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A Win-Win Situation

Gaining a biblical perspective on life and death
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Harmony and Humility in the Church". See series.


Every so often we find ourselves in a win-win situation. No matter which way it goes, we come out ahead.

For example, at school we decide to drop our second period calculus class and take a second period economics class instead. There are two economic classes that meet second period, so the academic advisor is going to look over the class rolls and decide which class we'll be assigned to. As we think about the two classes, each of them has something going for it. One class has a great teacher who makes the class really interesting and fun. The other class has my best friend in it, and that pretty girl I've been trying to get to know. Either one is great—a win-win situation.

Or, this Saturday my boyfriend thinks he can get the day off work, and we can drive up to Julian and pick some apples. If he can't get the day off work, well, there are three of us girls that have been talking about hitting the mall and doing some serious shopping. The stores are having sales to clear their fall merchandise to make way for the winter season. Julian with my boyfriend or the mall with my girlfriends. Either one is great—a win-win situation.

Or, maybe our husband has promised us a getaway weekend. If it's sunny and doesn't rain, we'll go up the coast to Carmel. If a storm hits the coast, then well go to Palm Springs. Three days alone with our husband—Carmel or Palm Spring. Either one is great—a win-win situation.

Maybe we get an e-mail from our grown kids. They're trying to decide between spending the money to fly themselves and the grandkids out to California for Thanksgiving, or to fly us to Orlando where they'll meet us for three days at Epcot and Disneyworld. All right! Three days at Thanksgiving with our kids and grandkids. Less trouble and travel for us if they come here, but more fun and adventure if we go there. Either one is fine—a win-win situation.

Or maybe our company has been bought out, and our department is being merged into the same department in the other company. We're waiting to hear how we'll be affected. We've been told that we'll either be given a $250,000 buyout severance package, or we'll be made a vice president in the new company with increased responsibilities and pay. $250,000! Man! I could take 6 months off and laze around, and still have enough to start my own business. On the other hand, being vice president would be a big challenge and would promise a great future. Whichever way they decide is fine with me—a win-win situation.

It's great to be in a win-win situation, where no matter which way it goes, we come out ahead.

The apostle Paul once found himself in that kind of situation. No matter which way it went, he came out ahead. As he explained it in a letter to some friends, he said: A few months from now, at my trial, Caesar's going to make a decision. He's either going to let me live, or he's going to put me to death. Talk about a win-win situation. Either one would be great!

And we think, Wait a minute! That doesn't sound like a win-win situation. I think one of those would be highly preferable, and the other one would be on the bottom of the list of things I'd want to happen. He's going to be put to death or he's going to be allowed to live—and that's a win-win? How so?

Anticipating reward

Paul would reply: Because I'm going to get a reward for doing something, and then whatever Caesar decides will be great. I'm going to get God's final stamp of approval, so whatever he decides will be a win-win situation for me.

What is it Paul is about to do, for which he expects some reward, some validation? What is it that he expects to do that will bring him such approval? And how can Caesar's decision about that be a win-win for him either way? What would make a person say, "You know, I could live or die, and I'll take either one"? What would enable us to look at what seem to be such drastically opposite outcomes as those and say, "Hey, either one would be a win-win situation"?

The answer to these questions emerges in a letter Paul wrote to some dear friends. For two years Paul had been in house arrest, chained 24/7 to one of Caesar's personal bodyguards, awaiting a trial on some trumped-up charges. But being chained in house arrest was better than being dumped in a dungeon, and Paul wanted to write to thank his friends for sending the money that helped him pay the rent.

He also wanted to let them know that what's happened to him has really served to advance the gospel in two very significant ways. First, Caesar's bodyguards are being won to the Lord. Second, local pastors in Rome are preaching more boldly than ever before.

So, in addition to thanking them for their gift, Paul wants his friends to know that he was thrilled at how things have turned out for the gospel. But then he adds: I'm also pretty happy for how things have turned out for myself. I rejoice over what it's meant for the gospel—people being won, pastors being bold—but I'm also rejoicing over what it means for me. I'm going to get a reward for doing something, and then Caesar's going to make a decision, and I'm going to be a winner either way.

What is it that he's going to do that's going to bring him heaven's reward? And how is it possible that whether he lives or dies, it's a win-win situation?

In Philippians 1:18 Paul describes what has happened to advance the gospel: Christ is preached to Caesar's guards and by the local pastors, and because of this, I rejoice.

He goes on to say: But I have another reason for rejoicing, because what's happened to me is also going to bring me some great reward. In addition to advancing the gospel, my circumstances are going to bring me divine approval and validation.

This is what Paul means when he begins at the end of verse 18, "Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance."

The word he uses for "deliverance" is the word in their language for "salvation." Paul is saying: What's happened to me is leading toward that great day in heaven when God's final stamp of approval will finish my salvation.

He's looking at that future day when his salvation will be complete.

The Bible uses the word "salvation" in three senses. We have a past salvation, a present salvation, and a future salvation. The Bible speaks about our past salvation as the time when we believed that Jesus died for our sins and trusted his death as payment of our punishment. We were saved forever from hell and given eternal life. The Bible also talks about our present salvation, meaning that we're being saved now from the power of sin and protected from the hatred of Satan. We're being saved from the consequences of misery and emptiness and futility, and instead find ourselves living joyfully, confidently, and expectantly. Finally, the Bible talks about our future salvation as the time when we will be with the Lord. There'll be no more pain, no more sorrow, but only the presence of the Lord, smiling, loving, and celebrating.

Paul is looking at that future day of freedom and deliverance, when God will reward him and bless him and give the final stamp of approval to his life. When he says, "what's happened to me will turn out for my deliverance or salvation," he means: this is going to contribute greatly to my reward in heaven.

In fact, Paul's actually quoting something Job said. Job's three friends were sitting around and saying: Job, you must have done something wrong, or else these terrible things—these business reverses, these family deaths, these health issues—wouldn't have happened to you.

Then Job shot back to them: Oh, you're so wrong. Someday I'm gong to be standing in front of God, and you're going to see how wrong you are. You're going to see everything 'turning out for my salvation.' You're going to see my vindication, my validation. God's going to put his stamp of approval on me, bless me, and reward me. All of this is leading toward my deliverance, my salvation.

In other words, Paul is rejoicing because he expects to be rewarded in heaven for something he's about to do. That way whatever Caesar chooses to do about it will be a win-win situation.

Glorifying Christ

But what is Paul about to do? What does he see happening in the next few months that will result in heaven's approval? What is he going to do that's going to bring him this great reward?

In verses 19-20, Paul explains that he knows he's going to have a chance to exalt Christ at his trial. He's going to have an unbelievable opportunity to magnify Christ to the Roman Empire, to honor him before the whole world. He's going to have a chance to exalt Christ like never before.

When Paul says, "I eagerly expect this," in verse 20, he's actually making up a word in his language. He takes three words and strings them together into a brand new made-up word: my head, away, looking. That is: I am turning my head away from anything else and focusing intently and only on what's ahead.

My anticipation, he adds, is that I'm going to come through with flying colors. I'm going to present a strong, bold case. I'm not going to wimp out.

Look at verse 20 again: "I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed." Paul says: I don't expect to come out of there beaten down, bested, feeling like a loser, ashamed. Rather, "Through your prayers," he says in verse 19, "and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ … I eagerly expect and anticipate, that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body."

Paul knows that at his trial he will have the opportunity to magnify Christ. Paul is not like someone who carries a snapshot in his wallet, and if you ask to see it he'll show it to you. He doesn't say: Oh, you want to know about Christ? Yeah, I think I have a picture of him somewhere. Here it is. Sorry it's a bit old.

No, Paul has a life-sized poster board picture that he carries all the time. You can hardly see Paul behind it. His whole life is Christ. Christ died for him. Christ chose him. Christ freed him from his past. Christ called him to an eternal future. Christ was his perfect model. Christ was his passion. Christ was his Lord. And now he has a chance to exalt Christ, to display him to the whole world.

After Paul exalts Christ to the world, Caesar can make whatever decision he wants. After he displays Christ to the world, whatever happens to his body is fine. Whether the trial leads to life or death, it's a win-win situation. If Caesar releases him, he'll go on serving Christ. If Caesar puts him to death, he'll finally get to be with the Christ he loves.

He's in a win-win situation. Look at how he puts it in verses 20-21: "I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death"—whether it leads to life or to death, whether I am released or sentenced, either way is fine—"for to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain."

In verses 21 and following, Paul describes that it's such a win-win situation, if you asked him which one he'd pick, he'd have a hard time making up his mind. If you gave Paul his druthers, he'd probably pick going to be with Christ. What could be better than that? Nothing! On the other hand, what would serve God's purposes more? Probably staying here and serving the churches a bit longer. As Paul thinks about it, he's pretty sure that's what God's going to decide, which means Caesar will release him and he'll visit his dear friends again.

We look at Paul, and we think, How in the world do you get to the point he's at, where you're as happy to die and be with Christ as you are to stay here on earth and serve his purposes. How do you get to that point? 'To live, Christ, to die, better yet!'

We're not there. I'm not there. There are a couple of times when I sensed a teensy bit of it, but I was still a long way from it.

Once, while I was in college, I was driving my Volkswagon Beetle home from church. I was on the Pasadena Freeway, going from Los Angeles to Pasadena. The Pasadena Freeway is the oldest freeway in the state—three lanes, very narrow, with a curving, winding road. It was the first rain of the season, which meant that the roads were pretty slick. I was doing about 50 mph in the outside lane around a long curve near the Chinatown area. Cars were solid in the center lane to my left, and there was a wall or fence to my right. As I came around the curve, I suddenly saw that the car ahead of me had spun out and was sideways in the lane about 30 yards ahead of me. I immediately slammed on the brakes, but because of the slickness of the road and the lightness of the VW, the little car started hydroplaning. I was sliding 40-50 mph. into the side of the car in front of me. I knew the VW engine was in the back and just a thin, empty trunk space was in front. As I helplessly gripped the wheel and headed into the crash, the thought flashed through my mind: "Lord, I'm coming home." That was it: "Lord, I'm coming home." I hit hard, snapped the steering wheel, and banged my head against the windshield. But when it was all over, I was uninjured.

As I thought later about what flashed through my mind—"Lord, I'm coming home"—I was kind of happy about that. Deep within me was a confidence that if I died, I was going to heaven. Without having had a chance to think about it, it was just there: When I die, I'm with the Lord. I was glad to see that was in me.

But I was glad I didn't die. I wasn't anywhere near where Paul is—"either one is fine." No, no. My response was, "Lord, I'm glad to know I'm coming someday, but I'm in no hurry. No rush. I'd kind of like to stay down here for a while. For to me, to live is to get engaged, marry, raise a family, and do some other things on earth. To die, well it's nice to know that there's nothing to fear—that it's all taken care of—but we should leave it out there for a while longer." I was still a long way from: To live is to serve Christ; to die is, better yet, to gain Christ!

It reminds me of the story of three friends who arrive at the Pearly Gates at the same time. As Peter shows them around heaven, he asks what kind of comments or remarks they'd most like to hear from their family and friends at their funerals that were about to take place.

One man says, "I'd like to hear them say I was a great doctor and a good family man." The second man says, "I'd like to hear that I was a wonderful husband and that, during my career as a school teacher, I made a difference in many lives." The third man says, "Those both sound great, but what I'd really like to hear them say is, 'Hey, look, he's moving.'"

That's kind of where I was after the accident, "Hey, look, I'm still down here and moving. Good!"

I got a little closer to where Paul is some years later. By then, Nell and I were married. We had 5 small children, ages 2-12, and we were living in Dallas, Texas. One night about 2 in the morning, I woke up with a terrible pain in my chest. The pain seemed to be radiating down my left side and arm. I ruled out heartburn or indigestion, for I'd never had any of that. And I knew enough about heart attacks to know that they started in your chest and went down your left side. I thought, If I'm having a heart attack, I could be dead within a few minutes. And the thought went through my head, Lord, I'm ready to come, but it seems like a dirty trick for Nell and the kids.

As I thought later about what flashed through my mind—Lord, I'm ready to come, but it seems like a dirty trick for Nell and the kids—I was a little bit closer to where Paul is when he said: Lord, I'm happy to come, but I think it would really be better for others if I remained here a bit longer.

I still couldn't say that, if I had my choice, I would want to be with the Lord.

How did Paul get to the point where he saw it as nothing but a win-win situation?

Paul's perspective on death

Two things happened. First, I think Paul saw a clear picture of what death is, and that made him willing for it to happen. He saw what death really means for a Christian and recognized that it would be great.

You see his understanding of death in the word he uses for it in verse 23: to depart. "I am torn between the two," Paul says. "I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far."

The word he uses for depart in his language was a word used to describe breaking up camp and heading home. It was also used to describe loosening the lines from the pier to let the ship sail. Imagine breaking up camp. Enough mosquitoes and cold showers, enough bears poking around the food at night, and enough freezing nights. Let's pack this stuff up and head home where it will be so much better. Or, since we don't sail much, imagine lugging all your bags through a foreign airport. You've been traveling overseas for two weeks, living out of a suitcase in one hotel room after another. The pillows don't feel right. The heating or AC broke down in your room at night, but you couldn't explain it to the night clerk because he didn't speak English. You can't read the street signs because they're in a different language. You're worried about using the subway because you're not sure you've figured it out. The money is different, and you're not sure how much you're paying for things. You're on edge because you're afraid somebody will lift your wallet or steal your passport. And after two weeks, weary and frazzled, you come into the airport, and you look at the listing of flights. You're looking for your flight home. You see a sign that reads, "Estimated time of departure—delayed."

Oh no.

Worse yet—"Canceled."

But I want to go home. I want to depart and go home.

That's how Paul saw it: I want to depart and be with Christ

When you see how good it's going to be, who wouldn't want it? I think that first of all, Paul clearly saw what death means for a Christian.

The second reason Paul could say, "To live is to serve Christ, to die is to be with Christ" is because Christ was everything to him. Christ was his life. Christ was his eternity. Christ was his passion. And when Christ is everything, whether you serve him or go to see him, it's a win-win situation.

Donald R. Sunukjian is professor of homiletics and chair of the Christian Ministry and Leadership Department at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Anticipating reward

II. Glorifying Christ

III. Paul's perspective on death