Is "departure and being with Christ" (Phil. 1: 23) the hope of the Christian?
Any question on departure must deal with the issue of why the Lord leaves Christians here in the first place, seeing that, unlike Israel, we are destined not for earth but heaven (see Phil. 3: 20). We are left here that “even as he walked, himself also [so] to walk” (1 John 2: 6)—to continue that walk of Christ in manhood that was so delightful to His God and Father. Once this is understood, any selfish reasoning around departure or remaining are done away with.
When he writes to the Philippians, Paul is a prisoner, and his life hangs in the balance. He knows that “remaining in the flesh” (Phil. 1: 24) would be for the benefit of the saints, but he also has a very strong desire “for departure and being with Christ, [for] [it is] very much better” (v23). This Scripture is rightly a great source of comfort, both to the dying Christian and to those bereaved, but it should not be elevated above the importance that Scripture gives it. “Very much better” is in contrast to serving Christ here, and it is wrong to interpret it as meaning that there is no higher blessing. The Thessalonian saints were disturbed in their minds “concerning them that are fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4: 13), but in answer, the apostle does not point them to the blessedness of the believer’s spirit being “with Christ” (Phil. 1: 23). Instead, he speaks of how “the dead in Christ shall rise first, then we, the living who remain, shall be caught up … to meet the Lord in [the] air; and thus we shall be always with [the] Lord” (1 Thess. 4: 16, 17). Clearly, “with Christ” (Phil. 1: 23) is not an identical thought to being “always with [the] Lord” (1 Thess. 4: 17). The former does not include our bodies, but the latter speaks of a day we shall meet the Lord in our bodies for our “whole spirit, and soul, and body” is to be “preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5: 23). Compared to life here, death for the Christian is a better thing, but it is not the best thing. What we should wish for above all else is not departure, but the Lord’s “coming again” in order to “receive you to myself, that where I am ye may be also” (John 14: 3). While living on earth we are responsible not only to “serve a living and true God” but to “await his Son from the heavens” (1 Thess. 1: 9, 10). It is the latter that is the Christian’s “blessed hope” (Titus 2: 13), not of falling asleep through Jesus.
If in chapter one of Philippians Paul speaks of choosing between two temporary options (for that is what “with Christ” and “remaining in the flesh” are—see Phil. 1: 23, 24), in chapter three he gives us the goal that ought to energise the believer in Christ. Departure to be with Christ was Paul’s desire, but it was not his goal—the target or mark on which he fixed his eye. The goal was “the prize of the calling on high of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3: 14), a goal for which all else was secondary, for it was “if any way I arrive at the resurrection from among [the] dead” (v11). Others of his acquaintance minded “earthly things” (v19), but the apostle viewed the saints as not really belonging here, “for our commonwealth has its existence in [the] heavens, from which also we await the Lord Jesus Christ [as] Saviour, who shall transform our body of humiliation into conformity to his body of glory, according to the working of [the] power which he has even to subdue all things to himself” (vs. 20, 21). To be “asleep through Jesus” (1 Thess. 4: 14), blessed as that is, is not the fulfilment of “[the] obtaining of [the] glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2: 14).
In 2 Cor. 5 Paul tells the saints that we “know that while present in the body we are absent from the Lord” and that we are “pleased rather to be absent from the body and present with the Lord” (v6, 8, my emphasis). However, this did not mean that he was not wishing for something beyond this for he speaks of “ardently desiring to have put on our house which [is] from heaven … for indeed we who are in the tabernacle groan, being burdened; while yet we do not wish to be unclothed, but clothed, that [what is] mortal may be swallowed up by life” (v2, 4). Earlier he had spoken of how “he who has raised the Lord Jesus shall raise us also with Jesus, and shall present [us] with you” (2 Cor. 4: 14). There is great blessedness for the Christian whose body lies in death in that his spirit is “with Christ” (Phil. 1: 23), but his distinctive hope remains the moment when the Lord Jesus “shall transform our body of humiliation into conformity to his body of glory” (Phil. 3: 21). The moment of real triumph is when “this mortal shall have put on immortality” for “then shall come to pass the word written: Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15: 54). Thus the Christian, even when on the verge of death, does not look for the departure of death, but looks beyond to resurrection or translation.