In his article “A Box Full of Treasures: Letters Home from a Young Soldier,” Richard M. Barrett spoke of former judge Philip D. O’Donnell, Jr., going through the personal effects of his recently deceased aunt and coming across an old cigar box containing “hand-written letters and faded photographs.” To his surprise he found a number of hand-written letters from Edward A. Stewart, World War I machine gunner serving with the American Expeditionary Forces in France in November 1918. Eddie was described as a “courageous, patriotic native son who was a popular, well-liked, natural born leader.” Eddie was the sort of son and soldier that made one proud to be an American.
Barrett goes on to walk us through some of the letters O’Donnell read that day. The letters catalog Eddie’s journey from “New York City to basic training at Ft. Hancock, Georgia,” his “deployment to England by sea,” and his service as a machine gunner in Company B, 317th M.G. Battalion.
In a letter written on November 7, 1918 Eddie spoke of a potential armistice that could end the war. Later he spoke of the Armistice being signed on November 10th and “The War to End All Wars” being over. This was encouraging news to Eddie and his parents. Eddie would be coming home safely.
In the final hours of the war, General John J. Pershing continued to maintain his offensive against the Germans. His troops continued their advance. During the final moments of the war Eddie was hit by an “explosive that left two gaping wounds to his right hip” and the “center of his back.” Eddie was taken to both field and base hospitals where he died later that day.
In a letter to Eddie’s parents, Ralph Humphries’ a fellow soldier said that Eddie was “literally minutes away from returning home safely.”
How sad that in the final moments of the war this young life was snuffed out. Instead of going home victoriously along with his fellow soldiers, Eddie’s body would be laid to rest “in a cemetery in France for three years before his family and the military brought his remains home.”
What an incredibly sad moment for Eddie, his fellow soldiers and more importantly his family. Yet, Eddie’s sacrifice is exactly why we set aside time to reflect on both Eddie’s and all service members who forfeited their lives in service to our country.
The truth is, for those who have embraced Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, regardless of our standing, be we a soldier at war like Eddie or a common man or woman, we are all “literally minutes away from returning home safely.”
The apostle Paul said in Philippians 1:19-23, “For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, 20 according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.”
Paul was in chains when he wrote this as noted in Philippians 1:12-13. It appears to be a byproduct of his appeal to stand before Caesar in Acts 25:11 when falsely accused by the “high priest and the chief men of the Jews” in Acts 25:2.
When Paul talks about suffering for Christ, he literally means it as he was bound in chains wrongly. When Paul entertains the thought of death, he literally means it as his life rested literally in Caesar’s hands.
In Philippians 1:19-23 the apostle establishes three important aspects of the Christian walk.
PAUL ESTABLISHES THE ESSENCE OF A RELATIONSHIP WITH CHRIST
First, amid the challenges of his chains, the apostle Paul establishes the essence of a relationship with Christ. In verse 20 he says, “Christ will be magnified in my body.”
Paul’s primary goal in life was to magnify Christ through all aspects of his life.
When Paul says, “Christ will be magnified in my body,” what does that mean?
Merriam – Webster’s Dictionary says that to magnify someone or something is to “extol,” “laud,” or to “cause to be held in greater esteem or respect.”
The apostle makes it clear that a true relationship with Christ demand that Christ is exalted and lifted up. Thus, the apostle willingly places himself in the seat of humility, humbling all he is before the Lord and placing the Lord and His interests before his own.
The Lord underscores the necessity of His followers willingly placing themselves in the humble position in Luke 16:13 when He says, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Attempting to serve others or live for yourself, in an all encompassing manner, is not compatible with Christ’s teachings. Why? Christ understood that divided loyalties cause problems.
Jesus said in Mark 3:26 “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” In short, we cannot serve self and Christ too. We cannot magnify, lift up and glorify self and Christ too. We must choose whether Christ will be our master or our personal self-interests.
Jesus made His desire for his followers very clear in Mark 10:29-30 saying, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, 30 who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life.”
Laying aside self-interest and self-pleasures to magnify Christ is essential. Jesus demands our all. He demands humility and humble service on His behalf. Anything less leaves us in personal conflict and divided within.
PAUL ESTABLISHES THE ESSENCE OF THE BELIEVER’S LIFE
We see in Philippians 1:21, Paul establishing the essence of the believer’s life by saying, “For to me, to live is Christ.”
Being a trustworthy Jew, Paul understood the importance of embracing the teachings of Deuteronomy 6:4. The passage has been incorporated into a prayer known as the Shema. It is quoted during the morning and evening Jewish prayer services. It says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Christ reflects the importance of this teaching in his response to a question asked of Him in Matthew 22:36, “which is the great commandment in the law?” In Matthew 22:37-38 Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment.”
Paul sought to magnify Christ by loving him with all his heart, soul and strength. He sought to magnify Him through his thoughts, words, attitude and actions. All aspects of Paul’s life belonged to Christ and he strove to surrender self as a daily endeavor.
This becomes clear when we reflect on Paul’s comments in Galatians 2:20 where he says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
The apostle considered himself dead, thereby allowing Christ through the Holy Spirit to live in and through him.
One might be led to believe that such lofty expectations were meant for the spiritual elite, but that isn’t the case. When God shared the Deuteronomy 6:4 commandment, notice He said, “Hear, O Israel.” Who or what was Israel? Israel was a composite of every man, woman and child, common and elite, born of the lineage of Jacob. God renamed Jacob, Israel. Israel, as well as the body of Christ, the Church, are God’s spiritual offspring.
One might be tempted to say “God, I wasn’t alive when you gave that commandment, so I’m not bound by it.” If so, don’t be surprised if God replies, “So be it. You are not bound to Me nor my eternal blessings.”
God does not force us to love or follow Him. There are some within various religious organizations that may try to coerce or manipulate one into embracing God, but if “loving” God is based on what someone else wishes for you or demands of you, and you allow them to have their way with you, that’s not authentic love.
In some cultures marriages are arranged. In some instances the concept of love is secondary to that of more practical considerations. The couple may marry, and may or may not ever come to truly love one another. A couple can submit to the will of others in marry, but no one can force them to love each other.
As creatures of God, He affords us the opportunity to love Him with all our heart, soul and strength, but He does not force us like dogs to obey. He does not program us like computers to perform. Rather, He provides us with the ability to make the choice for ourselves. But, once we choose to love and follow God, we are commanded to do so with all our heart, all our soul and all our strength.
Paul exemplified the essences of the true believer’s life, “For to me, to live is Christ.” We all fall short in many ways, but at the heart of one’s faith must be a pattern of striving to live for Christ. Anything less, is less than the Lord’s expectation of and for us.
PAUL ESTABLISHES THE ESSENCE OF THE BELIEVER’S DEATH
Lastly, Paul establishes the essence of the believers death. In Philippians 1:21 he says, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
The essence of death for the true follower of Christ is not the grave, is not decay, is not being absorbed into universal matter. No, it is much more than that, it is gain!
The apostle had a good idea of the eternal glory yet to come. As a result, he could say in Philippians 1:23 “For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.”
Death and eternal glory were real to Paul. He longed for it. He could taste it. He could say with all certainty that it “is far better.”
In the book of Revelation 21:1-7 we get a small glimpse of why Paul was eager to move on. There it says, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. 2 Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.’ 5 Then He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ And He said to me, ‘Write, for these words are true and faithful.’ 6 And He said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. 7 He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son.'”
The apostle knew that the Lord could call him home any minute. He understood what it meant to be “minutes away from returning home safely.” Returning home not as World War I veteran Edward A. Stewart hoped for, but as Christ had provide it in all its splendor and majesty.
Home. Our real home. Not with our earthly parents, but with our heavenly one. Our Creator, Sustainer, Provider, and Savior the Lord Jesus Christ.
Is it any wonder Paul could say with fullness of heart, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
In mansions of glory and endless delight, I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright; I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow; If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.
William R. Featherston, 1864
All scripture quotations: New King James version. Ed. Arthur Farstad. Nashville: HarperCollins, 1982.
A Box Full of Treasures: Letters Home from a Young Soldier Richard M. Barrett, Just Good Reading. Yorkville: May 2016.
Public Domain Photo:
The Library of Congress
Experiencing War – Stories from the Veterans History Project
Frederick Clarence Stilson