Union with Christ

Paul says we were blessed in Christ “in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3) and that God has “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). These phrases recall the ascension and heavenly session of Christ, as well as the line from the Apostles’ Creed indicating the climax, and goal, of everything else in Jesus’ story: “and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”

Unlike all the other things the Creed mentions (e.g., born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate), the “and sits” is in the present tense and designates a now time that is also a new time: the end-time inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is in the Lord’s Supper above all that the Holy Spirit lifts our spirits up to the ascended Christ, the one who has entered the heavenly sanctuary from which he rules all as the one in whom all things are “gathered up” (Eph. 1:10).

Believers have even now been incorporated into the consummation of their union with Christ in the eschaton: “future glory . . . will be nothing other than the continued unfolding of the riches of our union with Christ.” Union with Christ arguably spans the whole of redemptive history, from eternal election to heavenly session thought (e.g., an examination of the way in which x is and is not y), while simultaneously resisting any final conceptual closure.

  1. Body
    Perhaps no metaphor better conveys our incorporation into Christ, as well as the corporate nature of this incorporation, then the corporeal metaphor of Christ as “head” of his “body,” which is to say, the church (Col. 1:18). If being in Christ means being part of his body, then it follows that union with Christ will always be corporate in nature. Union with Christ entails union with other Christians – fellowship. “For as in one body we have many members … so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and indi- vidually we are members one of another” (Rom 12:4–5). This union with others is not uniformity, however, for Paul insists that the one body is made up of different members, each with his or her own proper gift (1 Cor. 12).73
  2. Temple
    Paul in Eph 2:21–22 creatively combines organic and inorganic images when he suggests that God’s people are growing into a holy temple. “In him” (ἐν ᾧ) the whole structure [οἰκοδομὴ] is being pieced together out of the many saints into a single dwelling place for God. The figure of the people as temple picks up a number of Old Testament themes and prophecies, but what is most important for our purposes is Paul’s claim that Christ is the “cornerstone” [ἀκρογωνιαίου] (Eph. 2:20; cf. Ps. 118:22; Is. 28:16). Incorporation into Christ is an ongoing building project, with each living stone sealed – cemented! – by the Spirit to Christ and hence to the rest of the structure.74
  3. Marriage
    Paul describes union with Christ in terms of marriage on several occasions (Rom. 7:1–4; 1 Cor. 6:15–17; 2 Cor. 11:2–3; Eph. 5:22–32). This nuptial metaphor describes union with Christ in much more personal and intimate terms than the previous two. First, marriage suggests an exclusive relation- ship, requiring faithfulness. Second, though husband and wife become “one flesh” they also remain distinct persons. The nuptial metaphor thus serves as a tacit correction to the tendency to exaggerate the mystical nature of the union to the point of dissolving the distinction between Christ and Christians. Third, marriage reminds us that union with Christ is indeed mysterious, as is the ontological mystery of marriage, by which a man and a woman become one flesh (Eph. 5:31). Finally, while it is not always noted, the nuptial marriage highlights not only the personal but also the covenantal nature of the union to the extent that marriage is, at root, a solemn promise of exclusive faithfulness to the other.
  1. Adoption
    Though it is seldom mentioned as a metaphor for union with Christ, Paul describes the process of incorporation not only in terms of “being built to- gether” as a temple but also as being adopted into a family: “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (Gal. 2:26).77 Adoption is a powerful image for the way in which saints participate in Christ’s son- ship, which is to say, in his fellowship with the Father through the Spirit: “And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:6; cf. Rom. 8:15). To speak of be- ing in Christ as adoption is to emphasize not only legal but also familial participation in Christ (i.e., participating in Christ’s filial relationship).78 Indeed, for this reason, adoption “in Christ” may be the epitome of what it means to be “blessed in Christ.”


Categories: Theology

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