You might be surprised at how Paul identifies followers of Christ
By Mike Spinelli
I don’t often remember words spoken at a graduation, even my own. In order for me to remember, the words have to be special. Like those of the valedictorian at a friend’s high school graduation who began and ended her speech with a revised quote from a popular movie: “You are not your job; you're not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You are so not your khakis.”
What makes these words extraordinary after all these years is that they remind me that what I have does not define or classify me. How often do we define ourselves by what we have in the bank or the garage? Even if we eschew possessions, our hard work or even just the title of our job becomes a major identifier. And how many of us accept the notion that the clothes do make the man or the woman?
Okay, maybe you don’t need these things to define you. But do other things identify you—family, service to God or even striving for Christ-like character?
The apostle Paul devoted many words to how we should live as imitators of Christ. In Colossians 3:12-14 we find a list of characteristics that Paul imagines as clothing, something we should put on and wear. They are wonderful character values that reflect Christ’s nature—compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness.
Yet it is not these attributes that caught my attention during a men’s retreat a couple of years back. I could have read the whole passage, soaking in the “to do” list Paul is presenting. But it was the words with which Paul launches his list that made me stop: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved” (Col. 3:12).
In that moment, I focused on how Paul identifies the believers. They are not identified by compassion or forgiveness. Rather, Paul characterizes them with words that distinguish the people of God before the time of Christ—chosen, holy and dearly loved.
Identified by a relationship
Although it is easy to blow by these three words in order to get to the things we are supposed to be doing, these words are not trivial. Paul’s message is not that the “to do” list is what makes us believers. What makes us believers is our faith in God through Christ. We are not self-made Christians who are identified by what we do.
As followers of Jesus, we are identified by our relationship to the Father. He has made us who we are. To be “chosen” means we are wanted by God. It is his desire that we be called by his name. “Holy” means set apart for a special purpose. Holy can also mean something that evokes awe in others. This goes with Paul’s description in Ephesians 1 that we are exhibit A of God’s glorious achievements in Christ. “Beloved” means we are considered fondly and are pleasing in the eyes of the one who loves us.
What a picture the Lord draws for us through Paul. We are not what we do or how we act. We are the people he has made us to be—the chosen, holy and beloved ones of God!
I look at it this way. I am married to my wife, Cheryl. Together we have two daughters, Ashley and Lindsey. We are a family. Our family unit is defined by the first choice that Cheryl and I made to love one another and share the life journey together. We are chosen and dearly loved by one another. Our children are a representation of that continuing love and they, too, are chosen and loved.
Can you imagine what happens if we are identified by what we do for the family? What happens when we stop doing what everyone thinks we should do? “Sorry, honey, you forgot to take out the trash and mow the lawn. You are not in the family. And sweetie, your room is a mess. Clean it up if you want to sleep here tonight.”
Invited by God
Why is this important? Because we are not created to be human doings but human beings. We are created to be God’s chosen, holy and beloved people. We are created to accept and join in the love the Father, Son and Holy Spirit share in their unity. We are invited to be part of their communion.
Yes, this is what God thinks of us and how he asks us to think of ourselves and each other. When we accept the good news of God’s salvation in Christ, we became part of God’s chosen, holy and loved people. John underscores this when he writes, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are” (1 John 3:1, emphasis added). We may not feel worthy of such designations, but our worthiness has never been the starting point of God’s good gifts. God gives them to us freely, and we live in them.
We could go about treating others with patience, humility or forgiveness and never consider our identities in Christ. We could do these things to try to show that we are good people. However it negates God’s good gift of identification, a gift we do not earn and cannot buy.
This does not mean we toss away the rest of the list in Colossians 3. Paul is making the larger point that those whom God calls to be chosen, holy and beloved then live to show the family likeness. As his beloved, we reach out in love. As forgiven ones, we offer forgiveness. As those who received compassion, we show compassion.
The rubber meets the road here. Do we truly see ourselves as the recipients of God’s good grace, or are we doing good things and being good people out of obligation? When we clothe ourselves in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, are we doing it out of compulsion or from a true sense of who we are in Christ?
We are not lists of dos and don’ts. We are not checklists of righteous activity. We are so not the clothing of good intentions. We are the children of God, chosen, holy and loved. This is who we are, and it leads us to live the good character the Lord has described for us in his Word. We are so his children. And as his children we are recipients of compassion so we can show compassion; we are forgiven so we can forgive; we are loved so we can love.
Mike Spinelli describes himself as “just one of God’s chosen and loved people” who attends Bethany MB Church in Fresno, Calif., where he is the choir director. He is also an adjunct professor for Fresno Pacific University and an operations director for a local business.
SIDEBAR: How God saw his people
When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and made them a people, he wanted them to identify themselves as he saw them. Here are some verses from the Old Testament that show what God saw in his people. These are the verses that Paul would have been familiar with in creating his picture in Colossians 3.—MS
“For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, andbe holy, for I am holy.You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground.For I am theLordwho brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God.You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45).
“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deut. 7:6-8).
“Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture” (Ps. 100:3).
“In that day I will respond,” declares the Lord—“I will respond to the skies, and they will respond to the earth;and the earth will respond to the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, and they will respond to Jezreel. I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God’” (Hosea 2:21-23).