There are moments in the Christian life when the weight of our failure casts a shadow on who we are in God. These moments are not diminished by how long we have walked with God. On the contrary, it is the paradox of the Christian life that the more I grow to know Jesus the more aware I become of my own sinfulness. The closer I get to God the larger the gap becomes between God’s holiness and my own sinful nature. It is the equivalent of moving from standard definition television to more high definition television. With each step of spiritual growth the reality of my own sinful becomes sharper – and so is my deeper need of God's grace! Confronted with this paradox, I am often tempted to retreat and fall back on my good deeds. I am tempted to work harder, so that my earthly account somehow gives me a resting knowledge that God is proud of me. And in succumbing to such temptations, I sometime replace a God centred identity with a self created identity. I begin curve an identity apart from Jesus. The proper response always is to go back to God’s way. It is to remember who I am in Jesus all over again. To re-learn the basic truth of God's word. In doing that I am finding Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians most helpful.
The church at Colossae where a ragtag collection of individuals from all walks of life who had come to place their trust and confidence in Jesus Christ through the message declared through their fellow citizen Epaphras. These early Christians never had any direct connection with the apostles. I suppose it is not far fetched that there may have been times when they wondered whether the lack of apostolic visitation somehow made them incomplete in their faith and standing before God. Apostle Paul wrote the letter to them to remind them all that Jesus had accomplished on their behalf and to leave them without doubt that they had equal standing in Jesus Christ with all other Christians. Their identity was secure and this identity can be summarised in one word – saint. It is a word Paul repeats four times in the first chapter of his letter (verses 2, 4, 12 and 26). If Colossians were into modern T-Shirts, Paul would want their T-Shirt to just have one word: saint. Come rain or sunshine, this was their identity. As I have reflected on this, I found that there are three things Paul notes about this unique identity of all those who have placed their trust and confidence in Jesus.
First, Christians are saints – this is my internal reality. Paul begins by saying, “to the saints…in Christ at Colossae” (v1). Saint means to be set apart or dedicated as holy. This is an echo of the Old Testament priests who were set apart for special services before God and his people. Paul is saying Christians are now the new priesthood set apart in their Messiah (Christ). The Colossians are like special vessels or utensils in the house only reserved for the special guest. They are reserved for Jesus Christ. He is making it clear that this sainthood they have in Jesus is not something inherited from personal contact from apostles like himself, rather it is a free gift of God to them in Jesus. Anyone who has met Jesus is a saint!
Understanding my internal reality changes everything! It means that from the get go, God looks upon me as a saint. It does not depend on my feelings. It does not depend on my circumstances. I must remind myself of this everyday. If I forget my sainthood, I forget who I am. I have no identity apart from that which Christ has given me. It also means that my whole being is set apart for use by Christ Jesus alone. I am fulfilling my purpose in life when I am fulfilling His purposes. I devalue myself when I use my time, resources for things that do not bring God glory. I devalue my identity when I sin. Because I am set apart for Christ Jesus, I have access to him 24 hours a day. I now live in his service. I don’t need intermediation by special priests or pastors or apostles because I am set apart for him. I can approach Jesus on my own. I am His, He is mine. Not because of any good thing I am doing, but all because of what He has already done for me. This is big!
Secondly, Christians are saints – this is my external reality. Having introduced himself and reminded them who they are, Apostle Paul reminds them that he thanks God for them always because he has heard of their faith in Christ Jesus and “of the love that you have for all the saints” (v4). In other words, the Colossians are not saints alone! They are saints with other saints who they now share a bond united in love. The internal reality of what Jesus has done by setting them apart has a visible expression that marks them out. It is not marked by special clothing they are wear like the priests of old – rather it is marked by love lived out with others who hold onto faith in Jesus Christ. And this is not a love for a few believers, but for “all” the saints. It is comprehensive and all encompassing!
The message is that all true saints of God radiate an outer reality in form of love for one another. If I am truly a saint it will show by the outpouring of love I have for other fellow saints. My love for believers will not be discriminatory. It won’t be a checklist of who agrees with me on every point. Rather it will be a love that overflows. The mark of a true Christian community is always love. Where God is present the cross is expressed and lived through love. It is naturally expressed. It is the chord that binds believers together. God has not left me without a visible sign of His work in my life. He has placed believers around me who love and care to remind me of the internal reality of His work. As I love and I am loved I am reminded that yes, my identity is rooted in him.
Finally, Christians are saints – this is my future reality. The believer’s sainthood is not just for today, but it is also for tomorrow. So Paul prays for them that they may be strengthened by God and that he may make them endure with joy and thanks to the Father. The God who has qualified them to “share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (v11). The believers are now transferred from the domain of darkness (v12) into the Kingdom of Light. This is their present reality. But the word inheritance speaks of even more things to come! When the Kingdom enters its full glory. They have qualified for that, but are not yet fully living in it. But that future is guaranteed because they are already citizens of the Kingdom! Yes, physically they are on earth but they belong to a diaspora of Heavenly citizens. Their passport is safe. Their ticket is paid for and the transporter is God himself.
It is this certainty that is echoed by Apostle Peter when he says that God has “caused us to be born again to a living hope…. to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1: 3-5). My future reality is that I am a saint destined for glory! I am now a co-heir with Christ. Glory awaits me in the future. I am making my way towards an incredible inheritance. My future in Christ is ready and made. And this changes everything! I now live my present sainthood in light of that future reality! A person attending a dinner party schedules everything to be there on time. The whole day is structured around that important appointment. How much more I who is preparing to meet the King of Kings in glory? I dare not be distracted. I am dare not forget I have an appointment with destiny! I am a saint!
In these three great truths Apostle Paul wonderfully captures vital elements of the Christian identity. My Christian identity is rooted in what God has done in my heart. That work of God is not abstract or without proof. On the contrary, it finds full expression in my external reality which is marked by love and fellowship. My internal and external reality combines into a fully fledged unshakeable present reality. This present reality is ultimately lived in light of the glorious future that awaits me. Four realities – internal, external, present and future – hold my identity in Christ. Four dimensions of the Christian life rolled into one!
Who Am I? (Lessons from Colossae)