IV. THE CHOICE BETWEEN LIVING AND DYING.
"For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if to live in the flesh, — if this is the fruit of my work, then what I shall choose I wot not. But I am in a strait between the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ; for it is very far better: yet to abide in the flesh is more needful for your sake. And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide, yea, and abide with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith; that your glorying may abound in Christ Jesus in me through my presence with you again." — Phil. i. 21-26 (R.V.).
At the close of the preceding section we see that the ruling principle of the Apostle — the earnest expectation and hope which inspired his life — came into special exercise at this time with reference to the possibility, and the likelihood, of an early and violent death. Dying for the name of the Lord Jesus, as well as enduring imprisonment for Him, might be near. He might not only be straitened in his labours, and secluded from the activities connected with his loved work on earth, but might be completely and finally withdrawn from it by Roman doom and execution. The Apostle's faith looked steadily at this final possibility. As at all times, so now also, Christ should be magnified in him, whether by life or by death.
Now, when some great alternative of the future rises before a Christian, — some possibility which God's providence may turn either way, — it is natural that he should look heedfully to it, that he may order correctly his faith and patience as the day of decision draws near. And it is natural in particular that his thoughts should be occupied by the consideration how far the one way of it is in itself more attractive to him than the other. For in view of that he has to watch his heart, that as to what seems more attractive he may not desire it idolatrously, nor let his heart be "overcharged" with it if it is realised; and that as to what seems less attractive he may await God's will with submission and faith, and welcome it, if so it come to pass, with sincerity. So also the Apostle fixes his eye, ponderingly, on this alternative of life or death, so strongly suggested by his circumstances. But, as it were, with a smile he recognises that to a man standing, as he did, in the light of Christ, it was hard to say which should attract him most. Life and Death — what had they once been to him? what were they still to many? To live, self — self pleased, provided for, contended for, perhaps fighting for itself a losing battle with a bitter heart; to die, a dark, dire necessity, full of fear and doubt. But now, to live is Christ. In all life as it came to him, in all its various providences, he found Christ; in all life, as it fell to him to be lived, he found the circumstances set for him and the opportunity given to follow Christ; in all the attraction and all the pressure, the force and strain of life, he found the privilege of receiving Christ and employing Christ's grace, the opportunity for living by the faith of the Son of God. That was all very real to him: it was not only a fine ideal, owned indeed but only distantly and dimly descried; no, it was a reality daily fulfilled to him. To live was Christ, with a support, an elevation, and a love in it such as the world knows not. That was good, oh how good! And then to die was better: to die was gain. For to die, also, was "Christ"; but with many a hindrance passed away, and many a conflict ended, and many a promise coming into fulfilment as here it could not do. For if, as to his own interest and portion, he lived by hope, then death was a long step forward into possession and realisation. By grace Paul was to show how he valued Christ; he was to show it in his life. And Christ was to show His care for Paul — in this life, no doubt, very lovingly; but more largely and fully at his death. To live is Christ — to die is gain; to be all for Christ while I live, to find at length He is all for me when I die!
Which should he prefer, which should he pray for (subject to God's will), which should he hope for, life or death? The one would continue him in a labour for Christ, which Christ taught him to love. The other would bring him to a sinless and blessed fellowship with Christ, which Christ taught him to long for. Looking to the two, how should he order his desires?
It is because he speaks as one always does speak who is pondering something — the words rising, as it were, from what he sees before him — that he speaks so elliptically in ver. 22. "But if to live in the flesh come to me, as its fruit and reward bringing...." What? The Apostle sees, but does not say: something that might well reconcile him to prolonged toil and suffering. But why produce the considerations on either side, why balance them against one another? It is too long, too difficult a process. And how can even an apostle confidently judge as to better or best here? "And what I shall choose, really I do not know." But this he knows, that so far as his own desires are concerned, so far as the possible futures draw his spirit, he is in a strait between two, having a desire to depart and to be with Christ, for that is far better; and yet that he should continue in the flesh is of more imperative necessity for the sake of friends like the Philippians.
Not every Christian is in the state of mind which would naturally express itself as a desire immediately to depart and be with Christ. The great hope claims its place in every Christian heart; but not in every case so as to inspire the longing to overleap all intermediate stages. Rather must we not say that there are periods of Christian experience, as there are also casts of character, for which it is more usual and natural to desire, if it be God's will, some further experience of life on earth? If this be immature Christianity, we will not, therefore, judge that it cannot be genuine.
Yet to be ready, and, subject to God's will, desirous to depart, is an attainment to be aimed at and made good. Sooner or later it should come. It lies in the line of ripening Christian affection and growing Christian insight. For this is better. It is not that life in this world is not good: it is good, when it is life in Christ. It has its trials, its conflicts, and its dangers; it has also its elements of defect and evil: yet it is good. It is good to be a child of God in training for a better country; it is good to be one who carries the life of faith through the experiences of time. And, for some especially, there is a strong and not an unworthy attraction in the forms of exercise which open to us just in such a life as this, under the guarantee and the consecration of Christ. Knowledge opens its career, in which many a generous mind is drawn to prove its powers. Love, in all the variety of its calmer and its more ardent affections, sends a glow through life which gladdens it with promise. The tasks which call for practical effort and achievement stir vigorous natures with a high ambition. And when all these spheres are illuminated by the light, and dominated by the authority, and quickened for us by the love of Christ, is not life on those terms interesting and good? True, it is destined to disclose its imperfection. Our knowledge proves to be so partial; our love is so sorely grieved, so often bereaved, sometimes it is even killed; and active life must learn that what is crooked cannot wholly be made straight, and that what is wanting cannot be numbered. So that life itself shall teach a Christian that his longings must seek their rest further on. Yet life in Christ here upon the earth is good: let us say no unkind word of those who feel it so, — whose hearts, with true loyalty to Christ, would yet if it be His will put life fully to the proof before they go. Still, this must be said and pressed — let it be joyfully believed — that to depart is better. It is far better. It is better to be done with sin. It is better to be where all hopes are fulfilled. It is better to rise above a scene in which all is precarious, and in which a strange sadness thrills through our happiness even when we possess it. To be where Christ most fully, eminently, experimentally is, that is best. Therefore it is better to depart. Let mortality be swallowed up of life.
It is not only better, so that we may own it so to be as a certainty of faith; but also so that we may and ought to feel it warming and drawing the heart with delight and with desire. It is not needful that we should judge more hardly of life on earth; but we might attain a far more gladdening appreciation of what it must be to be with Christ. With no rebellion against God's appointment when it keeps us here, and no grudging spirit towards earth's mercies and employments, we might yet have this thought of departing in God's time as a real and bright hope; a great element of comfort and of strength; a support in trouble; an elevating influence in times of gladness; an anchor of the soul, sure and resolute and enduring, entering into that which is within the veil.
The hope of the gospel implies it. If that hope is ours and is duly cherished, must it not assert itself and sway the heart, so as more and more to command the life?
The earnest of the Spirit implies it. Of the very substance of the life eternal a foretaste comes, in the presence and grace of the Spirit of love and comfort. Can that be with us, can that leaven work duly in our hearts, and not awaken longing for the full entrance into so great a good? It may be expected of us Christians that we should lift up our heads because redemption is drawing nearly.
As for the Apostle, however, if the choice were his, he felt that it must fall in favour of still cleaving to the present life; for this, though less attractive to himself, was more necessary for the Churches, and, in particular, for his friends at Philippi. This was so clear to him that he was persuaded his life would, in fact, be prolonged by Him who appoints to all their term of ministry. Probably we are not to take this as a prophecy, but only as the expression of a strong persuasion. Work still lay before him in the line of training and cheering these believing friends, furthering and gladdening their faith. He hoped to see them yet, and to renew the old glad "fellowship" (ch. i. 5). So there should be for the Philippians fresh matter of exultation, — exultation primarily in the great salvation of Christ, but yet receiving impulse and increase from the presence and ministry of Paul. Mainly, they would be exceeding glad of Christ; but yet, subordinately, exceeding glad of Paul also.
It is a striking thing to see how confident the Apostle was of the resources given to him to wield. He knew how profitable and how gladdening his coming would be to the Philippian believers. He admits no doubt of it. God has set him in the world for this, that he may make many rich. Having nothing, he yet goes about, as one possessing all things, to impart his treasures to all kinds of people. To disguise this would be for him mock humility; it would be a denying of his Master's grace. When ministers of Christ come correctly to this impression of their own calling, then they are also powerful. But they must come to it correctly. For it was not the Apostle's consciousness of himself, but his consciousness of his Master, that bred this superb confidence, this unabated expectation. In subordination to that faith the Apostle no doubt had specific reason to know that his own personal mission was of the highest importance, and was designed to accomplish great results. Ordinary ministers of Christ do not share this peculiar ground of confidence. But no one who has any kind of mission from Christ can discharge it correctly if he is destitute of the expectancy which looks forward to results, and, indeed, to momentous results; for the reapers in Christ's harvest are to "gather fruit to life eternal." To cherish this mood, not in the manner of a vain presumption, but in the manner of faith in a great Saviour, is the practical question for gospel ministers.
Alike in the utterance of his mind about his Philippian friends, and in his explanations about himself, it is remarkable how thoroughly the Apostle carries his faith through the whole detail of persons and things. The elements and forces of the Kingdom of God are not for him remote splendours to be venerated from afar. To his faith they are embodied, they are vitally and divinely present, in the history of the Churches and in his own history. He sees Christ working in the Philippian believers; he sees in their Christian profession and service a fire of love caught from the love of Christ — the increase and triumph of which he anticipates with affectionate solicitude. The tender mercies of Christ are the element in which he and they are alike moving, and this blessedness it is their privilege assiduously to improve. So he was minded in regard to all the Churches. If in any of them the indications are feeble and dubious, only so much the more intently does he scrutinise them, to recognise, in spite of difficulty, that which comes and only could come from his Master's Spirit. If indications too significant of a wholly different influence have broken out, and demand the severest rebukes, he still casts about for tokens of the better kind. For surely Christ's Spirit is in His Churches, and surely the seed is growing in Christ's field towards a blessed harvest. If men have to be warned that naming the name of Christ they may be reprobates, that without the Spirit of Christ they are none of His, this comes as something sad and startling to be spoken to men in Christian Churches. So also in his own case — Christ is speaking and working by him, and all providences that befall him are penetrated by the love, the wisdom, and the might of Christ. In nothing is the Apostle more enviable than in this victoriousness of his faith over the earthly shows of things, and over the unlikelihoods which in this refractory world always mask and misrepresent the good work. We, for our part, find our faith continually abashed by those same unlikelihoods. We recognise the course of this world, which speaks for itself; but we are uncertain and discouraged as to what the Saviour is doing. The mere commonplaceness of Christians, and of visible Christianity, and of ourselves, is allowed to baffle us. Nothing in the life of the Church, we are ready to say, is very interesting, very vivid, very hopeful. The great fire burning in the world ever since Pentecost is for us scarcely recognisable. We even take credit for being so hard to please. But if the quick faith and love of Paul the prisoner were ours, we should be sensitive to echoes and pulsations and movements everywhere, — we should be aware that the voice and the power of Christ are everywhere stirring in His Churches.
From the Epistle to the Philippians by Robert Rainy, D.D., Principal of New College. Edinburgh. Published by FUNK & WAGNALLS COMPANY in 1990. Digitally produced by Colin Bell, Julia Neufeld and the Online
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To the Philippians - R. Rainy
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