‘In Christ’ in Ephesians 1.1-14

We’ve spent a lot of time in these first fourteen verse of Ephesians, but before we move on, I’d like to spend a bit of time considering the overall theme for the series, ‘Life in Christ,’ and what these first fourteen verses have to say about it.

The fixed expression ‘in Christ’, or similar wordings like ‘in the Lord’ and ‘in him’, are typically Pauline, occurring 164 times through the thirteen letters traditionally ascribed to Paul. Thirty-six of these occur in Ephesians, and we have seen ten already in just the greeting and blessing portions of the letter. We’re so used to this expression as Christians, it’s easy to forget just how odd a construction it is. Even if we understand Jesus of Nazareth to have some cosmic significance, it’s still strange to consider ourselves ‘in’ him. Therefore it’s worth taking some time to look at what it might mean.

First, let’s take a look at the grammar of it. It’s a simple preposition + nominal (i.e., noun, name, or pronoun) structure, with the nominal in the dative case.* The basic meaning of this construction is ‘in, at, within, among’. This was mostly used to talk about time and place, but by extension could also refer to circumstance or occupation (cf., in English, ‘women in business’), sphere of influence (e.g., ‘the problem is in the system, not in me’), or instrument or manner (e.g., ‘I thought in my mind’). A number of these metaphorical extensions of the idea of location could be at play in Paul’s usage here. It’s primarily a spatial image, but likely coloured by ideas of occupation, sphere of influence, and manner.

With this in mind, what does Ephesians 1.1-14 tell us about what it means to be ‘in Christ’?

  1. The readers are faithful in Christ (1.1)
  2. God has blessed us in Christ (1.3)
  3. God has chosen us in Christ (1.4)
  4. God has bestowed grace on us in the Beloved (i.e., Christ) (1.6)
  5. God has redeemed and forgiven us in Christ (1.7)
  6. God has demonstrated goodwill in Christ (1.9)
  7. All things will be summed up in Christ (1.10)
  8. We have our inheritance in Christ (1.11)
  9. We have set our hope in Christ (1.12)
  10. We are marked by the Spirit in Christ (1.13)

Additionally, the text says we were adopted ‘through’ Christ (1.5). All of this is to say that in these opening verses of Ephesians, everything is explicitly said to happen ‘in Christ’.

What might this mean? A helpful way of looking at this is the notion of participation. I discussed this idea previously in relation to how Paul uses the language of substitution. There, we saw that for Paul, substitution was less a sense of Christ acting instead of us than it was that we are represented or included in what Christ did. We see the logic of this for Paul in Romans 5-6. In Romans 5, Paul talks about how we were all included within Adam’s sin, but then how we are also included in Jesus’s saving activity: ‘one man’s righteous act leads to righteousness for all’ (5.18). (While Judaism never put the some theological weight on Adam’s sin as Christianity has, a similar idea of participation in one person can be seen in the Hebrew Bible in passages calling Abraham the one ‘in whom’ all nations will be blessed (e.g., Genesis 12.3, which in the Greek translation uses the en plus dative case construction Paul uses in ‘in Christ’.).) In Romans 6, Paul then describes how this participation takes place, through the ritual lens of baptism:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been 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 too 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. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6.3-8)

If we follow the logic here, we trust and are then baptized into Christ, after which we can be said to be in Christ, a state of participation which allows us to die and be raised up with him. We transition from union with Adam, his sin and ‘the world’, to union with Jesus, his justice and the Kingdom of God. Thus, in Paul’s way of thinking, the faithful are ‘in Christ’ inasmuch as they are united with him. We might say that, as Klyne Snodgrass puts it, “Christ defines who believers really are. Here is the ‘sphere of influence’ or ‘power field’ in which they live and from which they benefit and are transformed.”^ Later, he concludes:

The Christian faith is not an attractive set of ideas or a nice avenue to follow. Rather, it is so deep an engagement with Christ, so deep a union with our Lord, that Paul can only describe it as living in Christ. To live in Christ is to be determined by him. He shapes who we are. A person cannot be conscious of being enveloped by Christ and behave in ways totally out of keeping with his character. […] Christ is the “place” where believers reside, the source in which they find God’s salvation and blessings, and the framework in which they live and work.

This union with Christ has consequences for the faithful. And these consequences are the major theme of Ephesians. It will be important to keep this in mind as we move forward through the letter.

 

* Greek nouns change their form depending on the role they play in a clause; this is called ‘case’. English has the remnants of a case system in our pronouns (e.g., we use forms like ‘he’ and ‘they’ for a subject of a sentence, ‘him’ and ‘them’ for an object, and ‘his’ and ‘their’ to show possession).

^ See the full bibliography for the series, here.

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