Over the next five Sundays we will be taking a closer look at St. Paul's use of the phrase "in Christ." This is one of the apostle's most characteristic expressions through all of his writings and it points to the very heart of his understanding of the Christian life. Some of the more well-known instances would include Romans 8:1, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." and 2 Corinthians 5:17, "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation..." So far, in Philippians, we have noted in passing Paul's hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to see them (2:19) and his description of Christians as those who boast in Christ Jesus. (3:3) Today, though, I want to begin to probe the expression a little more carefully and expand upon the way it is understood in the theology of the church. There is really no stream of Christian theology which does not pay special attention to St. Paul's teaching about being "in Christ." This teaching is usually referred to as "union with Christ." Moreover, in almost all streams of Christian teaching, this doctrine points to the foundation of our salvation.
In our text from Philippians 3:7-16, union with Christ comes into prominence in the apostle's stated aspiration to be "found in Christ." I will begin by showing how this expression fits into the flow of Paul's encouragement to the Philippians. I will follow up with a brief summary of how it prepares us to appreciate "union with Christ" in our own Reformational theological tradition.
St. Paul was a master of rhetoric. He had an amazing capacity to take a few key concepts and weave them together in a way that anchored them in the minds of his readers (or hearers). We need to remember that the primary way most Christians engaged texts up to the invention of the printing press was by listening. The Philippian Christians would have gathered to hear the reading of Scripture and, as occasion presented itself, correspondence from St. Paul. They couldn't take home their own copies of the letter, so they trained themselves to listen attentively. Likewise, the apostle formed his message in a way adapted to the need to hold it in memory.
Paul's teaching in Philippians revolves around two memorable paradigms or patterns. In essence, he points to two different individuals and commends something about them as a pattern for the Christian life, particularly the life of the church, a community created by the gospel message. The two individuals he presents to the Philippians are Christ and himself. These two paradigms are drawn together both structurally and thematically.
Note, in the first place, that the example of Christ and the example of Paul are tied together structurally by the exhortation to be of a particular "mind." We can recall his exhortation in 2:5, "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus." He then proceeds to relate the story of Christ, from his pre-existence, to the incarnation, the cross, and his exaltation--all to the glory of the Father. In the same way, this section, Philippians 3:7-16, ends with an exhortation in vs. 15 about being of a particular mind. "Let those of us who are mature be of the same mind..." Here, he points to himself--without any arrogance or pride--and urges Christians to be of the same mindset. So, these two patterns--Christ and Paul--are bracketed, as it were, by references to a mindset. Within this broad framework of how we are to direct our minds, Paul sets forth several common themes, among which "finding" will emerge as particularly significant.
Before turning to how "being found in Christ" emerges as the foundation of Paul's hope in the unfolding of these two patterns, I call your attention to a couple of other themes that unite the two. The first is that of humility. Philippians 2:5ff reveal Christ's humility. Philippians 3:7-16 exhibit's Paul's humility. The two "humilities" are dramatically different. Christ's is voluntary. Though he is the Creator and exalted Lord, he lays aside his glory and prerogatives and becomes an obedient servant. Paul's humility is "realistic." It is an expression of an honest assessment of his own life and character. His humility can be summarized by the thought, "I have not arrived." Paul sees that there is much more to life in Christ than he has attained. He knows that there is a much more substantial experience of being "in Christ" than what he has experienced so far. He longs for this, but he has not arrived. "Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on..." (3:12) It is precisely on this point that he urges the Philippian Christians to have the same mind that he does. "I have not arrived, but I press on." This is a proper humility, joined with perseverance.
There is another rhetorical theme that ties the two patterns together. It is the word "excelling." Paul introduced the pattern of Christ in 2:3 by challenging the Philippians to regard others as "excelling" yourselves. Later, when Paul speaks of his own revaluation of his former life, he says that he gladly leaves it behind because of the "excelling (greatness) of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." (3:8) Later in the letter he will point believers to the peace of God which "excels" our understanding. The word "excel" gets translated differently in these three places in our English Bibles, but they are the same word in Paul's text. He sprinkles it through the letter to remind us that serving the Lord is no hum-drum affair. Having the right mindset includes seeing excelling greatness, seeing others and Christ in the excellence which is theirs.
Turning to our focus, though, on being "found" in Christ, it is important to appreciate that there are two great "findings" in Philippians--one each in the two patterns Paul presents to the church. Now the word "find" is an interesting word. We often think of it in relation to things that get lost. Luke 15 famously records three stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. When they are found, great joy follows. But "finding," of course, encompasses much more than just searching out things that are lost. "Finding" can refer to getting to the truth of a matter. At the end of trials, a jury foreman announces that they have "found" the defendant guilty or not guilty. Likewise researchers, supposing that there are phenomena that are not fully understood or explored, formulate theories and test them and publish their "findings." They bring to light, as it were, things that were not previously known or well understood.
From this sense of bringing something to light, the passive form of "find" can have the meaning "appear" or "turn out to be the case." This is the meaning of Paul's aspiration, "I want to be found in Christ" in 3:9. He wants it to turn out to be the case in the last day that he is in Christ. Note that this sort of expression is consistent with his realistic humility that he has not arrived. It is not an expression of doubt; rather it gives voice to humble faith.
I have said that there are two great "findings" in Philippians. There is this one in 3:9, where Paul shares his desire to be found in Christ. The other is in Philippians 2:7-8 where Christ is found in appearance as a man, a human being. To miss the connection between these two findings is to miss something crucial in St. Paul's thought, for it is Christ's being found as one of us that creates the possibility for us to be found in Christ!
This is one of many Biblical pointers to what is called, in theology, the "great exchange." This exchange is the saving consequence of our union with Christ. In this exchange, simply put, what properly belongs to Christ is given to us, while what belongs to us is taken up by Christ. In the mystery of the incarnation, the immortal One takes our mortality to himself, and conquers death by his death; his indestructible resurrection life he shares with us. His perfect righteousness is given to us, while he takes up our guilt. This is what Paul anticipates when he says, "I want to be found in him, not having my own righteousness from the law, but the righteousness of God through faith in Christ." (3:9) Again, it is because Christ is found as one of us that we can be found in him.
Here we begin to see what Paul has in view when he speaks of being "in Christ." By faith, and through our baptism, we are so closely connected to Christ that God treats us as he would treat Christ. All that Christ has done is counted as what we have done. All that Christ has gained is counted as our gain--granted to us through the means of faith. This is one dimension of our "union with Christ" which we may broadly characterize as representational. We are united to him as our representative, or mediator, before God. The Heidelberg Catechism, in Q & A 60 puts it this way: "...out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned or been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart." God treats me as he treats Christ. This is the great exchange. This is what flows from union with Christ.
There is another equally important dimension to union with Christ, though, beyond the representational. God not only grants us Christ's standing, i.e. Christ's righteousness; God grants us new life in Christ. As Paul expresses it in Philippians 3:10, he wants "to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings." Or, as he puts it in Galatians 2:20, in another great exchange passage, "I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless, I live--yet not I, but Christ lives in me." To be "in Christ" means not just that we are "in Christ" but that Christ lives "in us." This is our union with the Lord! Or again, in Colossians 1:27, where Paul explains that the "mystery of the gospel" is "Christ in you, the hope of glory." Moreover, this union by which Christ's life becomes ours is not just individual but corporate. Paul expresses this in the description of the church as the body of Christ, which derives its life from Christ, the head. In John's gospel, Jesus describes this union using the metaphor of the vine: "I am the vine, you are the branches." (John 15:5)
This second dimension of union with Christ is often under-emphasized, but it is inseparable from the first. In the evangelical tradition the emphasis has tended to rest on our being "found in Christ" and receiving the benefits of Christ's righteousness. We are freed from condemnation. We are "home free," so to speak. But, for St. Paul, being found in Christ does not stop there. He desires to share Christ's life. He wants to live in union with the risen Christ, experiencing his resurrection power, which will make it possible to enter into deeper fellowship with Christ through sharing his sufferings. Being "found in Christ" makes it essential, then, that believers "work out their salvation with fear and trembling, since God is at work in you." (2:12) Union with Christ is not just representational; it is dynamic.
In closing, being "found in Christ" warns us against complacency and calls us to live in the anticipation of the Last Day. The hymn "The Solid Rock" captures this well: "When he shall come with trumpet sound, O may I then in him be found, dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne." Paul's two "findings" in Philippians reminds us of the importance of time in his theology. Christ comes among us--is "found" among us as a man, in at the turning point of history. "When the fullness of the time came, God sent his son..." (Galatians 4:4) "While we were still sinners, Christ, at the right time, died for the ungodly." (Romans 5:6) Our being found in Christ concerns the end of history. Remember that "to be found" means that it turns out "to be the case." Where we stand in relation to Christ becomes clear in the end! So, we live in the crucial time of opportunity with the Last Great Day in view. This does not mean that our salvation is uncertain until that point. But, it does mean that we have to live out our faith each and every day, realizing that each and every day is an opportunity to grow nearer unto God in Christ. Like the apostle, we must live in the honest humility that we have not lived into the fullness of our union with Christ and so we "press on to make it our own, because Christ Jesus has made us his own."