ISSUE: 2021, Volume 18, Issue 2
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‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain . . . what I shall choose . . . I am in a strait . . . having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ . . . nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful’, Phil. 1. 21-24.
It has been said that in Bible study the context determines the meaning. This is true of the words of Paul, ‘I am in a strait’, Phil. 1. 23. The Greek word for ‘strait’ is sunecho, meaning ‘to hold together with constraint, and would have been used to describe a narrow channel for a ship to navigate. The end of verse 23 helps to clarify the meaning, ‘what I shall choose I wot not’, or, as the ESV puts it, ‘Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two’, vv. 22, 23 ESV. Paul is torn; he just cannot decide.
Paul is weighing up a choice. We will consider the arguments from each side, before concluding with an application for a right perspective on life.
I am in a strait . . . which I shall choose I cannot decide.
The choice that Paul is considering in Philippians chapter 1 is that of life and death, ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’, Phil. 1. 21. It reminds us, as Christians, that we ought to have a proper perspective on life and death.
Paul identifies his continual, personal goal of life – to live Christ. He does not say that he wants to live for Christ, good though that might be, but simply to live Christ. It carries the idea of the Lord Jesus being Paul’s whole object, dominating his character, or as Norman Mellish puts it, ‘only Christ, always Christ, ever Christ’. 1 Hendriksen 2 refers to other references in Philippians which help explain what Paul meant by ‘to live Christ’: strength from Christ, 4. 13, the mind and humility of Christ, 2. 5-11, the ‘knowledge of Christ’, 3. 8, ‘in Christ’ and ‘the righteousness which is of God’, 3. 9 and ‘to rejoice in the Lord’, 3. 1.
The practical outworking of Paul ‘living Christ’ is seen in the verses that follow:
Verse 23 explains the ‘gain’ of death that Paul has identified in verse 21, as ‘to be with Christ; which is far better’. ‘Depart’ comes from an interesting Greek word, analuo, meaning to unloose or undo, as in a tent being taken down, or a ship setting sail. I once heard it put something like this, ‘it is like a ship ready to depart, straining on the anchor, ready to travel to a better place, a sunnier clime’. 3 Paul says that it is ‘far better’ and that is because the departing would take him to ‘be with Christ’, v. 23. This is the ‘gain’ of death for the Christian and Paul longed for it.
It is not always possible to think and act like Paul! He was an apostle, set apart for a special work for God, and without some of the ties that legitimately concern us. This, however, is not so much about prioritizing things in life, such as family, education, or work, but about our desire and motive being aligned with the things of God. Paul’s desire to remain ‘in the flesh’ was so that he could be of benefit to the people of God, v. 24. It was motivated by being subject to the will of God in his service for the Lord and in sacrificial love for the Philippian Christians. We can apply the same principle to our perspective on life. Whatever the circumstances God has placed us in, our desire should be to follow the example of Paul.
Therein lies a great challenge. It is a challenge that strips away motives that would benefit me. Paul desired either to be ‘with Christ’, or to be benefiting others according to God’s will. We, in the western world, live relatively comfortably and with limited suffering. The challenge for us is to simplify our desires and ambitions. Might we, with the Lord’s help and like Paul, desire to be with Christ, or to ‘live Christ’ in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
1 Norman Mellish, Philippians, The Mind of Christ, Gospel Folio Press, pg. 54.
2 William Hendricksen, Philippians, The Banner of Truth Trust, pg. 76.
3 This is a quote from Eric Hughes. I really appreciated his verse-by-verse teaching during his Friday evening Bible Classes. But I remember this quote when he was speaking at the graveside of Margaret Harrison, an older sister whom I also learned from as a young believer. We can thank the Lord for older Christians that helped us when we were young; and younger Christians can look for those that will provide a godly example and teaching from the word of God that will provide an influence on their Christian lives.