"For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you" (Philippians 1:23-24).
Is Paul saying in these verses that he wants to depart from earth and be with Christ in heaven? What did he mean when he expressed his desire to be with Christ?
Before focusing on what this scripture says, let’s notice what it does not say. It does not say when or where Paul would be with Christ if he departed. Nor is there any reference to heaven in these verses. To conclude otherwise is to read assumptions into Paul’s words.
When writing to the Philippians, Paul was struggling with two desires. He wanted to depart this life and be with Christ, but he also wanted to remain with God’s people. In his second letter to Timothy he speaks dogmatically; he knows the end of his physical life is near, and he is ready to depart:
"For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing" (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Here we learn what Paul means by being "with Christ." He understood that he was not to receive his reward immediately at death. Instead, there was laid up for him a crown of righteousness that he would be given "on that Day" of Christ’s appearing, at Jesus’ second coming. As Paul noted, Jesus will bring Paul’s reward with Him. Paul will receive it at that time, not before, along with all others who will be resurrected at Christ’s return.
"Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand, and His arm shall rule for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him" (Isaiah 40:10; see also Revelation 22:12).
"Behold I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed–in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
"For we all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10).
The time from Paul’s death until his resurrection will seem to him but a mere moment. He will be with Christ and will be a glorified son of God in the next moment of his consciousness. No wonder Paul, weary of his sufferings in this life, desired to depart and be with Christ.