“When Living Is Christ, then Dying Is Gain” (Philippians 1:21 sermon)

Aaron Sorkin, the writer for “A Few Good Men,” “The West Wing,” and other tv shows and movies, was speaking at graduation at his alma mater, Syracuse University, in May 2012, and he said: “Two newborn babies are lying side-by-side in a hospital nursery and they glance at each other. Ninety years later, through a remarkable coincidence, the two are lying side-by-side in the same hospital room. They look at each other and one of them says, ‘So … what’d you think?’”

What do you think about this experience we call “life”? What about this thing we all face, known as “death”? What is the purpose and meaning of it all? If religion does anything, it should answer those questions. And true religion, God’s word, certainly does answer those questions.  What Paul wrote here in Philippians 1:21 answers these ultimate questions about the meaning of life and death from a Christian perspective. Here we find in a concise summary in this one verse, the real meaning of life, as well as death, to a Christian — AND the very important personal choice that makes it all possible:  “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

I.  “To live is Christ”

Earlier in Philippians 1 we see how Paul was able to rejoice, even though he was in prison, chained to a Roman guard, because he had the opportunity to witness to the guards, and others in prison, and the gospel was being spread. So Paul rejoiced. How could he rejoice like that? Because he had this underlying commitment to glorify God in everything he did, in every circumstance in his life. (We saw this a few weeks ago: we exist to glorify God and enjoy Him forever).  

— So if Paul was free, he was going to glorify God by spreading the gospel with his freedom. 

— If he was in prison, he would glorify God by spreading the gospel in prison. 

— If he was healthy, he’d glorify God with his strength; 

— if he was sick, he’d glorify God with His grace that would be sufficient for him in his sickness. 

That was Paul’s commitment, that God would be glorified, and the gospel of Christ spread, through everything that happened in his life And he summarizes that commitment here in a very succinct way by saying: “For to me, to live is Christ.” 

That’s a good summary. He says, the bottom line for me, is that to live here on this earth, means that I get to further the cause of Jesus Christ, through whatever ability I have, and through whatever happens in my life. “To live is Christ.” How much can I praise Him? How many people can I share Him with? How many can I teach about Him? How can I further His kingdom and glory with my life? Paul says, my whole life is measured, NOT by what other people may call “success,” but by what I am able to do for Christ while I am here. “To me, to live is Christ.”

Not long ago they did a story about some of the radical fans of different NFL teams. In it they interviewed a young man who was a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers. In the course of his conversation with the interviewer, this young man said ‘I live for the Green Bay Packers.’ He said, ‘If it promotes the Green Bay Packers in the world, I’ll do it. If it does NOT promote the Green Bay Packers, I won’t do it. For me, the question in everything is always, does this promote the cause of the Green Bay Packers?’ 

When I read that, I thought, wow! That young man was committed, but he was committed to the wrong thing. We don’t live our lives for sports. We are to live for Christ. But what we CAN do, is take the kind of commitment this young man had for the Green Bay Packers, and apply it to our own lives and Christ. If we are Christians, then OUR question, with every activity we participate in, and every decision we make, should be: “Does this activity further the cause of Christ? If it furthers Christ, I’ll do it; if it does NOT further Christ, I will NOT do it. In any decision we make in life, our single most important criteria should be: “Does this help the cause of Christ?” If it does, we’ll do it. If it does not, we won’t do it. Because “for us to live is Christ,” we make our decisions by whether it benefits Him and advances His kingdom:

— It’s NOT “do I want to do this?”

— It’s NOT “does it make me money?” 

— It’s NOT “does it feel good?” 

— It’s NOT “do other people want me to do it?” Or “Is everyone else doing it?”

NO. The question for us is: “does this further the Kingdom of Christ in the world?” THAT is the way we are to make our decisions in the world as Christians. Because like Paul, for US as Christians, “to live is Christ.” The reason God has us alive here on this earth, is to glorify and serve Him. We need to remember that.

(I was already planning to share this story, when I discovered late last week that my sister, who has been serving in an undisclosed country in Asia, is being expelled from her country – they are not renewing her VISA. She is actually flying into Houston and is going to quarantine for a few days in the other end of our house. I HOPE you will get the opportunity to meet her in a couple of weeks when she gets out of quarantine.) 

But in the late 1980’s, my sister did not know what her purpose for life was. She had taken the “7 year plan” through college, had taught in a couple of Christian schools, had gone overseas some, but she really had no solid direction for her life. In 1989 she was in China teaching English through our IMB, when she went on a weekend flight to another part of the country with another American young lady who was in China with her. While they were on that flight, the plane was hijacked by a man who wanted to take the plane to Taiwan. (I hope that my sister will be with us long enough to share her story with us one Sunday. If I announce that she will be sharing it — DO NOT miss it; invite everyone you know to it!)  But to make an amazing story short, the hijacker ended up fighting the pilot for control of the plane, which crashed into the airfield, hit another plane on the ground, and blew up in a fireball. The video was on CNN world news that night. Of about 110 people on the plane, only 8 survived, including my sister, by God’s grace. She had a broken collarbone, and some severe burns on her leg. She knew she was spared only by the grace of God. And this verse, Philippians 1:21, became very real to her, and to our family, in that time: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” My sister knew that God had kept her alive for a purpose, and she knew that purpose was to reach the Oriental peoples for Christ. She recuperated, and with a new sense of purpose, blew through seminary on the 3 year plan with straight A’s! — and began serving in Asia with our Southern Baptist International Mission Board, which she has been doing for the past 25 years. 

(Please pray for her this week, as she makes preparations to come home, at least for a time; for her safety, protection from virus during travel, and her time in quarantine, and that God would use her time in the States for His purposes. And if I tell you she’ll be sharing her testimony one Sunday DO NOT miss it!)

But people who hear my sister’s story often say something like, “Wow, God must have really spared you for a reason.” And God did indeed. He spared her for the purpose of serving all these last years overseas, where she began a church among some unreached peoples where there was never one before!  God had a purpose for sparing her life. But what WE need to realize, is that just as certainly as God has spared my sister to live, for a purpose, He has in the same way spared you and me for a purpose as well. WE are alive, right? WHY? Because God has a purpose for us!  Now, we may not be alive in as “dramatic” a fashion as my sister is, but we are alive nonetheless; God has seen fit in His providence to keep us alive.  So we need to ask ourselves, For what purpose has God kept ME alive? Why am I here?  What is His purpose? 

The short answer to that question is right here in this verse: “To live is Christ.”  God has not given us our life for something as shallow as “following our heart” or “chasing our dreams.” He has not spared us so that we can waste endless days watching tv and playing games and seeking entertainment. He gave us this life to glorify Him; “TO LIVE FOR CHRIST”. THAT is what we are to live for — NOT to “make a name for ourselves;” not to spread the fame of the “Green Bay Packers” — or any other cause — but God has given us this life to glorify Him by spreading the name and Gospel of Christ. That is the purpose of life. That is what God has you here for. Your goal is to do that the best way you can, with the particular gifts and abilities that God has given you. But make no mistake: as a Christian your purpose in life is to further the name and Kingdom of Christ. To be able to say, “For me, to live is Christ.”

II.  “To die is gain”

So Paul says, his life is all about living for Jesus, so that he can say “To me, to live is Christ.” But he also says, “and to die is gain.” Now to a lot of people, that sounds even more odd than “to live is Christ.” Someone might think, ok, well, maybe to you, “to live could be Christ.” But to say “TO DIE is to GAIN?” Now that’s a different thing! Not too many people really think that way. Most people think of death as the worst possible thing that can happen to anyone. But Paul says, no: “to die is GAIN.”

The word “gain” here is the Greek Bible word “kerdos,” which means “profit.” In the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 Jesus says the slaves invested their master’s money, and they “made a profit” with his money. That is the word that is used here. It is a business word; it means to make a profit. So Paul is saying here: Hey, death is not something I am afraid of; he says, I will actually PROFIT if I die. It will be better for me if I die, than if I live. 

In fact he elaborates on that in the next verses of this passage, where he talks about the tension between whether he would rather stay here and continue serving, or if it would be better for him to die. And he says in :23, I have “the desire to depart from this life and be with Christ, for that is VERY MUCH BETTER.” We need to look closely at this expression “very much better” because it is incredibly strong. It stacks two adjectives and an adverb right on top of each other: “VERY, MUCH, BETTER.”

—The first word, “pollo” means “many, much, a multitude”

—The second, “mallon” means “more than, better rather than something else”

—And the last, ”kreisson” means “better, stronger, more excellent”

So Paul (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) just STACKS these comparatives one upon the other, to just emphasize this: to die and be with Christ is “a multitude, more excellent, better than” than life! — “pollon, mallon, kriesson” — “MUCH, MORE, BETTER” to die, than to live here on this earth. He says it is “gain;” it is “profit” for him. 

(I was working on this very paragraph this week, when I got word that Jana Johnson had passed away. My first thought was for US: “Oh no; we are going to miss Jana, greeting at that front door!” But then I glanced back at what I was working on: NO! She is “MUCH, MORE, BETTER”!) 

That is the Christian attitude towards death. Honestly, I don’t think most people have this attitude. It goes against our “natural” inclination. And God has instilled within mankind a powerful desire to live, which is a good thing. But our FAITH in God’s word tells us that there is something “much more better” waiting for the Christian person after death, than anything we know here on earth. And that “something” that is so much better, is God Himself! 

Notice Paul doesn’t just say “I want to die and go ‘to heaven,’ because that is so much better.” He doesn’t say “I want to go see the streets of gold or the pearly gates” because that is much better. He doesn’t say, I want to go and ride the perfect horse, or play the perfect golf course up in the sky, because that is much more better. He says I want to “depart and BE WITH CHRIST — for THAT is MUCH, MORE, BETTER!” See, it is JESUS HIMSELF who is the goal; it is the LORD who makes heaven “much, more, better.”

This goes back to the very heart of the gospel, which we have talked about before: that God made us specifically for Himself. As C.S. Lewis said, “God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn.” Just like a solar-powered machine is designed to run off of the sun, so we were made to be empowered by the glory of the face of God!  But we ruined that when we sinned against God, and a “shadow” fell across our relationship with God, that cut us off from Him and His glory. Romans 3:23 says “all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God.” This is what that verse means: that by our sin we separated ourselves from the glory of God that we were made to thrive off of.  But God still loved us, even though we sinned, and He sent Jesus to die on the cross to pay for our sins. So now, if we’ll repent of our sins and come back to Him, and ask Him for His forgiveness, we can be forgiven, and know the glory of God again. We can begin to “taste” that glory now, in our personal worship, and in our worship with other Christians — and then when we die or Jesus returns, we will bask in the presence of His glory forever — with no sin; with nothing to hinder us from all the blessings of His glory face to face! 

This is what David is talking about in Psalm 17:15 when he says, “As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake.” David says, one day, when I awake in heaven, I am going to be “SATISFIED” with Your likeness. He says I will fully satisfied by the glory of the face of God. He says in Psalm 16:11 “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” The glory of the face of God Himself, is what is waiting for us in heaven. And Paul says that glory and pleasure and joy will be “much, more, better,” than anything we have ever experienced here on earth!  

When I was in North Carolina I decided I needed to read David McCullough’s book on the Wright Brothers, since their famous flight was done on the beach there at Kitty Hawk. In the book, Wilbur Wright is asked by a journalist to describe what it felt like to fly that first plane (which had an open cockpit, and was a much more immediate and sensory kind of experience than the flying most of us have done). Wilbur Wright said: “the sensation is so keenly delightful as to be almost beyond description. Nobody who has not experienced it for himself can realize it. It is a realization of a dream so many persons have had of floating in the air. More than anything else the sensation is one of perfect peace, mingled with the excitement that strains every nerve to the utmost, if you can conceive of such a combination.”

When I read that, I thought, that is like heaven. A billion times that; that will be heaven. It will be “keenly delightful”; it will be “perfect peace,” and it WILL be “beyond description.” None of us here have any idea of the glory and the joy of it.  But God calls us to believe in it by faith in His word. 

Sometimes God gives departing loved ones an early glimpse of it. When the great Puritan pastor Samuel Rutherford was dying, his final words as he approached heaven were: “Glory, glory dwelleth in Emmanuel’s land”!

As C.S. Lewis said, “There are better things ahead, than any we leave behind.” Richard Baxter, another Puritan pastor who wrote an amazing book on heaven, said he believed that every Christian should spend at least 30 minutes a day meditating on heaven; that it would totally change our attitude on life, our trials, our departed loved ones, how we spend our time, and so much more. We need to learn to really believe like Paul did, that as a Christian, “to die is GAIN!” It is “much, more, better.”

III. “to ME”!

Sometimes the smallest words have the biggest impact, and that is true here. Paul says here that this statement is not true for everyone. He could say, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” But notice he said “TO ME.” “To ME.” This was true for him; but it was not, and IS not today, true for everyone. It is only true for those who have genuinely committed their lives to Christ.

— For one, not everyone can say “For to me, to live is Christ.” Most people don’t live for Christ. So they can’t say that “to live is Christ.” They aren’t spending their lives advancing His kingdom in the world; they aren’t telling anybody about Him. For them to live is not Christ. For them to live is just themselves: their will; their pleasure; their own way. 

What about YOU? Is for you to live, Christ?

See, this is not true for everyone. This is a personal, conscious choice you have to make, that for you to live is going to be Christ. You have to choose to make Jesus YOUR OWN personal Lord & Savior, and commit your life to follow Him. You have to choose that whatever situation or circumstance you come into, you are going to glorify Him, and that your circumstances are going to be your “witness stand for Christ.” That is a personal choice you have to make: “FOR ME”!  

And how many people (even those of us here this morning!) really see death as “gain”?  

Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator who flew the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 did not see death as “gain.” He wrote: 

“After my death, the molecules of my being will return to the earth and the sky. I came from the stars. I am of the stars.” 

Lindbergh said at death, I will just be absorbed back into the universe from which I came, just like water washed down the drain gets carried back into the ocean. That’s not “gain.” And a lot of people have similar beliefs. Death is not “gain” to them; in fact, to most people, death is not gain; to them, death is the ultimate LOSS.

No, what Paul says here is not true for everyone; it is only true for those who have made the personal decision that for them, this will be true. But it IS a personal decision. “For ME,” he says. “For ME.”  This is a personal choice.

— It may not be true for your parents and family; but it can be true for you!

— It may not be true for your friends, but it can be true for YOU!

— It may not be true for the people you go to school with, or the people you work with, or the people in your neighborhood — The truth is, MOST people will not see it this way. But it’s the choice God is calling YOU to make. But it has to be your own personal choice, no matter what anyone else does.

As I said earlier, it was our choice to sin that separated us from the glory of God in the first place. God made a way for us to come back to Him though Jesus — but the ONLY way back is through Jesus. He said “I am THE way, THE truth, and THE life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.” But it is up to YOU whether you will make that choice or not. Jesus says at the very end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, “Come … let the one who is thirsty come … let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.” Jesus says “Come!” But whether you do or do not, is YOUR own personal decision. What is your choice going to be for your life: will it be: “For to me, to live is SELF,” or “To me, to live is CHRIST”?  Will it be “to die is LOSS,” or “to die is GAIN”?  That’s the decision every one of us has to make for ourselves.   


“On the 7th of September, 1850, seven British missionaries set sail from Liverpool (England). Under the leadership of Captain Allen Francis Gardiner — a decorated veteran of the Royal Navy — they were bound for Patagonia, at the southernmost tip of South America. They had six months of provisions and high hopes for the work of the gospel and the kingdom of God. Yet the trip ended in total failure. The natives were hostile. The climate was harsh and unforgiving. The resupply ship failed to arrive until it was too late. And the missionaries died of starvation, one by one. 

The party’s surgeon was Richard Williams, and when the search party found his body, they also found his diary. The last page he ever wrote was a testimony to his undying faith in Jesus Christ. We can picture him huddled up in the hull of his little boat, suffering from sickness, and writing the following words as his last testament:

‘Should anything prevent my ever adding to this (diary), let my beloved ones at home rest assured that I was happy, beyond all expression, the night I wrote these lines, and would not have exchanged situations with any man living. Let them also be assured that my hopes were full and blooming with immortality, that Heaven and Love and Christ, which mean one and the same divine thing, were my soul; that the hope of glory filled my whole heart with joy and gladness; and that ‘TO ME to live is Christ and to die is gain.’” (Phil Ryken, Loving the Way Jesus Loves, pp. 149-150)

Richard Williams, with his last words in a foreign land, could write that to him, to die was gain — because during his LIFE he had made the commitment that to live, was Christ.  The KEY was that little phrase: “TO ME”. “To ME.” See, our choices matter. Life, death, eternity … it all depends on what you are going to do with the message of Jesus; on what you do with the words of this verse. When you walk out of here today, will you really be able to say “TO ME, to live is Christ, and to die is gain”? 


— Many of us today need to re-evaluate our lives. What are you really living for? Can YOU really say: “For ME, to live is Christ?” Are you really serving Him? How are you sharing His name, and advancing His kingdom?

— Maybe you’d say like that young fan of the Green Bay Packers, that there has been something ELSE that you have really been living for, and God’s showing you today that you need to be as committed to HIM, as you have been to that other thing

— And maybe, in the depth of your heart, you can’t really say, “for ME, to die is gain.” You’re afraid of death; you don’t know what will happen.

You CAN know, if you will commit your life to Christ today. But remember, it’s a personal choice. No one can make it for you …

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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1 Response to “When Living Is Christ, then Dying Is Gain” (Philippians 1:21 sermon)

  1. Brother Jerry Gray says:

    Thanks so much! I’m preaching my aunt’s funeral today and could not find the words to say. Now I know. Thanks for helping the saints including this preacher. Your words were food for my thirsty soul. May God bless you and your family.

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