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Although verse 24 is grammatically part of verse 23 (remain is in contrast to depart), with these words Paul first of all returns to what he began in verse 22 (to live in the body means fruitful labor). Paul clearly expects to remain in the body, precisely because that is more necessary for you. How so is what he takes up in the concluding sentence (vv. 25-26). In the end he yields to "divine necessity," which is also a way of saying that God's choice in this matter means that Paul's dilemma was purely hypothetical after all.
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.