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Identity

I wonder how you introduce yourself to people who you have never met before, but know that your relationship will necessaily go beyond the brief moment. These could be people you meet at the start of a new job or new neighbours. Or it might even be when you attend a local church for the first time. How do you introduce yourself?

When I was growing up in Nchelenge (Luapula, Zambia) having penpals was a big thing. Penpals are people who regularly write each other letters. The more penpals we had the more good we felt that we were in touch with the rest of the world, despite living in a village! Hearing from them made us transcend our local circumstances.

Starting a penpal friendship always hinged on that first introductory letter. You had to introduce yourself to her. And it was account of what you wrote that the person found you fascinating to correspond with.  The process of penpal writing helped clarify not only who I regarded myself to be, but also if the friendship lasted, it helped me process my surroundings better because it afforded me an opportunity to recount to someone what was happening daily. In turn I got to read about their town and through that process of shared recollections, a friendship was forged!

I suppose Paul's letter to the church at Colossae must have felt a bit like writing to penfriends. Paul had never met the new followers of Christ in Colossae. His only connection to them was through Epaphras who had come to know Paul. The church at Colossae would have be aware that Paul sat alongside the rest of the church leaders – the 12 great apostles, James and others. But Paul’s letter was the first direct communication from him. Paul had the task of not only introducing himself, but to set out what he believed and expected them to believe.

Like any first time letter, he starts off with the basic question: who am I? This question is not only important for Paul, but also important to each one of us. All of life is a search for identity. If we don't know who we are, our life has no meaning or substance. It is purposeless and without direction. Indeed, it is not just human beings that must answer that question. Even organisations have to answer the question. Without a basic understanding of what the organisation is about, it quickly loses it purpose and dies away. Identity and purpose are interlinked and of essential importance. Each one of must give a clear answer to the basic question: who am I?

Paul's introduction gives important answers on how Paul answered that question – and how God would have us answer the question:
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ
There are three immediate observations we make from this. First, Paul knew who he was: a new man in Jesus. Paul was not always an apostle. Before the Damascus experience, Paul was at the forefront of murdering followers of Christ and opposing the church. But when Paul met the Lord Jesus on the Damascus road, he became a changed man. And so as he writes to the church at Colossae (and us), he is keen to communicate his new identity. He is “Paul… of Christ Jesus”. His new identity is now rooted in a new relationship with Jesus Christ. Physically, he is Paul of Tarsus. Spiritually, he is “Paul…of Christ Jesus”.

By Paul immediately grounding his identity in the Lord Jesus, he is reminding the church at Colossae, and us, that what really matters in life the relationship with Jesus. It is what we must keep front and centre in life. But not only that, he is offering his life as a living monument to them and us – that God really does change lives. Paul’s transformation from murderous “Saul of Tarsus” to “Paul of Christ Jesus” offers hope to a dying world. If God can change Paul, he sure can change you and I.

It certainly reassures me in my walk with God! If God changed Paul when he repented, he changed me too when I repented. I know this to be true because the Bible declares emphatically that “I am the Lord, I do not change”. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. Indeed, having a new transformational relationship with God means that you must not be content to remain who who you are. Because you are now in touch with a God who transforms lives. You are plugged into the new power source! Such is profound significance of this truth, that Paul put it front and centre whenever he talked to anyone! I Paul, a changed man!

Secondly, Paul knew his mission in life: a new job for life. He introduced himself as “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus”. An apostle is a special messenger of Jesus. It is both an office and a gift. This is therefore an unusual introduction from Paul. He starts by declaring his office as a special messenger sent to them – commissioned by Jesus Christ. But he is not only claiming the office he is also claiming the “apostolic gifting”. Paul’s apostolic authority is rooted in both his office and his gifting. We must take Paul’s words seriously because he is speaking as a special messenger of the Lord Jesus. We can believe his words because Paul’s office comes with a special apostolic gifting worked out by the Holy Spirit.

To be sure there are many people today who have apostolic gifts. Many of our missionaries preaching the word of God in remote places have elements of the apostolic gift that focuses on planting churches and strengthening those who are weak as they move from church to church. Many have been blessed with gifts of the Spirit to heal the sick, cast out demons and perform other miracles – as the Holy Spirit wills and enables them in the here and now. But there's a sense in which none of these are apostles like Paul or James because they are not historically foundational to the church in their calling. The church was not built on those who have apostolic gifts. It was built on those who held both the office and the gift. So we can celebrate their gifts but we must be cautious not to regard their word as one carrying “apostolic authority”. God's word always remains the final authority. 

But we can do more than celebrate. Paul was keen to share his passion as an apostle. He was excited about it. You too should be excited with what ever calling God has given you to serve him. This calling must not be hidden to be admired only by yourself or family members. It is part of your identity in Jesus as enabled by the Holy Spirit. You must ask God to fully develop it in you and be able to share the gifting with others! It is part of who you are!

Finally, Paul knew what mattered most in life: a new purpose for living. Paul was not content to be known just as an apostle. He was keen to underline that what made his apostleship of any significance is that he is an apostle “by the will of God”. This is the badge Paul wears. We find the same affirmation in 1 Corinthians 1v1 – “called by the will of God to be an apostle of Jesus”. The point is that Paul did not one day decide “I want to be called an apostle” (as many of our television friends claim). It was the outworking of God’s purposes in his life. God specifically determined for him to be a special messenger of the Lord. He was part of what God was doing. When we speak of God’s will, we speak of his intent, purpose, desire and determination.

By making it clear that he is an apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of the Father, Paul is making it clear that there’s unity between God’s will and actions in his life. It is God who has willed for him to be used in the service of Jesus Chris. This truth must have brought great joy to Paul. Not only did he have a new job for life, but his purpose in life was also clear. To live by the will of God! It should challenge all of us. Is your purpose shaped by the desire to do the will of God? Is your current service or job the will of God? Can you say with confidence, that God’s will comes first in your life? Is it the fabric of your identity?

God has a purpose for each and everyone of us. If you have placed your hope in Him, he is able to use you to achieve his given potential. If God can use a murderer like Paul to be his messenger, he can used wretched you and I. There’s no excuse then for not making yourself available to God. The challenge then is to submit to his will. You need to pray that you may know his will and purpose for your life. Paul knew what the will of God was for him. Do you know? What does God desire of you? Where would he have you serve him? These are important questions!

So who are you? Well, if you have repented and turned to Christ, you are new person in the Lord Jesus, with a new job for him and living according to a new purpose in him! This us true for  everyone who worships the Lord Jesus from a pure heart!

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