COMMENTARY ON PHILIPPIANS
T E X T
“But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.” (Phil 1:22-24, NKJV)
The nature of spiritual life has been greatly obscured by institutional religion. We scarcely hear of someone
whose total life is wrapped up in Jesus Christ. Yet, this is the norm of the Kingdom. Here we have an
expression of the mind of Christ. This is not a statement of how we ought to live, but what this means: “for
me to live is Christ.” In Jesus, a very real death to self occurs. The view of life is radically changed, as it is
viewed in strict association with the Lord and His objectives. As far as priorities are concerned, Jesus and His
people are first. The reason for and effectiveness of life is seen from this perspective.
LIVING ON IN THE FLESH
“But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor” (KJV). Paul has stated the regenerative view of both life and death. “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Now he further defines what is involved in living. FIRST, living is not to be taken for granted: i.e., “IF I live!” Satan tempts people to think they are assured of life. For some, the only thing that interrupts this delusion is a crisis of health or an accident. Those who walk in the light, however, know that their days are “numbered.” They seek for Divine assistance to live with an acute awareness of that (Psa 90:12). The truth of the matter is, we will live only “if the Lord will” (James 4:15).
Paul’s language is very descriptive: “if I live on in the flesh.” He knows, from one perspective, the child of God will “never die” (John 11:26). The life that is lived to God cannot be interrupted. That is why it is called“eternal life.” Death cannot disturb or suspend spiritual life–else death would not be “gain.” Were this not the case, the phrase “live on in the flesh” would not have significance. Elsewhere this view of our life is called being “in the body” (Heb 13:3), and being“in the world” (1 Pet 5:9).
The Apostle is talking about Divine appointment. The NASB captures this perspective: “But if I am to live on in the flesh.” Life is thus seen as controlled by the Lord. Faith joyfully acquiesces to this situation, seeing living in this world and passing into the unseen world as advantages. Keep in mind, Paul is in prison. Yet, he views living “on in the flesh” as advantageous. He had experienced temptations to think otherwise, but was moved to consider even them from a heavenly point of view (2 Cor 1:8-9).
The Apostolic expression is thought-provoking. He does not say if he lives on in the flesh he will have more opportunities to preach, even though that is what he was sent to do (1 Cor 1:17). He rather speaks of “fruit,” or spiritual results. The NKJV reads, “this will mean fruit from my labor.” The NASB reads, “this will mean fruitful labor for me.” What a marvelous expression of faith! He had captured the truth of the Psalmic expression, “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psa 126:6).
Do not be tempted to think your labors are vain in the Lord. They are not. Those chosen by Jesus are ordained to bring forth fruit (John 15:16). The Word they sow will not return to the Lord without results! “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11). While that reaping is to the glory of God, it is charged to the account of the laborer (Phil 4:17).
Living to the Lord is a most rewarding experience! Even when oppressed, fruit can be expected. Whether we are in the desert like Moses, a prison like Joseph, or as Isle like John, fruit can come from our labors. This is not an assessment of sight. It is the perspective of faith. We have been called into the fellowship of God’s dear Son (1 Cor 1:9). We are enlisted in His sowing and reaping program, and fruit will be realized by our labors as long as we are “in the flesh.” We must not allow anything to hide this from us.
HARD PRESSED BETWEEN THE TWO
“ . . . yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (KJV). Here Paul divulges both the intensity and diversity of spiritual life. His life was so intertwined with Christ that he could not choose between life and death. You may remember that Elijah, under the juniper tree, did not have such a difficulty (1 Kgs 19:4). Of course, that was a low time for the prophet. Paul is expressing his normal manner of thinking.
The NIV reflects the strength of the expression. “I am torn between the two.” The idea is that of being caught between two strong forces. He experienced pressure to die and pressure to live. Some are constrained to live, but not to die. Others are pressured to die, but not to live. The Apostle, however, lived so close to Christ that both compulsions were experienced simultaneously. Mind you, this is what he meant when he said, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” It was not the mere joy of living that pressured him to live. From one perspective, life had been cruel to him. Many a soul would have despised life, had they passed through the difficulties negotiated by Paul. Among them he lists stripes, prison, deaths, beatings, shipwreck, isolation, perils, weariness, hunger, thirst, nakedness, and the push of concern (2 Cor 11:23-28). These were “frequent,” not occasional!
He acknowledges the superiority of one desire – so it is not a matter of simply choosing what is best. Departing and being with Christ is “far better.”There is really no comparison between the experiences of life and death. Death is, in every way, “better.” He is speaking of the ADVANTAGES or EFFECTS of life, and not life’s experiences. This is a high view, and much to be
coveted by all believers.
Notice how Paul refers to death. He does not say he prefers to die, as Elijah said. Rather he prefers to “depart and be with Christ.” Here his love for Christ spills out, unable to be contained. Faith had joined him to the Lord, and he knew it (1 Cor 6:17). He had eternal life, and knew it (1 John 5:13). There is a confidence reflected in this expression that may be possessed by every believer. There are multitudes of professing believers who stand in doubt about their coming death. They are not sure whether they will be with the Lord or not. This condition severely hampers their life. It does not need to exist in any child of God. Departing from this world and our frail body can be anticipated, all the while also being pressured to live with Christ here.
Let it be clear, Paul’s desire to live was not driven by the anticipation of any earthly advantage. He was not motivated by thoughts of a wife, family, or other earthly associations. The values associated with each of those things are good in their place, but they are inappropriate as basic motivations. Fellowship with Christ lifts us higher, allowing us to enjoy lower associations to the fullest, yet be stimulated by higher considerations. It is not a matter of enjoying the best of both worlds. Rather, it is experiencing the life of God in both worlds–and there is a vast difference. Paul’s life was being lived in rich communion with the Lord. That affiliation brought righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, making it difficulty to choose between life and death.
MORE NEEDFUL FOR YOU
“Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (KJV). Now Paul divulges why he had difficulty in choosing between staying and departing. It was not his own earthly advantage that made it difficult, but the consideration of the Philippians. The extent to which Paul partook of the Divine nature is revealed in this expression. His heart was in his Apostleship! He not only had affiliation with the people of God, they were in his heart. As he said earlier, “I have you in my heart” (1:7). This was not a sentimental feeling, but a profound spiritual experience. He did not merely seek to be with them, or to enjoy their company. The Lord had given him something they needed, and Paul wanted to give it to them. He knew what he had received. He also knew the relevancy of his gifts to the life of faith.
He does not say remaining was joyful, but “needful.” Without wavering, he associated his life with his Apostolic calling. He is saying that as long as he lived, he would fulfill his calling. He would minister, whether with a chain or without one. Prison would not interrupt his ministry, but would only expand it. He would continue to strengthen the faith of the saints.
The work we have been given to do must not be discontinued because of life’s circumstances. The people of God need the gifts that have been distributed and are administered by the Spirit of God. As is well stated, “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all” (1 Cor 12:7). Often, being“good stewards of the manifold grace of God”involves choosing life when there are no apparent personal advantages in it (1 Pet 4:10-11). This is what Scripture calls “preferring one another” (Rom 12:11). Also, Paul had a mind to finish the work given to him, even as Jesus completed the work given to Him.
There is something else to be seen here. The Philippians would gain an advantage by the continuing of Paul’s life. This cannot be said of everyone. Those who do not bring us advantages by their life will take nothing from us when they depart. Notice, Paul does not say his life would bring some happy moments to the Philippians. The extension of his life would not merely be nice. The saints would receive from him thingsNEEDED for faith-life .
The choice of expressions is significant: “far better” and “more needful.”The “more needful” was on the Philippians part. The “far better” was on Paul’s part. I cannot help but observe that it is better for some to stay in the world, for they are not yet ready to depart. A far better state, indeed, to be able to say “I am now ready” (2 Tim 4:6).
Paul was willing to stay for them! Oh, the blessedness of being so responsive to the Lord we are advantaged by the lingering life of holy people! In a day when “the aged” ministers of God (Philemon 9) are easily forgotten, we need to hear this word. Although he was old, infirmed, and in prison, Paul still brought advantages to the people of God. This sort of thinking is summarily rejected by the institutional church–but it reflects Christ’s manner of government. May God grant a restoration of this mind-set.
Suffice it to say, those who live for Christ can eagerly anticipate departing to be with Christ, while also eager to advantage the saints.