The controlling New Testament story about the resurrected Jesus is that he is seated at the right hand of the Father, having received authority to judge and rule over the nations. The thought runs from his words to Caiaphas (Matt. 26:64; Lk. 22:69), through the preaching first of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:56), then of the apostles in the Greek-Roman world (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 12:2), to John’s climactic vision of the martyrs reigning with Christ, at the right hand of God, throughout the coming ages (Rev. 20:4). Behind it lies the influential and highly “political” promise made to Israel’s king in Psalm 110:
The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies! (Ps. 110:1-2)
This is not, by and large, the story that modern evangelicalism tells. The modern evangelical Jesus spends most of his time not sitting at the right hand of God but living in the heart of the believer; and a person is converted to this faith by explicitly inviting Jesus into his or her heart.
Because I think that for good missional reasons and even better biblical reasons we need to get beyond the modern paradigm, I have tended to assume that the sentimental, claustrophobic notion of Jesus living in my heart is at best outmoded and at worst theologically wrong. I got pulled up for that recently on Facebook—the language is there in the New Testament and cannot simply be dismissed out of post-evangelical prejudice.
But what does it mean? Perhaps not exactly what modern evangelicalism thinks it means. I don’t suppose I’ve covered all the relevant texts here, but it’s enough to be getting on with.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life 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)
This is a common idea in Paul. The apostles in particular, and perhaps the saints generally, share in the suffering of Jesus so that they and others may experience the life of Jesus. He argues in 2 Corinthians, for example, that the apostles are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:10).
When he says that Christ lives in him, he does not mean that at his conversion he invited Jesus into his heart. He means that he has repudiated his previous life—not least his elevated status in Judaism (Gal. 1:13-14)—in order to pursue a Christlike calling that will inevitably entail suffering and probably death. He counts his “blameless” life under the law as dross for the sake of sharing in Christ’s sufferings, being conformed to his death, and experiencing the same resurrection power (Phil. 3:8-10; cf. Col. 1:24). The life of Christ is in him because the weakness of Christ is in him.
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Cor. 13:5)
It is difficult to say exactly what Paul means when he asks whether the Corinthians realize that Christ is in them (en humin). But he has just stated that Christ is speaking “in me” (en emoi), that he is not weak in dealing with them, “but is powerful in you (en humin)”, he was “crucified in weakness”, but “lives by the power of God”; and Paul asserts that “we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God” (2 Cor. 13:4). So it rather looks as though to have Christ in them means to know the Christ who was crucified in weakness but who lives by the power of God, which in this case is a power to judge and discipline them.
But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (Rom. 8:10)
What Paul appears to mean here by “Christ… in you” is “the Spirit of Christ in you” (8:9). The Spirit is the Spirit of God and of Christ because he is “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead”. Again, the point is that, through the Spirit, they participate specifically in the life-through-suffering of Jesus.
…that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith… (Eph. 3:16–17)
This, I would suggest, continues the pattern. There is admittedly less said about suffering in Ephesians, but these “saints” have been called and sealed with the Spirit for the sake of a future inheritance (Eph. 1:14, 18); and in some measure they anticipate that inheritance (this is the more realized eschatology of Ephesians) in their present experience, having been raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:5-6). So if Christ dwells in their hearts through the Spirit, it is in the sense that they replicate his story, they participate in his death and resurrection. But there is still an “evil day” of persecution to be faced (Eph. 6:13). The dwelling of Christ in their hearts is the outcome of the work of the Spirit—it is a matter of formation—so that they may endure through to the day when the church receives its inheritance among the nations.
To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col. 1:27)
Again, for these Gentile believers to have Christ in them is an expression of the fact that they have a hope of sharing eventually in the glory that Christ will receive when he is revealed amongst the nations. They have died, their life is hidden with Christ, who is seated at the right hand of God, and when he appears, they also will appear with him in glory; therefore they should put to death what is earthly in them… (Col. 3:3-5).
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4–5)
Here again the issue is clearly not conversion but discipleship. The “abiding in” is reciprocal, and for Jesus to abide in the disciple may only be a figure for Jesus’ words abiding in the disciple (15:7)—or perhaps another way of saying that the Spirit of Jesus will be in them (14:17). The prospect of suffering as Jesus suffers is also immediately in view (15:18).
Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. (1 John 4:4)
If the reference here is to Jesus rather than to God dwelling in them, the point is that they embody in themselves—presumably through the Spirit—the one who overcame the ruler of this world (cf. John 12:31).
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20)
This famous promise is made not to an individual but to a community, but more importantly it is again an image of Christ, who himself overcame death, wanting to be at the heart of a community called to overcome opposition and persecution. He exhorts them to buy gold refined by the fires of persecution and the “white garments” of those who walk with Jesus through suffering (cf. Rev. 3:4-5). Those who conquer death, having eaten with Christ, will sit with him on his throne “as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne”.
The idea that Christ dwells in the heart of the believer is certainly in the New Testament, but not as a way of speaking about conversion—or even, for that matter, about a restored, intimate relationship with God. That is just a product of the modern evangelical mythology. Rather, it belongs to the context of discipleship—and discipleship in the particular sense of sharing in Christ’s suffering and death in hope of sharing in his resurrection, vindication, and kingdom throughout the coming ages. The persecuted but vindicated Jesus dwells in the persecuted community for the sake of the future of the people of God.