by Elie Haddad
The New Testament expression in Christ, which was heavily used by the Apostle Paul, has always intrigued me. It is a curious way of describing our relationship to Christ, or to God in Christ. These days, living in a perpetual crisis in Lebanon, the notion of in Christ intrigues me even more. Several questions keep surfacing in my mind. How does being in Christ affect the way that I understand my world and live in it? How does it change things? In this blog post, I want to briefly reflect on this expression and how it should shape me.
The phrase in Christ and its cognates appear around two hundred times in Pauline writings. Paul used this phrase in more than one sense. Scholars must have written hundreds if not thousands of pages on his use of the phrase and its various implications. I will briefly highlight a few of these senses as I explore their implications.
In one sense, there’s the soteriological meaning. The phrase in Christ can be understood to mean a Christian or a believer. Paul presents it as the only basis for justification. This phrase also describes our communion with Christ and our intimate relationship with God through Christ. For Paul, being in Christ identifies us with creation and resurrection. As we become in Christ, we become a new creation. Out with the old. Paul does not see the new life as a mere improvement of the old but as a radically new creation. We become dead to the old life but “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11 NIV).
The implications for Paul were clear. He took seriously the notion of being dead to the world and alive in Christ and of being a new creation. This shaped his understanding of the Christian life, his attitude toward others, his desires and aspirations, his plans and actions, his expectations, and his vision and strategy for life. He lived for Jesus. Nothing else mattered. All his relationships and life decisions were shaped by Jesus, by being in Christ.
What about me? What are the implications for me?
My identity in Christ no doubt shapes who I am, where I live, why I live here, and how I live. It shapes my ministry and life decisions. The question for me is whether I am sold out to this identity or whether I am still entangled in this world, thus always assessing my options and weighing my decisions. I live in a place that faces one crisis after another. This forces me to re-ask the same questions repeatedly. Will in Christ always win over living with electricity blackouts? Over the loss of purchasing power? Over not finding the basic “necessities” of life? Over a failing healthcare system? Will in Christ only work within the parameters of the calculated risk that I am willing to take, or will in Christ function just the same in the midst of deep crisis? Am I totally a new creation, dead to the world and alive in Christ and for Christ, and therefore, nothing else matters?
Another sense of the expression in Christ is communal. It is also a corporate identity. All believers who are in Christ are bound together in unity. This has a collective and not just an individual implication. “It means to be related not only to the Messiah personally, the Christ, but also to the Messianic community he came to build,” writes John Stott. He adds: “In this new community Jesus has abolished the barriers of race, nationality, class and sex, which normally divide mankind.” We are all one in Christ.
For Paul, this life together for the members of the body of Christ is not something optional. We do not each belong to a different Christ. We are in Christ together. Even Paul’s understanding of community is radical. In addressing community life, Paul uses the reciprocal pronoun translated “one another” more than fifty times. Love one another, honor one another, accept one another, serve one another, carry one another, bear one another, forgive one another, value one another, spur one another, etc. This radical community, by virtue of its very existence, is a great testament to the work of God.
The implications of the corporate in Christ should be no different today. The community that God has made us members of, through Christ, should be no less radical today. We tend to view the world through an individualistic lens. We view community as a group of individuals rather than viewing individuals as united and interdependent members of a holy community formed and nurtured by Christ Himself. I wonder what would be different in my own context in Lebanon if the community of God were to fully live according to its collective in Christ identity. I wonder what the implication of the Church living out as a pioneering community would be in a broken country like Lebanon.
A third sense of the phrase in Christ is instrumental. In Christ is the main channel through which (or through whom) God works out His will in the world. The Church, in Christ, is the means by which God chooses to fulfill His mission in the world.
For Paul, the missional task of the Church is very clear. The Church is a “letter from Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” They are a letter “known and read by everyone” (2 Cor. 3:2-3 NIV). How the community of God lives within its context is consequential to the mission of God.
For the Church in Lebanon today, we are the main instrument through whom God chooses to fulfill His mission. When in crisis after crisis, the in Christ community is the one to pastor its society, to care for the needy, to protect the vulnerable, to bring hope to the hopeless, to pray for those in power, to make peace, to model an alternate way of living and behaving, etc. In other words, the in Christ community is the one to boldly continue to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed. The more in crisis, the more the salt and light of the in Christ community is needed.
Lebanon is in bad shape, and the situation keeps getting worse. Where will it end? When will it end? Is it a hopeless situation? Of course not! Because there is a strong and vibrant in Christ community which is willing to learn day by day how to be in Christ and radical in the midst of crisis, a community through whom God desires to accomplish His mission in our country.
Elie is the President of ABTS and is blessed to be a member of this community that is always willing to explore the depths of its identity in Christ.