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Having raised the possibility of execution, Paul sets out to explain his desire for Christ to be glorified even if the verdict were to go against him. Picking up on the final words of verse 20, he avows that since Christ is the singular passion of his life, he wins in either case, whether released or executed!
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.