To Die Is Gain

Throughout my Christian walk, usually when these three verses are referenced by brethren…

Philippians 1:21-23 (ESV)For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

…they assume that Paul is speaking positively about not only being alive now, but that he is being even more optimistic about what he will experience when he is dead, between this life and the resurrection. For Paul, “fruitful labor” is what he thinks is great about living in the flesh now. (This definitely seems straightforward.) But as for the “gain” that he mentions, so I am told, this is just Paul’s way of saying that what he will experience when he is dead (not living in the flesh prior to the resurrection) is even greater. To help demonstrate what I’ve been told that these verses are talking about throughout my walk on this topic, here is what Ligonier Ministries says regarding them (which can be found by clicking here)…

“This text from Philippians is one of the most important biblical passages on the intermediate state. We can distinguish among our current state, the intermediate state, and the final state. The final state is the best—it is our final, eternal phase of existence as resurrected persons with glorified souls and glorified physical bodies (Dan. 12:2; Rom. 6:5; 8:23). As Christians, we can describe our current state as good, for we have been rescued from sin and are being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 6). In between the good and the best we have the better—the intermediate state.”

I certainly agree with Ligonier, and I also think that it is safe to say that just about all Christians would concur, that at the very least the current and the final states ought to be lauded as positive realities; especially the final state. Life in either of these two states is a blessing.

However, I must ask a question regarding the intermediate state…

Does what Paul considers to be the “gain” of dying actually match up with what so many believers (like Ligonier) think that it is, or does Paul possibly have something else in view that he is “hard pressed” to choose over the current state, rather than the intermediate state?

The Corinthian Letters

I ask this because of what Paul wrote in another letter to the church in Corinth…

2 Corinthians 5:2-3For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.

We believers all know, as good as this life is in the current state, that we are still always (as Paul says), “longing to put on our heavenly dwelling.” In other words, we are always desirous of being in the final state. It is why John concludes in Revelation… “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20) As Ligonier correctly says, “The final state is the best.”

With that said though, I do not get the impression that Paul seems at all positive about being dead when he mentions it here in this letter to the Corinthian believers. Paul’s view of being found naked in 2 Corinthians just does not line up with what Ligonier claims about what they assume that Paul thinks about being dead in his letter to the Philippians…

“In between the good and the best we have the better—the intermediate state.”

It seems that whatever the experience of being found naked might or might not be like, Paul certainly made it clear that he does not want to be found that way in 2 Corinthians. So, for Ligonier to make the assumption that being dead is somehow “better” than the current state of being alive according to Paul in Philippians, such does not really square with what Paul says about it in 2 Corinthians.

Naked

Before we go back to the Corinthian letters, I think that it would be wise to get some more context regarding what the Bible says about being naked elsewhere. As we all know, Paul was highly trained with respect to the scriptures…

Acts 22:3 (ESV)“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.”

Therefore, it should not at all be surprising that we would also find Paul giving a negative impression of being found naked in 2 Corinthians. He is consistent with how both testaments utilize this same way of thinking. Here are just a few examples of how being naked is depicted negatively in some other places from beginning to end…

Genesis 3:6-11 (ESV)So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

Job 26:6 (ESV)Sheol is naked before God, and Abaddon has no covering.

Amos 2:13-16 (ESV) – “Behold, I will press you down in your place, as a cart full of sheaves presses down. Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong shall not retain his strength, nor shall the mighty save his life; he who handles the bow shall not stand, and he who is swift of foot shall not save himself, nor shall he who rides the horse save his life; and he who is stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day,” declares the LORD.

Hebrews 4:11-13 (ESV) – Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Revelation 3:14-18 (ESV) – “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.’”

Revelation 16:15 (ESV) – “Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”

It is important to grasp, as we see in this last reference, that remaining clothed, “keeping his garments on,” is a vital part of the picture of what being blessed is all about in the Bible.

This poses some questions…

Why would Paul (as a believer) be concerned about being found naked when he wrote to the Corinthians? Isn’t being found naked an indication that one was actually a nonbeliever? Are we to believe that Paul was concerned about the possibility that he, “an apostle” (Romans 1:1, 1 Corinthians 1:1, 9:1 and 15:8, 2 Corinthians 1:1, Galatians 1:1, Ephesians 1:1, Colossians 1:1, 1 Timothy 1:1, 2 Timothy 1:1, and Titus 1:1) could actually be found naked? And, if Paul was concerned about being found naked, what does that then say about us believers now? None of us are apostles, are we? Or, maybe it was just something else that Paul had in view in the early part of his letter to the Philippians?

We will return there in a moment. But first…

Back to the Corinthian Letters

In a previous letter written to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 15), Paul had already touched upon this topic of death. So, when they had received 2 Corinthians, the believers in Corinth were already prepped for what Paul was going to further flesh out. The interesting thing about 1 Corinthians 15 is that there is no description of what being dead was like. In fact, Paul just makes the point that if Christ had not been raised from the dead, then…

1 Corinthians 15:17-19 (ESV)…your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Think about what Paul is saying here. Paul indicates that without resurrection (which brings about the final state) this life (the current state) is then the only state where conscious experience is had. Why? Because, even if one has “fallen asleep” in Christ, without resurrection such a person has then “perished.” Just pause and consider what this says about the experience of death (being found naked).

There is none.

This point in 1 Corinthians 15 is the backdrop to 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul says…

2 Corinthians 5:2-3For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.

There is nothing good about being found naked (dead), because in that state there is no awareness, there is no praising of God. Here is just a brief sample some of the many examples which Paul would have been influenced by…

Psalms 6:5 (ESV)For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?

Psalms 30:9 (ESV) – What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?

Psalms 115:17 (ESV)The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any who go down into silence.

Isaiah 38:18-19 (ESV)For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.

Remember, as shown earlier in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19, Paul had also likened the experience of those who had died to those who had “fallen asleep.” Again, Paul was being consistent with the rest of scripture…

Psalms 13:3 (ESV)Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death…

The only states which could ever be thought of in a positive light are the current and final states where one is not found naked/asleep/dead.

Look at what Paul then goes on to say…

2 Corinthians 5:4 (ESV)For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

Being unclothed (naked/dead) is not only a state which Paul does not desire to be found, but he also describes the thought of not being clothed as “being burdened.” According to Paul, the only light to describe the state of being naked/unclothed, is a negative one. The only states for a mortal being to consider positively, are ones that include life.

So then, we must ask…

In what state, according to Paul, do we groan to be in during the current state?

It’s not the unclothed/dead/naked/intermediate state, which Ligonier says is “better” than the current state of being alive. It’s the further clothed/final state. It’s the state which swallows up mortality, which is also the “best” state.

Back to Philippians

Assuming that the background that I provided is correct, the states that are then in view when Paul wrote this to the church in Philippi…

Philippians 1:21-23 (ESV)For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

…could only be the current and final states. There is no way that Paul was raising a state of death above a state of life. Again, Ligonier is wrong to assume that Paul was torn between the current state vs. the intermediate state when he wrote to the Philippian believers. He was not saying that being dead in the future, pre-resurrected state, was “better” than being alive now, as Ligonier says. No, Paul was saying to the church in Philippi that he was “hard pressed between” choosing the current state vs. the final state. He was consistent with the rest of scripture when he wrote to the believers in Corinth about being “found naked,” and Paul remained consistent in context here as well, in his letter to the Philippians, with the rest of scripture as he continued on about the awesomeness of the final state…

Philippians 3:8-16 (ESV)Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

Paul longed to be “found in him” (Christ), further clothed (alive); not naked/unclothed/asleep (dead). He desired to “attain the resurrection of the dead,” knowing that he had not yet “already obtained this” and was not yet “already perfect.” He was solely focused “to make it my own.” (An example that we believers should all learn from.) Paul then goes on further to say that he is, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” pressing on, “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul here, was simply digging deeper into what he had said earlier about being “hard pressed between” choosing… this, the final state, over the current state.

How does Paul then label the person who thinks this same way?

“Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.”

To Die Is Gain

In my opinion, Ligonier on this subject is not mature. They have mistakenly devalued being alive now, while at the same time they further valued being dead, saying it’s “better.” In addition, Ligonier turns the focus of the Gospel to be more about avoiding conscious torment when dead, rather than focusing on repenting and trusting in Christ where such persons would then be further clothed, immortal, and alive again in the final state after being resurrected and awakened from the sleep of death.

It is worth repeating…

As Christians we are not to be hard pressed to choose between being alive now or dead later, as Ligonier encourages. But instead, we are to be hard pressed to choose between being either alive now, fruitful in labor, or alive again after death as a result of the resurrection. As believers we must be mature, thinking that the concept of “to die is gain” is to be understood in accordance with how Paul and the rest of scripture does, and not in some other way.

Here is Jesus giving a warning to His disciples…

Luke 12:27-28 (ESV) – “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!”

May we never be of little faith…

Godspeed, to the brethren!

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