What is Living? Colossians 3:17, 23
In Paul’s “Prison Epistles” of Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, he makes it abundantly clear what living is to him, and should be to all Christians. In Philippians he says “To live is Christ”, in Ephesians he says “I…beg you to live in a manner worthy of your calling in Christ”, and in Colossians Paul wrote, “whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus”. Therefore I put the question to you—What is living? If you asked the merchant, the trader, or the salesman he might say to live is to accumulate wealth. Ask a slave and he would say to live is toil and suffering. To the philosopher to live is knowledge and wisdom. To a soldier to live might be fame and glory. To a mother to live might be raising good children. Most people would tend to answer the question within the context of their temporal material activities. Paul, however, gives us a radical spiritual perspective on living that can only be true in a person who has been spiritually born in a new union with Christ. In Galatians 2:20, he makes this radical statement combining his new identity in Christ with his purpose in living, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me”. Paul was saying that before Christ, he lived for himself as all people do, but now in Christ he lived for Christ and the Spirit of Christ lived in him.
Hamlet and Paul
In his New Testament letters to the churches, Paul gave two very different views of life that stand in great contrast to one another. He calls the first view a worldly or fleshly mindset in which a person’s meaning and purpose is derived from the things in the world and the passions of the flesh. This mindset is typified by our ancestor Adam who fell from Paradise when he committed the original sin.
The spiritual view of life that was Paul’s because he was “in Christ” is derived from our abiding relationship in Christ, and is empowered by the Holy Spirit who indwells believers. This mindset is typified by Jesus who always did the will of God and spoke the words of God. Jesus came into the world taking on the flesh (the incarnation) in order to carry out God’s plan of the redemption of man. Paul summed up these two types of people in Romans 5:17-18, “for if by the transgression of the one (Adam), death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.”
In literature, perhaps the greatest student of human nature is William Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote his most famous tragedy, HAMLET, about 1600. In the play Prince Hamlet is distraught over the death of his father the King of Denmark. When he finds out that his uncle had murdered his father, he seeks revenge. In the play Hamlet seeks revenge, commits several murders, exhibits severe rage, and generally deceives everyone he knows. The play explores themes of treachery, revenge, incest, lust, deception, greed, and moral corruption of every kind. “To be, or not to be” is the most famous line in English literature, but most people don’t know what it means. I see Hamlet as the perfect representative of the human race who is a vast assortment of passions, frustrations, and anger at God and man. Hamlet is the opposite of the spiritual Paul who lives for Christ. Hamlet is consumed with his circumstances in the world, which carry him along to an assortment of crimes. Even though Hamlet is so messed up, we feel connected to him because the tragedies of his father’s death, his mother’s infidelity, and his girlfriend’s deception are not his fault. He seems to be a victim in all this, and we can’t help but be on his side. In the same way, who among us has not felt the desire for revenge, or hoped that the bad guy will meet with an untimely death? Who wouldn’t be angry with his girlfriend tricking him in such a desperate situation? In contrast, the spiritual Paul had been falsely accused, arrested, spent 4 years in prison, and was threatened with execution. Paul’s mindset was that God was just giving him new opportunities to share the Gospel with prison guards and the people of Rome.
If you read HAMLET you will probably figure out what “To be, or not to be” means. The distraught Hamlet is simply debating with himself whether life is worth living. He poses the meaning of life as a matter of philosophical debate. Hamlet went on to put up the question of life in a very profound way, “Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them. To die, to sleep—no more—and by a sleep to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contempt, the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, when he himself might his settlement make with a bare dagger? But that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose region no traveler returns makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? THUS CONSCIENCE DOES MAKE COWARDS OF US ALL”.
Notice that Prince Hamlet included us all in his conundrum. In a very eloquent way Hamlet expressed that life can be very hard, and so painful that the only thing that keeps us from giving up is the fear of death (the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns). The imagery of “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” is awesome as those circumstances out of our control. The “sea of troubles” that continue to come our way can be overwhelming. The “whips and scorns of time” is great to picture the cruelty of aging, and then the wrongs suffered at the hands of greedy selfish people as “the oppressor’s wrong and the proud man’s contempt” help us feel his pain. Then Hamlet says that the only thing that keeps him from seeking death is the fear of the unknown. Thus, with this temporal fleshly mindset, Hamlet is driven by his passions for revenge, and he will make a continuous series of bad choices.
In contrast, no one that I know of has ever been more mistreated than Paul. Even before he was falsely accused and thrown in jail, he had undergone at least ten years of beatings, persecution, and great pain. We can find a laundry list of these troubles in 2 Corinthians 11:23-25, “beaten times without number, often in danger of death, five times I received thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times shipwrecked”…etc. Looks to me that Hamlet had a piece of cake, a walk in the park compared to Paul. Therefore, why was Paul’s mindset, his perspective so radically different from Hamlet (and the rest of the human race that is apart from Christ)? In 2 Cor.12, Paul went on to explain why he did not despair. Paul had prayed fervently that God would relieve his pain, but God had replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for God’s power is perfected in Paul’s weakness…therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, persecutions, and difficulties for Christ’s sake.”
The Church of Philippi in Macedonia had sent their representative to check on Paul in prison in Rome. They were worried about Paul so Paul gave them a report about his circumstances and his mindset in prison under the threat of death. Not surprisingly, Paul was rejoicing in spite of his circumstances. Paul had the opportunity to share Christ with the notorious Praetorian Guard while a prisoner, and was able to minister to and embolden the local church in Rome. God had opened some doors in Rome that were previously closed to the Gospel as Paul said, “my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel”. As to the question of whether Paul would be executed or not, Paul was ambivalent because of his unique spiritual perspective. Paul did not even know which way to hope for, because his only desire was that “Christ be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” Therefore, to Paul, life was all about Christ. He lived for Christ, so he could honestly say, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He would be happy to die so that he could go immediately to be with Christ, but he also would be happy to live on so he could continue to minister for Christ.
Unfortunately, reality for us is too often that to live is work, money, position, acclaim of our peers, family, recreation, relationships, and then maybe to talk about Christ on Sunday. For most of us in our culture, our primary concern is materialistic. Like many people, Hamlet seemed to have it all. He was the Prince of Denmark, rich, young, handsome, etc., but on the inside he was miserable. His circumstances drug him down, and reduced him to an angry hostile man who contemplated, just as Paul did in Philippians, the question of life. “To be or not to be, that is the question”. Hamlet, like most men, will continue to live because the unknown prospect of the alternative is worse. While Paul, and all who follow his example live a joyous life in spite of their circumstances.
Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 that he no longer recognized or identified people “according to the flesh”. By this he meant that all people were equal in God’s eyes, and to be distinguished only in a spiritual sense whether they had Christ and therefore had become “a new creature”. If so, then the old things had passed away and a new life in Christ had begun. If this is true for us then a new identity is ours as ambassadors for Christ, and God has committed to us “a ministry of reconciliation…as though God were begging people through us to be reconciled to God.” Hopefully we can then adopt Paul’s perspective on life to be eager to serve God imperfectly on earth or perfectly in heaven.