The Life That Wins
September 27, 1998
This week I was browsing through my library and happened upon a book that I purchased 16 years ago called The University of Success, edited by a man named Og Mandino. As I flipped through the pages, I came to a discussion of the universal qualities of successful people. I was struck with the statement that all successful people have a clear purpose in life. They have a compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning—and that driving purpose keeps them on track and makes them ultimately successful. The writer also points out that without a clear purpose no one can be considered successful no matter how much worldly fame he may achieve.
By that standard I suppose that the Apostle Paul might be considered the most successful person who ever lived—outside of Jesus Christ. He had a purpose so clear, so definite, and so profound that it permeated everything he said and did and gave him hope in the darkest moments of life. Our text might be called Paul’s Secret of Success or Paul’s Purpose in Life because it reveals the driving sense of value that kept him on course even in a Roman jail.
“To Me to Live is _________________.”
If you want Paul’s secret of success in just one sentence, here it is from Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Many of us learned this verse as children in Sunday School. We’ve heard it and recited it and memorized it over and over again. And well that we should. This verse reveals why Paul did what he did, why he said what he said, and how he found the strength to endure incredible hardship.
Before going on, let’s take a little quiz. How would you complete the following sentence? “For to me to live is ________________.” What word or phrase would you put in the blank? If your name is Michael Jordan, the word is “basketball.” If you are Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa, you might say “home runs.” If your name is Bill Gates, the word might be “Microsoft.” If you are a parent, the word might be “children.” A politician might say “winning the election.” A lawyer might say “winning the big case.” If you are in high school, you might say “going to Homecoming.” The list of possibilities is endless. It could be fun or school or sex or entertainment or money or college or career or winning the big game.
Don’t miss the point. No one leaves that sentence blank. Everyone finishes it with something. If you don’t fill the blank with Christ, what do you put there?
In this world there are winners and losers. A winner is a person with a positive, noble philosophy of life. A loser is a person with an unworthy purpose—or no purpose at all. Which are you—a winner or a loser? Philippians 1:19-26 contains a winner’s philosophy of life. It is remarkable because it was written by a man in a Roman jail chained to a soldier 24 hours a day. He is on trial for his life with no certainty that he will ever be set free.
As we go through this passage together, I challenge you to compare your philosophy of life with Paul’s. Let see how they stack up together.
I. Paul’s Confidence
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death (Philippians 1:18b-20).
When I read these words, one question comes to mind. How could Paul be so happy? After all, he’s in jail in Rome awaiting trial before Caesar. He didn’t know what would happen next. Yet he says, “I will continue to rejoice.” Perhaps you read these verses and think that the phrase “my deliverance” means that he expected to be released. But that’s not what he means. He’s not thinking about getting out of jail, but about God vindicating him—whether in chains or as a free man. The Living Bible offers this helpful paraphrase: “This is all going to turn out for my good.”
He says that he is depending on two things: 1) The prayers of his friends, and 2) the work of the Holy Spirit on his behalf. From verse 20 we learn the content of his prayers:
A. That he might never do anything that would bring him shame.
B. That he might never lose his courage.
C. That he might always magnify Christ Jesus.
Note the last phrase: “Whether by life or by death.” Here is the key to his amazing success: He wasn’t afraid to die. Could you say the same thing? So many of us worry about the future and about what might happen to us in some accident or through cancer or some other dreaded disease. Of all the fears that grip the heart of modern man, none is greater than the fear of death.
Yet somehow Paul has been completely delivered from inner dread over what might happen tomorrow. He has come to the place where he can say, “The only thing that matters is that Christ be magnified in my life. And it doesn’t matter whether I live or die as long as Christ is magnified.”
Five Missionary Martyrs
Consider the positive results of losing your fear of death. When you can say, “I am not afraid to die,” you are …
1. Free to focus on the things that really matter.
2. Indifferent to your own personal fate.
3. Utterly consumed with doing God’s will.
Do you recognize these names? Nate Saint … Roger Youderian … Ed McCully … Peter Fleming … Jim Elliot. In 1955 these five young men (all under the age of 35) gathered in Ecuador with a vision of reaching a tribe of Indians called the Aucas (the word means “savage,” a name given to them by other tribes) who lived deep in the rain forest. No one had ever presented the gospel to them. These five missionaries—all highly trained and deeply devoted to God—began praying about ways to make contact. In September they began flying over an Auca village, lowering a pot containing gifts for the Indians. Eventually the Aucas took the gifts and replaced them with simple gifts of their own.
In January 1956, the five men decided the time had come to make contact in person. After much prayer they established a base camp on a sandy beach of the Curaray River. On January 8, 1956—at about 3:30 PM, they were speared to death by the Indians who mistakenly thought they had come to hurt them. The news shocked the world. Many people wondered how young men with so much promise could waste their lives that way. When the journals of Jim Elliot were published several years later, they were found to contain this sentence: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
The Apostle Paul would agree. Once you decide that your life won’t last forever, you are free to invest it in a cause greater than yourself. You give up what you can’t keep so that in the end you gain what you can never lose. This is what Paul meant when he said, “Whether by life or death.”
II. Paul’s Confession
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Here is Paul’s personal mission statement. Get this and you’ll understand how Paul could “turn the world upside down” wherever he went. When James Montgomery Boice came to this verse in his exposition of Philippians, he commented that it is really a definition of what a Christian is. A Christian understands that Christ is his life—and that dying is gain.
Consider the phrase “to live is Christ.” What does it mean? F. B. Meyer said that Christ is “the essence of our life … the model of our life … the aim of our life … the solace of our life … the reward of our life.” Think of the prepositions that express relationship. We live in Christ … for Christ … by Christ … through Christ … and from Christ. He is the beginning, the middle and the end of life. He is truly the Alpha and Omega, the A and Z, and every letter in between.
Here are three statements to ponder:
A. Christ is life.
B. Christ transforms life.
C. Christ transcends life.
How did Paul survive and thrive in a Roman jail? Philippians 1:21 gives Paul’s answer: “Life is wonderful … and it’s gonna get better.” The word “gain” is a monetary term that means to make a profit on an investment. Instead of complaining about being in jail, he rejoices that even in chains, he has experienced the power of Jesus Christ in his life. And when he dies, his current wonderful life will get even better.
How could Paul say such things? It’s because for Paul death didn’t put him in a cemetery; it ushered him into a sanctuary. He knew that he would enter the presence of Christ at the moment of his death. That would truly be “gain” for him.
Shelled Out and Gone Home to God
Many who read Philippians 1 wonder how death can be a “gain” for anyone. In his sermon on this text Alexander MacLaren gives the following answers:
1. We lose everything we don’t need—We lose the world, the flesh, and the devil. We lose our trials, our troubles, our tears, our fears, and our weaknesses.
2. We keep everything that matters—We keep our personality, our identity, and our knowledge of all that is good.
3. We gain what we never had before—We gain heaven, the saints, the angels, the presence of God, and Jesus himself.
Although I have never seen it, I have been told there is a headstone in a cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama, which reads:
Under the clover, and Under the trees
Here lies the body of Jonathan Pease.
Pease ain’t here, only the pod,
Pease shelled out and went home to God.
Do you fear death? You shouldn’t if you are a Christian. Death is the vehicle that takes us home to God. As I was preparing this sermon, I ran across a most encouraging thought: “A Christian is immortal until his work on earth is done.” Think about that for a moment. Death cannot touch you until God is through with you. You cannot die, and you will not die, until the appointed moment comes that God has ordained. If God is God, you will live as long as the Lord intends, and then you will go home to heaven. In that sense, every Christian life is always complete. I know that it doesn’t always look that way when we stand by the grave of a young person who died before reaching the prime of life. Truly the death of the young brings many questions that only God can answer. But this much is true. If a young person dies in the Christian faith, that young person has completed the life God intended for him. What seems to be a mistake to us is no mistake in God’s divine plan.
“You Can’t Threaten Me With Heaven”
When Pontius Pilate saw that Jesus would not answer him, he said, “Don’t you know I have the power to put you to death?” To which Jesus replied, “You have no power except that given to you by God” (see John 19:8-11). A few hours later Jesus cried out “It is finished” (John 19:30). He did not say, “I am finished,” but “It is finished,” meaning that he had completed the work God had given him to do. He knew that he could not die and would not die before God’s appointed time.
In the same way the Apostle Paul said in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have finished the race.” He knew that his death—the time and place and circumstances of it—was in God’s hands.
Many years ago—perhaps 70 years ago—the great Southern evangelist John R. Rice preached in Waxahachie, Texas, just south of Dallas. As was his custom, Dr. Rice preached hard against sin, especially against the bootleggers bringing illegal liquor into that small Texas town. Eventually the powers that be decided that this pesky evangelist must be silenced. They sent a message to stop preaching or they would kill him. “You can’t threaten me with heaven,” he replied.
Let me make two applications based on Philippians 1:21. First, there is no such thing as an untimely death for a child of God. It may sometimes seem that way, especially in the death of the young, but that is only because we cannot see things from God’s point of view. Second, our only task in life is to do God’s will until the moment God calls us to heaven. Since we can’t know the future, it is useless to waste our days worrying about when or how or where we will die. Best to leave that in God’s hands and to spend our energies in the cause of Christ and in the doing of God’s will day by day.
III. Paul’s Conflict
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 (Philippians 1:22-23).
Some people want to die because they hate this life. Paul was ready and willing to die because he looked forward to life with Christ in heaven. For him death would be like a ship pulling up anchor and sailing out of the harbor toward a new destination. It would be like an army breaking camp, striking the tents, and moving to a new location. Paul understood that for the Christian death is nothing more than a change of address.
In the meantime he was willing to remain if he could make a difference in the lives of other people. It was Henry James who declared that “the best use for your life is to invest it in something that will outlast it.” Too many people invest their time and energy in things that won’t last two weeks or two years, much less outlast their earthly life.
Remember that only two things will last forever: The Word of God and people. Everything else vanishes away. If you want your life to count, then build it around those two things.
IV. Paul’s Conviction
But it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 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 (Philippians 1:24-26).
In the end Paul concluded that he wouldn’t die just yet, but would be spared so that he could minister to the Philippians. Even though he preferred to die so that he could see Christ, he put aside his own preferences for the good of others.
Here are three positive benefits that would accrue to Paul by postponing his own death:
A. He would experience Christ in his life.—v 21
B. He would have fruitful labor to perform.—v. 22
C. He could help the Philippians grow spiritually.—v. 24-26
Paul is saying, “I can’t lose either way!”
If I die … Gain for me!
If I live … Gain for you!
How do you stop a man like that? You can’t! Go ahead and kill him. He’ll die with a smile on his face. Put him in prison. He’ll preach to the guards. Put him in jail at midnight and he’ll start singing, Amazing Grace. Run him out of town. He’ll just go down the road and start a church in the next village. Stone him and he’ll use the rocks to build a sanctuary.
Several weeks ago I was watching television and happened to catch an interview with comedian Alan King. He has been on the circuit for decades and is well over 70 years old. The interviewer asked how he maintains such an optimistic attitude. His answer was humorous and profound. “I figure as long as I’m on the right side of the grass, I’ve got nothing to complain about.” That’s true, but it’s not complete. For Paul, either side was okay. If he was above the grass, he would minister to many people. If he was below the grass, he’d be in heaven with Jesus. Such a deal!
Was it Worth It?
And that brings us back to the five young men who gave their lives reaching the Auca Indians in 1956. At the time it seemed to be a tragedy with no redeeming purpose. What has happened as a result? Within a few years over 1000 new missionaries went to the field as a result of their martyrdom. Soon the Indian Bible schools in Ecuador were filled to overflowing with native believers desiring to learn God’s Word. Rachel Saint and Elizabeth Elliot (widows of Nate Saint and Jim Elliot) moved into an Auca village to begin the process of Bible translation. Nine years later two of the Aucas who helped kill the five missionaries had come to Christ and baptized Kathy and Steve Saint—daughter and son of Nate Saint. A flourishing church was established among the Aucas and other neighboring tribes. In 1995 Steve Saint moved back among the Aucas to live with them—at their request.
After one of the services on Sunday a young couple came up to greet me. Rob and Kim Skinner have answered God’s call to serve with radio station HCJB in Quito, Ecuador. Kim was crying as she spoke because the story of the five martyrs has played a big part in her life. When she read the story many years ago, God planted within her heart a desire to be a missionary. Soon she and Rob and their children will be going to the same country where the five missionaries died in 1956.
The story goes on and on. This is no doubt part of the “fruit” Paul speaks about in our text. Truly the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Those men had no idea of the thousands of lives they would touch by their death on a sandy beach in a remote jungle. They only knew that God had called them to the Aucas, and they must obey.
Let us suppose that we could speak to those five men today and ask them, Was it worth it? What do you think they would say? I think I know their answer. It is the same as the answer given by Paul: “Our only desire is to magnify Christ and to reach the world for him. Whether we do that by life or by death makes no difference to us.”
Cannibals or Worms?
One final story and I am done. In 1858 a young man named John G. Paton felt called of God to leave his ministry in Glasgow, Scotland, to go as a missionary to the New Hebrides islands in the South Pacific. In those days missionary ventures were greeted with disdain and opposition—in part because of the great danger attendant to preaching the gospel to people regarded as uncivilized. An elderly gentlemen warned John Paton: “You will be eaten by cannibals.”
“Mr. Dickson,” Paton replied, “You are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my resurrection body will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.”
Only one life, ’Twill soon be past
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
Toddling Home to Heaven
What will death be like for you? You can never say “To die is gain” unless you can also say “For to me to live is Christ.” If you cannot say “To live is Christ,” how can you be sure that “to die is gain?” We always come back to Jesus, don’t we? If you are afraid to die, perhaps it is because you don’t know Jesus.
How should we face death? Not with defiance, not in desperation, but with simple childlike trust. When the time of your death arrives, put your hand in God’s hand and let him guide you safely home. Death is the narrow passageway between this life and the next. We toddle like little children down that frightening passageway with eyes full of fear. If only we could see that Jesus stands like a mother watching her children learn to walk. This is what death is like―just one more step and we’ll be there—safe in the arms of Jesus forever.
The application is simple:
1. Do what God gives you to do today.
2. Trust God with tomorrow.
3. Death when it comes will be a great gain for you.
When all is said and done, there are only two philosophies of life. You can say with the Apostle Paul “To me to live is Christ and to die is gain” or you can say with the world “To me to live is self and to die is loss.”
Which will it be for you?