Do you know how many times Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” in his letters? A lot.
He uses it so often that I’d say it’s one of his favorite prepositional phrases! One of my New Testament Exegesis professors, during a class on Ephesians, made special note to point out how many times Paul uses it in the first couple of chapters of the book. The phrase was used so frequently that it struck my professor strongly: Paul’s trying to make a point, the believer is in Christ, and Paul is taking every opportunity to not-so-subtly remind them of this fact.
You might not notice it in the English, but when you’re busy parsing out every word (case, number, person, tense, mood…etc), a repeated phrase starts to jump out at you. εν Χριστω…εν Τω Χριστω…εν Χριστω….in Christ…in Christ…in Christ. One of the things we had to do in that particular exegesis class was to discuss how phrases/nouns/verbs were functioning in the sentence. Was the verb past tense? present? future? pluperfect passive? What about the noun: nominative, dative, genitive, or accusative? Each aspect of each word adds a different layer of color to the word. It can be quite fascinating at times and at other times you’d sound your exhausted student yawp: IT’S JUST “THE”! “THE”! JUST “THE”!
Εν Χριστω while looking quite simple packs a little bit of a verbal punch. This particular prepositional phrase (remember, prepositions are anything you can do with a box; a prepositional phrase is when a preposition has a direct object) is in the Dative case–typically the case of the indirect object, that’s a rough and simplistic way to define it so don’t go tweeting that ;)–what’s important to know (and maybe even exhausting, ha!) is that datives themselves have functions; so there are different types of datives that, when that function is sussed out, add dimension to the otherwise bland, saltine-y prepositional phrase. In our case, εν Χριστω is a “dative of sphere/location”. The believer, by faith, is _in_ Christ. It’s your location, your address, your 411.
That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?
I’ve always read that particular dative of location as being shielded by Christ’s robes, hidden in him, cloaked (etc). I’ve always seen it as my imputation of righteousness, that I, by faith in Him, am _in_ Him (by the power of the Holy Spirit) and thus the Father sees me by seeing His son, thus he sees a Lauren who is spotless, her scarlet robes now bleached white by blood of the Lamb, his beloved, purified daughter (all of it His doing and none of it mine).
But is that all?
I don’t mean to imply that that isn’t enough, because, gosh, it certainly is, isn’t it? But that’s not how my brain works–the faulty brain He gave me to keep pushing traditional ways of understanding things; sometimes, I just think, think, and think some more about one little thing and then something happens and that airy upstairs (my head) fills with light: AH HA! What if…
Recently a dear friend wrote to me that she was tired and finding it hard to feel “full” (within herself) to turn around and pour herself out for others–a common parental feeling, perpetual emptiness in the midst of an unceasing demand to pour one’s self out for your children and spouse. Yet, she added, the Lord was continually bringing one scripture to mind, which was “This is the day the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118:24), whereupon she confessed, “The truth of Jesus doesn’t make my heart rejoice in that area” (area being: pouring one’s self out for others while running on empty). Then I started writing back. I wrote, “Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe you have the space to just be in that area.” And then one of those light filling moments occurred as I was walking away from the computer to do something; I stopped and darted back and wrote (almost frantically): “wait.” (punctuation aside…i was pretty amped up at this point.) What had caught my attention was “rejoicing in”…rejoicing in the day that the Lord had made, essentially, is rejoicing _in_ the Lord, in Jesus…in Christ. Sometimes it’s rejoicing because of what Christ has done; but what I heard that moment was rejoicing because of where she is, which is in Christ and that means she was free to be, to _just_ be as she was. She was free to be exhausted and spent and grumpy about it because of her location, in Christ.
In Christ there is no need for fake smiles, no need for grinning and bearing it, no demand for some saccharine sweet joy cloaked in some cheap wrapper of happiness. In Christ, you can just BE, as is. In Christ you can confess your bitter feelings, your anger, your hurt, your exhaustion, your just plain grumpiness for no other reason than just because, because it’s a real place located in time and space that is–in the truest sense of the word–safe that has been created for you to just be. And it’s always confession, the freedom to confess (to say it like it is), rather than trying to grab bulls by horns or pretending like things are different that weakens cement strongholds on our hearts. And therein, therein that tired, angry, grumpy heart, therein the freedom for that heart to be just that in Christ, comes the first fruits of real rejoicing…rejoicing εν τω Χριστω.