Preferring to Die; Satisfied to Remain

Paul finds an opportunity to demonstrate what it means to “approve what is excellent.” In two instances he describes options before him and gives reasoning as to how he negotiates his life before Christ in light of those options. One option concerns thoughts about preachers of the gospel in relation to their message vis a vis their posture toward him. The second concerns whether to live or to die. Getting perspective on these two issues by pointing to the surpassing excellence of Christ (revisited in 3:8) teaches us how to think through the multiplicity of options that punctuate our lives on a daily basis.


I. Paul, imprisoned for the gospel, now gives encouraging information about the advance of the gospel (12-14). Having saturated his mind and heart with the truths of God’s providence and the absolute excellence of the gospel, Paul sees the blessing of God in his imprisonment.

A. The Gospel advances in prison by his very chains as a witness to the guards. The Imperial Guard, all of them, know that Paul’s imprisonment is not for murder, theft, insurrection, or any capital offense. He is in prison because of Christ. He is in prison because he preaches that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament prophets, he died by crucifixion and was raised from the dead by the glorious power of God. His death, thought dealt out by Rome was actually the culmination of an eternal plan for the redemption of sinners and granting the gift of eternal life in a state of unalloyed, undisturbed joy in the company of other forgiven sinners, glorious angels, and the triune God himself. All of this specially-selected guard “and all the rest” now knew the basis of his imprisonment and thus had hear the gospel.

B. The Gospel advances by the emboldening of the brethren. Paul’s confidence and full satisfaction with God’s will in this imprisonment gave strength and courage to others who were preachers of the gospel. In spite of threats, they concluded that suffering for the cause of God’s glory as manifest in the gospel is a greater thing than freedom in any lesser pursuit. They were “much more bold to speak the word of God without fear” (14).


II. Preaching Christ is the lasting and genuine source of joy.

A. The fellowship of gospel preachers is not now and was not then without the intrusion of differing degrees of wanting recognition. Paul knew that even among those who preached the content of the gospel truly egos often emerged in a quest for personal recognition. He frankly referred to these divided motives,

  1. Some preached from envy and rivalry to increase Paul’s agitation.
  • We are made aware of differing degrees of tension and rivalry within the apostolic churches. Paul and Barnabas had a great contention over the usefulness of John Mark (Acts 15:36-41). Diotrephes was a domineering presence in a church John had founded (3 John 9, 10), and John warned against him. During Paul’s trial in Rome, he noted, “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them” (2 Timothy 4:16). Indwelling sin still manifested its effects even in the most pure callings. Paul knew that, and, while deeply concerned for increased sanctification in every person, the objective truth and power of the gospel message itself held the place of preeminence in his estimation of ministry.
  • They thought this would afflict Paul in his imprisonment. Whether through increased scrutiny and harshness as he awaited trail or whether through agitation of spirit because he was unable to move about in preaching, these envious gospel-preachers found Paul’s circumscribed circumstances an opportunity to make him squirm. They were not successful in their work of envy even thought God might have blessed his truth for gospel success..
  1. Some preached from sincerity and love realizing that Paul was set, not for himself, but for the defense of the gospel. One of these could have been Epaphras, “our beloved fellow servant,” who preached the gospel at Colossae and saw its truthful power establish a church (Colossians 1:6-8)

B. He is not looking for any personal acclamation but a pure and single content of gospel truth.

  1. Note the language that Paul used concerning both of these kinds of preachers: Speak the word (14), Preach Christ (15), the defense of the gospel (16), announce Christ (17), Christ is announced (18). He was not indicating a tolerance for doctrinal error or anything short of the Christ-centered gospel truth. He was shoving aside mere personal interest for the superior calling of being a steward of the mysteries of God.
  2. He does not give any corner of approval, therefore, to the Judaizers, the circumcision, or the enemies of the cross of Christ of 3:18, 19. Any kind of message that seeks to add to or detract from the finished and complete work of Jesus the Messiah on the cross, issuing in his resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father is a message that will profit nothing for justification before God (Galatians 5:2-4). No commendations but only anathemas does Paul issue for such persons and their selfish labors.

C. Therefore, rejoice.

  1. This summarizes his entire attitude throughout this passage and embodies that which Paul would commend to us. True and eternal joy find is substance and certainty in Christ. That we have been brought to believe this message and then have the commission to proclaim it makes all earthly trials and joys a mere passing and momentary triviality. We must not allow a personal agenda to overcome the infinite glory that rests in the pure proclamation of Christ.
  2. As Paul rejoiced in the present proclamation of the gospel, so he found his gospel affliction a reason to rejoice toward the future. Earthly circumstances send us to prayer for heavenly wisdom and insight. God has ordained that the Spirit takes the prayers of the saints, seasons them with truth in light of God’s decrees, and brings to pass the requests that have been made (19).
  3. They prayed for his deliverance, and Paul was convinced that a deliverance would soon be his experience. How, in fact, should we envision deliverance, and what would be its outcome?

D. Seeing that Paul is not his own, but his body has been bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20), he knows that their prayers will issue in his courage so that in his body he will honor Christ. This could happen in the manner of his death or in the manner of life. Either way, deliverance will come (20).

  1. Even as Paul rejoiced in the preaching of the gospel whether in sincerity or from envy, so he rejoices in deliverance whether by life or by death. He states the absolute and clearly dominant principle that should govern the life of every Christian, that life is meaningful and desirable in the service of Christ and his gospel, but that death is even better for it ushers one into the presence of Christ. “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (21).
  2. Paul expands these two options by showing the desirable aspect of each kind of deliverance.
  • To escape physical death and “remain on in the flesh” will mean fruitful labor. So it happened. He remained in the flesh, was rescued from the lions’ mouth (2 Timothy 4:17), visited other unevangelized places, and wrote more Scripture (such as 2 Timothy).
  • Even with the prospect of fruitful labor, Paul considered the option between life and death a matter that pressed him hard. So vivid was the reality of being present with Christ, that he preferred to be ushered from this life, even if by execution, than to remain here. This truth had been intermingled with the whole corpus of revelation given to Paul, so that its reality could not be diluted. To the Corinthians he had written, “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. . . Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him” (2 Corinthians 5:6-9). Christians know, by the grace of revealed truth, that at death they will have an expanded consciousness of the presence of Christ for they will seem him and have, even thought disembodied, an unclouded sensibility of his glory.
  1. Paul tells why he is convinced that the deliverance will not come by death at this particular time, but he will remain in the flesh as a necessary encouragement for their spiritual well-being.
  • Their “progress and joy in the faith” must mean that he expects them to have an expansion of apostolic teaching, either in person or by access to his letters, for an increased understanding of the eternal blessings of knowing justification through Christ. He would send Timothy and Epaphroditus (2:19, 25). He would even point to his own life as an example of trusting and joyful satisfaction in Christ’s work (4:9). “The faith” refers to the content of the gospel. Transformation of life depends on the “renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2) by the many parts of truth that contribute to a growing understanding of the gospel, the “mercies of God.”
  • “In me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus.” His abandonment of self-righteousness (3:70, his union with Christ for justification (3:9), his earnest yearning for conformity to Christ (3:10, 11, 14) all called for imitation (3:17).Paul pointed to what they had “learned, and received, and heard” from him, an on the basis, what they had seen in him (4:9). When a manner of life gives accurate reflection of the revealed message of the gospel, such is a life worthy of imitation.
  • “Because of my coming to you again.” His presence with them would be a powerful and palpable witness to the power f prayer in the Spirit. Also all the advantages of continued apostolic teaching would greatly enhance the consistency, clarity, certitude, and fullness of the gospel’s claim on their lives and its provisions for informed faithfulness. In addition, every Christian has experienced the joy of vital fellowship with Christ through the company of respected and beloved Christian friends. What an exuberant delight it must have been to see Paul in the flesh, to sense his loving humility, to be exhorted to greater conformity to Christ, to be warned against the deceitfulness of the heart, and to gain more instruction about the mercy and goodness of God to sinners. Such an event would indeed work for the “progress and joy in the faith.”
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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