I would think that of all things the apostle said or wrote, his short statement in Philippians 1 is probably the most widely known: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (vs. 21). In these nine words Paul identifies himself, states his purpose in life, and describes the outcome. Rarely has so much been said in so few words!
First, the context. In spite of the fact that he is chained up in a Roman prison, the gospel is still being preached, and that fills his heart with joy. He is grateful for the prayers of the congregation and trusts that he himself will always be faithful so that whether he lives or is put to death, Christ will be exalted in his body.
Against that background, what exactly is it that Paul is telling us in this terse statement so full of meaning? The statement “to live is Christ” is understood in several ways. One way to take it is that Paul’s life was totally centered on Christ and his redemptive mission. Everything comes into focus on this one central reality. So close is that relationship to the One he met on the Damascus road that he can say, “As far as I’m concerned my life is simply Christ carrying out his plans through me – nothing more, nothing less.” Should Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time (28 medals!) say, “For me to swim is life,” we would know exactly what he meant. Using the metaphor we hear Paul, saying something like, “For me, preaching the gospel is so important that I work out in the gospel at least six hours a day, make every verse count, and train hard for the next time I get to speak.”
But Paul’s simple declaration can be understood as more than a description of how hard he works. Biblical exegetes use the term sensus plenior to refer to a deeper meaning intended by God but not necessarily by the human author. To hear a dog bark means little to me, but for Ron, a friend who earlier in life was attacked by two pit bulls, that same bark sends a severe wave of fright through his body. It has a “deeper meaning.” So, some exegetes understand, “For me to live is Christ” in terms of complete identification with Him. Having died with Christ, as Paul writes in Romans 6:8, we become one with him. That which the man Paul appears to be doing is actually Christ/Paul at work. They are existentially one. There is no isolated “I” who lives and works apart from Christ.
In whichever way you take the statement, it emphasizes the profound relationship between a believer like Paul and the Lord, Jesus Christ.