Paul says, “I knew a man in Christ,” or, more correctly, “I know a man in Christ,” and a little later in the chapter he speaks of himself and the abundance of revelations he had received, so that there cannot be a doubt that Paul refers to himself as “a man in Christ.” He was caught up into Paradise, and revelations were communicated to him in such a way that he could not tell whether he was in the body or had been carried out of it.
But let us try to discover whether the term “man in Christ” was something that applied exclusively to Paul, or did it apply to him more strictly than to anyone else?
Let us first look at 1 Corinthians 15:22: “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” This points us to two headships. In Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all live. This speaks of the resurrection, but our passage refers to a man being in Christ while in the body. Our Lord said, “Except a [the] corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24), showing that the death of Christ was needful before His people could be brought into the closest association with Himself.
In another passage Christ is called the last Adam: “The first man Adam was made [or, became] a living soul; the last Adam, a quickening spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45). Here it is as two heads of creation: yes, we can speak of two creations, for we read that “if any man be in Christ [there is] a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Such a one is united with the last Adam, and as to his standing before God he has been severed from the first Adam.
Another passage will confirm this: “The first man is of the earth, earthy [or, made of dust]; the second man is the Lord from heaven.” (1 Corinthians 15:47). Now why does the passage speak only of two men when there have been millions? Surely because the first man, Adam, and the second Man, Christ, are the heads of two races or generations, and every human being belongs to the one or the other. All did belong to the first, but through the “new creation” some, by God’s grace, are taken out of that and made a part of the second.
Let us look at another expression—a formula we may say: the apostle speaks of a past condition, and says, “when we were in the flesh” (Romans 7:5); “they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in [the] flesh, but in [the] Spirit, if so be that [the] Sprit of God dwell in you” (8:8,9.) Now what can the expression “in the flesh,” as a bygone position, be except that the Christian has been lifted clean out of that standing, and has been placed into an entirely different one—in Christ?
It is true that the expression “in the flesh” is used in the scripture, and by the same apostle, with the simple signification of being alive in the body, as “nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you” (Philippians 1:24). But when a living man says, “When we were in the flesh,” it must refer to a position which has been left.
Many a Christian has but very vague ideas of what is meant by the expression, “When we were in the flesh.” Some seem to take it to mean that sometimes we are in the flesh, and sometimes we are not, and make it to be Christian experience, the same as is explained in Galatians 5:17: “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.” But in Romans 7 there is not a word about the Holy Spirit. The converse of being formerly in the flesh is, “but now we are delivered from the law, having died in that wherein we were held” (as v. 6 should read). There is a dying out of the old position of the first creation in association with Adam and under the law, and a being brought into a new position in Christ Jesus and under grace; the standing or position of the Christian is very apt to be confounded with his walk and ways. But the two things are quite distinct. This is seen under many figures in scripture. We have to thank God that he “hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son” (Colossians 1:13). We are emancipated from the authority of darkness, ruled over by Satan, and are brought into the kingdom of God’s dear Son—an entirely different place. We are not simply changed in character and left in the old place; but are brought into the kingdom of which Christ is Lord and Master.
Again, we who were the children of wrath, being also dead in sins, God hath quickened together with Christ, and “hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). This is our place and inheritance, and, though we are still in the body, in Christ we are already there. We are not with Christ until we are actually there. But this is an entirely new position or standing from being children of wrath, when we were willful followers of our first parent Adam, and as to any life God-ward we were dead in sins. We were then in Adam; but now, if Christians, we are “in Christ.”
“Therefore, if any man be in Christ [there is] a new creation: old things are passed away; behold all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17–18). The new creation here spoken of entirely confutes the thought of our being restored to the status of Adam in innocence: the status believers are brought into far exceeds this in blessedness, and it is entirely and emphatically a new creation, brought about for us by the death of the Lord Jesus, by our being quickened together with Him, and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; and the new position into which we are thus brought may be summed up in two words, “in Christ.”
Now it is important to see that as this is true of one Christian, it is also true of all Christians. Thus the Epistle to the Colossians is addressed “to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ”: scripture does not recognize any middle place. As heads there are only the first man and the second Man; the first Adam and the last Adam—the Lord Jesus Christ.
With which head is the reader connected? The thought of a mortal man being “in Christ” is something entirely beyond what we could have conceived, and it doubtless seems to some to be presumption to take such a place; but if God says this of us, it is unbelieving not to own it, and dishonoring to Him who in grace has declared this respecting the believer. It may seem to some to be humility to want to take a lower place; but it is not: true humility takes the place assigned to it, and forgets itself, in love and admiration of the One who has accomplished it all.
Privilege and responsibility flow from relationship. If God has placed us in a position, we cannot shirk its responsibilities, nor should we think lightly of its privileges. This would be despising our birthright. Let none think that by shutting their eyes to what God has revealed respecting them, they can avoid much being required of them. “Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required” (Luke 12:48). Of Israel it was said,” You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2).
The high position of the saint should affect all the details of life: thus, the apostle writes, “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world?…Know ye not that we shall judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:1–3). How unbecoming it would be for saints to seek justice from those whom they are destined to judge.
But to return to our passage that speaks of Paul as “a man in Christ,” let us note that his being caught up into the third heaven had nothing to do with giving him that standing. He was a man in Christ before he was caught up just as much as he was afterward. Surely a godly walk becomes all such, but if any do not walk well, if Christians at all, this does not deprive them of their position: it would rob them of the enjoyment of their relationship, but it would not destroy it. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, says, “I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal [or fleshly]; as unto babes in Christ…ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” (1 Corinthians 3:1–3). Note that though they were fleshly and carnal, and were babes, yet they were babes “in Christ.”
Once in that position, by being quickened together with Christ, nothing can bring them back again into the old standing of being “in Adam.” Disciplined they will be, and if need be, they may be delivered by God unto Satan for the breaking them down, for the destruction of the flesh. That they may be finally lost? No, “that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (Chap. 5:5.)
We see in the case of Paul how careful God is that His saints should not go astray, and that they should not even be exalted above measure. Paul had been caught up to the third heaven. No fear of his being puffed up when there; but when he came down, could he not boast of being the only man alive that had ever been into such an exalted position, and of having heard things that it was not possible to utter in a world like ours? God cared for His servant, as He cares for each one of us, and He gave Paul a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet him. It was not a mere finger-ache, we may be sure, but something that buffeted him, tried him exceedingly—perhaps something that made him contemptible in the eyes of the gainsayers (see 2 Corinthians 10:10). He besought the Lord thrice that the thorn might be removed; but he received the assurance that God’s grace was sufficient for him: for His strength was made perfect in weakness. Paul could then glory in his infirmities that the power of Christ might rest upon him.
May all God’s beloved people know, and understand better, and own the high and holy position He has placed them in. And then seek grace that their state, their condition of life, should correspond to that position. “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection [your mind] on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.”