|EXPLORING CHRISTIANITY - IDENTITY||
LIFE AFTER DEATHChristianity's Hope & Challenge.
Our identity in Christ
If we want to get a picture of what humanity is meant to be like (and can become) we can't do better than read through the Gospel stories to get a picture of the sort of person Jesus was. Philip Toynbee, reviewer, writer and struggler after truth, expressed it movingly this way in Part of a Journey:
I call myself a Christian because I discern in the New Testament a man whose life, death and central teaching penetrates more deeply into the mysterious reality of our condition that anyone or anything else has ever done. In the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles, I find a total view of what man is, or what he could be and ought to be, which evokes a response in me such as no other writings have ever done.
In the New Testament, Jesus is presented to us not only as God, the Second Person within the divine Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit, but also as perfect humanity, the one who shed the outer manifestation of his divine glory in the womb of Mary, to be fully clothed with our humanity. You could say that he was still as much God as if he had never been human, but had become as much human as if he had never been God. While on earth he experienced sorrow (John 11:35), hunger (Matthew 4:2), tiredness (John 4:6) and pain (Hebrews 5:8), yet without succumbing to sin or disobedience to his Father (Hebrews 4:15). He demonstrated what true Sonship is all about. God spoke from heaven at his baptism by John in the river Jordan: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17).
There are a number of ways in which Christians are described in the New Testament. However, one of the most common ways is to speak of believers in terms of their relationship with Jesus. Consider the following examples. Christians are people who:
Christ (Matthew 4:19)
When we welcome Jesus into our lives as Saviour and Lord, then we not only enter into this new relationship with him, but also with his Father. He shares with us this unique sonship. "To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of Godchildren born not of natural descent, not of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God" (John 1:12, 13). As children born of God, Jesus shares with us:
all the spiritual resources that belong to him"All that belongs to the Father is mine...the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you" (John 16:15);
his friendship"I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you" (John 15:15);
his love"As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love" (John 15:9);
his joy"I have told you this so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete" (John 15:11);
his glory"I have given them the glory that you [Father] gave me" (John 17:22);
his risen life"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God...When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:14);
his inheritance"If we are children, then we are heirsheirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory"(Romans 8:17);
his future reign"To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne" (Revelation 3:21).
It is in entering into this relationship with Jesus that we begin to discover who we ourselves are. This is very well illustrated from the story of Peter in the New Testament. When Andrew introduced his brother Simon (Peter's original name) to Jesus, we are told that "Jesus looked at him and said, 'You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas' (which, when translated, is Peter)" (John 1:42). The meaning of the words Cephas (Aramaic) and Peter (Greek) is 'rock'. Reading through the Gospel stories, one gets the impression that Peter was anything but a rock. He was very much aware of his own sinfulness (Luke 5:8), an impetuous character, often speaking out of turn (e.g. Mark 8:32, 33; 9:5, 6). Finally he denied his knowledge of Jesus three times, after boasting he would die for him (Mark 14:29-31; 66-72). However, when Jesus looks at us he sees not so much what we are, but what we can become if we are willing to let him manage our lives in his way. And so he gives Simon the new identity of Peter, the rock, and sets about working on him to produce the character that is in line with that identity. Biblical scholar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, describes Peter's encounter with Jesus like this:
Simon, the fisherman, before his meeting with Christ, however thoroughly he might have searched within himself, could not possibly have found a trace of Peter. Yet the form 'Peter', the particular mission reserved for him alone, which till then lay hid in the secret of Christ's soul and, at the moment of this encounter, was delivered over to him sternly and imperativelywas to be the fulfilment of all that, in Simon, he would have have sought vainly for, a form ultimately valid in the eyes of God and for eternity.
I am sure this is something of the meaning of the 'white stone' mentioned in the book of Revelation. "To him who overcomes, I will give...a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it" (Revelation 2:17). Thomas Howard, a Professor at Gordon College, Massachusetts, says:
Your identity, perhaps, is a great treasure, precious beyond your wildest imaginings, kept for you by the great Custodian of souls to be given to you at the Last Day when all things are made whole. Some such picture as the above would seem to be indicated in the biblical emphasis.
One lady wrote about how her mother died when she was 11 years old, and how three men had subsequently abused her by the age of 13. She described how long it had taken her "to escape with a sigh of relief into my heavenly Father's arms." One entry on her journal says this: "It is not the brokenness of something which motivates us to fix it, but the anticipation of the enjoyment of the repaired article." After writing about the importance of Revelation 2:17, where Jesus promises a white stone with a new name written on it, she concluded, "I find it a calming thought that I have a new name from the Lord waiting for me when I permanently move house."
It is when we commit our lives to Jesus that we begin the exploration of finding out who we really are. Blaise Pascal said:
Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ; we only know life and death through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot know the meaning of our life or our death, of God or of ourselves.
In considering the question of our relationship with Christ within the context of finding our true identity, it may be helpful to distinguish between the Christian view of this union with God and that which stems more from a Buddhist, Hindu or New Age philosophy. Adolf Deissmann, in his classic treatment of the subject of Paul's mysticism, Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History, distinguishes between what he calls 'union mysticism' and 'communion mysticism'. It is a useful distinction. Union mysticism, says Deissmann, involves being absorbed into God or discovering divinity in ourselvesthe current fashion with New Age religion. In the process we lose our identities. Communion mysticism, in contrast, involves a relationship in which we experience the gracious paradox of 'I, yet not I' in our experience of the presence of the risen Christ. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). Paul is saying that the old independent 'I', in rebellion against God and out of fellowship with him, no longer exists. It received its death sentence through identification with Christ on the cross. However, in experiencing the presence of the risen Christ in his life, through the Spirit, the 'I' of the real Paul, created by God as an autonomous individual with God-like qualities, is more alive than ever. So we discover our true identity in the context of communion with Christ. Because Paul believed and experienced Jesus in communion mysticism rather than union mysticism, he was more concerned with ethics than ecstasy, a transformed life rather than an emotional experience. It is a loving relationshipand friendshipwhich leads to doing the will of the Father.
The end result is also different in each case. Whereas Buddhists speak of Nirvana, where the individual loses his or her identity in being united with the one all-inclusive being, the biblical view is that of receiving one's true identity, that for which one was lovingly created in the eternal purpose of God. We will never be more alive or more self-aware than we are then, living in an eternal love relationship with both God and his other children. It is this for which Jesus suffered and we will know and worship him eternally as "the Lamb who was slain" (Revelation 5:12). His risen body will forever bear the scars of his suffering.
A good example of one who found his true identity in Christ is that of Alan Lee, who tells his story in Decision magazine. As a refugee from Vietnam, he arrived in the United States on a cold winter night in January 1979, seeking freedom and a better life. He says, "In the United States, I struggled to find my identity. I didn't want to be called a 'boat person' or to be treated like a refugee." Eventually, through contact with Christian students and the church fellowship they attended, he attended the Billy Graham Crusade in Tacoma on May 22, 1983. He says:
At the end of the service I wanted to respond to the invitation to accept Jesus Christ as my Saviour but I struggled with letting God control my life.
Then I remembered a Bible passage: "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven"[Matthew 10:32, 33]. I took a deep breath, stood and walked down that long aisle. As the counsellor prayed with me, I opened my heart to Jesus, asked Him to forgive my sins. As I trusted Jesus, and with the help of the Holy Spirit and Christian friends, I became more trusting, loving and forgiving.
Now, some years later, he can say:
Today I am no longer confused about who I am. We are God's children, and our citizenship is in heaven. I am grateful to have found my true identitymy identity in Christ.
Our identity as human beings
Our identity as children of God
Our identity in Christ