What did Paul mean when he wrote 'to die is gain' (Philippians 1:21)?
In order to understand the meaning of the phrase "to die is gain" we will have to look at the surrounding context. When Paul wrote the book of Philippians, he was in prison. At the beginning of Philippians 1, he greets the Philippian church, expresses how much he prays and yearns for them, and says how he desires for them to increase in love, discernment, and the fruit of the Spirit (verses 1–11). He then addresses the fact that he is in prison and assures them that "what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel" because all of the prison guards know he is imprisoned for the sake of Christ and because it has given other believers greater boldness to share the gospel (verses 12–14).
Paul's only care is that the gospel is being shared (verses 15–18). By the time Paul was writing his letter to the Philippians, he had already experienced great persecution and suffering for the sake of Christ. He details his suffering in 2 Corinthians 11:16–33: beaten with rods; shipwrecked three times; imprisoned multiple times; surrounded by dangerous situations, such as betrayal, cold, and hunger, etc. Paul had been faithful to obey God and he had literally presented his body as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1) for the sake of Christ multiple times. He knew that whether in life or in death, he would bring glory and honor to God. This is why, when he gets to Philippians 1:20–21, he says, "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 honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."
"To die is gain" for two different reasons for Paul: first, he knew that God would receive honor through his death, and as someone so fully devoted to living for the honor of Christ, this would just be another way of doing so. And second, Paul's physical death would be a gain for him because it would mean his earthly days were finally finished and he could be with Jesus forever in eternity (Philippians 1:23).
Most Christians will not be persecuted in ways as extreme as Paul was, yet we still experience the desire to be with our Savior in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:8). This should never be an excuse for us to mentally check-out while here on earth and sit around waiting for heaven. We should be actively bringing honor and glory to God with our lives and staying engaged in advancing the kingdom of God here on the earth. Even in the midst of his desire to be with Christ, Paul acknowledged that there was still good he could do here on the earth for the Philippian church (Philippians 1:22–26). Just as Paul sought to honor God in all aspects of his life and stay engaged in his present work, so should we. Then, for all of us, to live will be Christ and to die will be gain.
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