Philippians 1:18b-26

Sun, 30/01/2011 - 10:00 -- James Oakley

Living with uncertainty is hard, is it not?

And we have a lot of uncertainty in our lives at the moment. Inflation is heading towards 5 %; unemployment is rising; oil prices are crazy, and VAT has just put up the price of almost everything. There’s a lot we don’t know about the future – our own personal future, or what the country will look like for the next 5 years. And it’s hard living with uncertainty.

When Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians he was living with a massive uncertainty. He wrote from prison, possibly on remand with a trial looming. There would be two outcomes of that trial: Either he would be released or he would be executed.

The pressure of that uncertainty would eat most of us up. Most of us would say we don’t want to die just yet. We have people we want to spend time with. We have places we’d like to travel to. And yet, in the midst of all these uncertainties, Paul is rejoicing.

We saw at our last combined service that he is thrilled that his imprisonment is leading to the spread of the gospel, the good news about Jesus. But he also looks to the future, uncertain as it is, and says at the start of this morning’s reading: Yes, and I will rejoice. He is certain that, whatever the outcome of his trial, he will be rejoicing.

How can he manage to respond to such big uncertainties in this way? Well the answer is that he had something that mattered more than those two possible outcomes for his trial. There was something more important to him than whether he lived or died. Ultimately it doesn’t matter to him what happens. That something is Jesus Christ. Christ so consumed Paul’s life, Christ was so much Paul’s priority, that he saw those two alternatives as a win-win situation. If he’s executed, he wins; if he’s released he wins. So either way, he will be rejoicing big time.

If he dies, he goes to be with Christ

Let’s take the first option first. Suppose he’s executed. The way he sees it is this: If he dies, he goes to be with Christ. If he dies, he goes to be with Christ.

There are two reasons why his execution would be a win-situation.

Firstly, as I say, he goes to be with Christ. Verse 23: To depart and be with Christ. That is what happens to the Christian the minute they die. And Paul is clear: that is far better. Verse 23: To depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. In fact, his words fall over themselves trying to say how good it is: Something like for that is much greater better. The moment a Christian dies, they go to be with Christ, and that is so much better than anything else they have ever experienced. In that reading from Luke 23, the key word for us to notice is the word today. Today you will be with me in paradise. For the Christian who dies, life could be no better, apart from being given their resurrection body, and that won’t happen until Jesus returns.

We won’t learn to live with uncertainty in the way Paul does until we have this perspective on death. For the Christian, and this is not a hope that the Bible holds out for every human being, for the Christian, they go to the best place imaginable, which is with Jesus. Of course, only a Christian would think that was the best place imaginable.

So yes, when those we love die, we mourn. We miss them. And so we should. But as Paul said to the Thessalonians, we don’t grieve as those who have no hope. We don’t mourn on their account. Neither do we settle for a few wishful platitudes like: “I suppose they’re in a better place” or “At least they’re not suffering any more”. We don’t pray for them, for what could you possibly ask God to do that would make things any better than they are? No, we can be absolutely certain that anyone who has died in Christ is utterly secure: They are with Christ.

The second reason why his execution would be a win-situation is because Jesus will be magnified in his death, because Paul will not be ashamed. Jesus will be magnified in his death, because Paul will not be ashamed. Verse 20: It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honoured in my body. Paul is absolutely certain that he won’t deny Christ at the last minute. So as people hear of his death, that too will be a testimony to Christ.

If he dies, he goes to be with Christ, and Christ will be magnified in his death.

If he lives, he gets to live for Christ

Let’s take the other option. Suppose he is released at his trial, and he gets to live another day. The way he sees that is this: If he lives, he gets to live for Christ. If he lives, he gets to live for Christ. Being released is also a win-situation, again for two reasons

Firstly, he goes to be with the Philippians. That is his clear plan in verses 25. I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith. He’s absolutely sure that his release will mean a reunion. And that is not because the Philippian church is particularly privileged; he had a similar relationship with lots of churches. Living on is a win-situation because he goes to be with the Philippians.

But secondly, it’s a win-situation because Jesus will be magnified in his life because Paul won’t be ashamed. Jesus will be magnified in his life because Paul won’t be ashamed. Verse 25 tells us why it’s good news that he gets to go to be with the Philippians. He gets to continue with them in their progress and joy in the faith.

If he gets out he can then continue to help them grow in their faith and he can help them rejoice at the blessings that God has given them. And from earlier in this chapter, we know that Paul regarded the Philippian church as partners with him in the great work of telling others about Jesus, so he gets to work alongside them in this as well. Work for their progress, work for their joy, work with them to tell others. Or, as he puts it in verse 22, If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me.

He knows that he won’t be ashamed of Christ in his life either. His release would mean living for Christ, telling others about him, and strengthening other Christians. So if he gets out Jesus will be magnified in his life.

In short Paul says in verse 21: For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. His life is so wrapped up with Christ that he can describe his life as being all about Christ. To live is Christ, nothing more, nothing less. If he is released from prison, it’s good news because that means he gets to live, and that means he gets to live for Christ.

We won’t learn to live with uncertainty in the way that Paul does unless we have his perspective on life. Most of us have a multitude of goals and ambitions, things we would like to do before we die.
We want to live long enough to see our great grandchildren,
we want at least ten years’ retirement out of our pension,
we would like to see the leaning tower of Pisa,
we would like to have visited every continent,
we’d like to learn to play the cello,
or whatever it is.

If we were to die tomorrow, our disappointment would be that we haven’t managed to do all those things. If we were to be released so that we get to live another day, our relief would be that we might yet do them.

Somewhere among all those goals is the church, Christianity, and the person of Jesus Christ. The attitude that Paul holds out to us is to be so wrapped up in Christ what we don’t mind whether we do any of those things or not, as long as we get to live for him, talk of him, build up his people, and one day be with him. Paul doesn’t let us have Christianity as a hobby. It doesn’t belong next to bridge and scuba-diving on your CV.

He challenges us to complete this sentence: “For me, to live is…”. I don’t know what you’d put. For the Christian, the shortest answer should be: “To live is … Christ.”


As well as wanting the Philippians to share his attitude to life and death, Paul also wants them to pray for him.

Look at it this way: How does a man like Paul hold onto these attitudes when faced with a trial that must end in one of two ways? How does he keep trusting God rather than being crushed by the pressure? How does he maintain his absolute certainty that he will not be ashamed of Christ, play Christ down, or say “no comment” however things might turn out?

The answer is that the Spirit helped him, gave him strength, and sustained him. Verse 19, he had the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. But how was it that the Spirit supported him in this way? The answer is that the Philippians prayed for him. What he’s saying implicitly is that he needs them to continue to pray for him.

There are Christians in prison today, and they need our prayers too. It’s too easy to forget them. Take the country of Iran. A recent study was made of the persecution in Iran, because things have got much more difficult over the past six months or so. Especially over this past Christmas, large numbers of Iranian Christians have been arrested. The study concludes that, since June last year, 202 Christians have been arbitrarily arrested, and 33 of those are still in prison today. They came from no fewer than 24 Iranian cities. These arrests have been partly fuelled because the Iranian government has been encouraging it, especially the governor of Tehran. If you look at their report, you can see photos of some of those 33 who are still inside, of one who has been executed, and of another who is appealing his death sentence.

These Christians need our prayers. But what do we pray for? Our instinct is to pray either for their comfort or for their release. Certainly, they need comfort: They are subjected to sleep deprivation, loud speakers playing round-the-clock religious instruction, and they and their families are threatened. And certainly, their release would be wonderful. But Paul does not want either of those things prayed for him, and I suspect they are not the priorities for these Iranians either.

We must pray that God would send his Spirit to strengthen them so that they might remain absolutely sure that if they die they go to be with Christ and there is nothing better than that. We must pray that God would send his Spirit to strengthen them so that they remain sure that if they live, they will use every breath for nothing other than further living for Christ. We must pray that God would send his Spirit to strengthen them so that they will not be ashamed of Christ, whatever happens. And we should ask for God’s Spirit to strengthen their families too.


Let’s draw some of these things together.

It’s no use pretending otherwise: Uncertainty is hard.

But if life becomes all about Christ, as it did for Paul, rather than just involving him a little bit, then the fear of uncertainty starts to evaporate. We start to see that we cannot lose.

If we die, that is the best thing possible for us. And if we live, we know what our life is for, so whatever the future holds, we will have opportunities to live for Christ in ways that will benefit others.

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