A divine preposition

That’s not a typo. I don’t mean “proposition,” I mean “preposition.” I know, I know: these are things that only editors and English teachers seem to care about (and an English teacher might scold me for ending the sentence with the preposition “about”). But simply put, prepositions are words that go in front of nouns to show how they’re related to something else in the sentence. Right now, I am sitting on a chair, not under it; I am before my computer, not behind it. A change of preposition can change the meaning of a sentence or phrase: getting over an experience is not the same as getting through it.

As Christians, we think, talk, and sing a lot about what Christ has done for us. We probably think less about what the Spirit of Jesus does in and through us. And we may not think at all about what it means for us to be “in Christ,” one of the apostle Paul’s favorite phrases.

Paul uses the phrase in several places in his letters, including his letter to the Philippians. In the very first verse, he addresses his readers as “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi” (Phil 1:1, NRSVUE). It’s obvious what Paul means by “in Philippi.” But what does he mean by “in Christ”?

When Paul first set foot in Athens, he was distressed to the many shrines to pagan gods. To the Athenians, he preached a God in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), a Creator who made all that is, the giver of life and breath — not an idol who lives in a shrine.

To say that we are “in Christ,” therefore, suggests what a high view Paul had of the divinity of Jesus. Paul can say both that we are in Christ, and conversely, Christ is in us (e.g., Col 1:27). And this is because of an even more astounding truth: we have been united with Christ.

Paul apparently had to deal with people who had a skewed understanding of grace and sin: since grace was so abundantly available, why not sin? Indeed, why not sin more? One imagines Paul pulling out what little hair he may have had (artists often portrayed him as balding). No, no, no, Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, that’s not how it works. In Romans chapter 6, he writes:

Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom 6:3-5)

We are united with Christ through baptism into his death, so that we can also be united with him in resurrection. And not just future resurrection: but newness of life now, a transformed life in which we are no longer slaves to sin, but slaves to righteousness instead (Rom 6:15-19).

We are “saints in Christ Jesus” because we have been chosen by God and united with Christ. We are already holy because we have been set apart; we must also grow in righteousness because the truth of the promise of resurrection shows itself in our transformed lives now.

Christ is in us, and we are in him. That’s a lot of work for a tiny little preposition to do. But with God, all things are possible.