Like I said before, the book of Philippians is theoretically a thank-you letter from Paul to the believers who’d sent him a generous and sacrificial gift. This is one of the most positive and warm letters of the N.T. But even in this letter, we can find some really deep material to ponder and apply.
Paul was under house arrest, living in a rental house in Rome, probably chained to a guard 24-7. He wasn’t sure what the outcome of his trial would be, and he knew that he had mortal enemies who’d literally stop at nothing to see him dead (there were Jews out there who’d taken vows to neither eat nor drink until they’d killed him). Humanly speaking, his future was really uncertain.
But what was his reaction? “To live is Christ, and to die is gain!” If he continued living here on earth for a few years, then he’d be serving his Savior as long as he did. Christ would continue to live his (Christ’s) life through him: Speaking through him, acting through him, using Paul as his vessel. But if he died—wow, so much better! “To die is gain”: What an understatement!
And that leads me to the main point for today, something I want us to chew on for a moment. As believers, all of us have “dual citizenship,” so to speak. I know that in another place in this letter the apostle tells us that our real citizenship is in Heaven, not here. But in a practical sense, we have interests both here and in the next world.
Paul said he was torn between two worlds, this one and the next one. On one hand, being with Christ. There’s that. He says it’s “better by far,” which again is a huge understatement. I mean, he was in prison. But if Paul was king over the entire earth, having all his physical appetites satisfied at a moment’s whim, having every human being completely under his own despotic authority, that still wouldn’t compare to one split-second of seeing his Lord’s smile, basking in his glorious presence for an eye-blink’s worth of time. And when we step into eternity, we won’t have our Lord’s presence for an instant, or for a day or a month or a year or 10 years or 70 years. No, he is ours and we are his forever and ever and ever and ever. Like Lewis put it, our life in Glory is a book with each chapter more beautiful than the one before it, and it goes on without end forever. Each moment in our Lord’s full presence will be better than the last.
But. . . he had other interests here. There was still work to be done. It’s not mentioned in today’s passage, but there are still a lot of people in this world who need to hear about the Savior’s love. As you’ve no doubt heard, sharing the Good News with the lost is the one thing—besides sin—which we won’t be able to do over there. But in today’s reading, he tells them that one of the main reasons he desires to stay is. . . them. The believers in Philippi needed him. They needed his encouragement. They needed his fellowship. They needed his further instructions and challenge and leadership.
And like anyone with dual citizenship, he was torn between two competing worlds.
Of course, I have interests in this world as well, but they tend to be a lot less noble than Paul’s. I care about making money and sports and listening to music and reading good books. Not that there’s anything sinful or wrong about any of them, but they’re certainly not as honorable as the apostle’s “holdings” in this world. But even leaving aside the less-than-purely-noble pursuits, there’s work to be done down here before we head to our native Country which we’ve never seen.
I think this is a mark of a more maturing Christian, this “tornness.” We have work to do down here. As long as we’re breathing, our Lord has a purpose for us in this world, and it’s not primarily to watch TV and entertain ourselves. But in my better moments in my walk with Christ, I’ve had a hint of what Paul’s talking about, this longing for a Country and Home I’ve never seen. And it’s like I can almost hear a whisper in my heart: “Not yet, my child. Soon. Now I love you, but get back to work.” Paul heard this as well, undoubtedly a lot more clearly than I have. He also knew there was still work for him to do down here, and thus he knew that he’d continue here for a while longer.
And of course it’s this longing for my Homeland which makes me a better worker down here, not a lazy one. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, it’s always been the most heavenly-minded saints who’ve done the most earthly good in history.
Have you felt it too, this longing? It’s sweet and painful at the same time. In fact, in a way it’s sweet because it’s painful. Take it as the good sign of growth that it is, and let’s let it spur us on to work harder and longer and more stridently. The days are shorter than we might think.
Lord Jesus, I can hear that whisper right now, I think. Thank you, for the comfort and the spurring.