Studies in Galatians, Ephesians and Philippians
18. Philippians 1:21-30 - The Gift of Suffering
Paul was in jail, considering the possibility that he might be killed because he had been preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. But he sees positive outcomes no matter what: “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (v. 21). Death can be “gain” for Paul only because he knows he will get more after death than he has in this life. He trusts his Savior for eternal life, so he uses this mortal life to serve his Savior. If he dies, he will be assured of a reward. If he lives, he can preach the gospel. Because his life is in Christ, and Christ is his priority, both possibilities are good. No wonder he rejoices!
“If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (vv. 22-23). If it were just for himself, Paul would rather die, escape his troubles and enjoy life with Christ. But he has an assignment to preach and teach, and he is convinced that he is not yet finished.
“Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me” (vv. 25-26). His work among the saints is to help them experience joy in their faith. His release from prison and his ministry among them will help the Philippians focus on Christ as their source of joy.
The gift of suffering
Paul then hints at troubles the Philippians themselves are facing. This may be why he mentioned the possibility of death, why he set an example of viewing death as gain, why he encouraged them to view everything through the lens of Christ. Whether in life or in death, their goal should also be to exalt Christ, to bring glory to him, to demonstrate that he is worthy of their trust.
“Whatever happens,” he writes, “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (v. 27). Their behavior should show that they trust in Christ even when threatened. “Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel” (v. 27). Imitate me, he seems to be saying. Face your trials just as I am facing mine — rejoicing in Christ, holding fast to the faith. And he urges unity, a point he will address again in later chapters.
Stand firm, he says, “without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved — and that by God” (v. 28). If the Philippian Christians keep their faith even when threatened with death, it will be evidence that they are thoroughly convinced of a glorious afterlife with Christ. This will exalt Christ, and might convince some people that they need the salvation that these saints so strongly believe in.
Paul then writes about a surprising gift: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have” (vv. 29-30).
Yes, they are to view their sufferings as a gift, as part of their faith in a crucified Savior. Just as the Philippians share grace with Paul (v. 7), they also share in persecutions. Yet they are to rejoice, for the sufferings are part of joining Jesus in his journey to glory, and these sufferings exalt Christ, showing him to be more valuable than all earthly comforts, more valuable than life itself. Whether they live or die, they have reason to rejoice, for they have Christ!
Author: Michael Morrison, PhD