Paul chooses to stay with the Philippians, rather than to die, which he counts as far better, just because they still need him. Could he really have chosen to die and does that mean we can?
Philippians 1:22 New King James Version
But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell.
Philippians 1:22 Revised Standard Version
If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.
These two examples show what almost all translations clearly state: that Paul plans to choose whether he lives or dies—he just doesn’t yet know what his decision is going to be. In order to give you the context, here is the entire paragraph with my corrections:
Philippians 1:20-26 The Mouse Companion Version (MCV)
20 It is my earnest and confident anticipation, that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have courage so that now as always, Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I live in the flesh it will mean fruitful work, but which I would choose I can’t say, 23 as I am torn between the two: having the desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better, 24 but to remain in the flesh would be indispensable for you. 25 Being convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and stay with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 that in me you may have much cause to rejoice in Christ Jesus through my being with you again.
He has no idea what his future holds in detail, but is confident that he won’t let Jesus down by cowardice whatever he has to face. This is because his courage is the courage of Christ by the faith of Christ living in him through the power of the Holy Spirit—everything is from God and nothing is from him.
When he says, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” he means it entirely literally. Everything he does expresses the transcendent life of Christ within: his character, his grace, his love, his authority, his power, and so on. But to die! To go to be with Christ forever… now that would be magnificent!
Almost all other translations assume, in verse 22, that Paul feels he must decide whether to die or not, as if it’s his own choice. But if he chose to die, that would be suicide, which is plainly not an option. Firstly it is a sin, and secondly it’s entirely contrary to the practice of obeying the prompting of the Spirit of God. If a spirit suggests we take our own life we can be sure it is an evil spirit and not a word from the Lord! In consequence I have used the word “would” to make it more of a passing thought: what he ‘would’ choose were he to have to choose.
His primary desire is to join Christ and rejoice in His presence for ever, coupled with a subsidiary desire to shake off the flesh which continually opposes him with its endless distractions, temptations and flaws. If he were to die physically, the battles would be over and, having his resurrection body, he could shine eternally with the light of Christ with nothing to dim the glow.
The alternative however, to which love and duty also pulls him, is that since he knows that for now the Philippians (and probably other fellowships as well) still require his support, he is sure that the Lord won’t call him home just yet, but clearly, whether he dies or not, it’s the Lord’s call. >ᴥ<