NOTE: This is a condensed excerpt from my forthcoming (2014) commentary on Philippians.
Paul’s goal of being vindicated on the final day can be accomplished whether by life or by death. These are the two possible outcomes for Paul as he contemplates his fate before the Roman judicial system. Christ being magnified is not dependent upon a particular outcome to Paul’s legal situation. If Paul is released, Christ is seen to be great in his power to move the hearts and minds of those earthly authorities that have jurisdiction over Paul. If Paul is executed, Christ is seen to be great in that he is worth suffering the ultimate price to follow him.
This verse provides much rich material for reflection and application. First, we should note Paul’s eschatological orientation. All of life, and even death itself, is viewed from the perspective of the last day. All of Paul’s hopes are directed towards that unshakeable reality that one day Christ will consummate his kingdom, cast all his enemies into the lake of fire, and dwell with his people in a new heavens and new earth. Every experience, whether good bad or indifferent, was evaluated within this eschatological framework (cf. 1 Pet 1:13). These are words that much of the Western church has lost sight of in its pursuit of relevance and its focus on social justice devoid of the good news of Jesus Christ and the call to repent and believe. What ultimately matters is the verdict of God on the final day, and this verse lays out the two options: we will either be ashamed and be cast out of God’s presence, or Christ will be magnified as his work through his servant is detailed.
Second, this verse provides one more indication that the ultimate goal of Paul’s life is to glorify God. For the Christian, everything is subsumed under this one heading of glorifying God. And glorifying God is not limited to life; it extends to how we die as well. Such an attitude is possible because death does not have the final word for the Christian (1 Cor 15:54-57; Heb 2:14-18).
Third, Paul’s attitude makes it clear that the preservation and extension of physical life is not the highest end. Paul could have virtually guaranteed a longer life had he simply “toned down” his devotion to Christ, but he refused. Unfortunately, too many Christians live as if physical life is the highest goal. The words of an old hymn capture this reality well:
It is not death to die,
To leave this weary road,
And midst the brotherhood on high
To be at home with God.
It is not death to close
The eye long dimmed by tears,
And wake, in glorious repose,
To spend eternal years.
It is not death to bear
The wrench that sets us free
From dungeon chain, to breath the air
Of boundless liberty.
It is not death to fling
Aside this sinful dust
And rise, on strong exulting wing
To live among the just.
Jesus, Thou Prince of Life,
Thy chosen cannot die:
Like Thee, they conquer in the strife
To reign with Thee on high.
Fourth, God expects his Son to be glorified in tangible ways in our bodies. Often when Christians talk about glorifying God it is in the context of doing specifically spiritual things, like Bible reading, prayer, evangelism, etc. But God intends that our entire lives are to glorify God, even to the most mundane activities of eating and drinking (1 Cor 10:31). Others err when they live as if the physical is bad or evil while only the spiritual is good. The spirit of Gnosticism, it seems, has not entirely died out. But Scripture makes clear that God has given us bodies through which he intends to be glorified. Our bodies are the sphere in which God intends the name of Jesus to be made great.