A crisis of identity

On a recent mission trip, I was asked to lead a morning devotional for a youth group outing.  Being young and impressionable, at that stage of life when one must figure out who one is, I knew that I wanted to speak to these kids about identity.  I reviewed scriptures I knew on the subject, but nothing quite made the mark for me.  Then, I started to reread the words of Paul.  I went over passages I had read many times before, but they seemed to show me something new.  This man who went through such a drastic change that the Lord changed even his name had lived two lives.  He had an identity before Christ and an identity afterward, just like any believer.  In each case, Paul had placed his eternal trust in who he believed he was.  We can learn much from his transformation and ours if we study the things he believed would save him.

Php. 3:2-6

Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!  For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh.  If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.

his Hebrew roots

Paul was a Jew, a member of God’s holy and chosen people.  Within that community, he came from hearty stock.  There was no question of his Hebrew-ness, and he counted himself as pure amongst the purest of that lineage.  From traditional practices to family connections, we could say that he had been well-bred.  He carried the outside mark of one in covenant with God, and the blood of the Lord’s people coursed through his veins.  Like a prince whose pedigree comes merely by way of the womb which delivered him, Paul assumed his station as a Hebrew among Hebrews.  What he failed to realize was that his birth in that nation alone carried no eternal promise without subscribing to God’s new covenant.  What he did not see was that his place in that lineage put him on the road to salvation but did not save him.

When I first started studying the Bible, someone challenged me to articulate the purpose and importance of God’s people Israel.  I could not come up with a clear answer then, but I see now that they paved a path of legitimacy for the Savior who would be born of them.  When we read the Old Testament, and particularly the law, we see a forward-looking description of Christ over and over.  Those people, their history and their recorded scripture over centuries ushered in the arrival of Messiah, but He could not save them without their accepting him.  Jesus came first for the Jew and then for the Gentile, but the point is that He came for both.  Just as the Gentile can see no salvation by way of his heritage or bloodline, neither can the Hebrew.  Where Paul thought that the Jews of his past would position him for favor in God’s kingdom, it was only the Messiah of his present and their future who could do that for him.

his knowledge of the scriptures

Paul knew the rules, and he spoke of that in two different ways here.  His first mention of the law is what I would call factual in nature.  He knew what it said, and I think we can assume safely that he could have recited much, if not all, of it.  Rules were not a problem for him, and knowing those rules was not a bad thing, but they served no value without understanding the true meaning and purpose behind them. Knowing the words does not help if one does not know what those words really mean.  If the law was never meant to save because it simply cannot do so, then those who placed their faith in the law for salvation did not understand it.  There was a picture there that they simply did not see.  What Paul missed, and what so many still miss today, is that the exposure of the human heart through the mechanism of the law should lead to a realization of brokenness and the need for a Savior.

There are scholars today who study the Old and New Testaments for the sake of scholarship and debate.  They know so much of what the scriptures say, but that does not mean that they know the scriptures or the God who inspired them.  These academics who view the word of God as any other historical or literary piece do not recognize its value as they are not changed by it.  Recitation of the scriptures does not save us.  Knowing the history of God’s people does not save us.  Factual knowledge of what is in that book is valuable only if we allow it to lead us to the One who can save.  When that legion of demons cowered before Christ and confessed who He is, that did not bring them salvation.  They knew factually his identity, but that was just a fact to them.  In order for our knowledge of the word to be of value, we must allow it to change us and make us new as is required for our eternal salvation.

his passion for who he thought God is

Paul suffered from a condition not uncommon to people throughout history and living today.  With every tool at his disposal to reveal to him who God is, he failed to recognize that very God once He was revealed on the earth.  Paul had not met Jesus before that encounter on the road to Damascus, but he had encountered many of Christ’s disciples.  He had such a zeal for a god he had decided in his mind was the God of the heavens, that he persecuted those who followed the incarnate God of Israel.  Like any other staunch Hebrew, Paul was awaiting the arrival of Messiah.  The issue was that the idea he had of Messiah was much different than what the scriptures revealed to him.  God’s word painted a portrait of that king which was nothing like the portrait Paul had painted in his own mind’s eye.

I think we can safely assume that Paul would have told anyone that he followed the heavenly Father of Israel, the God of Abraham and Moses, but then he railed with zeal against that very God’s Son.  He was no different than those today who have their own picture of who God is which keeps them from recognizing what God really looks like.  For some, their man-made deity actually does not look that bad at all.  The problem is that even a minor adulteration to the image of God creates a false representation of who He is, and that is an idol.  This goes back to Paul’s factual knowledge of God and God’s ways.  Paul had all the data there, but he misunderstood it.  All that information should have led him to recognize his heavenly Father in the followers of Christ, but he instead sought to destroy those faithful people.  He thought his identity was rooted in the God of Israel, but it really was rooted in a god of his own imagination.  Had he known the Father, he would have recognized the Son.

his appearance of obedience

Paul’s comment regarding his blamelessness with regard to the righteousness found in the law seems to speak of superficial appearance.  We know that no person but Jesus lived perfectly, so we know that Paul sinned during his life.  His sins surely would have been a violation of the law.  However, he is not speaking of sinlessness here. What Paul seems to be saying is that no person would have been able to point a finger at him and make a claim that he had broken the law. This means that there would have been no outward indication that he did anything but keep the law perfectly.  Of course, this would have required quite a great deal of obedience before others, but that does not paint the whole picture of the man.  What Paul is saying is that he had confidence in the fact that no person could have proven him to be anything but blameless, but we know that others’ perception of our righteousness is irrelevant when it comes to our eternal salvation.

Paul had developed a great confidence in the picture of an obedient man which he presented to others.  It is just like the one who lives in a godly manner before men but revels in darkness in private.  That person might appear godly to others, but the Lord sees how things actually are.  While we should live as godly people before the world, we also should live as godly people before God.  Although we are saved by grace through faith, that faith must be accompanied by good works if we are to count it as true and genuine.  When we are told that faith without works is dead, it means that the faith which produces no good fruit is no faith at all; it produces no life because it is lifeless itself. Paul’s confidence rested in the picture of himself he presented to the world, but even that apparent obedience, no matter how obedient he was, would leave him falling short of the glory of God.  As the law cannot save, no level of adherence to it would have secured an eternity with the Lord.

1 Cor. 2:1-2

And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God.  For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

Here we see that Paul has been awakened to the truth.  If there is anything about this passage that is most compelling in my eyes, it is that the list is very short.  When Paul had based his confidence in his own status and performance, his list of reasons for that confidence was longer.  Once he came to a saving knowledge of who Christ is, Paul realized that all those things pale infinitely in comparison to what Christ and his crucifixion provide.  Paul’s image before man did not matter because he did not speak excellently or with what others might have considered great wisdom.  There was no need to go on and on about himself or share the vast knowledge that was such a large part of his identity for much of his life.  When Paul gave the reasons for his new identity and the basis of this secure faith, there was only one reason.

Paul had spent a lifetime building himself into a certain kind of man.  He had convinced himself that he was on the side of God’s favor. Doubtless, he would have thought that he could recognize the coming of Messiah if it happened during his lifetime.  Such was his confidence that Jesus was not the Son of God that Paul took steps to end the lives of those who shared Christ’s message.  All of that work only led to the construction of a house of cards without any firm foundation.  It was not until Paul developed a relationship with Christ that his eyes were opened to the truth.  It is not that Paul’s past had no value; it is that Paul’s past had no value without Christ.  No amount of knowledge or obedience, no purity of bloodline or heritage, could do for an imperfect man what only a perfect Savior can do.  The identity Paul had created for himself was nothing next to the identity he found in Christ.

Each one of us will stand before God one day.  When we present ourselves before him in that heavenly place, our identity will be crucial. Those who try to present themselves as worthy through their name or their position will fail. Those who try to present themselves as worthy through their knowledge will fail. Those who try to present themselves as worthy through their faith in something other than the one true God will fail. Those who try to present themselves as worthy through some measure of goodness or obedience will fail.  The only identity which will serve us any good on that day is that of Christ.  If we are cloaked in the image of the Son and the purity of his righteousness, if all our imperfect attempts are gone and replaced by his perfection, then we will have our secure place in God’s kingdom for eternity.  It matters now where we find our identity because it indicates how God will see us on that day.