In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus primarily uses the language of the “Kingdom of God,” while in John the idea of “Eternal Life” takes center stage in Jesus’ conversations. Paul, on the other hand, leaves those expressions aside and orients his communication around the idea of being “in Christ.”
Paul uses that phrase, or a slight variation of that phrase, 90 times in his letters! The following are just a few examples (NIV – bolding and underlining are mine):
- Romans 6:8-11 – “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him… (so) count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
- Romans 8:1 – “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”
- Romans 8:10 – “But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness.”
- 1 Cor. 9:1 – “…Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?”
- 2 Cor. 13:5 – “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?”
- Galatians 2:20 – “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
- Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
- Galatians 5:6 – “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
Being “in Christ” is the centerpiece in Paul’s letters. It’s the major theme that all other concepts and counsel build off of. We could think of being “In Christ” as the puzzle box top that helps us piece together what his correspondence means. Gorman says, “this language is not so much mystical as it is spatial, to live within a ‘sphere’ of influence. The precise meaning of the phrase varies from context to context, but to be in “in Christ” principally means to be under the influence of Christ’s power, especially the power to be conformed to him and his cross, by participating in the life of a community that acknowledges his lordship” (Gorman, Cruciformity, 36).
My favorite example of how Paul uses this idea is found in Col. 1:27-29. In this section we see clearly this interesting dynamic of connected ideas: “Christ in you” and you “in Christ.”
Col. 1:27-29 – “God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.”
But how does this work? How can a person be “in Christ” as well as having “Christ in them”?
In trying to explain this dynamic in Mozambique, I’ve found the following example to be helpful: Being “in Christ” is like the air we intake with our breath and inhabit with our bodies.
Deissmann puts it this way: “Just as the air we breathe is “in” us and fills us and yet we at the same time live in this air and breathe it, so it is also with the Christ-intimacy of the Apostle Paul: Christ in him, he in Christ” (Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History, 140).
Here’s an Illustration that my Mozambican friends have found helpful:
Imagine that you are trying to hitchhike to a nearby town. You end up getting a ride in the back of a super old pick-up truck. It is ancient and rickety and you are a little worried that it won’t even make it, plus the driver looks a little sketchy, but you are tired of waiting, so you pay the fare and hop in the back. As the truck starts moving though, you realize that this truck is spewing all kinds of fumes out the exhaust and these fumes are rolling up into the car – you can’t see, your eyes are burning and you are breathing this toxic air into your lungs. You and the other passengers are coughing as this cloud of fumes bumps along the road. You are so busy worrying about the noxious exhaust that you don’t even notice that the truck has stopped moving – it has gotten stuck in a rut but continues belching its toxicity as the motor runs even though the truck isn’t going anywhere.
Then another driver comes along and stops. You are so busy coughing, though, you don’t even notice. What you do notice is a hand suddenly reaching through the fumes to grab you and pull you out. It’s your friend. He smiles and offers you a ride, you were trying to go where he is going. In his car you now are sitting next to him in the cool air conditioning and thankfully breathing in clean air again. You’ve stopped coughing and can enjoy his company along the road. Leaving the other toxic truck behind
For our Makua-Metto friends, this has been a helpful way to see how Paul holds being “in Christ” is held in contrast to being “in Sin/Evil” (Romans 7:14-17). They all resonate with how a life in Sin is bad and bad for you and connect with the way riding with Christ is infinitely better. Gorman notes that, as Paul puts it, for Christians, “the presence and power of Christ have replaced sin as the power that lives within him and the power within which he lives.” (Gorman, 38-39).
May we be a people who put on display what life in Christ and Christ in us truly looks like!
Grace and Peace,