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From reflection on the present, which is a cause for joy, Paul now turns to assess the future, which is also cause for joy. The passage comes in three parts, held together by the anticipation of his (apparently) soon-expected trial (vv. 19-20). Verses 19-20 offer the reason for his continuing joy--his earnest expectation that Christ will be magnified whatever the outcome (life [ released] or death [ executed]). Even though he has no real choice in the matter, in verses 21-24 he ponders the options of life and death. Paul's clear preference is death, since that means to gain the final prize--Christ himself (cf. 3:12-14). But he expects the outcome to be life--since that is what is best for the Philippians. Verses 25-26 then offer the end result of his being given life--your progress (cf. v. 12) and joy in the faith.
Although this reflection is far more personal than verses 12-18, even here the focus is still on Christ and the gospel. By a fresh supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ Paul expects his hope to be fulfilled, that Christ will be exalted whether Paul lives or dies; for to live means Christ and to die means to gain Christ. If he had a choice, he would choose death, because that would mean to be with Christ; but since he has no choice, life is the expected outcome, leading to his return to Philippi and their overflow of joy in Christ Jesus.
Most likely all of this is for the Philippians' sakes as well. As Paul's present joy is expressed in the face of conflict (some believers in Rome against him), so with his future joy, which will find expression in the face of external opposition--a point that will hopefully not be lost on the Philippians. For reasons not known to us, some of them have apparently lost their grip on future certainties (see on 1:6). Hence even this personal musing functions as paradigm. The future--the full realization of Christ--is a glorious prospect, Paul reassures them, even if it were to mean in his case to arrive there prematurely at the hands of others!
Again we see the three-way bond--between him, them and Christ--that informs every part of the letter. The present emphasis is on Paul's relationship with Christ (to live is Christ; hence his desire is to be with Christ); it concludes on the note of his relationship with them (they will glory in Christ on account of him when he comes to be with them), which has their relationship with Christ as its ultimate concern (their progress and joy in the faith).
All told this is one of the apostle's finer moments, a passage to which God's people have turned over and again to find strength and encouragement in times of difficulty. We all are the richer for it.
The following expanded translation is my own attempt to wade through the complexities and will serve as the basis for my comments: "for I know that through your prayers and God's supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ `this shall turn out [as with Job] to mean vindication for me,' which will also be in keeping with my earnest expectation and hope, namely, that in no way will I be brought to shame, but rather that with all openness/boldness--as always so now--Christ will be magnified in my `body,' whether I am released or executed."
The quotation from Job controls Paul's own concerns. It is a classic piece of what literary critics call "intertextuality," the conscious echoing of fragments from an earlier text in a later one, refitting the borrowed language into the author's own setting. Job 13 contains one of Job's more poignant speeches, where he repudiates the perspective of his "comforters," who insist that his present situation is the result of hidden sin. Job knows better and pleads his cause with God, in whom he hopes and before whom he affirms his innocence. Indeed, the very hope of appearing before God in this way would be his "salvation," because the godless shall not come before God (Job 13:16). And "salvation" for Job means "I know I will be vindicated" (v. 18). So with Paul, but in quite different circumstances.
Our difficulties stem from the LXX translator's use of soteria ("salvation") to express what Job could expect from God were he to appear before him. In every other instance in Paul soteria denotes eschatological salvation, that is, God's final salvation of his people already brought present through Christ and the Spirit. But here it is controlled in part by its sense in Job, which has to do neither with final salvation nor with deliverance from prison (although Paul clearly expects the latter). Rather Paul's concern is altogether on Christ's being magnified, however the trial turns out. Christ's being thus magnified would be Paul's vindication (not to mention his gospel's). In its own way such vindication by God would thus mean "salvation" for him as well.
He expects this to happen through the combination of the Philippians' prayers for him and God's gracious fresh provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Rather than help given by the Spirit (NIV), although it finally comes to that, the Spirit is what will be supplied in response to their prayers. The Spirit is further identified as the Spirit of Jesus Christ, one of three such instances in Paul (see Rom 8:9; Gal 4:6). Thus Christ will be exalted at Paul's trial through Paul's having been filled afresh with the Spirit of God, who is at the same time the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
The problem some have with this (how can one who has already received the Spirit receive him again?) is of our own theological making, not Paul's. Paul's concern lies with the ongoing, dynamically empowering work of the Spirit in his life (not to mention that of other believers; see Eph 5:18). Language fails him at this point, not because he had received the Spirit only partially at the beginning but because the Spirit was an experienced reality for him. Paul's language points to the freshness of the experienced reality, precisely so that Christ will be magnified through Paul at his trial. God thus supplies the Spirit to him who already has the Spirit in the sense of his receiving a fresh anointing of the Spirit so as to proclaim Christ more boldly still and so to magnify him.
Such vindication/salvation, Paul goes on (v. 20), is quite in keeping with what I eagerly expect and hope, which is then spelled out in the rest of the sentence. What follows also echoes the Old Testament, but in a less specific way. In biblical Greek "shame" has little to do with being ashamed ( inner feelings resulting in a red face) but with the utter disgrace that one will experience from failing to trust God--or more often, the disgrace that the humble who do trust will not experience, despite present appearances to the contrary. Paul's present usage appears to be echoing this motif from the Psalms, where the same words ("shame" and "be exalted") often stand together in the same passage (e.g., Ps 34:3-5; 35:26-27).
As verses 12-18 have made clear, Paul is experiencing no "shame" from being in prison; his present concern is that there will be no disgrace to the gospel when he finally stands before the Roman tribunal. Such disgrace, of course, is not what he expects, given their prayers and the supply of the Spirit of Christ. On the contrary, he expects the Spirit of Christ to "magnify Christ" with "all openness" (or boldness; NIV sufficient courage). This word suggests that in a very open and public way Christ will receive honor through Paul's bold defense of the gospel, however the trial turns out.
He wants this to happen now as always. This is the phrase that justifies our speaking of his apparently soon coming trial. Paul has always considered his life as in praise of Christ (as always), for which his rejoicing in verses 12-18 over the advance of the gospel resulting from his imprisonment offers a prime example. The now signifies that Paul, very well aware of his present situation, is looking forward to its resolution.
This hoped-for glorification of Christ will take place in my body, referring to what happens to Paul physically. Depending on the results of the trial, the options are life and death. Life refers to being set free, death to his possible execution. Even though Paul expects a favorable outcome, there is always the possibility that it might go against him. That, of course, would hasten Paul's eschatological salvation/vindication before the heavenly tribunal. But for now, his singular hope is that Christ--and thus the gospel--will be vindicated through his life or death.
The striking words "to live, Christ [Christos]; to die, gain [kerdos]" epitomize Paul's life since Damascus. Once Paul was apprehended by Christ Jesus (3:12), Christ became the singular pursuit of his life. Christ--crucified, exalted Lord, present by the Spirit, coming King; Christ, the name that sums up for Paul the whole range of his new relationship to God: personal devotion, commitment, service, the gospel, ministry, communion, inspiration, everything. Much of what this means will be spelled out in his story in 3:4-14. Such singular focus does not make Paul otherworldly; rather, it gives heart and meaning to everything he is and does as a citizen of two worlds, his heavenly citizenship determining his earthly.
Thus if Paul is released as he expects, he will continue (now as always) in full pursuit of knowing Christ and making him known. Likewise, if he is executed, the goal of living has thus been reached: he will finally have gained Christ. The reason for this unusual way of putting it--the word kerdos ordinarily denotes "profit"--lies in the assonance (Christos/kerdos); the sense lies in Paul's understanding death to be the ultimate "gaining" of his lifelong passion. This expresses not a death wish, nor dissatisfaction with life, nor desire to be done with troubles and trials; it is the forthright assessment of one whose immediate future is somewhat uncertain but whose ultimate future is both certain and to be desired. Death, after all, because it is "ours" in Christ Jesus (1 Cor 3:22), has lost its sting (1 Cor 15:55). Such a statement, of course, has meaning only for one to whom the first clause is a vibrant, living reality. Otherwise death is loss, or "gain" only in the sense of escape. Paul will pick up the metaphor of gain/profit again in 3:7-8 and there play it for all its worth.
Verse 22 is a clear follow-up to verse 21. Picking up on the first clause (to live is Christ), Paul assesses what its outcome will mean for him in the body (literally "flesh"), namely, fruitful labor. But rather than follow that up with a similar sentence ("if it means death"), he jumps ahead to reflect on what he might do if he in fact had a real choice in the matter. "I simply cannot say," he says; indeed, I am torn between the two, since it means Christ in either case.
The tension arises between Paul's "on earth" passion of serving Christ on behalf of others ( fruitful labor) and his personal desire finally to be with Christ "in heaven." After all, all of present life is given to "knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (3:8) while at the same time pressing "toward the goal of winning the prize" of knowing him finally and completely (3:14).
Thus for Paul personally, to depart and be with Christ . . . is better by far. But what he understands by this is not fully clear, so this is a clause around which considerable theological ferment has boiled. At issue is the question of consciousness, for which in Paul we have no direct evidence one way or the other. On the one hand he uses the metaphor of sleep for Christians who have died; on the other hand the implication of a passage like this is that he expects to be consciously with Christ--since depart ( leave the body) and remain in the body and the strong feelings expressed in these sentences make very little sense otherwise.
That such a view exists in some tension with belief in a future bodily resurrection is probably to be resolved in terms of the inherent tension between the "spatial" and "temporal" elements in Paul's eschatology. His present existence "in Christ" makes it unthinkable that he would ever--even at death--be in a "place" where he was not with Christ. Hence death means heaven now (the "spatial" dimension). At the same time, a person's death does not usher him or her into "timeless" existence; the bodily resurrection still awaits one "at the end" (the "temporal" dimension).
Ultimately this matter lies in the area of mystery. At issue is the interplay between time and eternity involved in the implied period of time between death and resurrection. From our human perspective, earthbound and therefore timebound as we are, we cannot imagine timeless existence; yet from the perspective of eternity/infinity these may very well be collapsed into a single "moment," as it were.
In any case, Paul understood death as a means into the Lord's immediate presence, which for him and countless thousands after him has been a comforting and encouraging prospect. Very likely he also expected such gain to include consciousness, and for most believers that too has been a matter of encouragement--although such a conclusion goes beyond the certain evidence we possess from Paul himself.
The final sentence (vv. 25-26) serves as the transition from "my affairs" (v. 12) to "your affairs" (v. 27). The sentence is in two clauses. In verse 25 Paul picks up his conviction from verse 24 and offers the first, more immediate reason for his release: it is for the Philippians' progress and joy in the faith. In verse 26 he offers the ultimate reason: that his release and coming to them will cause their "boasting" (NIV joy) in Christ Jesus to overflow.
The two words progress and joy together summarize his concerns for them in this letter. The first refers to the quality or character of their life in Christ, and especially to their "advancing," moving forward, in such; the second denotes the quality of their experience of it. And both of these are with regard to the faith, which may refer to their own faith in Christ, as in 2:17, but in this context more likely refers to the gospel itself, as in 1:27.
Such progress regarding the faith will manifest itself as their love for one another increases (1:10; 2:2), as in humility they consider the needs of others ahead of their own (2:3-4), as they "do everything without complaining or arguing" (2:14) and as they keep focused on the eschatological prize (3:14-21). This is what it means for them to "continue to work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling" (2:12).
If the first reason Paul is convinced that he will continue with all of you focuses on the Philippians themselves, the ultimate reason for all of this (his release and their progress) is expressed in terms of how it affects Christ (v. 26). Here the three-way bond that holds the letter together is in full evidence. Thus (literally) "your grounds for glorying will overflow in Christ Jesus in me." The occasion of Paul's coming to them again will cause their "glorying/boasting" to overflow, and all of this takes place in Christ Jesus. This is how Christ's being glorified by life (v. 20) is to find fulfillment.
The word kauchema (NIV joy) is especially difficult to render into English. Although it can lean toward "joy," there is no reason to think it here means other than what it ordinarily means in Paul's writings, to "boast" or "glory" in someone. But "boast" is full of pejorative connotations in English--which it can also carry in Paul when one's boasting is wrongly placed. Paul's usage comes directly out of the Septuagint (LXX), especially from Jeremiah 9:23-24, where the truly wise person boasts not in wisdom, might or wealth but in the Lord, which is based on understanding and knowing God's character. "Boast," therefore, does not mean to "brag about" or to "be conceited"; rather, it has to do first with putting one's full trust or confidence in something or someone and thus, second, in "glorying" in that something or someone. Hence a false "boast" (in the flesh; 3:3-6) lies at the heart of Paul's understanding of sin, whereas its opposite, "boasting/glorying in the Lord," is the ultimate evidence of genuine conversion. In cases such as this one, where the boast is "in" someone, the boast is still in Christ. What he has done in and for Paul serves both as the ground for the Philippians' glorying in Christ and the sphere in which such boasting overflows. In 2:16 they in turn will be Paul's "boast" on the day of the Lord.
Such an overflow of glorying on their part will be the direct result of the other bond--between him and them--that permeates the letter. In this case it finds expression in Paul's coming to be with them yet once more. Thus this sentence (vv. 25-26) looks beyond the present moment to the time of their joyful reunion; but there is also an "in the meantime" that concerns Paul very much, which is what he now turns to address in verse 27 (through to 2:18).
We should note, finally, that even though this larger section (vv. 18-26) begins and ends on the note of joy and of Christ's being glorified, verses 21-23 hold the key to everything, both to this letter and to Paul's life as a whole. Paul's saying For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain puts everything into focus for us, as far as our understanding the apostle is concerned. It seems clear that this is what he also desires for the Philippians--and for us as well. Both our progress and that of the gospel depends on whether such a maxim characterizes our individual and corporate lives.
The Philippians' problem--and ours--is the strong tendency to speak thus but in effect to live otherwise. One wonders what the people of God might truly be like in our postmodern world if we were once again people of this singular passion. Too often for us it is "For me to live is Christ, plus other pursuits" (work, leisure, accumulating wealth, relationships, etc.). And if the truth were known, all too often the "plus factor" has become our primary passion: "For me to live is my work." Both our progress and our joy regarding the gospel are altogether contingent on whether Christ is our primary, singular passion. This is surely an infinitely greater option than the self-gratification that dominates the culture within which this commentary has been written.
Moreover, to die is gain expresses, in relationship to Christ, the thoroughgoing eschatological orientation of Paul's existence. Here too the contemporary church has tended to lose too much. In a world that has lost its way, believers in Christ Jesus have the singular word of hope. We expect eventually to depart and be with Christ. For Paul this was a yearning; for us it is too often an addendum. The point to make, of course, is that such an orientation gives us both focus and perspective in a world gone mad.
The Present: Paul's Imprisonment Advances the Gospel
The Philippians' Affairs: Exhortation to Steadfastness and Unity
About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.