Have you ever heard of this word before? What do you think it might mean?
Thanatophobia: An intense fear of death and dying
Thanatophobia is the intense fear of death, to the point one can no longer function in their daily lives. While you may not have Thanatophobia, the fear of death has spawned many ideas throughout history of how to cheat death. Ponce de Leon searched for the fountain of youth. A number of Chinese Emperors died from taking elixirs seeking to live longer. Other rulers received blood transfusions from younger people while apothecaries in Europe used to sell powder that supposedly came from Egyptian mummies. All of this was done to avoid death.
The fear of death is common, but in these verses we will see how Paul viewed death in a different way. His longing to be in the presence of Christ was so strong that he looked forward to death even more than life itself. As Christians we have much to learn and benefit from as we listen to God speak through Paul´s words on this subject.
Remember that these verses that we will now read are a portion of a letter that the Apostle Paul was writing to the church in Philippi which he had help start 10 years before. Also note that Paul at this time was writing from a prison cell in Rome.
In Philippians 1:19-20 we read,
Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as 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.
In the previous verses Paul had spoken of his joy even in the midst of imprisonment and others coming against him. Now he continues to rejoice, confident that because of the Philippians´ prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, that his present situation will end in his deliverance. This should be our confidence, too. God has chosen to work in our world through His people as they pray. Paul had experienced the power of prayer and had seen the power of the Holy Spirit work miraculously so many times, that Paul had full confidence that God would work in the midst of his situation and that he would be delivered. Paul was confident of God´s working, even though he was unsure what God´s deliverance would look like.
It is Paul´s eager expectation and hope that he will not be ashamed, but with full courage will honor Christ in his body. He rejoices with full confidence that because of their prayers and the Spirit´s working that he will face whatever is to come without shame, but with full courage and that Christ will be honored. . . in his life or in his death.
His confidence was not in his strength, his intelligence, or his ability to somehow find a solution. Paul´s confidence was in the prayers of the believers and in the Spirit of Christ who dwelt within him.
It is like a racehorse wearing its blinders that only allow him to look straight ahead. Paul is locked in on one source of hope, one mission, to honor Christ. His source of trust and hope is no longer up for debate. With his whole being he is convinced and committed to God´s faithfulness and goodness, regardless of what happens. In the midst of his suffering his hope is that when life is at its toughest, he will not bring shame to Christ, but instead will be given the courage that will be required to honor Christ.
How do you think you will respond if serious persecution ever comes against us? Some may proclaim loudly, like Simon Peter did during the last supper, “I will never deny Christ! but do we really know? Our confidence is that if and when persecution comes, that by the grace of God, He will provide us with the courage, peace, faith and wisdom that we will need to stand and still honor Him in the midst of intense pressure. In that moment, when we seek to honor Christ, our confidence is that His grace will be there, sufficient to uphold us.
Verse 20 then ends with Paul´s desire to honor Christ, in his body, whether by life or death. Paul has already stated his confidence that he will be delivered. Now we see that Paul will allow God to define what deliverance means. Paul is confident in God´s sovereign will. He does not know if it will require life or death, but he is at peace with whatever happens. God is in control. Paul knows that God will bring deliverance one way or another and Paul longs to honor God in the midst of it.
Paul then goes on to explain his comment about life or death.
21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. Philippians1:21-26
This is a passage of worship. It reveals Paul´s ultimate desire. We see here that God has pruned Paul of all lesser desires and left him with a complete longing to be in the presence of Christ. In life or in death Paul´s longing is to bring God glory as he serves Christ wholeheartedly and waits for eternity.
His life is no longer his own. He longs for the ultimate reward, to be in the presence of Christ, but if that must be delayed so that He might serve His king a little longer then glory to God. That is how Paul can say, “For me to live is Christ, and to Die is gain.”
When Paul says, “For me to live is Christ” he meant Christ had become his everything. Christ now lived in him and he in Christ. He longed to live for Christ, follow Christ, love like Christ, and have the mind of Christ. Whether in word or deed he sought to bring glory to Christ and point people towards Him.
For Paul to live meant He would live every day fully devoted to Christ. Practically speaking that meant that if Paul was able to live through this situation he would be able to continue in the ministry working alongside the Philippians and so many other early Christians and young churches that he had begun.
The other option was “for me to die is gain.” This is not how we usually view death. We are usually deeply saddened at the end of one´s earthly life. We fear death, run from death, despise the thought of death, but as Christians we should long for heaven. That is when we will finally be ushered into the presence of Christ, our ultimate reward.
Our longing for earth and our despising of heaven reveals how much we don´t understand. It exposes a heart whose love is misdirected and whose hope is misplaced. As mentioned before, this life is meant to cause us to long for the next. This world is not our home. We were created for so much more.
That is what had happened in Paul’s life. In his early years Paul had known the success and respect of being a young Pharisee in Jerusalem, but now that he knew Christ, the things of the world had become increasingly fleeting and empty to him and now the precious presence of Christ was all that he longed for.
Paul´s phrase, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” would have created a very vivid image in the mind of the Philippians. It was the words for striking camp, taking down your tents, pulling up your tent stakes, and continuing on. These words were also used for untying the ropes that held a boat to the dock or pulling up the anchor when at sea. Paul now realized that this world was not his home. He was just passing through.
“We are Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20). We are His representatives, but we are not citizens of this world (Philippians3:20). We are just passing through. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” and only there will our deepest longings be fully realized. This is how the apostle Paul can say in Philippians 3:7-9, “Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” With this mindset even death itself was a welcomed friend.
In James 4:13-14, James calls this life a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. He knows that this life is only the beginning. This life is only the introduction for what we were truly created for. We were created for something so much more than paying rent, keeping a job, using social media, or a thousand other things that we spend our time doing. Do what life requires, but never forget that this is only the beginning.
Living with an eye on heaven allows us to face death knowing that it is not the end, but only the beginning. We know that heaven awaits all who have chosen to follow Jesus Christ. We mourn, but not as those who have no hope. When a friend or family member dies who is in the faith, we are saddened for ourselves, but we celebrate for the deceased who are now in the presence of Christ.
We each were dead in sin, but at salvation we were brought into a newness of life in Christ. Because of this, when we die, our body stops functioning, but our soul and our Spirit continue to live as they enter directly into heaven. Because of this our eternal life has already begun. Eternal life does not start after death, it started the very moment that one put their faith in Jesus Christ.
This was the reality that held Paul´s heart. He was alive in Christ and nothing, not even martyrdom, could stop the eternal life that he already possessed in Christ. That was the reason for his joy and his deliverance. He longed for the day that he would be in the presence of His Savior and He knew that nothing, not even death could keep him from this final reward.
Paul then continued with these words in Philippians 1:27-30
27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Letting your “manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” is not just having the correct theology or being the person in your Bible study group who knows all the answers, or being able to pray eloquent prayers in public. It is a person in whom the truths of the gospel are governing their daily lives. It is the person who day by day is growing in likeness to Christ in her nature, character and attributes. It is beyond rightly knowing and has overflowed into right living.
It is a life whose depth, values and purpose are a grateful response to the Son of God who descended from heaven, taking on the form of a man, and willingly laid down his life on a Roman cross so that our debt of sin could be paid. One example that comes to mind is a scene from the 1998 movie, “Saving Private Ryan.”
It tells of a true story of a family who had 5 sons who fought in World War II. Four of the sons were killed in battle, so the U.S. government sent a group of soldiers to find the fifth son and return him home safely, because surely no family should lose all five sons to war.
The movie follows this group of soldiers who finally find the fifth son. They eventually are caught in a battle that costs most of them their lives while saving this one young man. In one of the closing scenes the captain of this group of soldiers is mortally wounded and is about to die. He draws the fifth son close to himself and whispers in his final words, “earn this.” In reality the captain was saying we have given our lives for yours, live a life worthy of our sacrifice.
This is similar in meaning to Paul´s words here when he says, “to live in a worthy manner of the Lord.” Christ came and took upon Himself our sins, and died in our place so that we could receive the righteousness of God. May we live a life worthy of the gospel.
It is interesting to see that the words “you” in this paragraph are all plural. Paul was not only turning their attention to their individual spiritual lives, Paul was seeking that their entire church, together, would live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. As this was accomplished the result would be that they would be able to stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.
When the gospel is deeply ingrained in the life of a church their identity in Christ crowds out feelings of offense, insecurity and competition. Unity is strengthened as they focus together on kingdom work instead of their own individual spiritual agendas. Living in the reality of the gospel truths binds us together.
As the Philippians stood together in the truths of the gospel this would help them not to be frightened by their opponents. We know nothing more about the “opponents” but whether it be persecution by Romans, false teachers, or those who were rivals of Paul, their unity in the gospel would give them the strength to not fear.
Their opponents would see this surprising courage and strength and it would be a sign of the opponent´s destruction and the salvation of the saints. Paul was continuing to talk in a plural “you.” It would be their combined courage that would perplex their opponents.
Paul encouraged them in this way, confident that suffering would be part of their lives as they walked in commitment to the gospel, longing to be in the presence of God. A love for this world would give the fear of suffering great power over one´s life, but with one´s eyes on eternity the present suffering in this life would viewed as the passing struggle that it is. As the hymn says, “turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in His wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.”
As we think back through this passage may we take the time to evaluate our love for this world and the strength of our desire to be in the presence of Christ. For now, may these verses be a goal we consider and seek to take hold of as we grow in our faith. May we feed our desires for God and starve out our desires for the world. May our longing for Christ only grow as we move towards that day when we finally pass from this life to the next.
As we close, I would like you to consider the following.
I realize that the Apostle Paul’s way of viewing life is so different than the way that we often look at life, but that is why community is so important. I was reminded of this truth several years ago. I knew someone who was participating in the Iron-Man Triathlon up in the Woodlands, so we attended the race to cheer them on.
Now you must realize that an Iron-man triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim in open water, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26 mile marathon run, back to back to back. For most of us mere mortals this in unthinkable. How is this even possible? And why would anyone even want to subject themselves to this much pain? But that is what they do.
I remember starting that day thinking that the Ironman triathlon did not even make sense, but once we arrived and I started to walk amongst the 3000 men and women athletes of different ages, different sizes, the impossible became possible. The irrational became rational. The illogical became logical.
That is the power of community. That is one of the reasons why Paul was using the plural. As we as a church begin to let go of the things of the world and begin to nurture our love for Christ, the ways of Christ become possible. The lifestyle of Christ becomes possible. The purpose of Christ becomes possible. Our longing for heaven becomes possible. But we cannot do it alone. Together, by the grace of God, may we join in saying ¨To live is Christ and to Die is Gain.”