When Paul sticks his tongue out at death, “most of the brothers” suddenly realize that death isn’t so big and bad after all. The worst (as it were) that death can actually do is usher them into the bliss of life forever with God. Suddenly Paul’s Christian peers feel able to stick their own tongues out at death (or any other consequence that Rome might throw their way for their witness to Christ’s person and work).
On the surface, Paul’s observation in Philippians 1:14 that “most of the brothers” in Rome–where Paul was chained to a member of the imperial guard awaiting the outcome of his judicial appeal to the emperor Nero–had become “more confident in the Lord” and “more bold to speak the word without fear” by virtue of Paul’s own “imprisonment” makes absolutely no sense. Paul’s imprisonment and the uncertainty of his own fate should have made other Christians in Rome less, not more, bold. It should have cowed them into quiet submission into Rome’s inchoate stance against that upstart religion Christianity. How did it produce the opposite result? How did Paul’s suffering embolden other Christians?
The answer lies in Paul’s attitude towards his unfortunate circumstances, an attitude that he reveals to his readers in considerable psychological detail in Philippians 1:19-26. Paul demonstrates not the fear, worry, and anger that one would expect from someone in his circumstances (i.e., a candidate for capital punishment). He demonstrates, rather, pure joy. He portrays himself as one in the ultimate win-win situation. Either outcome of his appeal to the emperor is, in his judgment, a victory. Either he will be released from prison, and so given further opportunity to proclaim the Gospel and serve the church, or he will be executed, and so step into the inheritance that belongs to him as a believer; namely, life forever in the presence of our triune God. Paul considers death the preferable option: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23). But living has its own reward; namely, the opportunity to convince more and more people to embrace the forgiveness of sins available to them on the basis of Christ’s work and so claim a share in that eternal inheritance that Paul himself anticipates. In short, “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).