The Seeds of Union with Christ

From whence does Paul’s understanding of a believer’s union in Christ come? Much recent work has shed some light upon this question and many have pointed to Paul’s actual encounter with Christ when on the Damascus Road.[1] And indeed it seems that it was in his Damascus road experience where the deep seeds of a theology of union were planted.

It’s worth looking at that Acts 9 dialogue to see what impressed Paul specifically. “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:1-5).

Saul, a Pharisee of Pharisee’s, is hard at work persecuting Christians. In fact, Saul shows up earlier in Acts 7 as he oversaw and supported those Jews who were stoning Stephen to death. Saul is not a believer; he is not in the Way. But the Lord, in sovereign grace, confronts Saul, and in this blinding experience knocks him to ground. The risen and glorious Jesus Christ has revealed himself to Saul and the first thing he says is “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

This question posed to Saul is perhaps more startling then the blinding brightness of the glory of the Lord. You see, Saul was persecuting Christians not out of any sadistic pleasure. And neither was it, as some have suggested, motivated by racial hatred. It was purely religious zeal - zeal to honor the traditions of his inherited religious worship. “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:13-14).

And perhaps this is the reason why Christ’s first words to Saul are so shocking. It’s clear that Saul immediately recognized this appearance before him as Divine. “Who are you, Lord?” But his question also highlights his confusion, for how could it be, Saul thought, that his “zealous” work in ridding the world of this cult called the Way was also persecution of God?

The Lord’s answer gives Saul the beginning’s of a theological framework. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Here is Jesus himself, the God-man now risen and glorified, and so identifying himself with the persecuted church that he can say that their persecution is his persecution. Here is the Son of God, he who became a man and who suffered under men, now declaring in his risen glory that those who believe in Him are suffering in Him.

It should be no surprise to us either that this striking language is what Jesus himself taught. “"If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). And Paul, later in his ministry, could write that “"Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” ( 2 Timothy 3:12). But of course, to suffer (and even die) in Christ is part and parcel of being raised to resurrected life and glorified in Christ. “The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure [suffering], we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:11-12), or as Jesus tells us, "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10).

It seems that for Paul, it was Christ’s declaration of being in union with the persecuted men and women of the Way that gave him the groundwork for his theology of salvation. Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and indeed no one can come to the Father except through Him - it is in union with Him that all the benefits of his life, death, and resurrection can now be enjoyed. And so here, on his way to kill those found in the Way, Paul began to piece it together. Being in the Way is being in the Lord, and to be in the Lord is to be one with him - He sharing in their persecution, but likewise, the persecuted sharing in Christ’s life and righteousness.

[1] See Seyoon Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Wipf & Stock, 2007).

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

Stephen Unthank