20 November, 2014 Rupert Standring
The recent referendum in Scotland has brought the idea of ‘union’ into the headlines. Now, political union is one thing – with huge and complicated implications that no-one seems to have thought through clearly – but spiritual union is quite another matter. Spiritual union has even bigger, more complicated and more significant implications, that fortunately have been clearly thought through for us in the Bible.
As Christians, we have been united with Jesus Christ. We are in union with Him, and yet I wonder how prominently that features in how we think or talk about our Christian faith?
If we were talking to someone who didn’t know what a Christian is, how might we finish this sentence:
A Christian is… ?
Here are some possible answers.
· Someone who knows they’re loved by God and has responded to that.
· Someone who is trusting in Jesus Christ and His death for the forgiveness of their sins.
· Someone who has been given and has received the Holy Spirit.
All those are true. They all accurately describe what being a Christian is. And yet the most common way of describing what a Christian is in the New Testament is none of those!
Being ‘in Christ’ is a strange concept. But perhaps what is stranger still is that the most common way of describing what a Christian is in the New Testament - our founding document – is the least common way of describing Christians today.
But what does it mean to be ‘in Christ’? To unpack this, I want to ask four very basic questions.
· What does it mean to be in Christ?
· When does a person become in Christ?
· How does that come about in their lives?
· And why? Why do we need to be in Christ? What happens if we remain outside of Christ?
This week, I will look at ‘What’ and ‘When’; the ‘How’ and ‘Why’ will be explored in next week’s blog.
1. What does it mean to be ‘in Christ’?
In John 15:5-8, Jesus says: ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.’
Jesus uses a metaphor of a vine and its branches to explain what it means to be ‘in Him’. It’s clearly a close, intimate relationship - a vine is directly connected to its branches, but it is more than just close and intimate. Jesus makes it clear that this relationship is essential.
Apart from Jesus we can do nothing, but ‘in Christ’ we can bear fruit and bring glory to the Father. Both of these show that we are in fact disciples and followers of Jesus Christ. They show that we are Christians.
By saying that He’s a vine and we are branches, Jesus is using a picture to point to the relationship between us and Him. A relationship that is real, intimate and essential for us as Christians.
The vine and its branches is a beautiful, organic, elegant image. Now let me use an image that is anything but that!
It is the same with the Christian and Christ. Outside of Christ we are just average; wonderful, but sinful, human beings. When it comes to spiritual things, we can do nothing outside of Christ.
But in Christ we can do extraordinary things: we can be fruitful in our lives as Christians, we can bring glory to God the Father, we can show that we really do belong to Christ. And that spiritual, but nevertheless real, union we have with Him by being in Him also gives us life: eternal, spiritual life.
That’s not everything the New Testament says about what it means to be in Christ, but it begins to give us a flavour of what’s involved.
2. When does a person become ‘in Christ’?
In Romans 16, Paul greets a long list of Christians and describes them as being ‘in Christ’. In verse 5, he says:
’Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia.’
To be in in Christ is to be converted to Christ; and it happens when we become Christians.
When we put our trust in Jesus and His death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, we are not merely giving our assent to a doctrine or a set of beliefs with our minds; something happens to bind our souls spiritually to Him.
Trusting in Jesus puts us in Jesus and unites us to Him from that moment in time, and forever into all eternity. But trusting in Jesus also unites us to Him in a way that is outside of time! This is harder to understand, so let’s take my conversion as an example.
When I put my trust in Jesus aged nine, my faith united me to Jesus from that moment on and for all eternity. That’s when I became ‘in Christ’.
But – and this is the mind-stretching bit – when I trusted in Christ, my soul was united to Him outside of time.
That means that
· when He was born as a baby in Bethlehem 2000 years ago;
· when He died on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem;
· and then rose again from the tomb in the garden and ascended to heaven to be with His Father, I was IN HIM.
Through my faith, first expressed by me in 1978, I was united to Jesus throughout everything He did for me on earth and I remain united to him now. And so were you and so are you, if you’re a Christian now.
When does a person become ‘in Christ’? When they trust in Christ. That faith, if you like, works backwards and forwards in time because actually, in one sense, it works outside of time.
So, what are the implications of being united to Christ? Particularly the implication of being united to Christ in His death? We’ll look at this more next week as we explore the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of being ‘in Christ’.