Philippians is Paul’s happiest letter. As we read his letter, we begin to feel the joy ourselves as Paul’s words dance around the pages of Scripture with exclamations of delight. He is simply unmistakably happy as he is writing to the Christian believers in the city of Philippi; although none of his circumstances contribute to his joy. He is writing from a jail cell; his work is under attack and he is exhausted from twenty years of hard traveling in the service of Jesus.
But Paul’s circumstances are incidental to what he is experiencing inside, which is the life of Christ. For it is a life that not only happened at a certain point in history, but continues to happen by spilling out into the lives of those who receive him, renewing the spilling out all over the place. Christ, among so much more, is the revelation that God cannot be contained only in one person or in one experience in life. It is this “spilling out” quality of Christ’s life in us that accounts for our happiness, for our joy as life in excess. It is the overflow of God in Christ in all of us (Colossians 1:27) and in everything we experience and in everything we do. To live is Christ (Philippians 1:21), is grace and peace no matter what is happening.
Paul is in a prayerful state of mind that is full of joy while spreading the Good News of Jesus. With the tenderness of the love of Christ Jesus you grow stronger with increasing knowledge and discernment to the glory and praise of God. To live is Christ means that Christ is glorified in your body whether by your life or by your death. Paul sums it up in Philippians 3:3-8:
We whose worship is prompted by the spirit of God, who exult in Christ Jesus and who do not rely on physical qualifications; 4though I, if anyone, have cause to rely even on them. If anyone thinks he can rely on external privileges, far more can I! 5I was circumcised when eight days old; I am the race of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin, I am Hebrew and the child of Hebrews. As to the law I was a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, I was a persecutor of the church; as to such righteousness as is due to the law, I proved myself blameless. 7But all the things which I once held to be gains I have now for the Christ’s sake, come to count as loss. 8More than that, I count everything as loss, for the sake of the exceeding value of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. And for his sake I have lost everything, and count it as refuse, if I may but gain Christ and be found in him.
It took Paul many years and many trials in the experience of his life to get to the realization that being an upright-standing, godly man by his manners and customs and the results of the Law – the righteousness he was raised up to believe comes through faith in Christ – is nothing compared to the righteousness which is derived from God and is founded on trust in Him alone. Now it is Paul’s central passion in life that Christ will be honored and magnified in his life’s body either by life — “for me to live is Christ” — or by death — “and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:20-21). Fruitful labor for Paul is to him what it means to live in the flesh (Philippians 1:22). So, the first thing he mentions is not Christ but fruitful labor. His fruitful labor is that he is staying alive to increase the joy of the faith of the Philippians.
When the Philippians have greater joy by embracing Jesus and by believing Jesus in faith, Jesus is made to look magnificent. When this happens, Paul’s life is achieving its purpose (Philippians 1:20). So, their joy of faith in Jesus is the fruit of his labor, which makes Christ look great, and that’s what it means to Paul “to live is Christ.” Living for joy for Paul is by ministering to them and increasing their joy of faith and increasing their glory in Christ Jesus. “To live is Christ” is to be the means by which someone finds Christ to be their greatest satisfaction and the supreme treasure in their life. That’s what it means “to live is Christ” and to be happy. A life surrendered to Christ is a life that is full.
Paul’s life is about making Christ look magnificent in his behavior, or what I like to call “Christ-consciousness.” “To live is Christ” means to count everything else in life as loss; that is, to show the value of Christ is better than the things you already have in life. It means to live in such a way as to be the most satisfied and the most joyful in him (as in yourself) than anything else in life. I’ve devoted my life trying to understand how God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him. It wasn’t always this way for me. Or for Paul. It usually doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and may be slow and difficult, at that! The process is arduous, but it is authentic.
I didn’t really care for Paul in my youth. After all, he was a Pharisee, a word synonymous with religious pride and hypocrisy. He wasn’t the image I had in mind of an admirable man such as Jesus. Yet I owe my life to the gospel of Jesus and inasmuch as I have grown in my faith, I have come to deeply appreciate Paul’s teaching as he has since taken me deeper into the mysteries of the gospel. I now have huge admiration for the extraordinary traits of excellence in his life. After the Lord Jesus himself no one has won my appreciation and admiration more than Paul.
Paul’s life and thoughts have come to reflect my own peculiar spiritual journey and my own passions in life. I have come to know myself as I have come to know Paul—as deeply and joyfully persuaded, and admirable for what I have made of my life as a result. I have become trustworthy as a writer because I have learned from Paul that what I write is true. Paul shares not only my humanity, but also my propensity for “missing the mark”, which is what sin, as an archer’s term, really means. And the heights of greatness and Godwardness he attained – like me – most of it came through suffering. I’ve come to love Paul for the Christ he has shown me, and for the richness of truth he has opened up to me during my search.
Paul was strangled by the letter of the law early in his life as he tried desperately to keep all the outward acts of obedience in accordance with his tradition, but his heart was far from the worship of God because it was deeply invested in the rules taught by men. So, inevitably, his faraway heart turned to faraway actions. As a committed Pharisee following only the rules taught by man, he couldn’t avoid the pitfalls of his rigid behavior. His head was full of religion rather than his heart being full of the devotions of God’s love. He found the meaning of his life and his “righteousness” in meticulous Mosaic law-keeping.
Paul had a devout religious upbringing that began just eight days after his birth during his Berit milah – the celebration of his circumcision – the tiny infant boy’s initiation into Judaism during which his father announced his name as Saul. For Saul was a perfectly noble name for a Hebrew boy from the tribe of Benjamin, named for the first king of the chosen nation of Israel. He was reared as closely to the letter of the Jewish Code of Law as possible. He described his home life in Philippians 3:5, telling us he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews”, which means virtually nothing but Jewish influences touched him in his childhood. His father assumed primary responsibility for training him up in the Jewish way. As a Pharisee, his father would have assumed his responsibility with great sobriety. Jewish parents considered children the utmost blessing from God and they loved their children dearly.
Paul grew up living for God. When he was a toddler, he learned to say the primary prayers of the Jews, which were the Schmone-Ezre, morning, noon, and night. He learned to pray before and after every meal. As soon as he could talk, he actively participated in the traditional Jewish feasts. By the age of five years he read the scriptures and began his education at the school of a rabbi that was attached to the community synagogue. At six years of age he likely memorized Deuteronomy 6:4-9. These were the words on a tiny scroll inside the Mesusah on the doorway of his home. He also memorized Psalms 113-118.
Each of these Psalms are what the Hebrews hold dear: Psalm 113 – praise the Lord; Psalm 114 – fear, or revere, the Lord; Psalm 115 – the Lord is our help and our shield; Psalm 116 – the Lord is full of grace, He is righteous and compassionate; Psalm 117 – He endures forever; and, Psalm 118 – God is love everlasting. All six of these Psalms were seared into Paul’s childhood soul. By the time he was ten years old he knew the intricacies of the oral law. His young mind would have been thoroughly steeped and vastly stretched in memorization. He had little choice but to meditate on the Law both day and night just to prepare himself for the following day’s lesson. By age thirteen Paul was considered a man and a son of the Law. He was educated at this time in the home of a man named Gamaliel who lived in Jerusalem.
The Law of the Lord was Paul’s life. At the age of eighteen years old he became a rabbi. According to Galatians 1:15-16 Paul wrote that God had a plan for his life: “But when God, who had set me apart even before my birth and who called me and by His grace saw fit to reveal His child in me so that I might tell the good news among the Gentiles then at once instead of consulting any human being.” That is to say, all of Paul’s religious training, his countless hours spent in Scripture and study, his brilliance in religious matters and what he learned at the feet of his remarkable and well-known teacher Rabbon Gamaliel, were all a part of God’s ornate plan for Paul’s life. And wow, what a plan it was indeed!
God had a plan that would turn Paul’s life upside down and inside out. During the events that ensued on that fateful trip to Damascus, Jesus took a “hold” of him after his resurrection, through a light “brighter than the glare of the sun right in his path coming from the heavens which shone all around me as well as those traveling with me” (Acts 26:13), and he heard the voice of Jesus telling him that he was being chosen out from his own people to be a servant and a witness and to be sent to the Gentiles to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light.
In closing this article I have to admit after all these years of fervent study of the scriptures and reading copious volumes of what other great biblical scholars have written about the Apostle Paul, it always seems quite remarkable to me that after such noble beginnings, such strict reinforcement of God’s laws, incomparable attainment of the knowledge of Scripture, and every external mark of righteousness, the brilliant young rabbi became a relentless persecutor of men and women, casting his vote for their deaths. And, in spite of everything, in a miraculous moment – in a holy instant – God did His work in Paul, who grew a passion for Christ unparalleled in New Testament Scripture, where he loved and served his Lord with every ounce of breath and every drop of blood that he had. At the same time, Paul’s story has given me great inspiration and courage to know that no matter what happens in life – even the least expected, unanticipated, and unexpected – God is working his plan in our lives for the absolute best outcome and highest purpose that is unfathomable to our understanding and our knowing.
All in all, it is most significant that the conversion of Saul to Paul exemplifies the greater meaning of “TruthOrTradition.” That is to say, Saul by tradition was taught to live is the Law; whereas, when he became Paul, he learned the truth by direct experience, to live is Christ. To be precise: Putting off the old man and putting on the new (Ephesians 4:22-24); So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (II Corinthians 5:17)
Praise Be to God from whom all blessings flow!
Taussig, Hal, A New, New Testament, 2013
Zalman, Rabbi Schneur, Codes of Jewish Law, 2004
Chandler, Matt, To Live is Christ to Die is Gain, 2014
Moore, Beth Moore, To Live is Christ: The Life and Ministry of Paul, 1997
Piper, John, Why I love the Apostle Paul, 2019
Tabor, James, Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, 2013