[Texts: Paul’s life and letters]
To wrap up my summaries of Paul’s teaching on Jesus (Part One and Part Two having covered History, Salvation, and Obedience), I’d like to focus on the Benefits delivered to believers in Christ and the new Realities of our spiritual location “in Christ.” My comprehensive chart of what Paul had to say about Jesus can be accessed here, if you’d like to see these ideas in more detail.
On my chart, I am calling “Benefits” those things that are presently in our possession through faith in Jesus, as well as those things that are promised to us in the future (but are no less certainly ours!).* For the most part, these are intangibles; yet even as the bread and drink of Communion are physical reminders of a real but untouchably distant historical event, so are our physical bodies reminders of the real, material future blessings of resurrected life in the New Heavens and New Earth. In other words, all that we are unable to experience with our senses now will one day be thoroughly realized in our bodies, relationships, and world.
Some of the invisible Benefits belonging to believers are improvements on the old order of things, as set out in the Hebrew Scriptures: freedom from the law of sin and death; inclusion, if we are Gentiles, in the promises and family of the great patriarch Abraham; access to God in the first place.* Other Benefits trump the oldest enemy of every human being, Death itself: for in Christ, Paul assures us, we have already died and been made alive with never-ending life; and though we will die physically, we shall yet hope to live again in our resurrected bodies.
Still other Benefits explain our present situation, however contrary to evidence these truths may seem: we are adopted children of God; we are gifted by God for service and with the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit; and we have the blessings of comfort, joy and encouragement in Christ. Truly, as Paul says himself, we by Christ’s poverty have become rich.
Finally, the Benefits of life in Christ include our salvation from judgment and extend to the formation of our characters into his likeness. Righteousness and holiness, flowing from our deliverance from the power of sin, law, and death, will increasingly mark the people of God. And in all of our challenges and changes, we are guaranteed to find ourselves safe in the love of our Father God.
Knowing these Benefits is the key to bearing the Realities of the Christian life, which, Paul does not hesitate to admit, will often be painful and sorrowful in our broken world. Those believers whose political and social settings most closely resemble Paul’s own will best be able to appreciate the power of these truths for the shouldering of suffering.
While some of the Realities that I have listed on my chart rather cross over into the Benefits category (e.g., belonging to Christ, having already been buried and raised with him, being members together of his body), other Realities do not feel like Benefits at all. Our close identification with our Lord, both individually and collectively, opens for us the possibility of suffering, an experience that Paul knew only too well. He recognized in his imprisonment, maltreatment and hardships the fulfillment of a prophecy once made about him by the Lord himself: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name,” and he identified the same in the lives of his friends: “For the sake of Christ you not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”
It’s the phrase “for his sake” that puts the Realities in perspective. Since for our sake Jesus was condemned, bringing into being the Benefits that Paul celebrates, our temporary sufferings for his sake can be borne in grateful response and the confident hope of receiving unshakeable life at the end of our story. Without this perspective, no believer over the whole course of Christian history could have withstood the cruel persecutions devised by the world. By God’s grace, Paul’s life and letters provide us with a verbal picture of the noble soldier who bears all for the sake of his Commander in Chief. Let’s learn from him, and keep on standing firm.
*It would actually make just as much sense to call these Benefits “Realities” of the Christian life; but here I’ve used the “Reality” category to collect those things that we experience in this life because we are believers, as well as for a few more invisible and intangible implications of belonging to Christ.
*I’m not going to give you the verse references in this post! If I did, your eyes would skim these paragraphs and you wouldn’t really read these amazing statements. (Am I not right?) You see if you can remember the specific verses that I’m referring to. If you can’t, look up these ideas under the Benefits and Realities categories on my chart “What Paul Said About Jesus.”
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