Present Truth

"A Strait Betwixt Two"

A Strait Betwixt Two

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the
flesh, this is the fruit of my labor: yet what I shall choose I wot not.
For 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.—Philippians 1:21-24

Homer Montague

An overview of events near the latter portion of the Apostle Paul’s
ministry, commencing with his visit to Jerusalem at the close of his
third missionary journey, is chronicled in Acts beginning at 21:17
and continuing throughout the succeeding chapters of the book.
These experiences help to furnish a context from which to better
understand several epistles Paul wrote while he was under protective
custody in Rome.

When Paul arrived in Jerusalem, some Jews from Asia accused him
of telling them not to obey the law of Moses. Furthermore, they
charged that he even brought gentiles into their temple. This
inflamed some of the people against Paul and they were ready to kill
him. When the captain of the Roman soldiers was informed he
rescued Paul from the angry mob and gave him permission to address
the throng.

Paul told them the story of how he had formerly persecuted the
followers of Jesus, but subsequently had been converted to
Christianity. His hearers listened to him attentively until he
mentioned that he had preached this gospel to the gentiles as well as
to the Jews; then their anger was kindled against him. They charged
that he was not fit to live and the chief captain ordered that Paul be
taken to the castle and scourged with the whip until he confessed
what evil he had committed.

As preparations were being made to carry out this order, however,
Paul declared that he was a Roman citizen. Since it was a violation of
the law to whip a free Roman, he was placed in prison for his

The Plot

Meanwhile, a band of Jews vowed they would neither eat nor drink
until they put him to death. Paul’s nephew overheard this plot and
communicated it to him. Arrangements then were made to send Paul
under guard to Caesarea where Felix, the Roman governor of Judea,
was in charge.

Felix kept Paul in prison though he allowed him a great deal of
freedom. He was convinced that the apostle was not guilty of any evil
deeds. Festus replaced Felix as governor. He inquired whether or not
Paul was willing to stand trial in Jerusalem, but instead, the apostle
exercised his right to be judged at the court of Caesar in Rome.
After being shipwrecked en route, Paul and some other prisoners
stayed for a few months on the Island of Malta, and then sailed for
Rome. He spent two years there, teaching all who came to him about
Jesus and Christianity. Many became believers as a result of this
ministry. While awaiting trial to see whether his fate would be death
or a release from house arrest, he testified as to his appreciation of
the brethren’s prayers on his behalf; at the same time expressing joy
for the privilege of serving Christ (Phil. 1:19, 20).

A Common View

In analyzing the meaning of our theme text, many commentators
have suggested that Paul was in a quandary for the following reason:
If the continuance of his life resulted in advancing the cause of
Christ among his hearers, it would be a good thing. Conversely,
should the apostle die, he would depart and be with Christ in heaven.
This would be a preferable alternative. Nevertheless, in order to
serve the church, he was willing to tarry in the world a while longer
instead of experiencing his reward.

Since the King James Version and several other biblical translations
seem to favor the foregoing argument, it would be appropriate to
determine whether or not the overall scripture testimony is in
harmony with such a view.

Some pertinent considerations in this connection relate to the nature
of death as well as the time of Christ’s second coming. We will
examine each in turn.

Both the Old and New Testaments describe death as the state of
unconscious sleep. Some texts which support this understanding are
as follows: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might;
for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the
grave whither thou goest" (Eccl. 9:10); "And many of them that sleep
in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and
some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Dan. 12:2); "These things
saith he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus
sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his
disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of
his death: but they thought that he had spoken of rest in sleep. Then
said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead" (John 11:11-14); "For
if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not
raised, your faith is vain, ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which
are fallen asleep in Christ are perished" (1 Cor. 15:16-18).

Paul’s View

The divinely inspired Paul surely had a clear understanding as to the
meaning of the foregoing scriptures and, therefore, contrary to the
common interpretations of Philippians 1:23, could not have expected
that his departure in death would have resulted in immediate union
with Christ in heaven. Like all others who preceded him in death, he,
too, expected to "sleep" until his resurrection (John 5:28, 29 RSV).
The Bible also clearly testifies as to the object of Christ’s second
coming. A few of the scriptures which relate to this subject include
the following: "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come
again and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there ye may be
also" (John 14:3); "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 them also that love his
appearing" (2 Tim. 4:8); "I charge thee therefore before God, and the
Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his
appearing and his kingdom" (2 Tim. 4:1).

The first two of these scriptures indicate that at the time of Jesus’
second advent, his footstep followers, or church, would be gathered
to him and share in the heavenly kingdom which he would receive.
"Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on
such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God
and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years" (Rev. 20:6).
The third citation above illustrates that another purpose of Christ’s
return is to provide a period of judgment or trial for the remainder of
the world so that ultimately there will be a restoration of mankind to
the conditions of human perfection which originally existed in the
garden of Eden before Adam’s fall.

Since the Apostle Paul understood that his life of faithful service
could not be rewarded until our Lord’s second advent, he could not
have expected to go to heaven and be with Jesus immediately at his

A Time Lapse

Concerning the time of Jesus’ second advent, we find these words in
2 Thessalonians 2:1-4,
"Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus
Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, that ye be not soon
shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by
letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man
deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there
come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of
perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called
God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of
God, shewing himself that he is God."

Not only did the apostle teach that the day of the Lord would not
come until after the apostasy had occurred, but additionally, in 2
Timothy 3:1-7 he described the perilous times which would be
associated with the last days. When Paul penned his epistle to the
Philippians, although he was not certain whether his house arrest in
Rome would ultimately lead to his acquittal or execution, it is
apparent from his writings that if his portion should be death, he did
not expect to be with Christ in heaven immediately because he
believed and taught that the second coming of Christ would be a
future event beyond his lifetime.

A Translation Problem

Turning again to Philippians 1:23, we quote from the King James
translation: "For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to
depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better."
The same verse is rendered as follows in the Emphatic Diaglott: "I
am indeed hard pressed by the two things: I have an earnest desire for
the returning, and being with Christ, since it is very much to be

The most significant difference between these two translations
relates to the Greek word analuo, which is rendered "depart" in the
King James version and "the returning" in the Emphatic Diaglott. In
Vine’s Expository Dictionary, under "return," we find the following:
"analuo, ‘to depart’ in Philippians 1:23 signifies ‘to return,’ in Luke
12:36 [it is] used in a simile of the ‘return’ of a lord for his servants
after a marriage feast." Analuo (Strong’s 360) is found only in these
two New Testament texts. In Luke 12:35 the context demonstrates
the propriety of rendering it as "return" instead of "depart." It would
seem, moreover, in view of all these reasons, Paul did not expect to
depart for heaven immediately upon his death. Philippians 1:23
therefore does not relate to Paul’s departure at his demise but rather
to the returning of Christ at his second advent to claim his church.
"For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with
the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead
in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be
caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the
air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:16, 17).

Paul’s Zeal

Viewed from this standpoint, the whole tenor of Philippians 1:21-24
can be harmonized with scriptural teaching. Verse 21 suggests that
the apostle’s life was totally consumed in serving Christ; but if he
were to die, it would have been a personal gain for him to have rested
from all the rigors associated in being spent while carrying out his
sacrificial course (2 Cor. 11:23-30). In verse 22, Paul reaffirms the
privilege of fruitful activity for the Lord if he continues in the flesh.
However, having yielded himself to God’s will, he has no personal
preference as to whether that should be his portion or, instead, to be
relieved from toil by the sleep of death. This was the "strait betwixt
two" that is spoken of in verse 23. Nevertheless, the apostle
continues by expressing a desire for a third option —neither a life of
suffering nor a release in death, but for the return of Christ because
he knew that he then would be resurrected and rewarded for his

The Apostle Paul’s unflagging confidence in a future resurrection
from death as the basis of his hope to be with the Lord at the second
advent is well supported by other scriptures. It is for this reason that
he wrote in Philippians 1:23 that being with Christ was "far better"
than the other two alternatives, even though he would have to wait in
the sleep of death for such deliverance.

Surely, the apostle’s state of mind when he penned these words was,
"I will neither murmur nor repine at what the Lord’s providence may
permit, because faith can firmly trust him, come what may."

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