When Paul wrote Philippians, he was a prisoner in Rome. He was allowed to live in his own rented house, guarded by a soldier to whom he was bound by a light chain, and he welcomed all who visited him, preaching the kingdom of God to them and teaching them about the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 28:16-31). In fact, although he didn’t know whether he’d be acquitted or executed (Philippians 1:20; 2:17), he felt that his imprisonment was serving to advance, rather than to hinder, the gospel.
12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV.)
As Paul explains in the above passage, this advance was happening in two ways, through his contacts with his guards and others and through the encouragement that his imprisonment gave other Christians to witness more vigorously. Since his guards rotated every four hours, he had access to several of them. Also, his being chained to them forced them to listen to what he said and to observe what he did. Thus by the time that he wrote Philippians, he could claim that “it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.”
In the passage Paul distinguishes between two kinds of Christians whose witnessing was stimulated by his imprisonment, claiming that “some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.” Although describing both groups as “brothers,” he says that the first group preached with a wrong motive, rivalry, hoping to annoy him (perhaps they were leaders of the Roman church who were jealous of the attention that Paul got and wanted to outdo him) and that the second group preached “out of love,” likely meaning their love for him, knowing that he was in prison “for the defense of the gospel.” Whatever their motivation was, the important thing to Paul is that “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed,” and for that he rejoices.
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. 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.
“This will turn out for my deliverance” echoes Job 13:16 of the Greek Old Testament (translated “This will be my salvation” in the ESV), suggesting that Paul has Job’s experience in mind and like Job is looking forward to appearing before and being justified by God (Job 13:13-18). If so, he may have expected to be delivered by being executed and going before God. However, in view of what he says in verses 24-26, it’s more likely that he expected to be delivered by being released. He goes on to observe that his deliverance would come about through the prayers of the Philippians and the help of the Holy Spirit and that it would be in accordance with Paul’s earnest expectation and hope that he would not be ashamed but that Christ would be honored in Paul’s body whether he were released or executed.
“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” As Gordon D. Fee observes, Christ summed up for Paul “the whole range of his new relationship to God: personal devotion, commitment, service, the gospel, ministry, communion, inspiration, everything” (Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995, page 141). Later in the letter Paul would go so far as to describe all other things as rubbish compared with knowing Christ (3:8). On the other hand, he realized that if he were executed he would go to be with Christ. Thus after proclaiming “for me to live is Christ,” he asserts, “and to die is gain.”
Paul continues by expressing his personal thoughts about the prospects of life and death. Living would mean more fruitful labour as a missionary and dying would mean his going to be with Christ, and he doesn’t know which he would prefer. Personally he desires to depart and be with Christ, but he thinks that the Philippians’ need for him is more necessary. Thinking about the Philippians’ need for him results in Paul’s confidently asserting that he knows that he will be released and visit them again. The contrast between his certainty in verses 25-26 and his apparent uncertainty in verse 20 (”whether by life or by death”) has prompted various explanations, such as his receiving reassuring news or revelations between the passages. Whatever the reason for Paul’s change in spirit as he thought about his future, he became sure that he would be released and visit the Philippians resulting in their progress in the faith and causing their glorying in Christ.
“For me to live is _____, and to die is _____.” Only if we can fill in the blanks as Paul did–“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain”–are we going to be able to rejoice in spite of our circumstances and to share in advancing the gospel as he did.