One of the best-known lines from St. Paul is found at the beginning of his letter to the Philippians where he says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:21). I think this was my life verse for at least a few years. In fact, I’m pretty sure I put the reference under my name in a handful of my friends’ high-school yearbooks. The problem, however, is that it’s never been obvious to me exactly what this verse means. I’ve known, of course, that it has something to do with Paul’s commitment to Christ. I just haven’t been sure about much beyond this. After all, Christ isn’t an obvious pair with gain. We’d expect something more like “For to me, to live is loss and to die is gain” or “For to me, to live is pretty good; it’s not terrible. But, to die—to rest with Christ, that is gain indeed.” Why does Paul use Christ here? What’s he trying to say?
The key, it seems to me, is found in the five verses that follow, which suggest that were Paul to continue to live, his ongoing ministry would benefit the Philippians (vv. 24–25; cf. also “fruitful labor” in v. 22) and, as a result, would benefit Christ (v. 26)—in an even greater way than would his martyrdom (v. 20). They’d be strengthened in their faith and would, therefore, boast in Christ as a result of Paul’s renewed ministry (cf. 2 Cor 1:11 with Phil 1:19, 26). So we might restate what Paul says in v. 21 like this: For to me, to live is gain for you—and, thus for Christ—and, in at least one sense, loss for me (v. 23b), and to die is gain for me and loss for you—and, thus, in at least one sense, for Christ (cf. v. 20b with v. 26). Admittedly, stating it this way isn’t quite as elegant, but I think it captures what Paul is after.
What’s more, while Paul doesn’t quite say it, he gives the impression in vv. 24–26 that he’s chosen to live for the benefit of others rather than to die for his own benefit. This is, in any case, what he’s convinced God has decided. On this reading, then, Paul’s brief autobiographical reflection here plays a vital role in the letter, illustrating one of its central themes: Christians live worthy of the gospel when they, like Christ, put others’ interests before their own (2:4; vv. 5–11). The point of the reflection, then, is pretty clear, even if the logic of v. 21 is a bit compressed: Paul was willing to put others’ gain before his own. And the challenge for us, therefore, lies right on the surface: how can we, who are likewise called to imitate Christ’s selfless sacrifice—his loss, do anything less?