These two simple words describe the believer’s relationship with our Lord. And the blessings we can experience being “in Christ” are almost beyond belief. Think of it! To be able to pray with confidence because we know God’s will. To be able to resist temptation. To experience peace and joy in the midst of trials. To live a Christ-like life. And that’s just a beginning!
But a question remains.
How can Jesus be living in me? Is it more like Disney’s “wishing upon a star”? That’s certainly not the way Paul described his relationship with Christ when he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20-21).
What an amazing, mysterious passage. Paul seems to be saying that he was so fused or united with God’s Son that Christ’s experiences had actually become his experiences.
Christ’s death for sin was Paul’s death.
Christ’s resurrection was Paul’s resurrection.
Christ’s ascension was Paul’s ascension.
And the apostle could boldly declare that even though he still walked on Planet Earth, he was also—at that very moment—seated with Jesus Christ “in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 2:6). But this isn’t ancient history or pages from a dusty theology volume. These very same truths apply to believers today. Right now.
When Paul wrote that that he was “crucified with “Christ,” he used the Greek perfect tense to describe something that had happened in the past—and was continuing to influence him. No, Paul wasn’t experiencing a literal crucifixion, but his old self-righteous person had died with Christ after the encounter on the Damascus Road.
Paul was still alive, but the life he was now living was being lived “by faith.” It was different than the old life of striving to be justified by keeping the Law. Christ was now living in him.
I’d like to make one more attempt to explain what it means to be “in Christ.”
Let’s consider the life of Jesus Christ Himself. In the four accounts of His life on earth, especially in Luke, the life of Christ can be divided into two distinct periods: before baptism and after baptism.
Prior to his birth, Jesus already existed as the Logos (John 1:1) in eternity. As the Alpha and Omega, He has no beginning or end. When Mary bathed her newborn son before swaddling Him and laying Him in a manger, He appeared to be just an ordinary baby. There was no halo over his head when the shepherds visited and no heavenly glow illuminated the stable. And when He received circumcision on the eighth day of His life, it was like a thousand other such rites.
At every stage of development, Jesus appeared to be just another Jewish boy. Another kid from Nazareth. He had to learn to walk by falling. If He been learning to ride a bike, He would have needed training wheels. He had to learn to speak Hebrew. (Something I struggled to do.) Luke summarized it this way, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). He didn’t come pre-packed with knowledge; He had to be taught. His relationship with God grew deeper and deeper through study of God’s Word. He learned how to relate to other people socially. He was normal.
At age twelve, however, something shifted. At that point, Jesus knew He was unique. When His anxious parents found Him in the temple after a frantic three-day search, He replied to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49).
Did He know this by intuition? Had Mary and Joseph shared with Him the story of His conception and birth? I’m guessing that was so. Can you imagine Mary not sharing the story about the angel’s birth announcement? In my mind’s eye, I can see His eyes grow wide as He heard that first Christmas story—the account of the shepherds, the magi, Herod, and the flight to Egypt.
But even with this knowledge tucked away in His heart, He must have still seemed normal. We don’t read of Him calling down curses on schoolyard bullies. He studied Torah in the synagogue like every one of his Jewish friends. He watched His earthly father at work and learned how to handle the tools safely. He labored several years in the family craft and trade, taking pleasure in the feel of the wood and a job well done. Every day and every year of his life was just plain “ordinary.”
Every day, that is until age 30, when He went to be baptized by His cousin John in the Jordan. This is where the mystery—the transformation—occurred. Luke painted the scene like this:
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’”(Luke 3:21–22).
Suddenly the carpenter from Nazareth had a new public identity. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Jesus began a new phase of the mission He had always had from birth. Every day, every decision, and every action was now guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Luke wrote, “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1). Jesus the young man stood tall in that trial, silencing Satan’s assaults with words from the Torah he had learned as a youth.
So intense was Jesus’ relationship with the Holy Spirit that He could sense a disturbance when a woman with a chronic hemorrhage touched His robe. He immediately stopped in His tracks and asked, “Who touched Me?” What a strange question for someone being jostled in the curious crowd. Nevertheless, He said, “I felt the power go out from Me.”
I could share numerous examples of the Spirit empowering and guiding Jesus over the next three years. Jesus knew when to remain silent before accusers and when to answer Pilate. He was never hurried or stressed, because the Spirit kept His daily calendar.
It was this symbiotic-like relationship with the Holy Spirit that led Jesus and empowered Him during His public ministry. It was this relationship with the Holy Spirit that helps me understand what Paul meant when he wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Paul taught that the Holy Spirit baptizes (fuses) us into the body of Christ when we repent and trust in Him. We become the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit, both corporately as the Church and as individual believers.
Consider these words from Paul in Romans 8:9-11:
“You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
Note how Paul states that “the Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of Christ lives in us” and gives us power to live a holy life. There, I believe, is the most lucid explanation of what it means to be “in Christ” and to live “with” and under the authority of Christ.
Reflect once more on Paul’s words: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” I believe he was speaking from experience. Like Jesus, Paul had once been a rather normal religious Jew. He had gone through all the required rites—circumcised on the eighth day, studied under one of the premier rabbis, was a member in good standing with the most conservative Jewish sect and was so zealous he thought he was doing God a favor by persecuting the young Church.
Every day of Saul’s life, he had relentlessly pursued his mission. When he left Jerusalem with legal documents permitting him to arrest Christians in Antioch, it seemed like just another ordinary day. Ordinary, that is, until a searing light from heaven knocked him off his mount and left him stunned and blind in the dirt. A voice from heaven (remember the voice at Jesus’ baptism?) brought deep fear when Paul heard these words: “Saul! Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
Fearing death, he responded, “What do want me to do?” He was given a new mission to go to the Gentiles with the good news that Jesus of Nazareth actually was the Messiah and had risen from the dead.
His eyes were healed, he was baptized, and filled with the Holy Spirit.
Almost overnight, Saul began proclaiming Jesus in synagogues, saying, “Jesus is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were confounded and amazed.
Saul (who became Paul) was a transformed man. Having done a 180 for the ages, he would spend the rest of his life presenting the gospel and planting churches throughout Asia Minor and Europe.
Let’s consider the similarities between Jesus’ baptism and Saul’s. Both men had been affirmed by God from heaven. Both were transformed. The trajectory and focus of both lives were dramatically changed. Most importantly, both were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Without doubt, Jesus has had the greatest impact on this world of any person. I would argue that Paul may have the second greatest influence. So, these two men, Jesus of Nazareth and Saul of Tarsus, provide living examples of what it means to be in Christ. To experience Christ living in us.
Consider Jesus’ words to His disciples the night before His death:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:15–20)
What, then, does this mean for you and me today?
Actually, it means everything.
If Jesus, the Son of God, relied on the Holy Spirit, certainly I must also. When I submit or surrender to the Holy Spirit in my life, I have the power and ability to live a Christ-like life. In those moments, when I step off the throne and yield to the Holy Spirit, I can say with certainty and humility, “Christ is living in me.”
All Scripture passages are from the ESV (emphasis mine)
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