No future without a past
Identity is trump.
Fortune500 companies spend significant cash defining their brands. Mention Apple, and most of us will think innovation, clean design, white space, and elegant solutions. Toyota may conjure up images of hybrids, excellent fuel economy, reliability, and efficient manufacturing. Google shouts information, big data, and how we relate to information. Mind you, identity does not always correspond to reality. You may have driven a Toyota that wasn’t reliable or used an Apple product that disappointed. Yet identity goes deeper than personal experience. It defines how most of us relate to a product, often in spite of our own perception.
Who Are We?
When we read the Old Testament and follow Israel’s development from a family clan to a large tribal confederacy, we may think that identity was never really an issue in ancient Israel. Everybody knew God had called Abraham and his descendants to be His people (Gen. 12). Yes, Israel had been called to be a blessing to others (Gen. 12:3; 22:18; 28:14), but God’s special call represented the foundation of their self-understanding. They were because God had chosen them to be: His people, His hands, His feet, His messengers.
Yet when we dig a little deeper, this linear narrative begins to unravel. Reality was more complex. Clan and tribal loyalties often trumped the notion of Israel as a whole. One tribe fought another tribe (Judges 12; 20); local shrines and high places were more convenient (or real) than the tabernacle or temple (1 Kings 11:7; 12:31, 32; Jer. 7:31); social inequalities and economic abuse caused rifts in the texture of the nation, leading prophets to speak out loud and clear in God’s name for the poor, the abused, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner (Amos 5:21-27; Isa. 1:15-17; Jer. 7; 34:8-22; Neh. 5).
Israel, living in a world of competing superpowers, deities, and religions, often wondered who they were. These moments of identity crisis became particularly obvious in times of change. In the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, constantly facing food and water shortages, Israel yearned for Egypt’s meat, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic (Num. 11:4-6). Upon hearing the negative report of 10 of the 12 spies, fickle Israel suddenly decided to return to Egypt (Num. 14:1-4). Who are we really? seems to have been the real question, and Where do we belong?
Who are we really? and Where do we belong? have been relevant questions for God’s people throughout the ages. What distinguished an Israelite from his Aramean or Moabite neighbor? What made the difference when comparing God’s people living in Jerusalem with people living in Assur, Nineveh, Babylon, or Alexandria? In many cases their language was similar (as is Hebrew and Aramaic or Moabite). They ate similar Mediterranean-type food (minus pork in Israel’s case); their clothing looked comparable; they all lived in a world in which God (or the gods) was considered a reality. So what made the difference?
Sometimes, not too much. Faced with the end of Samuel’s ministry as judge and considering his useless sons, Israel’s elders came to Samuel and asked for a king, “such as all the other nations have” (1 Sam. 8:5). Years later King Solomon, like all the kings around him, accumulated 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses (1 Kings 10:26), an immense military resource. Horses and chariots represented the currency of power, yet God wanted His people to trust in Him, not in horses and chariots (Ps. 20:7). In fact, later prophets denounced people for relying on horses and chariots instead of trusting in the Lord (Isa. 31:1). Since then the tension between God’s ways and the world’s ways has not diminished. Instead, life has become more complex, and more often than not, God is left entirely out of the picture.
New Beginnings—and Old Patterns
Following the exile in Babylon, a new generation heeded God’s call throughout the Persian Empire and returned to Jerusalem (Ezra 1). They had heard the stories, they had listened to the prophetic word, they had tried to stay faithful, and now they were finally home. Things, however, just did not work out.
In the midst of tension and conflict, those participating in the second exodus struggled with similar identity issues as their predecessors had hundreds of years before. God’s Word was often ignored; assimilation was easier than maintaining boundaries (Ezra 9; 10; Neh. 10:30; 13); Sabbathkeeping felt awkward and was even inconvenient (Neh. 10:31; 13:15-22). Again and again we hear Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s calls for new beginnings. Old patterns tend to reappear.
The Kingdom and the Cross
Fast-forward 450 years, and we hear Jesus preaching the kingdom of God. People flock to Him. His message is distinct, and the religious establishment hates Him. His death on a cross outside of Jerusalem seems to seal the fate of a young, and now leaderless, movement.
Yet Resurrection morning changes everything—forever. When we read the book of Acts, we see a community that is ready to change the world. Persecuted, often poor and torn between tradition and God’s future, they wanted to tell the world of a risen Savior and a different kingdom. While most early Christians were Jews, following Pentecost and the outpouring of the Spirit, Gentiles and Jews began to understand the extension of God’s kingdom that went beyond Jerusalem and Israel. No, it was (not yet) a kingdom of glory, but every conquered heart—whether Jewish or Gentile—offered a glimpse into God’s future.
Along the way, tension often ran high. While working in Antioch, Paul and Peter, two key leaders of the early Christian church, could not agree on the relationship between Jewish cultic and ritual prescriptions and Christianity’s approach to them. Prior to the arrival of a delegation from Jerusalem, the center of Judaism and early Christianity, Peter had freely eaten with Gentile Christians. However, once representatives from Jerusalem arrived, there were no more shared meals. Paul shamed Peter in public and spoke out, on theological grounds (cf. Gal. 2:11-21). His reasoning was Christ-centered and grace-powered. Paul, the zealous Pharisee, who had persecuted early Christians in the name of God but had met the Master on his way to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19), recognized the radical nature of God’s call. This call, similar to God’s call to Abraham, was at the foundation of what it meant to be a follower of Christ. Paul realized that we are because He called—and saved—us.
Around the Bend
Our reading of Scripture tends to be, at times, superficial. We often miss the truly radical nature of God’s new beginnings: when He called a family and a people and when He called the world. As we read backward and tread on familiar ground we may, at times, overlook the deeply felt growing pains of those who join the kingdom. Lukewarmness, self-sufficiency, the stylization of tradition over experience or the elevation of experience at the expense of biblical truth, characterize Laodicea, Revelation’s last church awaiting our Lord’s return. God’s diagnosis is blunt and direct: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17, ESV).*
Wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked: that’s us, searching for our true identity. Like Israel of yesteryear, we are torn between God’s kingdom and a world that seems to offer so much. Yet we can know that we, too, are because we have been called. Called to be a blessing; called to proclaim God’s good news; and called to be His hands and feet. It’s a big task that we can tackle only by His grace. And yes, that’s enough identity for me.
*Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.