Paul debates with himself in his Philippian letter regarding leaving this world or remaining. (1:21-24) “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. . . . But I am hard pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.” Wait! That sounds a bit arrogant. He is saying that it would be better for him to go to glory, but it would be better for the Christians at Philippi if he kept on working. Is he thinking too highly of himself? Is he a little full of himself? It seems like he is placing high value on his contribution to the Christian community and low expectation on their survival without him. Does Paul pen with self-centered pride when he bellows how badly his readers require him?
We should take the comment in question in the context of Paul’s entire letter. In the earlier part of chapter one Paul declares, (1:6) “I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” Paul’s confidence was not in his work but in the work of Christ. In chapter two he exhorts, (2:3) “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.” I believe Paul was effective in his mission work partly because people knew him as one who practiced what he preached.
Perhaps in his musing about which was the better choice - to live or die – Paul could identify with the humility of Christ which he describes in chapter two. On the one hand, Christ (2:6-7) “existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant.” On the other hand, Paul’s personal preference to forego entering into his eternity with Christ in order to remain on earth a bond-servant of Christ was a similar act of humility.
Paul courageously writes this letter from a prison cell to encourage and assure his fellow believers that his desire was to continue to serve them and disciple them. His words: “to remain on in the flesh is necessary for your sake,” are spoken as a shepherd who assures his flock he will not abandon them. He confesses that they are more important to him than his own eternal ecstasy. Nevertheless, he cannot escape thinking about that future joy. He adds to his dialogue, (3:20-21) “our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory,”