Identity in Christ

Who we become when we are with Christ

Félix H. Cortez
Identity in Christ
Photo by Mahdi Bafande on Unsplash

Identity refers to the total sum of conditions (biological, psychological, sociological, historical, religious, etc.) that make us who we are. That is, identity is the sum of things that make us different from any other person. Identity in Christ refers to everything we become when we are with Christ. Identity in Christ designates a person that has been transformed and empowered by Christ.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of transformation of those who are in Christ is what the rulers saw in Peter and John after they healed the paralytic (Acts 4:13-22). Peter and John came from humble beginnings, without formal education, riches, or power. After jailing them for a night and accusing them of deceiving the people, a crime deserving death (Deut. 13:1-5), the rulers expected to find Peter and John chastened, intimidated by the court, and willing to pay attention. Instead, they found them undaunted, articulate, and authoritative. Their astonishing transformation was most evident in the boldness, or confidence (parrēsia), with which they spoke. In the opinion of the council, the boldness of Peter and John, and of the disciples in general (Acts 4:29-31), was a distinctive sign they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).

Transformed by the Renewal of Our Minds

The boldness of the disciples was the result of a change in their understanding of God, Jesus, and themselves. Allow me to briefly explain the kind of changes they experienced.

Like other Jews, the disciples believed there is only one God. The disciples probably recited the Shema—which affirms that God is one and should be loved above all things—twice a day, just as other Jews.1 Jesus Himself quoted the Shema as the most important of the commandments (Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30; cf. Luke 10:27). This was the distinctive fundamental Jewish belief.2 The disciples recognized, however, that there was “some sort of plurality within the one God of the Shema‘,” which implied a reconfiguration of their Jewish belief.3 In other words, the disciples recognized that the one God of Israel, YHWH, should somehow be understood as including more than one divine person.

Beyond the ways the disciples discerned the marks of divinity in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, their belief in His divinity was also the result of an eschatological insight. The disciples understood that Jesus’ coming had fulfilled the promise of YHWH, the one God of Israel, that He would return to His temple (e.g., Eze. 48:35; Haggai 2:7; Zech. 2:4, 5, 10; Mal. 3:1, 2; cf. Eze. 10).4 Therefore, the New Testament describes Jesus as the fulfillment of that prophecy. John the Baptist was the herald that appeared in the desert to “prepare the way of the Lord,” YHWH, who was returning to Israel to reveal His glory and announce the forgiveness and consolation of Israel (Isa. 40:1-5).5

The disciples also held the foundational Jewish belief that the law played a central role in the life and the institutions of the Jewish people. Deuteronomy made clear that the Torah was central to the covenant between God and the nation. Thus, the Torah provided the constitution of the nation and the foundation for all its institutions, including its political parties. The Torah, Alan F. Segal writes, was “the root metaphor of Israelite society.”6

Eventually, however, the law became an expression of the distinctiveness of the Jewish nation as God’s people and served as a boundary separating them from other nations. Early Judaism, in its effort to avoid the idolatry and unfaithfulness that caused their exile, had come to use the law as a means of separation from other peoples.7 This reaction is understandable in the context of some of God’s instructions to Israel to keep themselves separate from other nations (Lev. 20:26). The law also became a source of privilege and pride relative to being God’s chosen nation, favored with knowledge and the law (Rom. 9:4, 5; Deut. 4:32-40).

Despite this, Jesus did not reject the law but transformed the people’s understanding of it. The Gospels describe Jesus as a law-observant Jew. He wore the tassels required by the law in the four corners of His outer garment,8 instructed the cleansed leper to go and show himself to the priests, as the law required,9 and reminded the rich young ruler that it was necessary to observe the law if he wanted to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:19). According to Matthew, however, Jesus came to reveal and actively demonstrate the law’s true meaning (see Matt. 5:17-20).

Jesus’ response to the lex talionis (the “eye for an eye” principle) and Moses’ permission for divorce did not abrogate the law, but returned to the law’s deeper intention and original purpose.10 Similarly, Jesus did not abrogate the difference between clean and unclean foods, but rejected human traditions that obscured the greater importance of inner over outward purity.11 The debate between Jesus and the Pharisees about the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28) was not whether the Sabbath should be observed, but how it should be observed.

The disciples also held the Jewish belief that the temple was the center of Israel’s national and religious life. It was the place God had chosen for His name to dwell, the place of God’s throne (Deut. 12:11; 1 Kings 9:3; Ps. 87:1-4; Isa. 49:14-16; Eze. 43:6, 7; Sirach 36:18) and the place God would gather His children from all over the earth (1 Kings 8:48; Neh. 1:9). It was also the place where the priestly mediation and sacrifices, that is, all the means for atonement, were located. According to the prophets, Jerusalem would be the religious center for all the earth (Isa. 2:1-4). The first-century Jewish historian Josephus argued that since there is only one God, there is only one temple.12 Accordingly, the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo noted that Jewish “zeal for their holy temple is the most predominant, and vehement, and universal feeling throughout the whole nation.”13

Jesus, however, announced that the temple’s symbolic function and rituals were fulfilled in His own person and ministry (Matt. 5:17-20; 12:6; John 1:29). Thus, Jesus offered forgiveness to sinners independently from the temple authorities and without reference to the temple cult (sacrifices). He also referred to the temple as “made with hands,” which suggested the temple had become an idol, an assertion Stephen also made later (Acts 7:48; cf. Acts 6:11-14).14 The temple had become a source of pride and means of exclusion. Jewish zeal for the temple’s purity threatened the Gentiles with death (cf. Acts 21:27-32) and financial abuse in the temple courts—which Jesus characterized as theft—alienated the poor (Luke 19:45, 46). Jesus envisioned a temple “not made with hands,” that is, not marred by idolatry, where the blind and the lame would be healed (Mark 14:58; Matt. 21:13, 14), “a house of prayer for all the nations,” where the foreigner and the eunuch would minister to God and be joyful (Mark 11:15-17; Isa. 56:3-7).

The disciples also embraced the hope for the eschatological restoration of Israel. This included several aspects: the gathering of the 12 tribes from the land of their dispersion, the subjugation or conversion of the nations, the purification of the temple and Jerusalem, and the transformation of Israel into a pure and righteous people.15 This hope was expressed in the question the disciples asked right before Jesus’ ascension: “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). The disciples differed from other early Jews, however, in that they believed Israel’s restoration had begun already with Jesus. John the Baptist had announced and prepared the way for the fulfillment of this restoration (Matt. 17:11; Mark 9:12). Jesus had chosen 12 apostles—signaling the beginning of the gathering of the 12 tribes of Israel—and announced the coming of the kingdom of God (Mark 1:14, 15; Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:28-30). They understood the restoration of Israel inaugurated by Jesus launched a new stage in God’s purpose for the world. The Israelites who had been redeemed should now become God’s witnesses to the nations so that God’s salvation would reach the ends of the earth (Isa. 49:6; Isa. 43:10, 12; 44:8; 42:6, 7). Therefore, Jesus instructed His disciples to be His witnesses and announce God’s salvation to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem (Acts 1:8; cf. Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47; 2 Cor. 2:14).

Identity in Christ

As you can see, Jesus did not destroy the identity of His disciples in order to create a new one. Instead, He cleansed their identity by ridding them of wrong ideas and detrimental practices. He also empowered their identity by infusing them with a new sense of worth and purpose. He showed God was not distant and exacting. He had come to live with them, eat their food, heal their wounds, and pay their debts. They were not humble fishermen anymore, whose concern for subsistence left little time for loftier pursuits. They were now fishers of men, envoys of the ruler of the world with a message of salvation for all (Acts 4:12). They were not intimidated by the power of the Sanhedrin, because they walked in the presence of the one who sits at the right hand of God. They spoke with clarity and conviction because they had witnessed what they proclaimed (Acts 3:15), and the healing of the lame man in Jesus’ name provided irrefutable evidence of the truth of their message. They had walked with Christ for many days, and now they were in Him.

What does it mean to be “in Christ”? A person is in Christ when the sense of who that person is—one’s hopes and joys and the purpose and direction of one’s life—finds its explanation in one’s relationship with Jesus. I am in Christ when the only way in which others can understand me is by understanding my relationship with Him. The transformational power of Jesus does not reside primarily in His ability to teach me what to believe and how to act, but by being with Him I may learn who Jesus is, and who I am in relationship to Him.

 1 Deut. 6:4-7; Mishnah Tamid 5:1; Mishnah Berakhot 1:1, 2.

 2 For example, Judith 8:18; Sibylline Oracles 3.629; Wisdom of Solomon 11-15; Letter of Aristeas 132-137; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 5.112; Philo, The Decalogue 65.

 3 Brant Pitre, Michael P. Barber, and John A. Kincaid, Paul, A New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), p. 128.

 4 See N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), pp. 104-106, 653, 654.

 5 Matt. 3:1-3; Mark 1:2-4; Luke 3:2-6; John 1:19-23; see also Luke 1:76-79; 2:25, 30.

 6 Alan F. Segal, Rebecca’s Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 38.

 7 Letter of Aristeas 139, 142; Book of  Jubilees 22:16.

 8 Num. 15:38, 39; Deut. 22:12; Mark 6:56; Matt. 9:20; 14:36; Luke 8:44.

 9 Mark 1:44; Luke 17:14.

10 Lex talionis: Matt. 5:38-42; cf. Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21. Divorce: Mark 10:2-9; cf. Deut. 24:1; Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:3-9.

11 Mark 7:14-23; Matt 15:1-20.

12 Josephus, Against Apion 2.193.

13 Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 210.

14 The LXX often refers to idols as “made with hands” (Lev. 26:1; Isa. 2:18; 10:11; 19:1; Dan. 5:4, 23).

15 References to the four aspects of Israel’s restoration can be found in Isaiah 49:6; 54:12; 60:6, 12, 21.

Félix H. Cortez

Félix H. Cortez is a professor of New Testament literature at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan.