Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Luke 3:15-22; Philippians 1:19-26; Psalm 119:153-160; 2 Kings 19-20
Today’s readings give us accounts of two men facing death. Hezekiah becomes gravely ill and God sends a message through Isaiah that he is going to die (2 Kings 20:1). He prays to God, reminding him of his faithful service and devotion. We might wonder if Hezekiah is bargaining with God for extra time, and why he gets fifteen additional years. We don’t get details of his prayer here, but it is recorded in Isaiah 38 and we will examine it in detail when we get to that passage.
Hezekiah’s prayer reveals a similar mindset to Paul’s, who is also facing imminent death when he writes Philippians. In his case, though, his death may be by execution. This letter was written from a Roman jail, where Paul was being held while on trial for his life. The uncertainty about his future leaves Paul wondering whether life or death would be better.
Some have taken this passage to mean that Paul sees nothing wrong with suicide or assisted suicide. They claim that if Paul does not know whether to choose life or death (v. 22), he cannot see suicide as an unethical choice. This view can be rejected on the basis of one of primary principles of interpretation: understanding the author’s intended message. Paul is writing to the Philippians about dealing with his possible execution, not reflecting on suicide.
However, Paul does openly discuss his ambivalence about death. As a Christian, death is not something to be feared (Hebrews 2:15). Death has a good side: we will be with Christ. Unlike our culture, where death is to be ignored or avoided at all costs, we can face death with confidence. At the same time, Paul acknowledges that death is unwelcome because it separates us from the people we know and love. This is part of the pain of death.
Paul acknowledges that he wants to be with Christ, but he is confident that he will remain alive. His confidence is not in the court system, that it will bring about justice; it is not in the Philippians, that they will remain faithful in prayer; it is not even in himself, that he will stand firm to the end. Rather, his confidence is in the same thing that we can have confidence in: the fact that he will be with Christ no matter what happens. He can confidently face life or death knowing that.
At the same time, Paul believes he will remain alive. He, like Hezekiah, knows that God can use him to serve others while he is alive. When faced with his uncertain future, Paul’s concern is not for himself, but for those around him. Paul shows by his own example what he will teach in the next chapter: we should put the interests of others above our own. This is what Christ did, and so did Timothy and Epaphroditus. Paul would prefer to be with Christ, but it is more important that he continue to serve the Philippians.
Paul has confidence, but he doesn’t have control. Our culture craves control, but in reality we can’t have it. Our bodies will fail on us, no matter how hard we try to keep them going. Some people respond by trying to control their final moment: the timing of their death. Paul instead acknowledges that God is in control. This gives him confidence to face an uncertain future knowing God is with him no matter what, whether in life or in death. But as long as he has life, his focus is on the Gospel and bringing joy to the lives of others.