A Note on Philippians 1:23

"I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you." (Phil.1:23‑24)

St. Paul was in a quandary, knowing not which of two alternatives he would choose if he had the choice. On the one hand it was desirable for the sake of his converts that he remain in the flesh to give them that instruction which they needed. On the other hand he had an earnest desire to be finished with this earthly life with all its trials and persecutions—and he had plenty—and to attain his promised resurrection inheritance and be with Christ. But there is nothing in the verse to demand that St. Paul expected that promised "being with Christ" to follow immediately upon his death. It was the contrasting appeals of life with the needs of the converts and death with its cessation of labour that stood before his mind. An accusation of inconsistent teaching is sometimes levelled against him, on the assumption that this word "depart" implies an immediate transference to the presence of Christ at death whereas elsewhere, for example in 1 Thess.4:16, he pictures the "dead in Christ" awaking from sleep and rising from the dead at the Second Advent, and in 2 Tim.4:8 his own "crown of righteousness" is "laid up" for him, to be given him "at that day" concurrently with the felicity of all those who at all times throughout the Age have in their turn waited for the same event, Christ’s "appearing" at his Advent.

An examination of this word "depart" shows that there is no inconsistency and no contradiction to the belief elsewhere expressed by St. Paul that he was to receive his crown of life at the First Resurrection in company with his fellow‑saints of all generations, at the time of his Lord’s Second Coming and the Millennial kingdom. "Depart" in this verse is the word "analuo" which has the basic meaning "to be unloosed" or "to be set free." In Greek it was used as a nautical term, the loosing of a ship from her moorings, to weigh anchor, preparatory to setting out upon a voyage. It also indicates loosing in the sense of freeing from entanglement or unravelling; in Homer (The Odyssey) it is used of Penelope unravelling her weaving every night. From this it has the thought of the dissolution of the earthly body in death and the return of the spirit to God who gave it. (Eccl.12:7). St. Paul uses the basic word in this sense in 2 Cor.5:1 "We know that if our earthly house...were dissolved" and Peter, speaking of the dissolution of this "present evil world" at the end, says, "seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved." (2 Pet.3:11) Jesus used the word in Luke 13:12 when He said "Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity," and John the Baptist when he said he was not worthy to "unloose" the latchet of his Master’s shoes. (Luke 3:16)

An interesting usage is in Luke 12:36 where the word is rendered "return" in "When he will return from the wedding" the sense here evidently being that of being "loosed" or set free from the wedding party. A similar case is found in the Apocrypha. 2 Macc.8:25‑26, where, speaking of the Jews’ pursuit of their enemies, it is said that "lacking time they returned, for it was the day before the sabbath." In that instance the word has the idea of the pursuers being "loosed" or "released" from their pursuit, as though we would say they "let go" or "desisted."

Perhaps 2 Tim.4:6,8 gives the clearest light on the Apostle’s outlook. "I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand… henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all those that love his appearing." Here it is plain that St. Paul believed his "loosing" or "departure" to be separated in point of time from the bestowment of his crown of righteousness. And if this is compared with 1 Thess.4:14‑17 it seems a logical conclusion that he expected to be among those who "sleep in Jesus" until, at the "voice of the archangel," they rise to join their Lord as He returns to earth for the establishment of the Messianic kingdom. In writing to the Philippians he was speaking of his anticipated release from the flesh, from this present life, with the implication that his next conscious experience would be the "being with Christ."

It would appear then that St. Paul’s intention in Phil.1:23 was to define his being "loosed" from the responsibilities, cares and burdens of human life, without any reference to the time of his appearance before his Lord for the reward of the promised crown. To be "loosed" from this earthly life and all its trials and sorrows, and (eventually, at the First Resurrection) to be united with Christ, was that which he desired most, but, says he, "to abide in the flesh is more needful for you." For the sake of those to whom he ministered he was ready to relinquish that which he might naturally have most desired, and continue in their service notwithstanding the life of suffering it would continue to entail.

May / June 1982 Issue