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To Live Is Christ

You must give your life to the purpose God has for you, no matter the cost.

From the editor

In this sermon Ed Rowell looks to tackle the tricky issue of joy and happiness. Most would agree that the two words have become synonymous, when in reality, they greatly differ. To illustrate that point, Rowell examines Paul's life, as well as the life of the Philippian church—an apostle and a people who have little reason to be happy, but great reason to be joyful. Joy is quote literally a matter of life and death. Take a look at this sermon, and Rowell will show you why.


If you go through the Book of Acts, it's kind of a biography of the early church and Paul's missionary journeys. In chapter 16, we find out how he ended up in Philippi. He was planning on going northeast from where he was, and several times there was a definitive, clear signal from God: That's not the way I want you to go; I want you to take a different direction.

This culminated in a dream where he saw a man from Macedonia, a province in the Roman Empire. This man said to him in the dream: "Come and help us." Paul awoke, took a left turn, and headed west toward a little town called Philippi.

Philippi was unlike any of the places that Paul had been to up to this point, because there was no synagogue. His usual pattern was to go to the synagogue first, because there was a point of common reference with people who understood the one true God. There he could use the Scriptures of the Old Testament to prove that Jesus was the promised One who came. But he had to use a new strategy in Philippi, because there was no synagogue. There was, however, the presence of people who were known as "God fearers"—those who were not Jewish but had embraced the one true God. They met at a specific place to pray.

On the Sabbath, Paul went down to the river, and there he met a woman by the name of Lydia, a merchant of fine textiles. She was evidently a woman of influence and some wealth. Paul told her the story of Jesus, and she came to be one of the followers of Jesus.

Lydia invited Paul and his companions to stay at her home. While they were in town, a slave girl began to follow them around, saying things like, "You're servants of the true God." They eventually found out that this young girl had a demonic spirit that allowed her to predict the future. Her owners used that to great financial advantage. Paul saw the plight of this girl, the bondage she was under, and he healed her. The demon was cast out of her life.

You can imagine how, if that was your source of income, Paul's actions would not make you happy. The owners of this slave girl started a riot. Paul, Silas, Luke, and everybody else were beaten. When the authorities finally came—like politicians of most days, they were closely connected with the rich and powerful—they did rescue Paul and his friends from the riot; they had them thrown in jail.

That night, Paul and his friends met another influential person in the early days of the Philippian church: the jailer. After they were locked up—their hands and feet put in stocks and bound by chains—there was a supernatural earthquake that opened the doors and broke the chains. After the earthquake was over, the jailer realized the doors were opened and thought his prisoners had probably escaped. He was on the verge of suicide when Paul called out: Hey! Everybody's here!

The jailer locked up the rest of his prisoners and took Paul and his friends to his home. His family took care of their wounds. They fed them. They spent time with them and heard the message about Jesus, and their lives were changed. The whole household was baptized that night.

When the magistrates came the next morning, they said: Hey, sorry about the mix-up yesterday. You can leave now. In fact, we encourage you to leave quickly.

Paul and his companions then went by Lydia's house, gave some encouragement to this fledgling group of believers, and left town.

The odd joy that Paul and the Philippian church have in common

That was the extent of Paul's personal connection with this little town of Philippi. Years later, he wrote them a letter. Now if that had happened to you, what part of that trip would stand out most in your mind? I think I would remember the beating. If I wrote them a letter at all, it would probably be along the lines of: "Thanks for nothing! Thanks for the good beating I had when I was there." Yet, when you read this letter, especially in the context of the others, it has a distinctively different tone. He likes these people. He is filled with joy when he thinks about them. 

You have to wonder, Maybe it's because his circumstances have changed. Maybe Paul was having a really good day when he wrote the letter. But if you do a little investigation, Paul says he's in prison. When you dig a little deeper, you find out he's been in prison for four years. He's been there waiting for his sentence to be handed out. He's either going to be set free, or he's going to be executed. Every day he's living with that uncertainty. His particular circumstances were not looking good at the time he wrote this letter.

You could be tempted to think, Maybe he was happy because the Philippians were doing so well—because the church had thrived and everybody was happy and had everything that they needed. That doesn't play out either, because as you see other snapshots from the New Testament, you realize that the Philippian church was known throughout the other churches for two characteristics—poverty and suffering. That was their lot in life.

In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul writes to a wealthy Corinthian church: "We want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will." Paul is talking about the Philippian church. They were in a bad place circumstantially. Paul was also in a bad place, yet the undisputed theme of this whole book is joy. Over and over again—twelve times—the Greek word for "joy" or "joyful" is used. 

Let's look at our key text: Philippians 1:21–26. We're going to hone in on verse 21. Paul says, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." Interesting—a man in great turmoil and hardship is writing to a church in a time of great turmoil and hardship, and he's writing about joy. "To live is Christ and to die is gain." Perhaps more than most people in human history, Paul had figured out that wealth, power, influence, possessions, prestige, good health, and success are temporary at best. That itch never stays scratched.

Living for Christ is the key to joy.

"To live is Christ and to die is gain." A lot of us would say, "Oh yeah, that's true." But I don't know that a lot of us live as if it's true. Paul's only reason to live was Christ and his kingdom. In every piece of evidence we have, both in the biography of Paul in the Book of Acts and in all the letters he wrote, it all says the same thing: Paul was a man who had one focus—Jesus himself. To Paul, the only thing better than living for Christ was to die and be with Christ. Living was fruitful and productive, but dying would mean fulfillment and being with Christ forever. 

At the place Paul was in his life, death was a real possibility. He was under arrest, and the possible sentence for what he was being charged with was execution. The Bible doesn't say what happened to Paul, but through the tradition of the church and some other historical records, Paul was executed about 64 A.D. by the emperor Nero. Philippians 1:21 was a prophetic word of sorts. Paul is saying: It doesn't matter how long—whether I live another day or ten more years—to live is Christ. But if I die, that's even a gain over what I'm living for.

What an amazing perspective on life! Paul was uncertain about God's plan for the immediate future, but he was confident that whatever happened to him, the Philippian church would be provided for by God.

If you really believe that this world is all there is—if you don't believe the whole God and eternity thing—let me encourage you to pursue with all diligence every pleasurable experience and everything that you think could bring you joy. If this is all there is, then this is all there is, and my hat's off to you for going after it. But if you would even consider the possibility that there's more than what you can see with your eyes—that there's more than what you're going to experience in the 30 or 60 or 90 years that God gives you on this earth—then wouldn't it make sense to live as if eternity were reality? This life is just preparation for eternity. Let's take these years that God has given us and make the most of them to lay a firm foundation for those things that are eternal.

We're Americans, and we're proud to be Americans. The Declaration of Independence says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness." I know it's not a smart thing to criticize the most important document in American history, but I think the Founding Fathers made an unfortunate word selection. We have taken this pursuit of happiness to heart, and we are neglecting the more important and more biblical character quality of joy. Happiness is always fleeting; it depends on a multitude of factors that are outside my control.

If you think that the pursuit of happiness is the point of life, then you must start figuring: I need more of those pleasurable experiences. I need more recreation; I need more fun; I will avoid at all costs anything that might be difficult, tricky, or that might cause me to be uncomfortable. The first thing you can control to some extent; the second you cannot, because you know "life happens." Things that you have no control over will suck the happiness from your life. If happiness is what you think it's all about, I hate to break it to you: you're in for a long, miserable life.

So what is joy? It's different than happiness. We use the words "happiness" and "joy" like they're synonymous, but they're really not. I'm not even sure they're in the same family. I'm not interested in trying to give you a definition; I'm not trying to give you a sentence or two that we can memorize and say, "That is joy." This is experiential. I don't care if you could quote the Book of Philippians in the original language from memory. If you're not experiencing joy, then we haven't gone in the right direction.

Joy can happen in spite of circumstances. It can happen in spite of difficult relationships. It can happen even if all the success and wealth you thought would be yours passes you by. Here's the bottom line: joy comes from having a right purpose for living and the right attitude about dying.

I've got a homework assignment for you, because I want you to think about this after we've parted ways. There are two sentences that I want you to complete. The first one is: "My life's purpose is _______." Why are you here? For what purpose did God create you, with your unique mixture of personality and gifts and experience? The second phrase I want you to complete is this: "I don't fear death because _______." Maybe you've had joy before. Maybe it has disappeared, because circumstances in life have choked it out like a weed. Maybe other people have influenced you to stray from what God wants for you. It could be you that you've never really given joy much thought. It could be that there's this huge fear of the unknown in your life. Until you and I have a purpose for our lives that's worth living and dying for, we'll live our whole life with no more than an occasional taste or two of the joy Paul writes about in his letter.

William Wilberforce: A Man Who Lived for Christ

I'm going to tell you a story about a man who personifies a life worth living and dying for. His name was William Wilberforce, and he was born in 1759 to a very aristocratic, wealthy family in England. He had everything that you could possibly imagine. When he went to Cambridge, he had unlimited wealth, and devoted himself to all the pleasures of university life. He was not a particularly studious guy, but he had a sharp mind, a sharp wit, and a wonderful personality. At age 21, Wilberforce was elected to Parliament, and he served for the next 45 years. Everybody that met William Wilberforce loved him—until he got messed up by God's call on his life.

Wilberforce had grown up religious. In fact, John Newton had been his pastor. (You know that name—he's the guy who wrote "Amazing Grace." He'd been a slave trader but became a pastor and had a big influence.) But William had walked away from that. He had given himself to the pursuit of happiness and all that money could buy. Then he began hanging around some people who messed with his mind. In 1786, some friends challenged him that maybe the life he had pursued was not the life worth living. On Easter Sunday, he became a follower of Christ.

His decision caused both spiritual growth and tremendous tension in his life. Things were quite complicated. William came to the conviction that a person's faith and the teachings of Scripture ought to influence every area of your life—not just what you do on Sunday. He was a servant of the people, a politician, a legislator. How would his faith impact his life?

About that time, some abolitionists began to talk to him about breaking down slavery in the British Empire. William knew that would be a mess, because the thriving economy of the British Empire was built on slavery. He took a year to try to understand the nature of the slave trade. He began to search his heart for what God was calling him to do. In 1787 he wrote in his journal what became his life's mission: "God Almighty has set before me two great objectives: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of morality."

If you've ever read Charles Dickens, you know the condition of England at the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s. The Industrial Revolution had brought hundreds of thousands of people to the city to work, yet the conditions were subhuman. Child labor was rampant, people were treated like animals, and the culture was a mess. Writer John Hart says, "English culture in 1787 was similar to postmodern America in its callousness, indifference, and hedonism."

Wilberforce had no idea what he was getting into. He was idealistic, and he jumped right into the fray. He knew how to use his personality to build alliances. Slowly but surely he began to sway public opinion about slavery. But in 1791, when his abolitionist bill finally came before Parliament, it was defeated by a ratio of 2:1. It was crushed, and so was he.

Wilberforce was ready to return to his old ways, but John Wesley—who was literally on his deathbed at the time—convinced him otherwise. Six days before John Wesley died, he sent Wilberforce a note, saying: "Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? Oh, be not weary in well-doing. Go on in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery shall vanish before it."

This encouraging word revitalized Wilberforce's spirit. For the next eleven years, every tiny victory was followed by a massive defeat—but he persevered. During that time, Britain was at war with France, and people were more concerned with Napoleon than any social cause. William's health continued to deteriorate. He had a degenerative bone condition that was destroying his spine. He had to wear a metal brace simply to sit or stand. He had ulcerative colitis, so his intestinal situation was always a mess. He was almost blind, and his sight just got worse and worse. But still he persevered. The only treatment for his illness was opium, and opium, though it helped to control the pain, had its own set of complications. Still, he persevered.

Finally, in 1807, Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. But it had limitations. It was the law, but there was nothing to enforce the end of the slave trade. There was nothing at all about emancipation for those who were already in slavery. So Wilberforce continued to work.

Another part of his life's mission became important during this time: working on behalf of the poor for the reformation of the moral life of England. He established dozens of faith-based social service organizations. In fact, historians credit Wilberforce with keeping England from experiencing what happened when the peasants revolted against the establishment in France. All of that was prevented because a little guy, about five feet tall with chronic illnesses, cared about the poor, legislated for the poor, and gave a fourth of his income away to the poor.

Wilberforce was known for his generosity as much as for his tenacity. At one time, he was financially supporting 60 different causes. Christian ministry in India owes a great debt to Wilberforce, because he personally paid the salaries of chaplains to accompany the East Indian Company wherever they went.

Over time, Wilberforce wore down. At age 62, he just couldn't handle it anymore. He turned over the leadership of the abolition and emancipation movements in Parliament, and life became pretty hard for William Wilberforce. His health continued to deteriorate. His sons turned against him. Because of his generosity and financial mismanagement by one of his sons, he became financially destitute. He and his wife were at the mercy of their children. One of his adult daughters was tragically killed. Yet the work that he had begun continued.

Three days before William Wilberforce died—July 26, 1833—the Emancipation Bill passed in Parliament. Slavery in the British Empire was no more, setting the stage for the same thing to happen in America, 25–30 years later.

If Wilberforce had been looking for happiness, he had had very little. But in those last days of his life, in spite of all the hardship, can you imagine the depth of joy that he must have felt? Don't you imagine that all the hardship was worth it? Can you imagine the sense of your life having mattered?


That's a pretty intimidating story. You might think, Okay, there have been two in world history. There's the apostle Paul and there's William Wilberforce. I'm not them! You and I may never change the world to the extent they did, because that's not what God has called us to. But he has given us a sphere of influence, and he has given us gifts and responsibilities. It is up to us. One of the most important things you'll ever discover is what it is that God has called you for, prepared you for, and created you for. You must give your life to that, no matter the cost.

"To live is Christ and to die is gain." I hope that phrase is rattling around inside your head all week long. And I hope you'll take the time to answer those questions: "My life's purpose is _______." And "I don't fear death because _______." I hope you're granted an understanding of this life in the context of eternity, so even death holds no fear for you. That's the start to joyful living.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism")

Ed Rowell is pastor of Tri-Lakes Chapel in Monument, Colorado, and author of Preaching with Spiritual Passion (Baker).

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Sermon Outline:


I. The odd joy that Paul and the Philippian church have in common

II. Living for Christ is the key to joy.

III. William Wilberforce: A Man Who Lived for Christ


One of the most important things you'll ever discover is what it is that God has called you for, prepared you for, and created you for; you must give your life to that, no matter the cost.