Based on: Philippians 1:18-26
“To be, or not to be, — that is the question.” These words begin one of the most famous soliloquies in the English language. Written by William Shakespeare in the play “Hamlet”, these words describe the intense inner conflict of Hamlet as he considers taking his own life. Which would be better – to live or to die?
Hamlet can not choose. He calls death “the undiscovered country, from whose realm no traveler returns.” He explains that “the dread of something after death . . . puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know nothing of.” For him life and death are both awful choices. Life is misery and death is unknown.
The Apostle Paul asked the same question more than 1500 years before Hamlet. To live or to die – “what shall I choose?” Paul knew it was up to God to decide when he would die, but he had a reason for contemplating these two options. He was in prison in Rome for preaching the Gospel and very soon his future would be decided – he would be released or executed. If he could make the choice which would he prefer – to live or to die?
However, Paul’s deliberation is very different than Hamlet’s. While Hamlet was trying to decide the lesser of two evils, Paul is contemplating which of two wonderful choices would be better – to live or to die! Either way Paul knew God was working out his deliverance from the evils of this world.
To live or to die – both are good. Which do you prefer? Let’s consider Paul’s question for ourselves.
If you had a choice between living and dying, wouldn’t you want to live? For most people the choice is obvious – being alive sure seems better than being dead, but for Paul and for us as Christians there is more to life than just tritely saying, “It beats the alternative”. Paul says, “to live is Christ.” For the Christian to be alive means Christ is your life. He is the substance of your life. Christ is your goal and the reason for your actions. Christ is constantly in view.
In fact Christ is the reason for your life. You could turn Paul’s statement around and say to have Christ is to live. Without Christ you have no life. I want you to think back to the time you were dead – spiritually dead. From the time you were conceived, you were dead, but Christ came to you through the waters of baptism and you became alive.
Christ is our life, yet even now every time you make something other than Christ your life, you invite death to come back to you. Every self-centered choice rather than Christ-centered choice is a step back into the dark death that once controlled us. When Christ and his word are the motivating and guiding principle of your life, in other words, when for you “to live is Christ”, then that is the life of Christ revealed in you. When money, personal time, or your own ideas of right and wrong drive what you do, then you are moving away from life toward death.
But with Christ there is forgiveness and with forgiveness there is life. Christ comes to you with his sacrifice for your sins already complete, and he fills you with life again. Because he gives us life, it is a joy to give that life back to him. It is a joy to serve him for as long as he gives us breath. Yes, as Christians, “to live is Christ.”
But is life better than death? For us as Christians, “to live is Christ,” but Paul also said, “to die is gain.” “Gain?” “To die is gain?” That’s not the way the world thinks of death. From the world’s point of view when you die, you lose everything! It all goes to someone else. That’s why you write a will, so you can try to exercise some control over what used to be yours after you die. But there is so much more to gain in a Christian death than the wealth you have amassed while on this earth.
Think about this scenario. You are going to receive ten million dollars next week. It doesn’t matter how it will happen, you know it will happen. Knowing what is coming how concerned will you be when you find out your car needs $1000 in repairs? You wouldn’t worry, right? As soon as your money comes you are going to buy a new car. The same us true with the kingdom of God. The wealth of heaven is yours. You have God’s guarantee and when you die you will be able to enjoy that wealth to the full. Why, then, is there any reason to worry about losing anything you might own in this world? “To die is gain!”
So death is better than life, right? Yet, if I live, it means “fruitful labor for me.” Understand that the joy that Paul had in sharing the gospel is our joy too. As you share the gospel, on your own or as part of this congregation, God promises it will bear fruit. So all of our labor in the Lord is fruitful labor. As long as we live on this earth and serve our Lord, God works through us to produce fruit. There is joy in knowing that God can and does use us to make a difference in this world. Then, to live is good!
But then again, to die and be with Christ is “better by far.” I’m sure Paul looked forward to hearing those words from his Savior, “Well done good and faithful servant, come and share your master’s happiness.” Doesn’t every Christian long to hear those words? Doesn’t every Christian long to enjoy the company of his Savior forever?
On the other hand, God leaves us here on this earth to serve our fellow Christians. They need us. As long as we are here on this earth, God has a reason for it. Our life serves some purpose in the kingdom. For example, when I was a student at the seminary, my fellow students and I would bring a devotion to a local nursing home once a week. God may have had many reasons for those people to be in the nursing home, but one of them was to give the seminary students the opportunity to serve them with the gospel.
I can remember one lady who because of her illness only said the word “here” and she would say this word over and over again even while the students were giving their devotion. On Easter when one of the students was giving his devotion and I was there to assist, the student talked about the resurrection of Jesus, and the assurance we have of our own resurrection. Suddenly this one lady stopped saying “here” and said, “that’s right.” I believe God placed that woman there so that I would see that the Holy Spirit works even when we can not see him working. As long as we live on this earth, God uses us to serve other Christians.
But when we die we will be “with Christ”, and we will enjoy it. Our labor here on earth will be done. The battle against sinful flesh will be over. We will enjoy the sweet taste of victory and have our rest. Perhaps there will still be service to perform, service to our God and Lord, but will be the most enjoyable and satisfying work that one could think of. Yes, to die is good!
In the end, whether I live or I die. Christ is exalted. That is the greatest desire of every Christian, that Christ may be magnified and glorified, that his name may be great. And not just that Christ is glorified, but the Christ be glorified in us. If I live Christ is glorified by the work he does through me. When I die Christ will be glorified by the work he has brought to completion for me. Either way Christ is exalted and glorified.
The words we focused on today were words Paul wrote to the Philippian congregation while he sat in prison, but really, what is a little prison time here on earth for the sake of the Gospel when you know you will escape the prison of hell for all eternity. It didn’t matter to Paul how things went in that Roman courtroom, he already knew the outcome for him in God’s courtroom.
We have the same confidence. Unlike Hamlet, we know what waits for us in the “undiscovered country” beyond the grave and we anxiously await our Savior to call us there. So we have two wonderful things that could happen to us. To live on this earth and be used by God to share the gospel – that is truly great. To die and be with my Savior that is even better. What shall I choose? I leave it up to Christ. Jesus, what plans do you have for me? I rejoice on whatever path you take me.