In the past, I have talked a fair bit about how being “in Christ” is not only the centre of Paul’s theology but possibly the entire New Testament’s theology. In Haley Goranson Jacob’s excellent 2018 book Conformed to the Image of His Son: Reconsidering Paul’s Theology of Glory in Romans, she also explores the theme of union or participation with Christ from the largely unexplored perspective of what she describes as “vocational participation.”
The vocation Dr Jacob is referring to is the original task God gave humanity in Genesis 1:26-28 and reflected on in Psalm 8:5-8, which is to rule on his behalf over his creation as his representatives. She explains, along with many other scholars, that is what it means to be made in the image of God. In the New Testament, the original call to bear God’s image is finally fulfilled in Jesus, the new Adam (Romans 5:12-20, 1 Corinthians 15:42-49, Hebrews 2:5-9.) She therefore concludes that being conformed to the image of his firstborn Son means believers, as members of God’s royal family, participating in the resurrected and exalted Messiah’s rule over creation, both in the present and in the world to come (pp. 263-264.) As Jacob draws out, this is what means for believers to be glorified in Romans 8:18 & 30. Through meticulous study of the word, she convincingly demonstrates “glory” does not primarily mean some kind of divine light but an exalted status of honour and authority. Since Jesus is King, we share in our big brother’s glorious rule.
Now most Christians are comfortable with the idea of reigning with Christ in the future (e.g. 2 Timothy 2:12 & Revelation 5:10) but we puzzle over what phrases like believers “reign in life” in Romans 5:17 or God “seated us with him in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” in Ephesians 2:6, which suggest we reign with him now. Jacob’s provocative proposal and point of emphasis is that ruling with Christ is a present reality as well. The difficulty most believers have with such an audacious proposal is we usually don’t feel in charge. Things often don’t go to plan and bad things happen in our lives. In other words, we still suffer so how can it be a present reality? When you think about it, it is really a subset of the larger question of what it means for Christ to rule. If he is in charge, why is the world the way it is? Why do his own people suffer?
The Jesus story, to say the least, is unconventional. The way Christ Jesus achieved power was utterly paradoxical, so his reign does not conform to how power has worked in the world. If we are sharing in his rule, we should expect our reign to also be paradoxical. Even in his unparalleled position of power, the New Testament is clear that the man Christ Jesus still identifies with our weaknesses (Acts 9:4-6, Romans 8:34, Hebrews 2:14-18.) This is because, as the Philippian hymn brilliantly illustrates, Christ was exalted through the obedient embrace of suffering. Now before Paul begins the hymn in 2:6-11, he says in verse 5 “let this mind be in you, which was also in the Messiah Jesus.” Messiah is a royal title so the apostle is indicating what it means to follow the king and rule alongside him. This resonates with Jesus’ own words that if you want to follow him you have to take up your cross. In the Gospel of John, Jesus counterintuitively claims that he will be enthroned on the cross, a position of utter powerlessness and humiliation (John 12:31-33.) However, because of his resurrection, we now know that he truly was glorified in the midst of his suffering, since him accepting total weakness was the reason God exalted him. As Jesus people this is true for us but like him, it is admittedly very hard to see it in the moment of suffering (Romans 5:1-5, 1 Peter 4:12-16.) As Paul puts it, we have inestimable treasure hidden in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7-12.)
The paradox of reigning with Christ is it does not mean the absence of suffering or even overcoming it necessarily. It rather means the very difficult call to embrace suffering with him in humble obedience to God. As Jacob points out in her astute reading of Romans 8:17-18 & 30, as we suffer with Christ, we are also glorified with him, that is share in his rule, even in the present (p. 222.) Glory and suffering are equally and concurrently part of being in Christ, the servant king. Now this does not mean every Christian will suffer always, at all times. It does mean suffering, whether it is through persecution or the common vulnerabilities of mortal life, is not unusual and it can be expected. Yet in the middle of intense struggle and difficulty, through Christ’s resurrection we have already overcome and rule with the king who was crucified.