This article is based on material from The Thing Is, a new book by Tony Payne available now.
I have never migrated from one country to another. The farthest I have ever moved was 500 miles from our family farm to go to university in Sydney. It was more than 30 years ago, but I can still remember the swirling sense of excitement, anxiety and disorientation of those early months in the Big Smoke. New streets, new transport, new housemates, new church… new everything.
Needless to say, university was also a new experience. The very first day I turned up to class, the Marxist-nihilists (or was it the Leninist-feminists?) had called a student strike against the fascists who were apparently running the faculty. Placards were waved. Things were thrown. Angry speeches were given denouncing the corruption of the regime. And there was me, wide-eyed in my flannelette shirt and desert boots, foolscap notepad under my arm, wondering whether I was supposed to be getting any of this down.
Eventually, I did what most country kids do. I adapted, learned the lingo, traded in the flannelette shirt for a very fetching turtleneck, and began to live the Sydney student life.
To become a Christian is essentially to move from one country to another, to change our address. This is how Paul describes it in his letter to the Colossians:
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14)
The ‘he’ in this passage is God himself. Through the speaking and spreading of the gospel message, God had done something radical in the lives of the Colossians (and in the lives of Paul and Epaphras and all the rest). God had changed where they live. He had delivered or rescued them from the domain of darkness, and transferred them to the kingdom of his Son.
It was essentially a migration program. God was rescuing people from one realm or domain or country and transferring them to another—from a domain shrouded in darkness to one bathed in light.
What does Paul mean by “the domain of darkness”? It’s a vivid image of our dismal default situation. As a consequence of rebelling against God and his rule, humanity has been shut out from God and the light of his presence. We defiantly set our own plans for our lives, but we find ourselves seeking to achieve them in a dark realm ruled by decay and difficulty and death. It is a land we can never escape from, a land in which we are prisoners of our own independence.
As citizens of this domain we all have one thing in common: we oppose God. Some of us oppose him in a passive-aggressive sort of way, others in a more defiantly rebellious way. But we are all “alienated and hostile” in our minds, as Paul puts it in verse 21 of the chapter.
Tragically, this is home for us. It’s where we live, trapped in a darkness that has become so normal for us that we hardly notice it any more.
This is why the gospel message is so powerful and revolutionary. It declares that God has undertaken a rescue mission to free those living in the realm of darkness, and to take them to a new land, a new kingdom: the kingdom of his Son.
This stunning deliverance is achieved by another transfer of a different kind. Our guilt and sin and rebellion, and the punishment that was due, have been transferred to Jesus, who bore them all on the cross. As Paul says later in our passage:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him… (Colossians 1:19-22)
All this God did through the blood of the cross, and we can scarcely believe why. We were, after all, the ones at fault—like rebellious little clay pots shaking our collective fists at the Potter, running away from home, refusing to live under his rule, building our own towers of Babel in his face.
And yet God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ—as Paul puts it elsewhere (Ephesians 2:4-5).
This is sweet and familiar news to Christians. But it also raises a question that is as old as Christianity.
The question is this: if God has freely and completely forgiven us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and transferred us into his kingdom, then what incentive is there for us to lead a different life?
If I slip up, won’t I be forgiven anyway? I know I’ve been transferred and am now a resident of God’s kingdom, but does it really make all that much difference how well I live as a Christian—as long as I avoid doing anything grossly immoral (like adultery)?
In my experience, very few Christians would be as crass as to put the question like this (at least aloud). But we do often struggle to understand how and why the cross of Jesus should make a real practical difference in our daily lives. We can feel that the cross is big and cosmic and ‘spiritual’; and yet our lives are a daily grind of mundane details and tasks and responsibilities. God may have transferred me out of darkness and into his Son’s kingdom, but at times that feels far removed from me and my everyday life. I feel like I’m living in the same place and in the same life I always have.
Just how does God’s grand purpose in Christ connect with us, and make a difference in our lives? How does it define who we are? How does it motivate and change us?
To answer that question, we are going to venture into one of the most profound sentences in all of human literature.
Was the apostle Paul the teeniest bit nuts?
The Christians at Corinth evidently thought so, and on reasonable grounds. Paul lived in a way that most sane, ordinary folk would regard as unbalanced, unhealthy and possibly unhinged.
For example, in seeking to prove his authority and credentials as an apostle, Paul provides a list of accomplishments in 2 Corinthians 11:21-29. It doesn’t, however, read like the CV of a normal person. It’s the behaviour of an extremist and a fanatic. This was evidently what the Corinthian Christians were thinking. Was Paul really a genuine apostle and man of God? Do truly ‘spiritual’ people behave in this excessive, almost lunatic, fashion?
In chapter 5 of his second letter to them, Paul opens his heart and mind to the Corinthians and explains what drives him to live the way he does. In the end, he says, it’s because he has no choice. The “love of Christ controls us” he says (v. 14). Christ’s love compels him, hems him in, and provides him with no option but to live a completely different life.
What does he mean by this? In what way does the love of Christ compel Paul’s actions?
One thing he doesn’t mean is that Christ’s love motivates him merely by way of inspiration or example. It is certainly true that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is an example—perhaps the ultimate example—of selfless love and sacrifice for the sake of others. And there are places in the New Testament where his example is held up for Christians to follow (e.g. 1 Peter 2:20-21).
But here Paul is talking about something far more profound, and he explains it by penning one of the most remarkable sentences ever written:
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
Christ’s love controls or compels Paul because he is convinced of a certain truth: that one died for all.
This is not particularly difficult to understand or grasp. In fact, one man dying instead of or on behalf of others is a very familiar idea to us. It’s a staple image of Western literature and film.
For a high culture example, it would be hard to go past the gripping climax of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, in which the no-good Sydney Carton does the only decent thing he’s ever done in his life by stepping in to be executed in the place of his close friend (and look-alike) Charles Darnay. He dies as a substitute for his friend, uttering the immortal words: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
For a pop culture example, consider Deep Impact, the B-grade disaster epic about a giant asteroid on a catastrophic collision course with Earth. Morgan Freeman as President dispatches a band of brave astronauts in their ship, The Messiah (get it?!), to save the world. Somewhat predictably, after many setbacks they fulfil their mission by selflessly flying their ship into the heart of the asteroid and blowing it (and themselves) to smithereens.
There are many, many stories like this in our cultural library. (You can search sermonillustrations.com for a ton of them.)
And this indeed is very like what Jesus did on the cross. According to Scripture, when Jesus died it was as our substitute, taking the full force of God’s anger upon himself in the place of guilty sinners. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree,” says 1 Peter 2:24, “that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” Or in the haunting words of Isaiah, so many centuries before Christ’s death:
He was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. (Isa 53:5)
If you have any knowledge of the Christian gospel at all, this will be familiar ground to you—holy and familiar ground. We take our stand on that ground, and sing for joy:
Bearing shame, and scoffing rude
In my place, condemned, he stood
Sealed my pardon with his blood
Hallelujah, what a Savioour!1
However, as magnificent and true as these ideas are, it’s not quite what Paul is saying here in 2 Corinthians 5. We need to press further to understand why Christ’s love on the cross compels him.
You see, the logical conclusion Paul draws from the death of Christ is not the one we would draw as we think about Christ as our substitute. We might finish Paul’s sentence this way: “one has died for all… so that all do not have to die; he has paid the wages of sin on our behalf, so that we might escape the sentence of death and have eternal life”. But this is not what Paul says. He reaches a different conclusion. He says, “one has died for all, therefore all have died”.
This takes some absorbing. It’s not that Christ died so that I wouldn’t have to die. On the contrary, says Paul. Christ died so that I would die. The result of Christ’s death was my death. He died for all, and therefore all died.
In other words, Christ not only died as a substitute; he also died as a representative. He died as me, so that his death was also mine.
We are familiar with the idea of representation from politics. When we elect someone to parliament or congress, they go as our representative. They don’t vote in parliament instead of us, as if it were a case of either them or us voting. They vote for us, as our representative, so that their vote counts as our vote. This means that in affairs of state, the former tennis professional who is now my local member of parliament acts for me and for everyone else in his electorate. He is (alas) our representative. And all we have to do in order to have his vote count as our vote in government is to live in his electorate.
What this means is that Christ did not only die instead of us; he also died our death for us, as our representative. When he died, we also died—provided of course that he is our representative, and that we live in his electorate.
‘Living in Christ’s electorate’ is another way of describing being transferred by God out of the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of his Son. From our side, this means ceasing our stupid rebellion against God and giving all our trust, loyalty and obedience to the king of God’s new kingdom, Jesus Christ. It means packing our bags, turning our backs on our former country and its government, and moving to the other side of the universe.
Paul has a favourite way of describing this massive change in our allegiance and in where we live. He calls it being ‘in Christ’. It pops up in 2 Corinthians 5, just after the verses we’ve been discussing:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
If we are ‘in Christ’—if he is our Lord and representative—then we receive the benefits of what he has done as if we ourselves had done it. When he died on the cross, it was also our death; and when he rises from the dead, then we rise with him as well—to a life that is so new and different that Paul can call it “a new creation”.
Can you begin to see why the love of Christ on the cross compels Paul to lead a totally different and radical life? It’s because his old life is over. The rebellious sinful Paul who lived for himself and hated Christ—that Paul is now dead and buried with Christ. His sin has been judged, his death has taken place, and a new Paul has risen in place of the old Paul.
For sinners like us, this is news to celebrate. We all face the judgement and punishment that our sin deserves. We all face the death that comes to rebels against God. But if we are ‘in Christ’—if he is the place we have moved to, the king to whom we now swear allegiance—then the death we deserve has already taken place. Jesus has died for all, and therefore all who are one with him have died as well. The old has passed away; the new has come. We now stand before God fresh and clean, like newborn babes, ready to begin a new life in his service.
This is the very purpose for which Christ died, Paul says: “and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (v. 15).
If we are ‘in Christ’ then we live no longer for our own comfort, our own success, our own toys, our own fame, our own security, our own family, our own selves. We live for him who for our sake died and was raised. Whatever we do, whether in word or deed, we now do in the name of the Lord Jesus, our Master and Saviour (see Colossians 3:17).
To the rest of the world, this makes us look the teeniest bit nuts.
When we leave the domain of darkness and move to the electorate of Jesus, we leave behind our old life, our old identity, our old plans and dreams. We begin a whole new existence, with a whole new reason for living.
There are multiple incentives. It’s the best life. It’s the life that fulfils the purpose that our creator has for us. It’s the life, therefore, that brings real freedom, satisfaction and joy.
However, the most profound reason for pursuing the Christian life is that if we are in Christ, we have no other life to live. The old life is nailed to the cross of Jesus. It’s dead and gone.
As we step into our new life in Christ, we are new people, with new identities, a new reason for living, and a new set of priorities in life. And as we step into this new life we are handed a fresh white sheet of paper with a fresh agenda written on it for our lives. It is God’s agenda for us in this new life, and it contains just two words.
Whatever we do in this new life—in our family, in our workplace, in our neighbourhood, in our church, in our society—we are to do it in honour of Jesus: to imitate him, to obey him, to rid ourselves of anything that dishonours him, to clothe ourselves in his character, to spread the knowledge and fame of him wherever we go.
Can you grasp this?
If you can, you have learnt what it means to be a Christian.
- P Bliss, ‘Hallelujah! What a Saviour’, 1875. ↩