“In Christ” in Ephesians Alive@5 14.5.17 https://youtu.be/BAnRiP83CJM
The first section of Ephesians is one of the most elevated parts of the whole Bible, especially because of its intense use of the expression “in Christ”. Scholars have argued that justification, reconciliation, covenant etc. are at the centre of the New Testament’s saving message, but the fact that “in Christ” and its equivalents (in Christ Jesus/Jesus/in the Lord/him….” occur 172 x in the New Testament, with 124 of these uses in Paul and 11of them in Ephesians 1:3-14, points to being “in Christ” as central to salvation. (https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2011/02/09/union-with-christ-a-crash-course/). In Ephesians the Father’s blessing of election, sonship, redemption, creation, resurrection, being seated in heaven, the oneness of the Church, forgiveness, light, obedience, strength, ministry etc. are all said to be ours “in Christ” (Eph 1:3, 4, 5, 7, 11; 2:5-6, 10, 13; 3:6; 4:32; 5:7; 6:1, 10, 21). Being “in Christ” is the starting-point for understanding what makes the Christian a Christian.
There are many ways to express what “in Christ” means, like “belonging to Christ” or “included in the Messiah”, but the phrase “union with Christ” is the most significant. Whatever terminology we might use, by its general failure to look like Jesus the contemporary Western Church isn’t living in the power of the revelation of what being “in Christ” means to God. Personally I was in my 40’s before this truth meant anything to me at the heart level. The truth of our union with Christ turns our natural way of thinking upside down. We begin to think of Jesus first before we think of ourselves, we start to see our needs through the life of the ascended Lord, and we accept that Christ initiates the relationship rather than us. We start to place Jesus and not ourselves in the centre and circumference of all things Christian. However our starting point of understanding what “in Christ” means is not Jesus but the Father; insight into the spiritual depths of our union with Christ begins with noting half of the references to being “in Christ” in Ephesians teach this is the result of the action of the Father. When we understand this our fallen tendency to a popular “Jesus religion” where men and women show by their prayers and testimony they are more comfortable with Jesus than going him to the Father are taken away. (cf. JY and the Jesus Movement – Jesus’ Houses, Jesus’ sign, Jesus’ T shirts and badges etc.)
Starting With the Father
Ephesians begins boldly with, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing gin the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world,” (1:3-4). Everything that we have “in Christ” comes from the Father’s loving initiative. The substance of what it means to be “in Christ” is a revelation of what it means to have God as our Father, for it is through the revelation of the Son that we know the Father (Matt 11:27; John 14:8). In eternity Father and the Son chose that Christ would be the location of God’s plan for the universe and humanity. To quote Ephesians 1:10; this was “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him/Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” Verses five and six of this chapter go to the very centre of the matter, “In love” the Father “predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” (1:4-6). Sonship is at the heart of the universe and our adoption as God’s children means nothing less than the Father loves us with the very same love with which he loves Jesus (John 17:23; 1 John 4:17). Not just the same degree of love, but in loving the Son the Father loves us indissolubly/indivisibly in him; the Father’s great plan is to share his relationship with Jesus with us so that we can enjoy their fellowship forever. What I have said so far about our union with Christ is pretty standard fare, but in probing further what “in Christ” might mean in Ephesians I think it is helpful to look outside the letter to events in the life of Paul.
Paul’s Conversion to Christ
The elevated perspective on Jesus as the “cosmic Christ” raised over “all things” in Ephesians (1:10, 11, 22; 3:9; 4:10 ) surely comes from comes from Saul’s/Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus. The accounts in Acts of his vision of the Lord all speak of a blinding “light from heaven” (Acts 9:3; 22:6; 26:13). The light shining on Saul was from the place where the Lord reigns in his End time power, it was, as Paul describes it in Galatians, “a revelation (apocalypse) of Jesus Christ.” (Gal 1:12 cf. Rev 1:1). It was not some created light that blinded Saul; it was the light of the glory of the life of Christ (John 1:4; 2 Cor 4:6). When in the same passage in Galatians Paul says, “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son in me, in order that I might preach him” (Gal 1:15-16) we can trace the language of election, union with Christ and God’s good pleasure and grace in Ephesians to the apostle’s own conversion experience (1:4, 5, 9). But Saul’s conversion wasn’t some one on one experience between him and Jesus. The account in Acts 9 is richly illuminating, “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:3-5). The heavenly Lord Jesus identified himself to Saul as someone united with his earthly Church. To cause pain to the Church was to cause pain to Christ. The Jesus whom Saul saw and heard on the road was nothing like how he had imagined Jesus “from a human point of view” (2 Cor 5:16). Receiving a heavenly vision (Acts 26:19) he saw the chosen one of God blessed by his Father with every blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1), dispensing ministry gifts to his people (Eph 4), preparing the Bride for his wedding day (Eph 5), enthroned above the evil rulers and authorities (Eph 1; 6) and so on. The inner content of Ephesians, and all Paul’s writings, was concentrated in his conversion experience and it was an experience of what it means to be united with Christ. That’s great for Paul you might think, but what does all this high theology mean for us?
What does “In Christ” mean?
Let me first say what it doesn’t mean. Jesus is not the instrument or medium through which God does good things for/to us. Christ is not a means to some higher end; he is the End goal of all the purposes of God for humanity. In the salvation language of the New Testament he is the reality and content of our regeneration, adoption, justification, sanctification, glorification etc. (cf. Rom 8:29 – 30; 1 Cor 1:30; Gal 2:17). So Ephesians 1:7 reads, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses”. Whatever has happened to Jesus has happened to us “in him”; weshare in his election, holy birth, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension and reign; e.g. Ephesians 2:5-6 states, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, (God) made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”. Our entire Christian identity is enclosed in Jesus. When Paul begins this letter by saying, “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:” (Eph 1:1), he means Jesus is the sphere in which the saints live and move and have their being. The whole of the Christian life is a share in the life of Jesus e.g. his prayer life, his understanding of the scriptures, his evangelistic zeal, his passion for justice etc. (This is the key to a biblical understanding of discipleship. http://cross-connect.net.au/into-discipleship-2012-1-the-testimony-of-jesus/) Whilst the wonder of union with Christ is really inexpressible here’s a memorable illustration.
Watchman Nee once said ““If I place a piece of paper in a book and burn the book, where is the piece of paper?” No prize for saying that it has gone, as it has been burned as well. In like manner, believers have been placed ‘in Christ’, so that whatever has happened to Christ has also happened them. When Jesus died and rose again, so did we spiritually, and never again will God see a believer as anything other than a new creation ‘in Christ Jesus’ [(2 Cor 5:17)]. We are forever united and joined to Christ and His history is our history!” We must never think that God merely “treats us” or “sees us” “as if” we shared in Jesus’ righteous, holy, we are really these things “in Christ” (2 Cor 5:21). Our identity is contained in this relationship established by the Father in the obedient Son and sealed by his Spirit (Eph 1:13; 2:18; 4:30).
Our fundamental identity is not drawn from our family, race, age, gender, education, social standing, nationality etc. but is an eternal life “in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:23; Col 3:4). This is not solely or primarily an individual thing, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:15, “He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups.” In Christ we are in the Church which is the new humanity. This comprehensive identity “in Christ” did not begin when we were converted or “born again” but is as eternal as Christ, for “he (the Father) chose us in him (Christ) before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:3-4 cf. Matt 25:34). Our assurance of eternal life is not in our personal consciousness of salvation but in the consciousness of God who has eternally known/chosen us in his Son (Eph. 1:4, 9; 3:11 cf. Rom 8:29). Nothing in us, no action of ours, could ever constitute our relationship with God in Christ. The object of our faith must never our faith, knowledge, obedience, witness, ministry etc. but only Jesus Christ. Once again we are faced with the question, how does all this become real in us?
How Does “In Christ” become real to us?
The New Testament teaching on our union with Christ is prolific and clear but the general failure of discipleship across the Western Church witnesses to a deep spiritual ignorance of these truths. Our self-centred radical individualism is clearly a part of the problem. More deeply however there are enormous obstacles at the heart level which explaining why union with Jesus is so fiercely resisted. If it is all about Jesus then the reality of being “in Christ” is equally true for all believers and no-one can add anything to what Jesus has done in his totally giving of himself to us then this brings tremendous humility (cf. John 15:4). With this the hierarchical and privileged dimensions of Church life as we know it are completely undone. If this is not challenging enough to creatures like us who prefer the status quo let me suggest there’s something even more demanding. Here’s a quote from Karl Barth; “that the Christian is in Christ, has not only the local but also the higher meaning that his own thinking, speech and action has its ruling and determinative principle and herein it is the work of his gratitude corresponding to grace in the speech, action and rule of Christ.” In effect this means that we can’t have our own way anymore, and that God calls all of us, not just special people like ministers and missionaries, to the same measure of obedience to which he called Jesus.
Whilst all this can be hard to understand I think the central issue is much the same as Paul’s command in Ephesians 6:1; “Children, obey your parents in the Lord”. This exhortation profoundly reduces even the most basic dimensions of our earthly relationships to our union with Christ. Whilst humanly speaking no one wants someone else to be in charge of their thinking, speaking and acting Ephesians itself provides the remedy for our obstinacy.
In chapter one verse seventeen Paul prays, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him”. We need to pray for a revelation of who Christ is for us, because the more I am aware of who Jesus is the more I will want to become like him. In another prayer context in Ephesians 3 Paul prays that the Father, “grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:17). Here he is asking God to grant the saints a more intense experience of their union with Jesus. These are prayers in which we can share; even tonight.
The “in Christ” teachings of the New Testament reverse our disposition to put ourselves first and testify that in the End it’s all about Jesus. To grow “in Christ” is inexpressibly wonderful (Eph 4:15). Let me end with an extended quote from that pioneer missionary to China, Hudson Taylor about his “spiritual secret”;
“How little I believed the rest and peace of heart I now enjoy were possible down here! It is heaven begun below….Compared with this union with Christ, heaven or earth are unimportant accidents. Oh, it is joy to feel Jesus living in you …to find your heart all taken up by Him; to be reminded of His love by His seeking communion with you at all times, not by your painful attempts to abide in Him. He is our life, our strength, our salvation. He is our “wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” He is our power for service and fruit-bearing, and His bosom is our resting place now and forever.” PTL