Identity in Christ

Identity in Christ

When we considered Colossians 2:16–3:4 last week, we completed the doctrinal portion of Colossians. Most of the New Testament epistles are similarly broken down into a doctrinal and heuristic—or practical—sections. And though I’ve tried to offer practical applications and implications of Paul’s teaching throughout, beginning with this morning’s passage, Paul is going to do a lot of my work for me!

Yet as we turn to chapter 3:5 and following it’ll be important that we keep in mind all that Paul has said up until now. This is one letter, not four, so there is a certain logic, a unified message, in what Paul is presenting to the Colossian church. So far:

He has commended the Colossian believers’ trust in Christ and the love they have for all of God’s people;

He has called them to reflect upon the supremacy of Christ, the Son of God, through whom all things have come into being and are sustained, and for whom all things exist;

He has challenged false teachers who have argued for doctrines that go counter to the message of the Gospel based upon a syncretistic mixing of Christianity with mystical visions and pagan demonic rituals;

He has reminded the Colossians that in Christ, these false spiritual elements have been conquered and made a spectacle whereas the Colossians have been made new creatures in Christ. They’ve been spiritually circumcised as they have cut off their old unredeemed nature and have been baptized and have risen in their new nature in Christ.

All of this being the case, in this morning’s passage Paul spells out some specific attitudes and behaviors that typify the old nature and some that typify the new nature. Paul begins with the negative but notice the “therefore” in verse 5—Paul is indicating that orthodoxy—right belief, which is everything we’ve been presented with from Colossians 1–3:4, must result in orthopraxy—right practice, and orthopathy—right feelings among those who are followers of Christ.

The truths Paul has provided in the first half of his epistle should results in certain behaviors being removed and certain behaviors being added. And as we work through what Paul is saying here, I want to encourage us to think about the question: Where we find our identity? Do we find it in our old Adamic (as in Adam after the Fall) natures—our unredeemed natures—or do we find our identity in Christ’s nature—our redeemed natures?

In verse 5 Paul begins with the old Adamic nature by stating that behavior that characterized the Colossian belivers’ lives before coming to faith in Christ must die. It must be put to death. It must be spiritually circumcised and cut off. As is the case with so-called “sin lists” in Scripture, this is a representative list, not exhaustive, for the Colossian believers are told to put to death whatever belongs to their earthly nature. This list includes not only wrong behavior—sexual immorality and impurity, conduct that can be observed—but also wrong attitudes—lust, evil desires, and greed, none of which can be observed. Whereas we tend to judge “good” and “bad” by what we can see God additionally judges “good” and “bad” by what is in our hearts.

In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus highlighted this. The religious leaders of the day were focusing on the wrongness of murder, which it is. But in Matthew 5:21 Jesus added that true compliance with God’s moral law indicts not only murder but that “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” So too, whereas some of the religious leaders focused on the wrongness of adultery, in verse 28 Jesus added, lest anyone become too holier-than-thou, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

As former President Jimmy Carter has been on the news this week with his diagnosis of liver and brain cancer, I’ve been reminded of a famous interview he gave to Playboy magazine. This was during a time when a number of televangelists were falling like dominoes for having had extramarital affairs and President Carter, asked if he had ever commited adultery answered—much to the astonishment of the interviewer, I imagine—that he had. But he went on to explain that he had according to Jesus’ definition, not society’s, for during his marriage with Rosalynn, there had been times when he had lusted after other women and, according to Jesus, he had therefore committed the sin of adultery. This response reflects an understanding of what Scripture teaches about sin—it affects not only our bodies; it also affects our hearts—it is not simply a matter of our actions, but also our thoughts, desires, and intentions. Again when we think of sin we look on the exterior but God looks also at our hearts.

“Because of these” behaviors and attitudes Paul tells us in verse 6, “the wrath of God is coming” or, another possible translation “the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.” Not only that, but Paul reminds the Colossians that prior to coming to a saving faith and knowledge of Christ, they “used to walk in these ways, in the life [they] once lived.” These are Adamic or “old man” behaviors. They typify an unredeemed nature. They therefore have no place in those who are new creatures in Christ, those in whom Christ’s Holy Spirit dwells.

Next Paul adds to the list of behaviors that Christians must rid themselves of in verse 8. Notice again how this list includes both behaviors—rage, slander, filthy language, lying—and attitudes—anger and malice. And in verses 9 and 10 we’re told that the reason we’re to give up these attitudes and behavior is because “[we] have taken off [our] old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self.” So let’s pause at this point and ask ourselves again: Where do we find our identity? If our identity is found in our pre-baptized, Adamic, old nature, then the attitudes and behaviors Paul has listed are what we should expect. But if our identity is found in our post-baptism, risen with Christ, new natures, then the attitudes and behaviors in this list should be history. They should be circumcised, cut off. They should be dead. And if they’re not dead yet, then we should do everything in our power to put them to death for these representative lists of behaviors and attitudes are incompatible with our identity in Christ Jesus. They are incompatible with being a follower of Christ.

As we’ve noted before, change is difficult but the second half of verse 10 provides us with some hope for though we are called to put to death the old self and “put on the new self,” we aren’t expected to do this alone. Brothers and sisters, we cannot be holy by our own power and will. We cannot live up to all God in Christ desires for us by ourselves. But believers can rest in the fact that this new nature we are being called to put on “is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” This construction “which is being renewed” is what is known as a “divine passive.” In other words, when we ask by whom or how our new nature is being renewed, the answer is “by God” and specifically it is by God’s Holy Spirit who now indwells us. Our renewing is not solely in our hands. We need God’s help to become the people he wants us to be. We need each other’s help. By our new natures in Christ, holiness should come naturally but in fact it’s hard work. Yet God knows it’s hard work and so has provided us with all of the resources we need—in his Word, in his people, and by his indwelling Spirit who is changing our attitudes and wills.

This is one of the tensions we feel as believers, isn’t it? On the one hand, because of what God in Christ has done on the cross, taking on and dying for our sins and rising and giving us his righteousness, our justification is complete. In God’s sight we are declared “not guilty” if we have accepted Christ’s life and obedience on our behalf. All past, present, and future sins have been forgiven. We are holy in God’s sight.

On the other hand, we still struggle with temptation and selfishness and self-centeredness. Whereas our justification is past—a done deal—our sanctification—our holiness—is both a done deal and a present process. On the one hand, should we die today, like the thief on the cross we will join Christ in Paradise and on the other hand, if we don’t die today, our sanctification—our being conformed and renewed in God’s image—is a process that will continue until we die. This gradual growth in holiness is the result of our putting to death our old natures, putting on our new natures, and God’s work in our lives. This divine passive assures us that our image is being renewed by God’s Holy Spirit in us into the image of our Creator. How awesome is that?!!

With verse 11, it becomes even more clear that being followers of Christ should affect not only our motives and behavior—our moral identity—but also our ethnic identity and sense of status. When we meet someone for the first time, what are some of the questions that we might ask?

Where were you born?

Where were you raised?

Do you have any siblings?

What do you do?

Where do you live?

Are you married?

Do you have children? etc.

And, depending upon how someone answers these questions, we will, in all likelihood, begin to form a picture in our minds and respond accordingly. So, for example, in the United States since 9/11, how do we react if we learn someone is of Arab descent? Do we view them differently than someone who is, say, from Denmark? Or what if someone can trace their family lineage back to the Mayflower? Does that gain our respect more than if we learn they’re an immigrant from Mexico?

But identity isn’t simply about ethnicity or country of origin. What if we discover that someone is a lawyer? Do we value them more than if we learn they work as a cashier at Market Basket? What if we learn that someone cleans floors (as my father did as a porter) for a living? Do we treat them the same as someone who is a CEO of a major corporation? Or what about education? Do we treat someone with an Ivy League degree better than someone who has a high school or a junior college degree—or perhaps no degree whatsoever? In verse 11 we see that Paul understands the power and wrongness of cultural biases and prejudices even among believers. And he reminds the Colossians not to identify themselves—or others—by anything other than their status in Christ.

In Christ there is no difference between a Jew—someone who is part of God’s original chosen people—and a Gentile—or a non-Jewish person who wasn’t part of God’s original chosen people but now is;

In Christ there is no difference between someone who is circumcised—again, who bears the marks of being God’s covenant people, and someone who is uncircumcised for now the identity of all believers is to be found in our shared baptism and oneness in Christ.

In Christ there is no difference between a barbarian—or someone who didn’t descend from one of the great civilizations of Greece or Rome—or a Scythian—who despite being from a vast empire that extended from southern Russian to the Persian borders was viewed as barbaric because of a reputation for cruelty;

In Christ there is no difference between a slave—who would have been viewed as property—and someone who is free.

Paul reminds these Colossians that because they are followers of Christ, he is all and is in all. There is no mystical initiation involved in becoming a Christian. There are no categories of Christians—no first or second or third class Christians. All who come to Christ are invited to feast as his banquet. In terms of God’s favor, he loves all his children equally because what marks someone as his child is not how good they are or where they come from or what they have achieved in life, what marks someone as God’s child is that they have found their identity in the sacrifice, life, and resurrection of his Son, Christ Jesus.

Having dealt with the negative, with the kinds of attitudes and behaviors Christians ought not have, Paul, in verse 12, turns to the positive, to the behaviors that should characterize those who have died and risen with Christ. He states that because Christ is their all in all, they, as God’s chosen people—in other words, though not Jewish, they, too, are God’s chosen people; they, too, are a people created for him—as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved—holy because they are in Christ and Christ’s Holy Spirit is in them and also loved—and not just loved but dearly loved by their heavenly Father, they are to “clothe [themselves]

with “compassion” or a concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others,

with “kindness” or being generous, and considerate,

with “[true] humility” or a modest view of their own importance as opposed to the false humility of the false teachers that are luring them away from Christ,

with “gentleness” or being mild in temperament and behavior,

and with “patience” or the capacity to accept delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.

Again we see here both attitudes—compassion, humility, patience—and behaviors—kindness, and gentleness—that are to characterize our identity in Christ.

Additionally, verse 13, they are to “Bear with each other and forgive” one another if any…has a grievance”—a real or imagined wrong—“against someone.” And the bar is high here, isn’t it? For we are to “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” And how did the Lord forgive us? By laying down his life for us, while we were yet sinners—while we were yet his enemies—while we yet didn’t care to know him or his ways, that is when he gave his life for us (Ro. 5:8). It’s all by his grace, not our merit; it’s all about Christ’s obedience, not our disobedience, it’s all about Christ’s obedience and righteousness have now been transferred to us. We give him our sin; he gives us his righteousness. What a deal!

Paul ends this section by exhorting the Colossians that the virtue they should “put on” above all is that of love “which binds them all together in perfect unity.” And not only love but, verse 15, peace—God’s shalom. Making things the way they ought to be, the way God intended them to be, should now typify their lives. And this peace should rule in their hearts, since as members of one body we they called to peace. And they ought to be thankful. Christ’s peace should control our lives as believers because his sacrifice means we can now have a relationship with our Father in heaven and with one another because we share in Christ’s Spirit, individually and corporately, who now indwells us. And so we now belong not only to him but to each other. This is what makes us one. And for this we should be thankful.

The final verses in the passage can almost be read as a “how to” manual. How can we find our identity in Christ? Verse 16: By letting “the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” In other words by means of Scripture. Brothers and sisters, we cannot know which behaviors we are to put to death and which behaviors we are to put on apart from God disclosing them to us in his Word. On a daily basis we are saturated with the messages of our culture and unless we put forth an effort to read and study and meditate upon God’s Word—unless we find ways to “let the message of Christ dwell among us richly”—we won’t be able to discern behavior that pleases God from behavior that displeases him.

This is why what we do here each Sunday matters so much. We have an opportunity to dwell on God’s Word. We have an opportunity to admonish one other. We have an opportunity to sing psalms and hymns. We have an opportunity to express our gratitude for God and for each other.

And verse 17 reminds us that in matters of adiaphora—in things that are spiritually neutral or that Scripture neither mandates or forbids—we are to do these and all things in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Brothers and sisters, we are part of a unique family in Christ. To be followers of Jesus Christ means that each week we unlock and throw open the doors of our church to all people, no matter what terrible things we may have done, thought, or imagined. All are welcome here.

But to be followers of Jesus Christ also means that each week we enter equally needing a reminder that to be a Christian means that terrible things we may have done, thought, or imagined now need to be put to death and die for they are part of our former fallen identity. They are incompatible with our new identity in Christ.

To be followers of Christ additionally means that we are here not because we are from the same ethnic background, not because we are from the same economic class, not because we are at the same stage in our lives. What draws us and unites us here is nothing other than our identity in Jesus Christ. Unlike our society, which would have us identify ourselves by our social status—or our marital status—or our sexual orientation—or our ethnicity, God calls us to identify ourselves by his Son, Jesus Christ. He is the only way to the Father. And we shouldn’t try to syncretize society’s ways of identifying people with our Christian identity. We are not married Christians—or single Christians—or gay Christians—or straight Christians—or American Christians—or Cuban Christians—or rich Christians—or poor Christians. Because of what God in Christ has done for us, we are simply Christians—people who because of God’s mercy, have been enabled by his Holy Spirit to see our need for him and to make us into the people we were intended to be. We are people who have been called to care for and have compassion on one another because we know our hearts and how difficult it is to put to death our old nature and put on our new natures in Christ. We are people who already, in God’s sight, are holy and dearly loved by our heavenly Father and who, because of that love, now seek to honor him with how we live our lives. We are people who feel a debt of gratitude to our heavenly Father for being so merciful to us, people who were formerly alive to sin but dead to him but who, because of his Spirit’s work in our lives are now dead to sin but alive to him.

Let us pray.


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