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Author:Rev. Mendel Retief
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 Free Reformed Churches of Australia - FRCA
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
 Kelmscott, Western Australia
Title:To live is Christ
Text:Philippians 1:21 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Life in Christ

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Votum and Salutation

Response: Ps. 123: 1, 2

The Ten Words of the Covenant

Response: Ps. 130: 2


Scripture reading:       Phil. 1: 1 – 30

Text:                              Phil. 1: 21


To live is Christ

1.      The irresistible coming of Christ’s kingdom

2.      The confession: to me to live is Christ

3.      The confession: to die is gain

Response: Ps. 40: 3, 4, 7

Thank offerings:

Sing: Ps. 16: 1 – 5 


Sing: Ps. 4: 3


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mendel Retief, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

To live is Christ; to die is gain               

Ps. 123: 1, 2

Ps. 130: 2

Ps. 103: 7 (baptism)

Ps. 40: 3, 4, 7

Ps. 16: 1 – 5  

Ps. 4: 3


Scripture reading:       Phil. 1: 1 – 30

Text:                              Phil. 1: 21


Beloved congregation, saints in Christ Jesus,


Our text this morning is one of the most well-known passages in Scripture:


            “…to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”


But what does it mean?

It is only when we examine these words in its context that we start to see the practical implications of these words.   


With these words the apostle Paul summarises the whole purpose and aim of his life, and the context shows us how he implemented this motto in all of life, even in the most trying circumstances.


Here in our text we see the power of the gospel applied to everyday life.  

I proclaim this gospel to you with the theme:

To live is Christ


We will note…

1.      The irresistible coming of Christ’s kingdom

2.      The confession: to me to live is Christ

3.      The confession: to die is gain

In the first place we note…

The irresistible coming of Christ’s kingdom


This confession of the apostle is embedded in the concrete situation of his daily life.

He has been serving Christ relentlessly.  

His labour met with much opposition, and it may seem as if, in some ways, his work has been frustrated.

And yet, nothing could stop the advance of the gospel.  

He says in verse 12:


“But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel…”

Yes, in the end, all the obstacles were turned into stepping stones.

Every attack from the enemy only served to advance the progress of the gospel.

For: Christ is seated at the right hand of God, and He is governing all things to the benefit of His church.


Therefore a life lived in service of Christ is never wasted, and ultimately it can never be frustrated.   Even if I have to die, the apostle says, Christ will be magnified by my death, and if I continue to live here on earth, it will mean fruitful labour.


Now, he said that the things that happened to him actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel.   So then, what are the things that happened to him?


While the apostle writes this letter he is bound in chains.

At this time he has been in chains for almost five years!

You know how it all happened:

After his third mission journey Paul went up to Jerusalem, and there the Jews arrested him and laid false charges against him.   The Jews stirred up a crowd and they beat Paul and almost killed him, but the Roman soldiers came to his rescue (Acts 21: 32).   Then the Jews plotted how they could kill Paul (Acts 23: 12), but he was under protection of the Romans sent away to Caesarea (Acts 23: 23).  And there in Caesarea Paul was imprisoned for two years (Acts 24: 27).

Then finally, when Festus, seeking the favour of the Jews, wanted to deliver Paul over to them to be judged by the Jews, Paul appealed to Caesar.   And thus Paul was sent as a prisoner to Rome.  

After a terrible voyage and shipwreck they finally came to Rome; and here, bound in chains, Paul wrote four letters: this epistle to the Philippians, as well as his epistles to Philemon, to the Ephesians and to the Colossians.   And thus in the church tradition these four letters are also called his prison epistles.  

Now, while imprisoned in Rome, the apostle Paul was permitted to dwell by himself with one soldier guarding him (Acts 28: 16) and he was able to continue preaching at his lodging (Rom. 28: 23).   And then the book of Acts closes with these words:

“Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.” (Acts 28: 30, 31)

There in Rome, bound in chains, he continued preaching the gospel, and nothing could stop the gospel from being proclaimed by him.

From his pastoral epistles it seems that, after these two years of imprisonment in Rome, Paul was again released and continued his work.   And the church tradition has it that Paul was afterwards again imprisoned in Rome, for a second time, and was executed and died a martyr’s death.  

However, this letter to the Philippians has been written after his third mission journey, during his first imprisonment in Rome.  And now, at the end of two years in Rome, his trial is about to take place.   He will now either be put to death, or be released.   He does not know which it will be – life or death – but it does not matter to him, for to him to live is Christ, and to die is gain.


The time for him to appear before Caesar has come; and although he does not know for sure what the outcome will be, he trusts that he will be released, and that he will be able to visit the Philippians soon – chapter 1: 25 and chapter 2: 24.

The two years of his imprisonment in Rome are almost over, and his trail before Caesar is finally at hand.


And now the apostle is doing some reflection, looking back on this dark chapter of his life.   And he does this not so much for his own sake, but in order to comfort and encourage the saints in Philippi.  

It must have been a great sorrow to the churches when they saw Paul imprisoned for so many years.  

And some were maybe ashamed of his chains.   For we do not mind when it is preached to us that Christ has been crucified for us, but as soon as we experience the humiliation of the cross in our own life, we easily become offended, and refuse to associate ourselves with the shame and abasement that comes with bearing the cross.   

The apostle’s chains were indeed a stumbling block to some.

Some were possibly afraid that any association with Paul might ruin their own reputation.


But instead of being ashamed of his chains, the apostle glories in it.   And he encourage the Philippians to rejoice with him, for this is the cause of Christ, and my chains and all the opposition have only served to further the cause of Christ.


“…I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel…” (verse 12)


The apostle says this to comfort the saints.  

For five years he could not continue with his mission journeys and with all the mission visits he has planned (see for example Rom. 15: 28).

It might seem as if this great warrior of Christ, this energetic missionary through whom God has done great things, and whose labour was worth so much to the churches, has now been frustrated and bound, and that for five years already!  

Also the church at Philippi could become disheartened by these circumstances.

But, the apostle views his circumstances totally differently.  


With the eyes of faith he sees Christ at the right hand of God governing all things to the benefit of His church.   Yes, even his imprisonment was for the furtherance of the gospel!

He was bound, but the gospel could not be bound.   As he says in another place:


“…I suffer trouble as an evildoer, even to the point of chains; but the word of God is not chained.” (2 Tim. 2: 9)


And here in this chapter he provides evidence that the things that happened to him have indeed turned out for the furtherance of the gospel.   In the first place, he says:


“…it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ…” – verse 13


Paul was under constant guard, and the guards relieved each other, so that he had the opportunity to speak to many of them.   And it became evident to these soldiers, and to all the rest, that his chains are in Christ.   That means: it became evident to all that he is not suffering for being a trouble maker, or for any other crime, but that he was suffering for the sake of Christ; that he was persecuted for preaching the gospel.

And this was witnessed by the soldiers of the imperial guard and by the very household of Caesar; and some of them believed the gospel.   In his greetings to the church of Philippi he says:

            “All the saints greet you, but especially those who are of Caesar’s household.” – 4: 22


Not even his imprisonment could stop him from preaching the gospel to the soldiers and even to the household of Caesar.


But the things that happened to him also had another benefit:


“…most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” – verse 14


We see this often in church history how persecution does not stop the church from growing, but even advances the growth of the church, to such and extent that it has become a saying that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.  

The example of God’s faithful servants who are willing to suffer and even to die for Christ’s sake, inflames also others to take courage and to speak up boldly in the midst of persecution.


But not all the ministers became equally bold in preaching the gospel.   Among the preachers of the gospel there were also some who sought only their own interest – chapter 2: 21.   They did not preach a false gospel, but they made sure that they stay out of trouble.   These ministers, driven by selfish ambition, were envious of the apostle Paul and his powerful ministry, and sought to do him harm.   We read about it here in chapter 1: 15, 16.


They were secretly glad that he was now in prison, and they would even harm his reputation wherever they could – maybe representing him as a trouble maker, and warning the churches that any association with Paul will be unfortunate, because he is hated by the whole world, while they presented themselves to the churches as peaceful preachers who do not offend the authorities, who know how to stay out of jail.  

We do not know the exact detail of how they sought to harm the apostle, but not even their envy and false motives could stop the apostle Paul from rejoicing in the Lord, for he clearly sees how all the attacks of Satan, from inside and from outside, has actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel!


Now, this is remarkable.

Just think about the apostle’s circumstances.

He has now been imprisoned for almost five long years!   He is still under constant guard and in chains.   Is this not a terrible waste of time; a useless life?   His circumstances are in every way very trying, and to the human eye disappointing and miserable, but he cannot care less about his own suffering, as long as the gospel is making progress!

Yes, he even rejoices in the midst of all these things that happened to him, verse 18, not because he sees his own ambitions and plans fulfilled, not because he is climbing a ladder of success or having a great time – for the opposite is true.   No, there is only one reason why he is able to rejoice in these circumstances: because he forgets about himself, and lives for Christ alone.   As long as Christ and His cause is making progress, Paul is happy, no matter what his own circumstance might be.   Then he is glad, no matter what he himself has to endure, for he is not living for himself or for his own fulfilment.   For him to live is Christ, and to die is gain.


How on earth can he be rejoicing in his circumstances?   Because: Christ is preached and His kingdom is making progress.   And since Christ is all his life, his joy is complete.


And he again explicitly says this in verse 20.   It is his earnest expectation and hope that Christ will be magnified by him, whether by life or by death.  

And then follows the words of our text:


            “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”


All these things that happened to me, and all that I had to suffer – it does not bother me; instead, I rejoice in it, because to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.


Brothers and sisters, you see then how the apostle’s trying circumstances add to the depth and the meaning of these words.

He had only one agenda, one aim and purpose in life, to serve and magnify Christ.   The progress of Christ’s kingdom is the sole purpose of his whole life, and the sole aim of all his labour.   To him all of life was Christ.  


And to us?

Can and should we repeat these words after him?


We note that in the second place…

The confession: to me to live is Christ


Especially when we are young we may have many dreams of what we want to become one day.   We all have dreams and ambitions in life.   And maybe you are making good progress in pursuing your dreams.   You go to work and you make a good income.  You enjoy life.  You have your own property, a house.   At work you climb a ladder of success, and weekends you have your recreation. 

But, is that what life is about?


What is it that drives and regulates all your actions and all your labour – Christ, or something else?


When we turn to our text we see that Paul was not busy with himself and his own ambitions, pursuing earthly things.   No, to him all of life is Christ; and besides Christ he pursues nothing!

It does not matter to him what will happen – whether Caesar will condemn him to death, or release him – for he is assured that in both cases Christ will be magnified.  What happens to him personally is almost of no importance to him.

No matter what he may suffer, he rejoices, because Christ’s kingdom is making progress.


Yes, he has only one obsession in life, one passion: Christ, and Him alone.


Brothers and sisters, we easily say this with our mouth: Christ is everything to us.   He is our only Saviour and our Lord.   But while we are so Christ-centered in our speaking, it is easy to live otherwise.   

It can so easily happen that we live for Christ plus our own ambitions, Christ plus the things which we find important: a successful career in the eyes of men, a comfortable living, pleasure, time for ourselves, sport and recreation, weekends and holidays, having a 4 x 4, or a bout, or any of the other toys that – in the eyes of the world – make this life so much fun!    

Yes, it easily becomes to us: Christ plus all our own plans and ambitions and enjoyments.

But how quickly do all these vain idols vanish in times of trouble?

How unprofitable are they to keep us in the day of visitation!  


And how foolish is it to say: to me to live is Christ, plus something else!

For Christ taught us that we cannot serve two masters.

Life can never be Christ plus something.   It is either Christ, or it is something else.

We either live for Christ alone, or we don’t live for Him at all.


Brothers and sisters, this single mindedness of the apostle is not some defect that should be corrected by us, as if living for Christ alone is somehow imbalanced and unhealthy for us; instead, we should be able to repeat these words after him:


            “…to me to live is Christ…” – nothing else!


Christ does not add an extra bonus to our life.   No, He is and should be all our life.

Christ is not a life-insurance for the future; He is and should be our all and everything in the very concrete situation of our daily life.

And that brings us back to the concrete situation in which the apostle found himself when he wrote these words.


His expectation and hope is that he may magnify Christ in every situation, whether by life or by death.  

If Caesar sets him free, that means that he may serve Christ longer here on earth, and that will be to the benefit of the churches of Christ, and thus he will be glad for such an outcome, but for him personally the death penalty will be even better, for then it means that he will be with the Lord, which is far better than anything that we can hope to enjoy on this earth.

Because Christ is his life, therefore to die is gain.


He explains this further by saying:


“…if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labour; 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.”


He is hard pressed between two good and blessed desires – the desire to continue his labour for the sake of Christ’s churches, and on the other hand the desire to depart from this world and to be with Christ, which is far better.  

We note that in the last place…

The confession: To die is gain


The apostle says:


            “…to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”


It is gain to die, because then he will be with the Lord.

He confirms this in verse 23 where he says he desires to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.   

Being with Christ, in the presence of His glory, is far better than anything we can enjoy here on earth.   To be with Him is the fulfilment of all God’s promises, and the very fulfilment of all our desire. 


As it is written:


            “…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt. 6: 21)


If your treasure is here on earth, if you live for the things that this world offers you, then your heart will be bound to this earth.   But if your treasure is in heaven with Christ, then your heart will be where He is.


Yes, when Christ is our life, then the things of this world fade away in the light of His glory; then we count it gain to depart from this world and be with Him.  


Dear congregation, you see then how the second part of our text flows logically from the first part.   When Christ is all and everything to us, then to depart from this world and to be with Him is gain indeed.  

It is only when we confess the first part, “to live is Christ”, that we are able to confess also the second part: “to die is gain.”

For those who live for Christ, it is gain to die.


We have to note, however, that the apostle doesn’t desire to depart from this world because he wants to flee from suffering, or because he has no interest in what is happening here on earth, but simply because it is his desire to be with Christ, which is the best place any man can be! 

On the other hand his desire to serve the churches of Christ, for Christ’s sake, is so strong, that he is not able to say which he would choose, if the choice was his.  


In both cases it is clear that Christ is his whole life.   For: if he lives on in the flesh, he desires to do nothing but to serve Christ by his labour.   That is the only reason why he would rejoice in a prolonged life.   And if he has to die, he desires nothing but that Christ may be magnified by his death. 

And while it will be for himself the best thing by far to depart and be with Christ, he is willing to remain here on earth a bit longer for the sake of Christ and His church. 


Brothers and sisters, do you find it strange that the apostle speaks in this way?

I hope not!

And yet, we don’t hear often that church members speak this way, that they long to depart from this world, not because they had enough of suffering, or because they are disinterested in serving the Lord here on earth, but because they have a genuine desire to be with the Lord.


If He is our life, then the desire to be with Him is inevitable.

And the more we know Him to be our life, the more we long to depart and be with Him.


On the other hand, the Christian is at the same time in a strait between two desires, for while we long to be with the Lord we also long to remain here on earth until the task which He has given us is completed.  

We long to remain as long as our task here on earth is not yet completed to His glory.   For Christ’s sake, and for the sake of those whom He entrusted to our care, we long to remain – but, as for ourselves: to be with Christ will be far better.


Brothers and sisters, we confess that the death of a believer is no payment for sins, but an entrance into eternal life – LD 16.

And we see here in our text how much this gospel was reality to the apostle.   We see here the power of the gospel displayed in the concrete situation of real life.  

The gospel has set the apostle free of any fear of death, and makes him to be totally forgetful of himself, seeking the glory of Christ alone.   So much so that he is unable to say which he would choose – living or dying – for in both cases his expectation and his hope is to magnify Christ, whether by life or by death.  


It also gives us a broader perspective on LD 1.   There we confess that both in life and in death we belong to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, and then our focus is usually on safely belonging to Christ.   But the apostle also links life and death in another way to Christ: to seek Christ and to seek His glory both in life and death, both in living and in dying.   It is the same as in his letter to the Romans where he says:


“…none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself.   For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord.   Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” – Rom. 14: 7, 8


There also, belonging to the Lord both in life and in death, is explained not only in terms of being safe in life and in death, but in terms of seeking the Lord and His glory both in life and in death.

Belonging to Christ, both in life and in death, also means: seeking His glory in both.


Brothers and sisters, when Christ is our life, then it is truly a blessing to live, and even a greater blessing to depart.


Now, someone may say:


“This motto suited the apostle Paul and his circumstances very well.   He was an apostle who done great work in the church and the kingdom.   It is good for him that he was so single minded as to live and die for Christ alone, but what about the rest of us who are only ordinary men, busy with ordinary work?   We are not all apostles, we are not all missionaries, we are not all elders or deacons – how then can we say that all our labour, and our only purpose in life, is to serve Christ?   Paul was serving the Lord full time as a minister of the Word, but what about the rest of us who have our job, our daily career, and a family to care for?  

And what about the housewife who has her hands full raising her children?”


Brothers and sisters, it is a great error to think that you have to become a missionary of some sort in order to serve Christ and His church.   Of course, if Christ calls you to such an office, you may indeed serve Him in that office; but Christ did not call all of us to be missionaries!   He called only some as apostles, and some as prophets, and He called only some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers – Eph. 4: 11.  

And many of us He did not call to any of these offices.

And yet He called each of us to live for Christ alone, and to serve Christ in all that we do.


To serve Christ does not mean that each member has to go out and do some kind of “home mission”, or that each one has to go out to evangelise.   Serving Christ in His kingdom does not mean that you have to go out and do some special “kingdom project” for a few years.   No, serving Christ and labouring in His kingdom is part of your daily life as a Christian.

Each believer is serving Christ fulltime.

There is no such thing as a half time Christian or half time service in the kingdom.

We all serve Christ fulltime, or we don’t serve Him at all.


Yes, your own life may seem to you a very humble service, even chained and frustrated in many ways, but as long as Christ and His glory is the sole purpose of your life, your life is blessed.   And Christ – who reigns at the right hand of God – He will cause your life to be a blessing even beyond expectation.


Dear congregation, we do not find ourselves in the same situation as Paul.   We are not awaiting a court case in which Caesar might either sentence us to death, or set us free.   And we are not in chains, or facing exactly the same circumstances as he experienced.   And yet, we are all well acquainted with the opposition of the devil in all our service to the Lord, and we know the daily trials of life in serving the Lord.


You are living for Christ when you do your labour at work with righteous work ethics, not seeking selfish gain, when you render honest faithful service in love.   And you may face much opposition at work, but you continue to do all your labour for the Lord.

You are busy with kingdom work when you raise your children for Christ, and when you change their nappies.  

You are busy with kingdom work when you do your family’s washing.


The apostle Paul says for example that a widow has served well…


“…if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saint’s feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work.” – 1 Tim. 5: 10


Living for Christ and serving Him in His kingdom is often described with such examples which may be very common in the eyes of the world – raising children and washing the feet of the saints – but it is very highly rated in God’s eyes.


Yes, you are serving Christ with your hammer and saw as carpenter.   You serve Him with your hands as much as with your heart.  

As builder you are serving Him there on the building site mixing the concrete.  

You serve Him in your daily task as mother, as husband, as child, or in whatever situation He placed you, in whatever task He has given you.  

All of life belongs to Christ, and we serve Him in all our labour, and in all we think, say, and do.


And thus our text is not a slogan for ministers and missionaries only, but for each believer in his daily task: “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain”.


Brothers and sisters, we like to speak in a Christ centered way, and we like to hear Christ centered sermons, but in practice our life can easily become Christ plus something else.  

Christ plus my own ambitions and desires.  

Christ plus my own pleasure and leisure time.   Christ, plus all the attractive things this world offers.  

Christ, plus…my own life!  


However, we see how the apostle was willing that his life be poured out as a drink offering on the altar of serving the Lord, and how he gladly done so (also chapter 2: 17).

He was no longer seeking himself or his own ambition or his own profit, but lived for Christ only.

He did not pity himself for suffering so many trials, or for being in chains for so long, but gladly poured out his life in service of Christ, no matter the circumstance.


So much was he focused on living for Christ alone, that it could not bother him whether Caesar would throw him to the lions or not, whether he would be condemned to death, or set free.   In both cases Christ would be glorified, and he himself did not even know which he would choose: staying or departing.


The same apostle, in this very same epistle, also commands us:


“Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.” – Chapter 3: 17


Brothers and sisters, let us through faith in Christ live this confession.


Let us also teach our children, the covenant children of the Lord, what it means to belong to Christ both in life and in death, to live for Him alone and to seek His glory both in life and in death.


Yes, through faith in Christ this has become our personal confession: To me all of life is Christ alone.   And if I have to die for Christ, I count it gain.



* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mendel Retief, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright, Rev. Mendel Retief

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