The Wonder and Mystery of Becoming One in Christ

Sometimes the simplest phrase—maybe even two words—may describe the most profound truths in the Bible. 

Paul frequently used prepositional phrases such as “in Christ” or “with Christ.” In the following 12 verses from Ephesians, for example, I count a dozen prepositional phrases describing our relationship with Christ: 

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In Him, you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:3-14)

A question naturally arises when I read “in Christ.” And it’s pretty basic.

How do I do it? How does it work? How do I live “in Christ” and He in me? Are we speaking of something real here, or just flowery symbolic language? 

Answer: It’s as real as it can be. Let me use an analogy to clarify.

Have you ever run across the word “symbiotic”? Symbiosis occurs in nature when two unique organisms share life. When this sharing benefits only one of the organisms, it is called parasitical symbiosis. For example, mistletoe is a plant that extracts water and nutrients from its host tree, but gives nothing in return. Mistletoe (however we may celebrate it tacked over our doorways at Christmas), simply TAKES.

But that’s not always the case with symbiosis. Sometimes both organisms experience mutual benefits from their relationship. Consider aphids and ants. Aphids are little sap-sucking insects (keep them away from your roses) that secrete honeydew, a sugary liquid that is the waste product of their diet. Ants feed on the honeydew produced by aphids and may offer the aphids protection in return.

When I reflect on the development of a baby within its mother’s womb, it is obvious that the fetus greatly benefits—takes—from its mother. That little one depends on mom for survival. During pregnancy, the mother experiences great risks, not to mention severe pain and trauma in childbirth. The sharing is in one direction. But after nine months, of providing 24/7 protection and nourishment for the baby, the joy of celebrating the arrival of a new son or daughter is the mother’s blessing. Her great joy! So great is the delight that the Bible tells us she forgets the pain and suffering of pregnancy.

But how does this describe our relationship with Christ? Are we like parasites, taking but not giving? You might certainly think so. He gives; we receive. He is the one who suffered and died for us. He grieves over our selfish choices that strain the relationship. But does Jesus receive anything positive from this fusion? Surely not! 

Or does He?

Consider the joy He experiences when we obey Him—or when we draw near to Him simply because we love Him. Think of the pleasure He experiences when our lives produce spiritual fruit that reflect His character and bring glory to His name.

To better understand this union with Christ, consider the amazing event that happens when a sperm has fused with an egg and a new life has begun. In the same way, a new spiritual life began the moment of our conversion—in that instant when the good seed of the Gospel fell on the prepared soil of a heart. 

Jesus, in His private after-hours conversation with Nicodemus, described it as being “born again.” When Nicodemus asked the “how” question, Jesus responded with a metaphor: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8).

Jesus introduced the Holy Spirit into the conversation to demonstrate that there is a spiritual dimension as well as a physical dimension—one visible, one invisible. Only one can be touched, but both are as real as the wind rattling your window screen on a winter night. 

Modern meteorologists can come pretty close predicting the pattern, force, and duration of the wind, but no one on earth can control it. We can’t see it, but we know when it is present. In the same way, our union with Jesus is every bit as real. As real as the wind. And the results of our being placed “in Christ” in our actions and attitudes ought to be obvious to everyone. 

Paul takes the metaphor a step further when he compares spiritual conversion to a new creation—a complete transformation from the inside out: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Let’s explore a few biblical texts to discover what it means to be “in Christ.” 

Lessons from the vine and the branches in John 15

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:1–8).

Something almost symbiotic resonates within the words, “Abide in me, and I in you.” But this is more than symbiosis. This is not two organisms sharing life with each other, it is one organism—a vine or rootstock—sustaining the life of every branch and every cluster of grapes. The very next sentence emphasizes the essential relationship between a vine and its branches. Unless the branch abides in the vine it can’t bear any fruit at all. Zero! And neither can we if we’re relying on our own independent efforts apart from the indwelling Christ.

Note also how God is glorified through our abiding in Christ, so the blessings flow both directions. The vine sustains and produces the fruit; the fruit glorifies the vine.

Lessons from Paul’s dramatic encounter with the living Christ. 

Here are Paul’s own words: “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).

You can see elements of both the physical and spiritual in those words. 

Paul wasn’t talking philosophy here. He was describing something as real as breathing—as real as the blood pumping through his veins. When the former Pharisee met the resurrected Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus that day ad death occurred. The old Saul died. The embittered, violent bounty hunter was as good as dead. The self-righteous arrogant Saul was crucified, and a new Paul was born. He “yielded the throne of his life to Another.” The living Christ assumed the throne. 

Paul described this new symbiotic-like relationship when he wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who is living in me. And the life I am living in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The physical Paul survived, but he was now living through the power and under the authority of Jesus Christ. He was “in Christ.”

Incarcerated in chains, Paul wrote to the church at Philippi: “…now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:20-21). Paul still occupied his old physical body, but he was no longer living for himself. If he was to die in prison, it would mean entering the presence of Christ. (Which was perfectly fine with him.) Every moment of every day, Christ would be living through him. This “in Christ” arrangement was a win/win situation.

Paul often wrote about the believer’s union with Christ, and each occasion is worthy of a blog post. Before concluding this post, however, consider a phrase that Paul used in Romans to describe how we are joined with Christ. Pushing back against those who would use grace as an excuse to continue sinning, Paul asked, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:1–14) 

Here in Romans, as in 1 Corinthians 12 and Colossians 2:12, Paul chose baptism to illustrate how believers have been united with Christ. Baptism illustrates our identity with Christ in the words, “Buried in the likeness of His death. Raised in the likeness of His resurrection.” Paul was focusing on the spiritual baptism that occurs when the Holy Spirit baptizes or immerses the new believer into the body of Christ. There in the church, we share life with Christ Himself and with other believers in a spiritual-like symbiosis

When I first set out to write this post about the union of Christ and a believer, I had intended to use the word “fuse,” a word that I had discovered in research for the previous post about a man and wife becoming one flesh. In preparing this post, I discovered the following words in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary: “grown together or fused into one.”

Fused together, like two cells becoming a new living organism, so we believers have been fused with Christ. Fused to enable us to live a godly life. Fused to not surrender to sin. Fused to love others regardless of culture or color of skin. Fused to know how to pray like Jesus prayed, “Your will be done.”

Can life be any better than that?

I can’t imagine how.

*All Scripture references are taken from the esv)