Identity In God, Life In the World

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away.  So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’  He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’  But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”‘”…

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

Ever since humanity rebelled against God and sin entered creation, there have been two different kingdoms at work in the world. The weeds and the wheat have been growing together, and will continue to do so right until the end of the age, and so those who find their identity in God have been faced with the challenge of living out that identity in a world that has fundamentally different values. 

So, what does it look like? How should the wheat relate to the weeds? How should God’s people live out their identity in a fallen world, and what difference does this make for church planters?

Tim Keller points out that at different points in the Biblical story this question was answered in different ways, and he highlights three different models that we see in Scripture of God’s people relating to the world. 

These are:

  • Wandering Nomads
  • God’s City
  • Holy Exiles

Wandering Nomads

When God first called Abram to follow him, Abram responded along with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot. A grand total of three people responding to God’s call. Over the course of the next four generations, this number grew to seventy. This happened simply by multiplying descendants; no outsiders were added in to this community of worship. The family grouping headed to Egypt for food. They were close kin and lived as family, even arranging marriages within the family group where possible. God’s promise of much bigger things was upon them, but for the next four hundred years this tribe of nomads were held as slaves in Egypt, forced to labour hard and (other than a monumental increase in numbers), they didn’t see much fulfilment of the promises that God had made them.

There is something in this model that can be attractive to certain kind of church planters. A close, tight-knit group that feels like family might sound good, but not at the expense of the mission. We must never forget that Jesus sent us out to make disciples, and if our inward-looking community only grows when babies are born something is amiss! 

The idea of God’s people as a single wandering family unit must remain limited to this point in history. As God’s people have grown, they have out-grown this model, and we must look for something different as we consider how to live out our identity in God in the world today.

God’s City

It was through a series of leaders beginning with Moses that God led his people into a new age, and a new way of his people relating to the world as he brought them out of their Egyptian slavery and into a land of their own that he had given to them.

The idea was that God’s people would be together in one place with freedom to worship him. The way they lived would be holy and loving and would be a model for the world to look in and see the blessedness of living under the rule of God. 

This model came to a head under the reign of David and Solomon. In David’s time, the city of Jerusalem was conquered and was established as a capital city in the nation. God put into his heart a dream and a blueprint for building a temple, and this temple was eventually built under the reign of his son Solomon. 

What we had was the ‘House of God’ in the ‘City of God’ in the ‘Nation of God’. There was a ‘God is here, come and see’ vibe going on. When the prophets envisaged this model at its best, they spoke of abundant holiness, prosperity and blessing all flowing from the temple. Jerusalem was the city on a hill, shining brightly in a dark world of how things could be different, offering hope and blessing to the world. 

In past generations, much of Western Christianity worked on a similar model. Christianity was normative in culture, and living out an identity in God didn’t rock the boat very much. 

The culture was, at least in theory, based on God. There were prevailing assumptions that lined up with the kingdom of God. Though not everybody necessarily believed, it was the God of the Bible that they didn’t believe in. This kind of culture enables God’s people to enjoy blessings of fellowship more than any of the other models, but in practice it also means that God’s people can share those blessings less with the world around them. The vast majority of people would be ‘nice’ and ‘respectable’ and  some of the ‘bad’ worldly influences that are found elsewhere may be absent. At least in terms of outward conformity, the culture has an appearance of godliness.

Some church planters still try to work on this kind of model. ‘If we build it, they will come’, as though by being present they will draw in those who maybe have a Christian background and have fallen away from church or have some kind of interest in Christianity. Building attractional services, whether through flashy stage displays, cutting edge music, dynamic preaching or a powerful prophetic atmosphere, will at best only attract a small proportion of the population to your church. For most people, church isn’t even a question they are asking, and however good your meetings are, coming along just wouldn’t occur to them.

Holy Exiles

For Biblical Israel, there were occasions where their identity as God’s city was lived out to an extent. However most of the time, even though they were in God’s land, they did not live out their identity in God and instead turned away to idols. They had been chosen with the purpose of bringing light to the world, and yet they turned in on themselves and failed to shine.

As the sin of the people came up before God, he acted in judgment and the people ended up in exile. But God had not given up on them. Going into exile was not the end of the story, but it was the beginning of a new chapter. God still had a purpose for his people, and now they were even more strategically placed to be a blessing in the world – right in the heart of the great city of Babylon. Jerusalem may have had more comfort, but Babylon arguably had much more opportunity for influence.

God’s people were now in a place where their next door neighbours did not acknowledge God, where Biblical morality and godly culture were not pervasive and where pluralism and immorality prevail. God’s people were working with and governed by non-believers and faced a popular culture that denied Christ. This is exactly the situation in which many of ourselves are living (and planting churches) today, and it is the primary model in which 21st century Christians live out our identity in God in the world. The apostle Peter refers to believers as ‘elect exiles’ and so the challenge is to figure out how to live well as those elect exiles in the world.

God explained to his people how to live in ‘exile mode’ in Jeremiah 29:4-7: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

God’s Holy Exiles are not supposed to reject the culture in which we live. We are supposed to participate and to do life among the people of the city or town in which we live. Instead of thinking of ourselves as a ‘city within a city’, walled off and disengaged, we are to be a genuine part of life where we live, and we are called to live out our identity in God by being the very best citizens of the human kingdom in which we find ourselves, seeking the welfare of that place, buying property, settling down, getting married and raising families. 

That said, living in a pagan culture does present challenges for believers as they live out their identity in God, and the book of Daniel helps us to understand some of these. 

1. Cultural Assimilation (Daniel 1:3-5). 

When the Babylonians captured Jerusalem, they brought the best and brightest of the people (including Daniel) to Babylon and enrolled them in a three year intensive study program about Babylonian language, culture and history. The idea was to indoctrinate them into the Babylonian cultural narrative, replacing their identity as Israelites with a new, thoroughly Babylonian, identity. Continuing to believe in God could be accommodated as long as they were to subsume that belief into the wider Babylonian meta-narrative. If they could get God’s people to be defined by Babylonian assumptions, then having God on the side wasn’t necessarily a problem. They simply wanted to bend God’s people such that their first and primary place of engagement was into the host culture. 

The fascinating thing about how Daniel and his friends responded to this is that they were willing to bend. They did go to Babylon and they did go along with the program of study. They became fluent in their host culture. It was only later (see below) that they began making a stand. There is a lot to learn from Daniel and his friends for church planters today. Being part of the culture we are living in is an advantage not a hinderance and we do well to learn about, appreciate and participate in as much of the culture as possible (so long as it doesn’t compromise our faith). With this comes the tension of living with one foot in each kingdom, and so the crucial factor is ensuring that our identity in God is always stronger than our identity in culture. This comes not by weakening our engagement in culture but by deepening our roots in God.

2. Redefinition (Daniel 1:6-7).

Daniel and his friends were given new names in Babylon, switching God-centred names for those focussed on the Babylonian deities. The name Daniel (meaning ‘God is my judge’) was replaced by Belteshazzar (which means ‘may Baal protect his life’). Hananiah (‘The Lord is gracious’) was replaced by Shadrach (‘Command of Aku’). Mishael (‘Who is what God is’) was replaced with Meshach (‘Who is what Aku is’) and Azariah (‘Helped by God’) was replaced with Abednego (‘servant of Nebo’).

These new names were the most direct challenge to their identity in God that these men faced.

When Christians are living as holy exiles in a host culture, that host culture will always want to redefine our identities according to its own terms. God has spoken over us that we are his children, his dearly beloved, forgiven, the apple of his eye, saints, heirs of eternity, more than conquerors, new creations, holy, pure, blameless and much more, and yet the labels that the world will give us are very different.

So, should we be willing to compromise on this key question of identity? The answer from Daniel seems to be yes and no, but mainly no.

As we read the account of Daniel we don’t see him objecting to the name Belteshazzar, and he does appear willing to respond to the name. It seems as though this is just not a fight that he wants to pick, and yet whenever Daniel speaks of himself he does so as somebody who is clear of his identity. He is Daniel. They can call him whatever they want, but he knows that Daniel is who he is. Living out an identity in God in the world means having deep convictions of who you truly are, but it doesn’t necessarily mean picking a fight at every point along the way.

3. Defilement (Daniel 1:8-16).

As part of their program, Daniel and his friends were expected to eat the king’s meat and drink his wine, and on this issue Daniel felt that he needed to make a stand. It is not explicitly clear why this was the big issue for Daniel, but it is likely that either the meat was ritually unclean or it had been offered to Babylonian idols. Either way, Daniel understood that to participate in this was to cause defilement and would compromise him living out his identity in God, so he determined not to participate. In a similar way, we read later in the book that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego couldn’t go along with the cultural expectation that they bow down to the golden image of the king, and that Daniel himself defied the king’s order not to pray, even though in both cases taking these stands would lead to serious consequences.

There will always be times when living out our identity in God as exiles will mean taking a stand, and there will often be a price to pay for doing so, and yet our primary loyalty is to God. There may be a place for going along with certain aspects of culture for the sake of missional engagement, but we must be clear where the red lines are and be sure not to cross them.

Despite all of the pressures of living in Babylon, Daniel did not back off from the culture. He was in the king’s court and held one of the highest positions in the land. He participated in the kingdom of Babylon and sought its welfare, but he did so knowing that he was an exile there, and beyond it all that he was a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, and in this Daniel serves as a great model for those planting churches and living as Christ’s people in the world today.

What Does the New Testament Say About These Models?

As he preached the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus picked up much of the language that Israel used of itself as God’s people in God’s place. He says, “You are the light of the world”, he refers to them as a city on a hill (just like Jerusalem) and states that their purpose is that people look in and see their lives, and so are attracted to the God who empowers them. 

What was revolutionary about this was that Jesus wasn’t referring to the city of Jerusalem or the nation of Israel, but the disciples who were following him. These disciples were not called to find a new corner of the earth to fence themselves off in and build a new city, but were to be the “salt of the earth”, scattered like salt across the whole planet and having an attractive force about them that drew people to look beyond them to their God.

God’s city was to no longer be a geographical entity but a scattered people, in whom Christ dwells by his Spirit, in every corner of the globe living out their identity in God in intentionally missional lives, as bright lights in a dark world.

Following Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus commissioned his church to be his witnesses, and he gave them a global scope for their mission – Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Initially the church didn’t quite grasp what Jesus had in mind. They stayed put in Jerusalem and built a very attractive community there, God’s city within the city, but that wasn’t the point of what Jesus had called them to. 

Before long, persecution came in Jerusalem and the disciples had to flee Jerusalem, reaching lots of the surrounding towns and cities and preaching the gospel as they went. This is how it is supposed to be; God’s people scattered across the planet, doing good and preaching the gospel wherever they are. Elect exiles.

In practice, the Western church has spent centuries in a ‘Christendom’ mentality – established and bunkered up as the supposed people of God with a ‘come and see’ attitude, whereas all along Jesus has been calling us into the corners of our societies and to the ends of the earth as holy, loving missionaries who will ‘go and tell’ the good news.

The church is in exile – and as God’s people in exile, we have much to learn from God’s people during the Babylonian captivity.

1. We seek the welfare of our host city.

We are not here to judge the city in which we live but to bless it. We are not trying to tear it down but build it up. The city should look to us and see a friend, not a pain in the backside.

2. We are to scatter

We are not a holy enclave that fences ourselves off from the world in a holy huddle, and attempting to create a Christian subculture would be a mistake. We are to have jobs, friends, neighbours and hobbies in the world, and give a good amount of our time and energy to doing life among those who don’t know Christ, and putting ourselves in a context where people can see his light shining through us. 

3. Our host city is not our home city

We are not to blindly adopt the values and ways of our city, but to operate godly discernment about what would defile us and compromise our identity in God. We are to be radically God-focussed such that everything we do in engaging with culture should have missional intentionality rather than just a desire to be like everybody else. In the words of Stef Liston, “You must go (to the places of our culture), you’re a missionary, you must…but make a difference!”

4. We have a humility towards our city

Too often churches approach their cities with demands – how the city is governed, what the ethos is, what the schools should be like and so on, as though the purpose of the city is to be a blessing to the church – but God has set it up the other way around. We mustn’t expect to be the ones holding power, but rather in weakness serve and give, pouring ourselves out for the good of our cities. As visitors and exiles we are empowered to serve and to bless without looking to any rights that we think we may have. 

5. We hold on to a promise of God’s city

The exile life was never meant to last forever – not for the Israelites in Babylon and not for the church today. In Philippians, Paul explains that “our citizenship is in heaven.” In making this statement he is giving us one of the keys to understanding our life as exiles in the world. Exiles are people who are living somewhere other than their home, and they bring something of where they belong into the place that they find themselves. God’s people have the most incredible promise on which to orientate our lives: God has prepared a city for us, the new Jerusalem, with the curse lifted, with no toil or tears or troubles, where we can live as the perfectly holy sanctified bride, in adoration of our saviour Jesus Christ, with him and enjoying him for all eternity. Understanding this gives all the empowerment in the world for us to serve and bless our earthly hosts, to live out on earth the ways of heaven and to pray and live and preach with the desire that those around us in the cities that we lives will also join us in the heavenly city.

In light of this, Christians (and church planters in particular) are to be versatile, adaptable and fluid as we live out our identity in God in culture. We should not sit in judgment, rejecting the culture around us, but rather kneel in service as we live, love, bless and participate in them so that the God is displayed through us and the world is won. We are to be distinctive and holy, with our eyes on eternity in Christ. In speaking of this new community, Stuart Murray sums it up beautifully, saying that we are to be, “at home in every culture, but fully at home in none.” This is the key to living out our identity in God in the world.