Last week we discussed opposition, as we observed the Apostle Paul’s life; how we are guaranteed to face it. (click here to see last week’s post.) There is plenty of scripture admonishing followers of Christ in their expectations of an “easy” life, reinforcing the idea that we will experience suffering and opposition. And considering that each one of us defines “easy” through the lens of our own personal experience, I’d be surprised–a believer in Jesus or not– if anyone truthfully said they’ve lived a completely easy life. Hence the phrase, “Life sucks and then you die.” I’ve literally heard Christians say (ahem, and may have been guilty of saying it myself with deep sighing), “Life is hard. If I can just get through this life, when I die I’ll finally reach my glory with Christ in heaven.” For those of us who view life through the context of faith in Christ, this is what marks the Christ follower apart from others. We have a hope in a perfect afterlife. But do we have a hope in life?
I want to move into this topic further as we read Acts 20 today. If God is good, and he promises me this amazing future with Him in heaven, why must I struggle in this life? Am I earning my place in heaven first? Why not take me now? Why shouldn’t I have a suck-it-up mentality and pray for heaven?
And I’ll be honest, I’m also guilty of thinking: when life gets really tough, you sing His praises and tell everyone you’re full of joy, even when you’re not. You see, I have always wondered if that’s what Paul and Silas were doing when they were singing in jail. Because I wasn’t feeling the joy in my suffering, I couldn’t imagine how they were feeling it. So deep down I wondered if they were simply giving us a good example; saying what they were supposed to say. Or maybe I wouldn’t receive that joy until I was thrown in jail too. Of course I never admitted that to anyone! What would that make me? I did, however, cling to the hope that this kind of joy was true, and that my life would one day reflect it.
In Acts 20 the Apostle Paul is wrapping up his third missionary journey. He’s bound and determined to get back to Jerusalem before the festival of Pentecost. On his way he stops to meet with the Ephesian elders and he says,
“And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me, except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead. But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus – the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God.” (Acts 20:22-24)
There’s actually quite a lot going on in this statement, so we will settle on these verses today.
TO LIVE IS CHRIST
First, I couldn’t help but notice a strong similarity to one of Paul’s statements in the book of Philippians. Philippians was written relatively early in Paul’s imprisonment and he’s contemplating his death.
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Phil 1:21 NIV)
Man, this statement has always perplexed me. Is that a typo? To live is Christ? Shouldn’t it say to live as Christ? At first look, this statement speaks to the Christian struggle in life. Death is better for the believer in many, many ways. Paul expands upon this in the following verses.
“If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Phil 1:22-24 NIV)
For most of us, while death may be frightening and mysterious, we do ultimately believe (and hope) that to die is gain. That what lies ahead of us is far greater than what this world has to offer. But I think the real question for us today is this, what does ”to live is Christ” really mean? Because, after all, we’re not dead. If we live out our lives in misery, simply waiting for death, or if we live out our lives focused on our bucket list and accomplishments to make death easier to swallow, that’s not really living.
I’ve actually been attempting to pick apart the phrase, “to live is Christ,” for several years now. And through my study this week, I feel like Jesus has shown me a few things. While I don’t believe this to be exhaustive, merely scratching the surface, I do believe these three things are significant. To live is Christ, is to live with purpose, to live in worship, and to live one with the Spirit. I see these three elements in Paul’s statement to the elders in Ephesus.
TO LIVE IS PURPOSE
A life of purpose embodies a life that impacts others in the world around us, not just a life that purely benefits ourselves. It admits that there’s more to life than just us. Another word to use here is mission, or calling.
Many of you are familiar with the term mission statement. In my former life as a health care executive I had the privilege of working with other top-level executives in reviewing our company’s vision statement, mission statement, and goals. The mission statement had to center on the company’s provision of value to the customer and his/her community. It’s likely the company will have a goal of profitability if it has any plans to continue on in the future, but if that goal evolves into its mission, then the company will eventually cease to provide value and will one day become obsolete. A perfect example of this is the phone. Phone manufactures, whose mission was to simply sell phones, became obsolete when Apple redefined its mission as entertainment by introducing the IPhone. Before this, people shopped for the cheapest phone, with the cheapest plan, to perform a mundane task. But when the phone began to provide increasing value, people were willing to spend a whole lot more for a phone, all the while making the ordinary phone almost useless. I don’t even have a land line phone in my home anymore.
Similarly, after Paul surrendered his life to Christ, we see him filled with purpose and mission. It is no longer about Paul and what he might want to do and his profitability, but rather about all the people he meets on his travels. It is all about what Christ calls him to do. He tells the Ephesians his life is worth nothing unless he finishes the work that is assigned to him. Without his mission, his life provides no eternal value, and he will become obsolete.
TO LIVE IS WORSHIP
We were created to worship and commune with God, and worship was central to God’s original creation. Today, a life of worship flows from a completely surrendered life. In his letter to the Romans, Paul explains true worship this way,
“And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice – the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.” (Rom 12:1 NLT)
Paul goes on to say in the following verses to the Romans,
“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Rom 12:2 NLT)
Learning God’s will ties directly back to purpose. My oldest son, who currently goes to a public school, told me this week that he wished he could go to a private Christian school so that he could be free to worship God. I told him that he can worship God anywhere, that his location and circumstance does not prevent him from worshiping God. When my son offers himself, allowing God to transform his thinking, and resisting the desire to follow the ungodly, he is worshiping God.
As we surrender our thinking to Him, surrender our behavior to Him, and surrender our will to Him, it is a living and holy sacrifice. The Old Testament sacrifices, used for worship, were a picture for us, a foreshadowing of this truth. Any suffering that is encountered along the way is also worship, because we are offering ourselves as Christ did. “To live is Christ.” Paul tells the elders that he foresees jail time and suffering in his future (worship), but he presses onward to complete his purpose like Christ pressed onward to Golgotha to complete his purpose.
TO LIVE IS THE SPIRIT
When Paul is talking with the elders in Ephesus, he begins with the statement, “I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem.” The Spirit is crucial to our walk with God. The Father, the Son, and his Spirit are inseparable. When we choose Jesus, his Spirit indwells us and we become the living, breathing body of Christ. Christ is alive in heaven and alive on earth through us! His Spirit reveals our purpose, makes true worship even possible, and empowers the phrase, “to live is Christ.”
We see in Romans chapter 7 and 8 that the sin still residing in us, waging war on our minds, is subdued only by the power of the Spirit, making life in Christ a reality. This oneness with the Spirit occurs as we offer our bodies as a sacrifice and surrender to the Lord. It happens as we put one foot in front of the other in faith and in purpose. But we also need his power to do those things. Purpose, worship, and the Spirit are inextricably connected.
So when Paul says in Philippians that he’s torn between living and dying, that’s why! His life in Christ has purpose, it is full of gratifying worship, and his communion through the Spirit makes his life full of value to the Church. Paul’s spiritual growth was a continuous, cycle of faithful purpose, sacrificial worship, and connection to the Spirit. He is truly living life and at the same time looking forward to death.
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Phil 1:21 NIV)
CALL TO ACTION
“There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death.” (Prov 14:12 NLT)
This verse implies that there’s also a path before each person that leads to life. If you find yourself reciting platitudes of joy and not experiencing the in-prison-singing-praises kind of joy, there’s no judgment here. I understand completely. But I want you to know that there’s more of Him for you. See if you can answer these questions:
- Have you asked Christ for more of Him in your situation? Or have you assumed you have it all?
- Have you surrendered yourself completely to Him? Or have you kept him out of restricted areas?
- Have you been given sight to see what Christ wants you to see? Or do you feel safer keeping your eyes closed?
Now is the time to ask and keep on asking.
“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matt 7:7-8)