Philippians 1:12–26 — A Philippian Rhapsody

In an age of style over substance you might think that I’m simply jumping on a bandwagon following the release of the film Bohemian Rhapsody late last year. But this reflection’s title is not just a nod to popular culture. It is not just timely given recent awards or the controversy over the film’s sacked director, Brian Singer. It is appropriate for several reasons as we will see later.

At the heart of Philippians 1:12–26 we find the short verse that reads:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

This verse has always struck me as on the one hand profound and on the other as worryingly challenging. As a soundbite it is an amazing summary of the Apostle Paul. It rings true with what we know of Paul. The Bible tells a clear story. Here is a man who had the most shocking of conversion experiences. He persecutes the Church in his passion for the God of Israel. Then the Risen Christ appears to him. This sets in motion the most complex shift in theology ever undertaken, worked out over three years in Arabia. All of this is followed by his three whirlwind tours of the Mediterranean—his evangelising and church planting record is truly remarkable.

It’s not to say the other Apostles weren’t busy, it’s just that he did so very much that we know about. And he managed to write thirteen of the books out of the twenty-seven in the New Testament. He even stars, along with Peter, in the Acts of the Apostles.

In short he not only said but he lived “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain”. Even in death, under Nero, this soundbite transfigures into the best of epitaphs. His life was a Rhapsody. One dictionary definition of a rhapsody is “an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling”. That’s Paul’s life and that’s Philippians 1:21.

Who else do we know who these words could be said of, and everyone would just nod sagely in agreement? Of course, we can’t all be an Apostle Paul or an Apostle Pauline. So, are we off the hook when it comes to ‘living out’ and ‘dying out’ Paul’s soundbite and epitaph?

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

We will answer this question later. But please note, Paul would be the first to say that the fruit of his life was not the result of human effort but is an example of God’s action. We can, and should, see God clearly at work in his life. To follow Paul is not to attempt a remarkable feat of hard work per se. It is to be open to God’s work and seeing God’s grace at work around us. This should be obvious—we will make a real difference, not because of our human effort but because of openness to God’s work.

In the modern world the Philippian Rhapsody has been imitated. Others have tried to crystallise their experience and personal ethos into similar soundbites. In Bohemian Rhapsody, the song by the band Queen with lyrics written by Freddy Mercury, for example, we find a similar statement to Paul’s. Now of course it’s a progressive rock song so it’s words shouldn’t be the subject of too much serious reflection. But the words seem to echo the troubles and challenges that Mercury experienced in his life, just as Paul’s words capture his very different ones:

I don’t wanna die
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all
Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody

Perhaps we all have moments like that? The form is similar to Paul’s great saying, but the meaning is closer to Job who famously said: “May the day of my birth perish” (Job 3:3). I have no reason to believe that Freddy Mercury was consciously, or even unconsciously, echoing Paul or Job. Another singer-songwriter, however, appears to have deliberately echoed Mercury:

I don’t wanna die
But I ain’t keen on living either
Robbie Williams, Feel

It reads biographically like the others, but feels contrived compared to the Apostle Paul’s and Freddy Mercury’s art—sorry Robbie!

But back to the Bible. Philippians 1:12–26 not only has a remarkable verse at its centre, these verse are in themselves a rhapsody. Paul may be just writing a letter, but what a letter. We have forgotten how to write letters. Paul’s short letter is a lesson in how to do it. It is recognised by experts as a specific style of letter known in antiquity—a Letter of Friendship. It captures the story of the Philippians and it captures Paul’s story—two stories in which God has been at work. It brings the two together to explain how Paul’s current experiences and the Philippians situation both fit together to advance the gospel which is also God’s work.

The Present (1:12–18a)
Some might see being imprisoned as a problem or even a failing. Not the Apostle Paul. Paul knows that that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). His dependence on God is acute enough to see that whatever happens to him it can serve the purposes of the living God. Paul does not hesitate in seeing that he is in chains for Christ. Not just that his imprisonment is a consequence of upsetting the status quo in his preaching of Jesus Christ. Even being in prison can be for Christ. There are people in the palace guard who have now heard the good news of Jesus. Rather than his imprisonment sending a message of fear, Paul says that he brothers and sisters in Christ are more confident in the Lord and will proclaim the gospel without fear.

It appears that some that preach the gospel don’t get on with Paul—those that preach ‘out of envy and rivalry’. The Early Church has its problems, like the Church in every age. Perhaps personalities will always clash this side of the final trumpet? But Paul is bigger than rivalry and envy and sees that the important thing is that Christ is preached. The precise story about Paul’s rivals remains unclear.

There are two things that are clear about the situation. Firstly, whatever the difficulty with rivals, it is a source of serious trial for Paul. He alludes to the Greek translation of Job chapter 13 (later in verse 19)—a passage where Job is in dialogue with rivals who masquerade as friends. Like Job, Paul is suffering but knows he will be vindicated. The second point of clarity is that Paul rejoices—in fact he is full of joy. Joy, that Christ is being preached. He sees God’s very hand at work. What other response is there than joy when God is at work?

Sometimes we try so hard to do things that we forget to slow down and see God at work. Sometimes we are so cynical that we don’t wait for God’s work to be perceived. Surely Paul had reasons to be cynical? But despite seeing the reality of life in prison and the reality of rivals ‘having it in for him’. Despite feeling like Job, he rejoices. He is ‘with Isaiah’ in perceiving that God is doing a new thing and is at work.

The Future (1: 18b–26)
Rejoicing is so important to Paul that he focuses on how he has joy in the present and will continue to have joy on the future. We see this is in verse 18 which marks a transition in this passage:

But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.

Paul is confident, not only that God is at work in his current situation. He is able to trust God—that he will continue to be at work. His trust and joy are not rooted in his comfort or well-being. Paul trusts and rejoices because he knows that God will continue to use him for the glory of Christ. Paul’s experience means he is past any naivety about Christian Discipleship being about a simple life of earthly blessing. Paul’s trust in God is not fatalism however. His eyes of faith see the need for the Philippians’ prayers, for God to deliver him, and the need for courage:

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. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:20–21

Even Paul’s hope for his life is selfless. He sees his life as ‘in the body’, not in his body, but in the body of Christ. His work as an Apostle is for the building up of the Philippians.
His partnership with the Philippians is such that he can perceive the joy they will have when he is released from prison.

Paul also knows that ‘to die is gain’. Not only that he will then be with Christ but also that should his death be that of a martyr it will benefit the body, that is Jesus Christ. He knows first hand from witnessing the death of the first martyr, Stephen, the powerful testimony that is spoken as a servant of Christ dies for him and his gospel. Paul in chains in Rome thinks of his beloved Philippians and his own life.

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see.

His thinking. His theology. His ethos. His love. His plan for life. His hope. His trust. They all find their summary in that one key verse:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

Are we like the Apostle Paul? No. Not if we mean, we should do what he did. As God’s servants we are each unique in what we do.

Are we like the Apostle Paul? Yes. If we mean, we should be what he was. As God’s servants we are all the same in who we are. We are all loved in Christ. We are all able to perceive God at work. We are all able to rejoice in His work, past, present, and future.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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