Who am I? Who are You? The Power of Identity

The Bible has a remarkable capacity to challenge and overcome our misperceptions about who we are. When we are inclined to think of ourselves as orphans, the biblical text declares that we are the adopted children of God. If we are wracked with guilt, the inspired word reminds us that we are forgiven. The feeling of being stained and soiled by sin is overcome with the realization that we are cleansed by the blood of Christ and clothed in his righteousness.

It’s much the same when it comes to our place and role in the church. Many are inclined to view themselves as a blight or blemish on the body of Christ, a useless, transient appendage that contributes little to the advancement of God’s kingdom. Utility becomes the measure of their worth. If they do little, they are little. Feeling ungifted and unqualified, they linger in the shadows, sitting on the back row, rarely if ever asked for their opinion and even less often willing to step forward and contribute positively to the welfare of the body as a whole.

Jesus, in Revelation 3:12-13, again graciously reminds us of God’s perspective and reverses the paralyzing impact of false perceptions. Our Lord’s words of promise and reassurance to those who persevere in their commitment to Jesus have bolstered and buoyed our faith throughout the course of these seven letters. To the one who conquers, he promises,

“I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:12-13).

The imagery of the individual Christian and the corporate church as the temple of God is a familiar one in Scripture. For example, see 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; Eph. 2:21-22; 1 Peter 2:4-5.

[Permit this me this momentary aside. The only temple in which God will ever dwell is his Son, Jesus Christ, and the body of Christ, the Church. Any suggestion that God will sanction and approve of the rebuilding of a literal, physical temple in Jerusalem is utterly inconsistent with what we read in the NT. We are the temple of God. God’s people, the Church, are his dwelling place.]

The metaphor is obviously fluid and thus there is no inconsistency in affirming that we are both the temple and the pillars within it. In declaring that he will make us pillars our Lord is honing in on one (or perhaps several) crucial truth about our relationship with him and our place in his purposes.

There are several Old Testament references that might serve as the possible backdrop for this portrait, such as 1 Kings 7:13-22 and Jeremiah 1:18. There is certainly NT precedence for describing God’s people as “pillars”, as seen in 1 Timothy 3:15 where the church itself is called “a pillar and buttress of the truth.” In Galatians 2:9, Paul refers to James, Peter, and John as “pillars” of the NT church.

A few have suggested that this is an allusion to the custom in which the provincial priest of the imperial cult, at the close of his tenure in office, erected in the temple area his statue or pillar inscribed with his name (together with the name of his father, his home town, and his years in office). However, several have pointed out that little evidence exists for this practice and that Philadelphia didn’t even have a temple dedicated to the imperial cult until early in the third century a.d.

Perhaps the language is simply a metaphor of eternal salvation. Special emphasis may be on the security of our position as God’s dwelling place in view of the assurance that “never shall he go out of it.” This declaration would have carried special significance for those in Philadelphia: although they are expelled from Satan’s synagogue (Rev. 3:9) they find a permanent place in God’s temple.

Furthermore, as Mounce has noted, “to a city that had experienced devastating earthquakes [a massive quake devastated the city in 17 a.d.] which caused people to flee into the countryside and establish temporary dwellings there, the promise of permanence within the New Jerusalem would have a special meaning” (120-21). Thus, to a people familiar with uncertainty and weakness (cf. 3:8), it certainly conveys the idea of stability and permanence in the believer’s relationship with God.

A friend reminded me that the key to this passage may be found in Psalm 144:12 – “May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars cut for the structure of a palace” (Psalm 144:12; or, “fashioned as for a palace,” NASV). From this we see that the purpose of a pillar was more than simply to uphold a palace, more than simply to provide support or serve a load-bearing function. Rather, pillars were designed to adorn a palace. Perhaps, then, it is the beauty of a pillar that is in view and not simply its utility.

This man wrote to me of his many journeys throughout the Middle East and especially his visit to countless mosques. A number of pillars he saw were made of elaborately hand-carved wood, while others were covered with thousands of individually handcrafted ceramic tiles. He noted that “even the adjective ‘opulent’ seems too restrained for many of these pillars.” More important still, “the degree and level of the craftsmanship of a mosque is always in direct correlation to the status of the builder, its beauty a visible demonstration of the builder’s benevolence to the community.”

While such pillars may serve practical functions, “their aesthetic beauty deliberately overshadows their usefulness, and for the thoughtful soul this opens a wonderful window into the imagery” of Revelation 3.

“In much of the church world,” he astutely notes, “our usefulness is what seems to matter: if we can teach the Bible in a community group, lead an outreach, or organize a committee, then we are ‘an asset to the church.’ But in his words to the church of Philadelphia, Jesus assures us that our place in God’s presence is not based on our utility – he certainly does not need us to uphold his temple!” Rather, we are placed near the King of kings, and adorned with his profound spiritual beauty in order to reflect the majesty and graciousness of the One in whom we “are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22).

Whatever struggle may be yours in trying to identify yourself and your place in the kingdom of God, never forget that you are his dwelling place, the heart of his abode, and as a pillar in this temple you will reflect his beauty and splendor forever and ever, never to go out of it, ever!

As mentioned earlier, Christians often struggle with a sense of identity. They fail to grasp who they are by virtue not merely of creation but especially regeneration and redemption. A failure to embrace our new identity and the privileges and responsibilities that come with it can be devastating. Virtually every assault and accusation of Satan is grounded in his effort to convince us we are not who God, in fact, declares we are. God says “This is who you are” and Satan says, “No, you’re not.” If the enemy can persuade you that you are a spiritual impostor, an interloper, an unwanted and unqualified intruder into the kingdom of God, his victory is virtually assured.

On the other hand, if I’m able to rest securely in who I am in Christ, an identity forged by forgiveness not failure, by his goodness rather than mine, I am enveloped and enclosed in a veritable fortress of strength and protective love. No assault will prevail. No accusation will stand. No insinuation, however subtle, will undermine my confidence or sow seeds of suspicion in my soul. I am who he says I am by virtue of what he has done and will do. It’s just that simple.

This is the great practical payoff of a glorious principle based on a God-ordained promise in Revelation 3:12. Look at it again:

“I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:12-13).

Here is your current identity and ultimate destiny if you know Christ truly. It consists in having inscribed on your heart the name of God, of his city, and of his Son! There is, of course, as is the case with virtually all spiritual realities, a sense in which this is already true of us though not yet consummated. What we are now, we shall be in eternal verity, forever.

First, written on us is “the name of my God,” says Jesus. There is a rich background in the Old Testament for this statement. One hardly knows where to begin, but I suggest you pause and read Exodus 28:36-38; Isaiah 43:7; 56:5; 62:2; and 65:15. In the priestly blessing that we often cite today as a benediction, God declares that “they will put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them” (Num. 6:27; see also Deut. 28:10 and Daniel 9:18-19).

Second, Jesus promises to inscribe on us “the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven.” This should come as no surprise, given what the NT says about our citizenship in the New Jerusalem (see Gal. 4:26; Phil. 3:20). The author of Hebrews makes this clear:

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering” (Heb. 12:22).

Furthermore, in Revelation 21:2-8 the people of God are virtually identified with the New Jerusalem. In other words, to bear the name of the city of God is more than simply a way of identifying its citizens, its rightful inhabitants. There is also a sense in which we are the New Jerusalem (cf. Isa. 56:5; Ezek. 48:35)! At minimum it is a way of stressing our permanent and ever so intimate presence with God and his presence in and for us, forever.

Third, and perhaps most important and precious of all, we shall bear Christ’s “own new name.” Note the emphatic position of the adjective, literally, “my name, the new.” Christ’s new name can hardly be any of those with which we are already familiar, such as Lord, Messiah, Savior, Son of God, Son of Man, Word, etc. “New” (kainos) means more than simply different or recent, as over against what one formerly was designated. Here it means new in quality, belonging to and characterized by the life and values of the new creation for which we have already been re-born (2 Cor. 5:17).

This “new name” is another way of alerting us to the fact that there awaits us a fuller, indeed infinitely expansive, revelation of the glory and beauty of Christ beyond anything we have seen, heard, or understood in this life. Whatever we know of Christ, however rich the treasures we enjoy of him in the present, whatever knowledge or insight into the unsearchable depths of his wisdom, knowledge, ways, and judgments we are graciously enabled to experience, all is but a sub-microscopic drop in the vast ocean of a spiritually macroscopic revelation yet to come!

Let’s also not forget that being given a new name in biblical tradition is most often associated with the idea of receiving a new status, function, or change in character and calling (see Genesis 32:28). I can’t even begin to speculate on what this entails for us in the ages to come!

And what, precisely, is this new name? We don’t have a clue! In fact, its secrecy or hiddenness is one of its priceless qualities, for an unknown name suggests again that we who are called by it and have it inscribed on our souls are invulnerable to the enemy’s attack. What Satan does not know, he cannot destroy. To be called by this “new name” is to be preserved for fellowship and intimacy with our Lord that none can touch or disrupt.

Do you know who you are? If Jesus is your Lord and Savior, you are a child of the Most High God who loves you! And how important is it for you to know who you truly are? Simply put, your life will never change for the good until you embrace your true identity in Christ. Identity governs behavior. You will always behave in accordance with who you believe you are.

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About Sam Storms

Sam Storms is the Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Sam is on the Board of Directors of both Desiring God and Bethlehem College & Seminary, and also serves as a member of the Council of The Gospel Coalition. Sam is President of the Evangelical Theological Society. Visit http://www.samstorms.com