I have been thinking a lot about the subject of identity lately. Last week I was teaching on the subject and this week we have begun a series of studies on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in which Identity is a key theme. We live in a society which is constantly trying to define our identity and such definitions are increasingly fluid. Henry Nouwen in his book The Life of The Beloved wrote about Identity. Having reflected on how we define ourselves he saw our identity expressed in terms of what we do, what we have and what others say about us. This should not be surprising! Ever since the sorry events of Genesis 3 (the Fall), rather than look to God for our sense of identity, we have been continually looking to the people and things around us. The problem is that we were made to be defined in relation to the one who created us. As I reflect I see that we are continually searching for worth in all sorts of things: we have deep and human need for love, acceptance, significance & security. The question is what will truly satisfy?
Ultimately as I Christian I believe that only in Jesus can we find satisfying answers to these needs for love, acceptance, significance & security. I want to spend a few minutes now reflecting on what Ephesians 1:1-14 has to say about who we are. This chapter was written to Christians but it is also hugely challenging to us all to consider the way that knowing our identity changes everything. Even if you are not yet convinced about Jesus I would encourage you to read on with an open mind.
1. Paul’s Identity in Christ (v1-2):
I am currently reading Tom Wright’s biography on the Apostle Paul and it is proving to be a fascinating read. Paul was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin and had been very zealous and Pharisaical about the law. In fact he was so zealous that he had been persecuting the early Christians who he believed to be in error about Jesus. Because of his background Paul says that he had every reason to put confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:1-6). But then Paul met Jesus and that changed everything! Compared to knowing and being known by Christ Paul says that all of this is garbage (Philippians 3:7-11). Paul describes himself here as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (Ephesians 1:1). Elsewhere however Paul describes himself as the least of the apostles because of how he persecuted the church.
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.1 Corinthians 15:9-10
It is clear that Paul’s life had been transformed from a dependence on things based on his own merit towards a dependence on Christ. He now defines himself based on what Christ had done for him rather than anything of himself.
2. Spiritual Blessings in Christ (v3-14):
We would literally be here all day trying to unpack the depths of these mind blowing verses and so a brief summary will have to suffice. Paul begins his letter by praising God who he says has “blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (v3). Two comments on this verse before we think of some of the ways that this is true. First this blessing (favour, privilege) is in the heavenly realms. We are talking about things that while ultimately true are not necessarily immediately obvious – they are spiritual blessings. We will see this in the kind of things that Paul talks about next. Secondly we have these spiritual blessings in Christ. All through this passage Paul continually uses this phrase in (or through) Christ. Whatever we think about these blessings what is clear is that we have them because of Jesus and not because of anything in ourselves. In knowing Jesus Paul makes clear that we have a new identity – specifically we are in Christ.
(a) Chosen, Predestined and Adopted (v4-6, 11-12): Paul repeatedly makes the staggering claim that God chose us before the world even began. It is incredible to think that God’s plan was for us to know Him and make a decision to put our hope in Christ (v12). Paul is also clear however that we also had to make a choice to invite Jesus into our lives. How these two parallel truths fit together is a great mystery (Philippians 2:12-13 communicates these well together). Paul affirms that God chose us to choose Him. We were chosen to be adopted (the footnote on v5 makes clear that as sons and daughters of God we enjoy the full legal standing of an adopted heir). God did all of this because He loved us. Because He did it changes everything…
(b) Forgiven, Redeemed and lavished with Grace (v7-8a): Paul says that in Jesus we have redemption (bought at a price), forgiveness (the price has been paid) and all of this is in accordance with the Grace that God has lavished upon us. Wow this really does change everything – we can start again with a clean slate because of the wonder of His grace.
(c) Revealed the mystery of God’s plan (v8b-10): As if that were not enough Paul goes further still as he points out that the mystery of God’s will has been made known to us. God is working to bring unity under Christ to all things both in Heaven and on earth. That includes us but extends to the whole of God’s creation. Moreover God intends to use us to make known the mystery of His will to all of creation.
(d) Sealed with the Holy Spirit to be God’s Possession (v13): Finally Paul says that when we believed we were “marked with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (v13). The Holy Spirit is a deposit or down payment that guarantees our inheritance to come for all who are described as God’s possession.
3. Blessings that shape our Identity
This is in many ways a heavy passage but it is heavy with blessing that can, and really should, change everything for us. If we return to the idea of the human pursuit for love, acceptance, significance and security we can quickly see that there are some great answers to those things for those who are in Christ.
- Love: Our God who is the very definition of love, sent His son to die a cruel death in our place to buy us back and make it possible for us to be forgiven so that we can know God personally.
- Acceptance: In love, God chose and predestined us. Why? In order that we could be adopted as His sons and daughters – accepted as His own despite the fact that we have all lived our lives without reference to Him. In Christ we find our true belonging.
- Significance: We find significance as God works out His purpose to draw a lost world to Himself through people like us. Wow what a privilege and calling!
- Security: Finally there is also security because we have been forgiven and there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). This gives us a new sense of assurance because of all that Jesus has done on our behalf.
It is so encouraging to see how our felt needs are ultimately met through Jesus. If you would call yourself a follower of Jesus please let these truths touch your heart and be a great encouragement to you today. If you are not a follower of Jesus I trust that these words have provoked some questions. If these truths have especially resonated with you I would love to chat with you more. Either way what we have seen is that knowing Jesus and the new identity we have if we are in Him, really does change everything…