I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. Gal. 2:20
I have always liked this verse. Something inside of me has always resonated with it, even if I didn’t fully understand it. It’s laced with a sense of mystery and irony. It has a bold flavor, but also a distinct sense of humility and grace. I just like it, okay?
If you had asked my younger self to explain what Paul meant in one sentence, I would have probably said, “Jesus died for me, so I will live for him.” My older self, however, tends to move a little slower through the text and look a little deeper, afraid that someone might ask me what it actually means and expect me to say something that makes sense.
Did you know that this verse comes from a public rebuke of one of Jesus’ main disciples?
Peter had come to Antioch to meet with Paul and visit the Gentile church, but when certain leaders came from Jerusalem, Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles, like a popular kid that stops playing chess with the nerds when his friends walk in the room.
Paul confronted Peter to his face, challenging him to practice what he preached. He reminded Peter that to identify with a crucified Christ is to put the old system, a system based in legalism and self-made righteousness, to death.
I am crucified with Christ.
What can Paul possibly mean by this? We can quickly dismiss the literal. We know that only two men were crucified with Jesus, and Paul was neither one of them.
Paul’s hands were not pierced. He did not wear a crown of thorns. If anything, Paul should have given credit where credit was due, and said, “Christ was crucified for me.” But he doesn’t. And because he doesn’t, it is our responsibility to try to understand what he meant.
Thankfully, Paul does not leave this concept open to conjecture. In his letter to the Romans, he spends an entire chapter talking about it. Here is an excerpt from chapter 6:
How can we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life.
For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection. We know that our old man was crucified with him so that the body of sin would no longer dominate us, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.
Obviously, this concept is profound and challenging, with dramatic implications. Here in Romans, Paul claims even more than he claimed in Galatians. Not only are believers crucified with Christ. They are also buried with him and raised with him.
How is this possible?
We know it can’t be literal. When Jesus told his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him, he was not asking them to walk to Golgotha beside him. His crucifixion would be a physical, historical event. Theirs would be spiritual.
I think the secret of our connection to the cross is found in Paul’s use of the word “baptism.” Notice how he writes: we have been buried with him through baptism into death.
In this case, baptism has nothing to do with dunking or sprinkling. It has to do with the concept of immersion itself, like being absorbed into something, identified with that thing.
For just as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body—though many—are one body, so too is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. I Cor. 12:12 – 13
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female—for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Gal. 3:27 – 28
The concept of being absorbed into one Body by one Spirit with one Head can help us to explain how an American in 2017 can claim to have been crucified with a Jewish Messiah in the first century. It can also help to explain the second phrase of Galatians 2:20.
It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.
How does Christ live in his people? Didn’t he ascend back to his Father after the resurrection?
Does he live through his teachings? In the Eucharist? When two or more are gathered? Or is it something more mysterious, like when Spock passed his katra to McCoy before saving the Enterprise from the Genesis torpedo?
If you study John 14, you’ll find a confusing section where Jesus tells his disciples that he’s going away, but sending the Holy Spirit in his place—a guide that would not only be with them, but in them [:17]. Then, in the very next verse, he tells them that he would return to them, which would make sense with the Great Commission, since Jesus promises that he would be with his disciples to the very end of the age.
So which is it? Is the Holy Spirit in us, or is Jesus in us? The mystery is explained in John 16:13 – 14:
But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come. He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you.
So, to be clear, the Holy Spirit comes into God’s people, and shares whatever the risen Christ tells him to share, infusing his people with all the guidance and authority necessary for them to continue his work in the world.
The Spirit does not speak for himself. His responsibility is to serve Christ and the Church as a willing intermediary, creating a very real link between them. I like to think of Jesus as the head, the Church as his body, and the Holy Spirit as the nervous and circulatory systems.
When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, he said, “Why are you persecuting me?” Not my people—me. This sounds a lot like what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40. Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
So how does Jesus identify so closely with his people? And how are we supposed to identify so closely with his death, burial and resurrection? It’s because in some mysterious but very real way we are made one with Christ by his Spirit.
No one looks at a grapevine and says. “Hey, look at that vine. Oh, and look at those branches!” Same with a human body. We see a person, not some head attached to some body, as if they hardly belong together.
When Eve was given to Adam, God called them “one.” Obviously, a man and a woman are distinct individuals, but somehow the marriage unifies them in a significant way.
Let’s say a poor, homeless woman marries a movie star. She changes her last name, moves into his mansion, and starts to use his credit cards. She didn’t earn any of those things, but she received them the moment she said, “I do.”
That woman started a new life with a new identity, and that identity comes with a new set of advantages and obligations. In a way, by entering this union, she has shared in all of her husband’s previous successes, even though she was living on the streets at the time.
“When a man finds and knows himself to be linked with Christ, his life is altogether a new life. Crucified, then dead. Crucified, then the old life is put away. Whatever life a crucified man has must be new life. Whatever you have of life was not given you till you came into union with Christ. It is a new thing—as new as though you had been actually dead and rotted in the tomb and then had started up at the sound of the trumpet to live again.” —Charles Spurgeon
Imagine the earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting, mind-blowing implications of what it means to be joined with Christ. Now imagine the most appropriate response.
And the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.