. Death hung over him like a black cloud. It was a toss-up whether he was going to live or die.
If Paul did live, he knew that he would produce great fruit for God. He knew that he would have the opportunity to fellowship with and teach the Philippians, which would be “fruitful labor”.
How could Paul be so sure that he would experience fruitful labor for Christ? Because he abided in Christ, and those who abide in Christ always produce fruit.
As Jesus said in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
Paul was in fellowship with Jesus Christ, abiding in him and receiving grace and strength from him. Because of this, he was absolutely sure that if he lived, he would fruitfully labor for Jesus. This is why he could say, “To live is Christ.”
This should massively encourage us.
Honestly, there are many times when I don’t feel like I’m being very fruitful for God. When I feel stale and stagnant. When I feel like I’m simply slogging through each day, trying to follow Jesus but doing so very weakly.
But I (and you!) can be 100% confident that if we abide in Christ through prayer and his word, we absolutely will produce good fruit for him. We will honor him with our lives and bring sweet glory to his name.
This is why Paul could say, “…with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”
He knew that Christ would be honored in his body no matter what circumstances he found himself in, and the same is true for us if we too abide in Christ.
Doesn’t this bring you joy and encourage you? You don’t have to worry whether or not you’re bearing fruit for Jesus. If you’re abiding in him, then you absolutely are and will continue to do so.
What does it mean when Paul says, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain?” First and foremost, it means that while we live, we will honor Christ and produce good fruit for him.
To Die Is Gain
So what does Paul mean when he says, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain?”
If he is so enthusiastic about living for Christ and bearing good fruit for him, why would he say that it is gain to die? We need to go a little further ahead in the passage to see what he means.
In Philippians 1:23, he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
Even though Paul knows that it is good for him to be alive and live fruitfully for Christ, he also knows that to be in the very presence of Jesus is far better. When we die, we don’t go into some weird nothingness or darkness. No, we’re immediately in the presence of our Savior, the risen Jesus Christ.
And to be with Christ, to see his face and to look upon his nail-scarred hands, to hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” is far better than anything this life has to offer.
This is why Paul says that his desire is to “depart” (to die) and to be with Jesus. He knows that there is nothing sweeter or better or more joyful than being with Christ himself.
When Paul says, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain,” he has heaven in mind.
Doesn’t this also encourage you? Life is good when we’re following Jesus, even when we go through incredibly difficult circumstances. But life is far better when we die because we get to be with our Savior. We get to see his face and talk to him and be in His presence constantly.
Jesus is my life and I want to live fruitfully for him. I want to bring glory to him with everything I do. But to be with Christ is far better than anything this life has to offer. And so I eagerly look forward to the day when I’ll leave this life and look upon the One who died in my place and now lives inside of me.
To Live Is Christ, and To Die Is Gain
The reason that I think this verse sums up the Christian life so perfectly is that it covers every aspect of what it means to follow Christ. While we are alive, we walk with Jesus and bear fruit for him. We are like trees planted by streams of water who bear fruit season after season. This is such a good thing.
When the time comes for us to die, that is also such a good thing because we will get to be with the Lord, and that is better by far.
And so for me, and for you, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.