Resurrection and Ascension: What It Means to Be "in Christ," by Neil Earle
Albert Schweitzer called “being in Christ” the prime enigma of the apostle Paul’s teaching. Schweitzer was one of the most outstanding Germans of the 20th century—a theologian, musician and great missionary doctor, winner of the Nobel Peace prize in 1952. He was not an orthodox Christian, but few people evoked the Christlike spirit more powerfully.
In his 1931 book, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, Schweitzer made the point that other religions, prophets, soothsayers and philosophers seek after “God” in some form or another. But Schweitzer saw that for Paul, the Christian hope and daily living was more specifically and surely focused—it is new life in Christ. Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” at least 12 times in his letters. A good example is 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.”
Schweitzer summarized Paul’s thoughts on this subject:
“For him [Paul], believers are redeemed by entering already, through the union with Christ, by means of a mystical dying and rising again with him during the continuance of the natural world-era into a supernatural state of existence, this state being that which they are to possess in the kingdom of God. Through Christ we are removed out of this world and transferred into the state of existence proper to the kingdom of God, notwithstanding the fact that it has not yet appeared” (The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, page 380).
Note how Schweitzer shows Paul to have kept the two aspects of Christ’s coming held together in an end-time tension—kingdom living now and full kingdom life yet to come. But how does all this really work, and how does it fit in with the most important event in human history—the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
The heavenly realms already?
For starters, the mystical theme is a vital key to understand such powerful passages as Romans 6:1-5: “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will also be united with him in his resurrection…. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”
This is classic Paul. For him the resurrection was the hinge doctrine of Christianity. Not only were Christians symbolically buried with Christ in baptism, but they were symbolically raised with him as well. Only it goes a bit deeper than mere symbolism. There is a hard bite of ultimate reality to this exalted theologizing.
Note how Paul develops this theme further in Ephesians 2:6: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in trespasses—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.”
How could this be? Paul is not speaking here literally and physically, he is speaking somewhat metaphorically. He tells us that through God’s saving power demonstrated in Christ’s resurrection we already enjoy participation through the Holy Spirit in the heavenly realms where God and Christ dwell. This is one of the benefits of life “in Christ” and his resurrection and ascension. Being “in Christ” makes all this possible.
The resurrection factor
Once again we have to stand in awe of the multitudinous dynamics flowing from the resurrection of our Lord and Christ, knowing it was not just the greatest event in history but also a vital guiding principle for everything the believer can hope and expect here below. “In Christ” is a phrase that penetrates deeper than mere symbol or analogy. It links up with the other phrase, “seated in the heavenly realms.”
Note the rich expositions of Ephesians 2:6 from some expert commentators. Here is Max Turner in The New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Version:
“To say we have been made alive with Christ appears to be shorthand for saying ‘we shall be resurrected with Christ to new-creation life,’ and we may speak of that as though it were an already accomplished event because first, the decisive event of [Christ’s] resurrection lies in the past and secondly, we already begin to participate in aspects of that new-creation life in our present union with him” (page 1229).
We are united with Christ through the Holy Spirit. Note Francis Foulkes’ comments on Ephesians 2:6 in The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries:
“In Ephesians 1:3 the apostle has said that God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. Now he says more specifically that our life has come to be there, enthroned with Christ…. Humanity, by virtue of Christ’s conquest of sin and death and by his exaltation, is lifted ‘from the deepest hell to heaven itself’ (Calvin). Citizenship is now in heaven (Phil. 3:20); and there, and not under the limits imposed by the world…true life is found” (page 82).
Notice John Stott’s remarks on Ephesians 2:6 in his book, The Message of Ephesians:
“What excites our amazement, however, is that now Paul is not writing about Christ but about us. He is affirming not that God quickened, raised and seated Christ, but that he quickened, raised and seated us with Christ…. Fundamental to New Testament Christianity is this concept of the union of God’s people with Christ. [They possess] new solidarity as a people who are ‘in Christ.’ By virtue of their union with Christ they have actually shared in his resurrection, ascension, and session.”
By “session” here Stott refers theologically to the present reign of Christ over all creation. Nor, says Stott, is all this talk of our reigning with Christ a piece of “meaningless Christian mysticism.” It is instead a meaningful piece of Christian mysticism that goes even beyond that. Stott adds:
“In the ‘heavenly places,’ the unseen world of spiritual reality, in which the principalities and powers operate (3:10; 6:12) and in which Christ reigns supreme (1:20), there God has blessed his people in Christ (1:3), and there he has seated them with Christ…. It bears witness to a living experience, that Christ has given us on the one hand a new life and on the other a new victory. We were dead, but have been made spiritually alive and alert. We were in captivity, but have been enthroned.”
Max Turner is right. There is more than mere symbolism here. What Paul is explaining is the implication of our new life in Christ.
The practical implications
First of all, Christians are “as good as there,” in reference to their salvation. Christians who are “in Christ” have been “covered” by Christ. They take on his death, burial, resurrection and ascension and can be said to be already in some sense living with him in the heavenly places. This teaching was not meant to be an idealistic teaser. It was originally written to Christians living in dire straits in the corrupt cities they inhabited, cities without the civil and political rights we often take for granted. Death from the Roman sword was a grave possibility to Paul’s readers.
Thus Paul lifts his reader’s spirits with a further thinking out of the core doctrine and distinctive of the new faith—the resurrection of Christ. Being “in Christ” means that when God looks at us he does not see our sins. He sees Christ. There is no more encouraging teaching than that. This is reemphasized in Colossians 3:3: “For you died and life is now hidden with God in Christ.”
Secondly, being “in Christ” means Christians live in two realms—the physical world of everyday reality and what Stott calls the “unseen world” of spiritual reality. This has implications for the way we view this world. We are to live balanced lives. We bear primary allegiance to the kingdom of God and its values on the one hand but, on the other, are not to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. It’s a tightrope, and every Christian needs help from God to walk it securely.
Thirdly, being “in Christ” means we are trophies of God’s grace. If God has done all this for us, has in some senses already inducted us into the heavenly realms, then that means we are to live as ambassadors for Christ. Francis Foulkes puts it this way:
“The purpose of God for his church, as Paul came to understand it, reaches beyond itself, beyond the salvation, the enlightenment and the re-creation of individuals, beyond its unity and fellowship, beyond even its witness to the world. The church is to be the exhibition to the whole creation of the wisdom and love and grace of God in Christ” (page 82).
How true! Being “in Christ,” being given new life in Christ, having our sins hidden to God through Christ—all this means we are to exhibit the Christlike life to the people we meet. We Christians may march to a different drummer, but we have a Christlike concern for the people who share physical life with us.
God has displayed his resurrection power to us to be a daily demonstration of God’s goodness, to show by our good works that he exists and that he cares mightily for every person on this globe. Christ’s resurrection and ascension powerfully affects our worldview. The challenge before us is to live up to this high calling 24 hours a day.