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What did Paul mean when he wrote 'to live is Christ' (Philippians 1:21)?

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This verse, taken in its entirety, sums up Paul's approach to life and death. "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). Paul declares that the focus, the reason, for everything he does while alive on earth is to glorify Jesus and make Him known. He further states his anticipation of being with Jesus in heaven after he dies—gain.

"To live is Christ" clearly defines Paul, and should define all Christians. Of course we joyously await heaven, but our lives on earth are also wrapped up in Christ. Paul declared Jesus and His saving grace from the moment he met Him until he was martyred for his faith. He told of Jesus in synagogues, on riversides, in prison, before and after shipwrecks, and to disciples, passersby, governors, emperors, sailors, travelers, philosophers, priests, Jews, Gentiles, women, men, and prison guards. He intentionally determined he would pursue nothing else. "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Paul's life was bound up in Jesus—imitating Him, preaching Him, obeying Him, and making disciples of Him. He lived such a life in honor of Jesus that he could instruct others to follow his example: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1). He followed Christ in such a way that he could tell others to follow him. Can you?

To know Christ that well, to follow Him so closely, means that Paul studied Jesus' life, and spent time in prayer and in Scriptures to make himself more familiar with Him, and spent time with others who followed Jesus. Paul writes that he was singular in his pursuit of Christ-likeness, "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (Philippians 3:8–11).

It is difficult to live a life of such singularity. Paul compares this kind of life to a long run. When runners prepare for a long race, they don't add things to their load, they subtract them. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:1–2).

Our lives are lived for Christ, by His power, and abiding in Him (John 15). We will gain when we are with Him after death, but in our lives, we also experience tremendous gain. We live in His love, His grace, His comfort, His equipping, and His power (John 10:10; 2 Peter 1:3; Ephesians 1:3–14). We suffer much hardship, but know He has overcome (John 16:33). Jesus gives us the privilege of joining in His work. May we be good and faithful stewards who will one day hear our Master say, "Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master" (Matthew 25:21). May we, with Paul, be able to declare that "to live is Christ" (Philippians 1:21).

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