Playing jazz saxophone shaped every aspect of my life and dominated my time and mental energy. I ate, drank, and slept jazz, and in turn it gave me meaning; it gave me life-goals; and it gave me a community. But I now understand that being so consumed with music left no room for my relationship with God. Jazz is not Jesus, and wrapping my life around it would not ultimately have been good for me.
That’s the problem with setting up life pursuits as if they were gods—they don’t deliver what they promise. They don’t satisfy us because they simply can’t. Now, don’t misunderstand me: music is a wonderful gift from God that gives expression to our human condition. Through it we can express joy, sadness, discord, harmony, and many other things. It’s a wonderful part of life. But music is not all of life. And music isn’t powerful enough to be a god. Music can’t address our deepest needs or satisfy our greatest longings. Only God can do that. When I began to believe in Jesus, my identity had to shift accordingly.
One of the primary ways Jesus shapes our identity is through the things God gives us through him. God’s gifts can only come from him. It may seem obvious, but it’s key to realizing the need to make him primary in our lives. His gifts change who we are, how we live, and how we think about ourselves. Our identity becomes molded by the blessings of God.
In Ephesians 1:3–14, the apostle Paul offers an extraordinary list of God’s blessings that he has given us “in Christ.” The passage is introduced by the summary sentence in 1:3—“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Notice especially the last phrase—God has blessed us “with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Every blessing that God bestows on us comes “in Christ.” God’s blessings flow through Jesus, and because believers are spiritually connected to him, we receive the benefit of blessing.
Now let’s trace through the rest of Ephesians 1:3–14 and take note of each blessing of God mentioned there, as well as all the instances of “in/through/under Christ.” Believers are chosen “in him” (1:4), predestined for adoption “through Jesus Christ” (1:5), to the praise of God’s grace given “in the One he loves” (1:6). “In him” we have redemption “through his blood” (1:7). God’s purposes are effected “in Christ” (1:9), to bring everything together “under Christ” (1:10). “In him” we were chosen (1:11), so that those who hope “in Christ” (1:12) might praise God. We were included “in Christ” through hearing the gospel and marked “in him” by the Holy Spirit (1:13).
All of these major blessings—such as being chosen, adopted, redeemed, and receiving the Spirit—come to us “in Christ.” As a result, we share in Jesus’s full standing as a child of God. Everything that’s due Jesus as a result of his obedience to his Father is ours as well. We’re chosen and adopted with full rights as if we were also God’s son. It’s a bit difficult to conceptualize, honestly, when we’re in the middle of a struggling job, parenting difficult children, or wishing for a little human contact. But the point of our blessings in Christ comes down to this: God intentionally chose us. Our relationship with him isn’t accidental or coincidental. It’s something that God intended. Like any adopted child, he knew us, chose us, and gave us full standing in his family. At the core of our identity is the confident knowledge that God wanted us. And as those blessings sink in, our identity is shaped by them. We are transformed by God’s blessings “in Christ.”
As much as my personal identity might be shaped by music, or sports, or family, or work—or anything else, really—nothing has the power to shape me as much as my union with Christ. My whole identity is wrapped up in Jesus because of what he has done for me.
Since our identity is transformed “in Christ,” that phrase is a good shorthand description of what a Christian is. The term “Christian” is rarely used in the New Testament (only in acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 peter 4:16). A much more common way to describe a believer is to call them “in Christ” (e.g., romans 16:7; 1 corinthians 16:24; philippians 1:1). This is because our whole identity is shaped by being “in Christ”—that’s what a Christian is!
But being “in Christ” is not only about how God has shaped our identity through his blessings. It also speaks of our relationship with Jesus. We’re usually comfortable talking about the Holy Spirit being “in” us, or Jesus being “in” us by the Spirit. We mean that the Spirit inhabits our being alongside us, and Jesus indwells us by the power of the Spirit (romans 8:9–10). As a result, we’re connected in the deepest sense to Jesus himself. There’s a closeness—a dance almost—between us and our Savior; so much so that it’s as if we’re in him as much as his Spirit is in us.
Since we are joined to him, we share a union with him. Jesus is not distant from us, like a long-lost relative we never see in person. He is with us, and we are with him. As Paul says later in Ephesians, the church is united to Jesus like a husband and wife (5:31–32). Just as a married couple become one flesh, so Jesus is united to his church. In marriage, two people become deeply connected in life, in purpose, and in spirit—they are as one. Christians are one with Jesus in a similar way. And just as a marriage relationship has its own dynamic, the way we as individuals relate to Jesus will vary from person to person. Through the Spirit we interact with and learn from Jesus in a growing relationship. We learn to recognize his silent direction, his expectations of us in life situations, and his delight in our obedience.
Jesus isn’t some distant friend. He’s present with us through all aspects of life the way a childhood friend is. He knows our good side and our bad. He’s seen our highs and our lows. He’s not surprised when we screw up and he’s not waiting with a tapping foot for us to come grovelling back to him. He’s the ever-present friend who is one hundred percent dedicated to our success in the Christian life.
The key phrase here is in Christ. If you’re a Christian, you are in Christ. In Christ, you have received all of God’s blessings and they profoundly shape your identity. You are connected to Jesus in a relationship of mutual indwelling—he lives in you, and you live in him.