Philippians 1:21 says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” In order to understand Paul’s words, we must first look at the context.
The book of Philippians is a letter from the apostle Paul to the church in Philippi. In the epistle, Paul encourages the church, gives them advice, prescribes the life Christians should lead, and more. At the beginning of chapter 1, Paul opens with greetings to the church, letting them know how much he yearns for them (Philippians 1:1–8). He then goes on to speak of his current imprisonment in Rome and attempts to put the minds of the church members at ease (verses 12–14). Paul knows his suffering is happening for a reason, and that reason is to further the message of Christ: “What has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel” (verse 12).
In Philippians 1:19–20, we see the contextual setup for Paul’s “to die is gain” statement. Up to this time, Paul had already suffered much in his missionary journeys. He was beaten, stoned, hated and derided, shipwrecked, and now imprisoned. But Paul found joy in his afflictions, because they had strengthened his faith exponentially and allowed him to serve as a strong witness for Christ. Preaching and living out the Word of God was Paul’s highest goal, and these events had provided him with ample opportunities for evangelism. He literally presented his body “as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1) for God’s kingdom. Because he had faithfully run the race set before him (Hebrews 12:1), he knew God would be honored through both his life and his death (Philippians 1:19–20).
This brings us to Paul’s statement, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). As Christians, our whole lives are to bring glory to God, and Paul had the assurance that, even in his suffering, he was accomplishing that goal (“to live is Christ”). But, as we see in the second part of the verse, Paul knew that his death would bring glory to God as well—and not only that, but it would also be the time when his faith would come to fruition and he would live with his Savior forever (“to die is gain”). Paul longed for the day when death would bring him face to face with Jesus (verse 23.)
All Christians feel the pull of heaven and yearn for an eternity with Christ. Heaven will be far better than our earthly life, for we will be present with our Savior in a place devoid of sin, sickness, and death (2 Corinthians 5:8). What we lose in life we will gain in heaven. Before that time comes, our purpose on Earth is to live as a light of hope in the darkness of sin and death (Matthew 5:16). We live a life of sacrifice so we may be assured, as Paul was, that even our death will glorify Christ Jesus.