The Power of Identity
The Power of Identity
The story behind the sermon (from Jeff Manion)
In preparing to preach on Ephesians 1:3-14, I felt that there were a couple significant challenges to overcome. One challenge is that there are so many theological concepts that may be explored, one may miss Paul's sense of awe and wonder at God's grace. It is possible to delve into so many doctrinal topics (predestination, work of the Holy Spirit, etc.) that the mood and wonder of the passage is utterly missed. I met this challenge by isolating the subject matter to the three primary images of adoption, redemption, and sealing.
Another challenge is reading the text through first-century eyes. The initial driving question of the Bible student should not be, "What does this mean to me," but instead, "What did this mean to them?" This challenge was met by drawing in first-century culture and video of the region around Ephesus. Before my series on Ephesians began, I was able to travel to the region around Ephesus and bring back film footage for use in each of my sermons on the book. The use of the footage from the theater in Miletus in the section of the sermon on adoption was utilized to assist the congregation in seeing adoption through first-century eyes.
I felt the sermon was effective. One man, a lifetime church attendee, left the service commenting to one of our staff members, "I didn't know God felt this way about me. Why haven't we ever been told this?" I believe the imagery used in the sermon helped individuals experience their identity in Christ in a fresh way.
Do you ever wonder why you do what you do? Do you ever have one of these moments when you're out shopping for something—like sweaters—and all of a sudden you think, What am I doing here? I have, like, fifteen sweaters crammed in my closet. I wear two of them. I need to take at least half of them to Goodwill. What am I doing here? What need am I trying to fill by buying something I don't at all need?
Am I the only one who has these moments? Do you ever catch yourself walking away from a conversation in which you found it necessary to critique someone else's performance or decision? You didn't agree with someone's decision, so you just kind of knocked them down a couple notches. And you walked away thinking, What was that about? What in me could possibly need to lower someone else in order to boost myself a little bit? I don't need to do that!
Have any of you found yourself unnecessarily animated in a conversation? You're in a living room or a board room and someone isn't hearing your point. You find your energy level intensified, your pulse quickening, your blood pressure rising. You find yourself insisting, "No, no, no, you're not understanding me!" Later you think, What was so life and death about that situation? Why do I do what I do? Why do I insist on being heard, understood, and agreed with? Do you ever ask yourself why you do what you do?
I don't want to be simplistic, but I'm going to propose that often we do what we do because we think like we think. So today we're going to going to take a look at something called the power of identity. I believe that if we understood at our core what God does for us and in us—if we comprehended that at a deeper level—some of the behavioral shifts that we desire would happen at a more satisfactory level in our lives. Our problem is we often go after the behavior rather than the core of our identity. I'll explain this as we go along.
An overview of Ephesians
The text we're looking at today is from Paul's letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians was written, we believe, around A.D. 61, about three decades after Jesus' crucifixion. It's written to some people in and around the city of Ephesus. On a map you would locate Ephesus along the coastline of the Aegean Sea, where western Turkey is now.
If you strolled through the town of Ephesus in the first century, you'd find several structures. One of the structures was the Temple of Artemis, also called the Temple of Diana, because some of these goddesses and gods went by Greek and Roman names. That temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The footprint of that temple was about the size of a football field and had 127 60-foot marble pillars. It may have been the largest building in the world when it was completed. This wonder was just outside the city gates of Ephesus.
Ephesus also had a theater. It wasn't the largest theater in the Roman world, but it was pretty good sized with 25,000 seats. The Greeks built it and the Romans expanded it when they took over.
Another main structure in Ephesus was called the agora, the entranceway. This structure was a triple archway into the marketplace. In this marketplace you could buy anything. It was 100 yards by 100 yards, which is like two football fields side by side. It was like the Mall of America in there.
So welcome to Ephesus. It was not just a couple dusty streets with a few dozen houses, goats, and donkeys. In its day, Ephesus was like Hong Kong, Tokyo, or New York City. It's believed to be the fourth largest city in the first century world. Oh, and by the way, there were also pickpockets, scam artists, prostitutes, people with volcanic tempers, and binge drinkers in Ephesus—all the ills that come to an urban setting when you live in a broken world were present there. Despite the amazing architecture in Ephesus, everything there was not good and beautiful.
A guy named Paul arrived in Ephesus around A.D. 53 and began talking about the grace of God in sending Jesus. The Jesus movement gets formed in the region around Ephesus. Paul was there for over two years, and then he left. He left people who had new hearts—but they were new hearts with old habits, and people were drifting back into the vices of prostitution, rage, malicious gossip, and so on. So just a handful of years after Paul left Ephesus, he wrote that group of Jesus followers to give them a refresher course in what it meant to be people of the Way. That refresher is the letter of Ephesians that we have in our Bible.
The Book of Ephesians is divided into two sections: chapters 1-3 feel one way; chapters 4-6 feel totally different. In chapters 4-6 Paul goes after rage. He says, "In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry." He goes after speech: "Let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth but only that which is helpful for building others up." He goes after sexual impurity. He goes after theft: "Let him who is stealing stop stealing." Get a job. Work with your hands. He goes after falsehood and deception: "Each of you should speak truthfully to his neighbor." He writes all of this to church people. And all of that happens in chapters 4, 5, and 6.
So what does Paul do in chapters 1, 2, and 3? Basically all he does in the first three chapters of Ephesians is say, "Remember who you are, remember who you are, remember who you are. Remember how God loves you, remember how he dumped his mercy on you, remember how he stepped into your life when you were spiritually dead and gave you CPR of the soul. Remember how he brought Jewish people and non-Jewish people together in one body, the church." He really doesn't tell them to do anything for three chapters, which to me exhibits incredible patience. If I had gotten this movement started in the region of Ephesus and I heard that there was theft and gossip and everything else going on, my letter would start with "Get your act together!" But Paul doesn't do that. Rather, in the first three chapters, he talks about identity—"Remember who you are, remember who you are"—because often, we behave the way we behave because we think the way we think.
So many people I encounter find their primary identity in what they do. But if you're a successful realtor and the market shifts, do you go from being a somebody to being a nobody? Your identity should not hinge on the housing market. That's a flimsy core. If being a realtor is your secondary identity, that's great. But it shouldn't be your primary identity.
There are beautiful people out there who fear aging—women who are afraid to turn 30. I think, Be careful about your primary identity being your looks! Proverbs says that beauty is fleeting—because it is! Beauty should not be your primary identity; it cannot last.
Children are another thing we easily make our primary identity—we often find ourselves wanting their approval. But dangerous things happen when you make your child your core identity. So how do you love a kid dearly and deeply while maintaining that you had an identity before that child entered your life, and you will have an identity when they leave? See, this issue of identity is important for us to figure out.
And as we explore some verses in Ephesians chapter 1, we see that Paul did a very beautiful thing for these people living in and around Ephesus: he used some rich imagery that connected deeply with them. We're going to look at three of the images that Paul used: adoption, redemption, and sealing.
The image of adoption
The first image Paul uses is the image of adoption. As he's called the Ephesians to remember their true identity, he says, "In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ in accordance with his pleasure and will." In accordance with his pleasure and will he adopted them—because it made him so very, very happy to do so. He wanted to. What is your core or primary identity? He adopted you—do you understand that? If you've had a real connection with Jesus, you understand that you don't earn God's love. Paul says that "in love he predestined us through Jesus Christ." Somehow, what Christ did for us here on earth is the key of this adoption process.
Our tendency is to read a passage of Scripture like that and see it through 21st century eyes rather than through 1st century eyes. Let's try to experience this passage—this concept of adoption—as people in and around Ephesus would have experienced it. In order to do that, let's imagine what it was like back then …
We're in a theater in Miletus, about 20 miles south of Ephesus. The theater seats about 15,000 people. We've walked in, and a play, the Greek play Oedipus Rex, is about to begin down on the stage floor. Now, the viewers here know the back story to Oedipus Rex: King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes have been warned by the oracle that when they have a son, he will cause the family grave damage. So King Laius takes his baby's feet, pins them together, and abandons the baby in a field. A shepherd finds the baby and names him Oedipus, meaning "swollen feet," and Oedipus is then raised by the king of Corinth. Now, the part about King Laius abandoning his baby boy doesn't shock viewers here, because child abandonment was common in Roman culture. In Roman culture, when a baby was born and set at the father's feet, the father either picked up the baby, thereby claiming it, or he turned around and walked away, rejecting the baby. Maybe he wanted a boy and had a girl; maybe he wanted a girl and had a boy. Maybe he detects some kind of defect or birthmark that displeases him. Rarely in Roman culture would the baby be killed. Instead, the child would be exposed to the elements for the gods to decide his fate. Frequently, a child would be taken to the agora, the marketplace, and abandoned there. Sometimes someone would come along and take the child in but have them raised to be a slave or prostitute. It was to this culture that Paul was writing when he talked about adoption.
When Paul writes to the churches in and around Ephesus and says that in love God adopted them, he is writing to an abandonment culture. He is writing to a culture where babies were routinely abandoned. I have read that outside the eastern gate of Ephesus, the edge opposite the theater and the harbor, there was a garbage dump where people would frequently bring babies they did not desire. I have read that there was a physician to the north of Ephesus in the city of Pergamum who wrote a manual on how to measure the dimensions of the child to increase the odds of picking one who would make a strong slave. Given the culture, the slave children considered themselves the lucky ones.
Paul writes to these people and says: If you have come to know Jesus, your most defining moment isn't who threw you out but who took you in. He picked you out, he picked you up, and he took you home. Has anybody here ever been dumped? Dumped by a fiancé? Dumped by a spouse? Dumped by a kid who shut you out? Dumped by a company? Have you ever run a business and invested in an employee only to have them join a competitor, taking your customers with them? Has any of this ever happened to you?
I talked with a guy last week whose father left his family when he was two years old. His dad would visit once a year from another city, check into a Motel 6, and have his two sons spend the weekend with him. This man described how his brother, at six years old, would hang on his dad's ankles to keep him from leaving again. Do you know anything of what that's like?
There are so many behavioral issues that Paul has to address. The Ephesians were slipping into their old patterns of sexual immorality; they were not consistent with people of the Way. They slipped into gossipy patterns that were so inconsistent with people of the Way. They slipped into theft and lying, so inconsistent with being people of the Way. But Paul puts all that on hold to say, "Before I tell you to behave, I just need you to be reminded that you belong. Your most defining moment is not who threw you out but who brought you in. If you heard the whisper of God and responded to the voice of Christ, you need to know something that was happening there. He picked you out, he picked you up, and he brought you home. He adopted you." That's image number one: adoption. Let that sink in.
There's a reason why Christians use the term "relationship with God." There's something about being the precious, prized daughter or son of the Creator. Your most defining moments in life are not what happened to you, but what the Creator did for you. Just whisper these words with me: "He adopted me." This is all Paul says for three chapters: Remember who you are, remember who you are, remember who you are.
The image of redemption
Image number two is the image of redemption. The term redemption sounds like a weighty theological term, but it was also a trade word. To redeem something meant to buy it. Let's see how Paul uses this in Ephesians 1:7: "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding." What do we have redemption through? Through Jesus' blood. Again, let's not look at this through a 21st century lens; let's look at it through a 1st century lens, because Paul is writing to a slave culture.
My friends, Ephesus had one of the largest slave markets in the Roman world. In the marketplace in Ephesus, you not only bought spices from the East, purple cloth from Thyatira, and the latest fashions from Rome; you could also go into this marketplace and buy people. Google three words, "Ephesus slave trade," and you will find some references that claim that between 1,000 BC and 1,000 AD, Ephesus was the center of slave trade in the Roman Empire. Paul came and spent over two and a half years of his life in the hub of slave trade. Let's wander into a courtyard where a group of Jesus' followers are meeting, including people who have been bought and sold …
You notice a slave and ask him, "Who do you belong to?" He says, "I belong to Cornelius." You ask how this happened, and he replies, "Well, as a baby I got dumped, and some guy and his wife came, picked me up, and took me to their house to raise me as a slave. I worked for them from as early as I can remember doing household stuff. I stayed in their house until I was 13, and at age 13 they took me to the marketplace, to the agora, and they sold me." You say, "Can I ask a personal question? How much did you sell for?" He says, "I was strong. I went for 24 pieces of silver. And Cornelius came in with a bag of money and redeemed me; he bought me."
Now, if this guy has had an encounter with the saving Christ, Paul wants him to know that his primary identity is not that of a slave to Cornelius. There was someone else who paid for him—who bought him. And when Paul uses the term, "In him we have redemption through his blood," he's saying, "Okay, listen: the adoption program that God used wasn't money. When Jesus hung on the cross, he was paying the adoption cost to bring our souls to God."
I'm going to use a low illustration for this. I do not mean to demean or lower the Cross in any way; I just want to make this concept really accessible. Let's say a guy says to you, "Hey, we're going to go out to eat. Do you want to come with us?" You say, "Absolutely." There's about ten of you at the table, and when you sit down, flip open the menu, and see the prices, you realize this is not a restaurant you belong at. You spend the whole meal feeling uncomfortable, knowing that it's a budget breaker. At the end of the meal, you get ready to pay, but someone says, "Oh, don't worry about it. The guy at the end of the table picked up the tab." You feel so relieved and grateful! Again, I don't want to lower significance of the Crucifixion. I just want you to understand this reality: that someone has already picked up the bill for you.
Christianity is not about doing enough for God so that he finally likes you. No, God buys us—he redeems us—through Jesus hanging there on the cross: "In him we have redemption through his blood—the forgiveness of sins." The idea here is that God does not need to punish you for your wrongs because somebody else was already punished for them. Do you know that that's what happened on the Cross? Paul was writing to a culture where people were bought and sold, and he says, "Look, do you know that somebody bought you? Do you know what that means? It means you're someone's children. Someone paid for you. Someone paid for you."
You might be shocked that Paul alludes to slaves in the church. But they existed. If you look in chapter 6 of Ephesians, you'll read this: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ." He's saying: This is what it means to be the people of the Way. If you happen to be in someone's house as a slave, do not be belligerent, do not be rude, and do not be nasty. Even if your master is a jerk, you must remember that someone else bought you. Your primary identity is not that you're owned by Cornelius; your primary identity is that your Lord, Jesus, bought you. You're his. And if your boss isn't worthy of your hard work, your Lord is. Wake up in the morning and provide excellent goods and services for people with all your heart, not because your boss deserves it, but because your Lord deserves. Knowing whose you are changes your behavior.
You see, sometimes we do what we do because we think like we think, and all Paul does is say, "Remember who you are, remember who you are, remember who you are. He adopted you, he redeemed you." Say the words with me now: He paid for me. He adopted me.
The image of sealing
Now let's go back to the guy in the courtyard. You notice he's got a tattoo on his neck, so you ask him about it. He replies, "You're not from around here. This is Cornelius' seal." Slaves get tattooed with the family seal of the estate they're serving. That's the third image that Paul points to—the image of sealing.
Ephesians 1:13 says, "And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit." Paul is telling the Ephesians their history. He is saying to them, "Remember when I came here and spoke to you of the goodness of God in sending Jesus?" When Paul was in Ephesus for two and a half years, he talked to them about Jesus, God's means of rescuing them. "Remember that you believed the gospel. It was then that you were marked with a seal."
The seal is a mark of ownership. For a paper document you could make a seal with melted wax into which you would press your family ring or crest, leaving an indentation. When the wax dried it made a seal. That seal marked the ownership of the document. This kind of seal wouldn't work for livestock, so people started branding with hot irons. A brand is also a seal—a mark of ownership.
How many of you have seen the movie "Gladiator"? Maximus, played by Russell Crowe, has four letters tattooed on his arm: SPQR. They mark him as a Roman soldier for the emperor—it's a mark of service. Soldiers were tattooed. Captives and slaves were branded. This is the kind of seal that the man in the courtyard has on his body.
Paul is writing to this kind of culture—a culture in which people are literally sealed to show who owns them, who has purchased them, and to whom they belong. Paul is saying, "Do you realize that when you came to believe, you received God's seal upon your life?" And the seal is a promise; the seal is God whispering, "You're mine. You're mine. I've adopted you, and you are mine."
You always need to know and believe your true identity in Christ. You're in a dating relationship that you thought was headed toward marriage, but lately it's become very clear that it's not. You feel broken and lonely. If you've come to know Jesus, you need to hear his whisper, You're mine, you're mine.
You're driving down the road in early fall when the leaves are beginning to change. You're captivated by the oranges, yellows, and reds. Something stirs in you—something transcendent—and you know that it was God who made this. You know he didn't have to, but he did, and as creation explodes, you hear him whisper, You're mine.
You find yourself at a funeral home visitation. You were not ready to lose this person in your life. You're crushed and broken, but through your tears and in your grief you hear the whisper, You're mine, you're mine. This assurance doesn't make the sadness go away, but it can become a grief with hope rather than a grief with despair.
Let's say it together: He adopted me, he paid for me, and I'm his. That is who you are at your core. That is your primary identity. Not your house, not your title, not your children, not your looks. There is freedom in your true identity as a child of God. When I remember and believe who I am at my fundamental core, I am free. I'm free to parent without having to have my child's affection—to raise, to love, to adore, and to release. I'm free to age with grace.
The years fly by, and I know that someday I'll be going home to be with the One who adopted me, who paid for me, who owns me. It frees me. It frees me to spend appropriately—to refrain from buying all kinds of junk I don't need to fill a hole in me. Knowing who you are will free you. It will free you to serve. It will free you to obey. This is the transition that takes place in chapter 4, when Paul gets to the behavioral stuff.
Ephesians 4:1 says, "As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you've received." Now Paul's ready to go after the other stuff. He goes after purity, after speech, after theft, after deception, after rage, after binge drinking, because the Ephesians know who they are, and they know whose they are.
When I remember that I'm loved, I serve differently. When I remember that I'm loved, I love differently. When I remember who I am, I give differently. When I find myself in one of these moments when I'm buying something I absolutely don't need and I think, What am I doing here? Why do I do what I do? the chances are, I've forgotten who I am. When I find myself exiting a conversation and think, Why was it necessary for me to rip that person down and itemize their deficiencies? the chances are, I've forgotten who I am. When I find my blood pressure rising over something really, really pathetically stupid and thinking, You don't understand me! Why don't you agree with me? the chances are, I've forgotten who I am. When I remember who I am, when I settle this identity thing, and when I recall it, I'm free to give grace, because I've received grace. I'm free to give love, because I've received love. I'm free to serve, because God has lavished his mercy on me.
When I remember who I am, I live differently. That's why the letter to these dear people, many of whom had experienced severe rejection—people who had been bought like cattle, tattooed and branded—desperately needed to remember who they were. And we desperately need to remember who we are. Knowing our primary identity as sons and daughters of God, bought by the blood of Christ, we will know the freedom we long for.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
Jeff Manion is the senior pastor of Ada Bible Church in West Michigan, where he has served for over 30 years.