Identity with Christ in Matthew

In our sermon series through the Sermon on the Mount and our Closer Look videos through Matthew, we’ve highlighted quite a lot about the person and identity of Christ. Who Jesus is, of course, matters quite a lot for our understanding of the gospel. Fundamental to our discipleship is the recognition that the gospel isn’t a call to adhere to a set of disembodied moral regulations and codes, it’s the call to follow a person. Separating discipleship from the call to follow Jesus lands us with nothing more than religious moralism and cold rule-keeping. That isn’t the way of obedience to Christ; rather, we’re meant to find our lives embedded in the Kingdom, seeking the redemptive reign of Christ in every square inch of our lives as we follow in the steps of the One who perfectly modeled the way of the Kingdom and obedience to the Father.

This isn’t an idea buried in the sand. In fact, if we can shift our frame of mind to see it, there is a very clear pattern of identity association with Jesus in the Scriptures. Particularly, as we study Matthew’s Gospel account, one of the interesting themes we see is the idea of our identity with Christ. This association with Jesus as his followers has massive implications for our lives and ministry as it creates an ethic that informs our way of being in the world. There are several aspects of this concept to consider, but I’ll highlight a few significant ones:

Commonality in Identity

You’ve probably heard the terminology of “guilty by association” or the less common “honor by association” at some point. If you’re guilty by association, you have somehow, by way of tacit endorsement or participation, contributed to some kind of criminal activity. On the contrary, honor by association is a concept we see very often in advertisement. You should buy these knives because this Michelin-starred chef uses them! Buy these shoes because of this celebrity endorsement. Sound familiar? We understand that the association of identity with some person, action or thing is a weighty matter that bears a lot of significance.

In Matthew, we see a particular pattern that followers of Christ will share in commonality of identity with Him. Our lives modeled after and living in obedience to King Jesus should frame the whole of our understanding of what it means to be His disciples. The primary example comes from Matthew 16:24-26 as Jesus commands His followers to take up their crosses and follow Him. Just as Christ went to the cross in obedience to the Father, so we also in identity with Him put ourselves to death to find life in Him. Our way of discipleship is not one of self-actualization but of self-denial as we become less of ourselves and more like Christ. Another significant example is how our commonality with Christ and his way of life leads to suffering and persecution (Matthew 5:12, 24:9). If Christ was hated, we will be hated (Matthew 10:22). Jesus reminds his disciples of the cost of following Him saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). As we share in the life of Christ, it will probably not look glamorous; in fact, the way of common identity with Christ is the way of suffering and persecution. There is such a strong thread of common identity in Matthew that we have to consider that the life of those who are in Christ will look like the life of Christ. Our call to follow is a call to the same self-denial, radical obedience, Kingdom-obsession, risk-taking, go-anywhere kind of life and ministry modeled first in Jesus.

Imitation of Christ

This idea of a commonality of identity leads to an important concept that I’ll discuss briefly. The imitation of Christ is the idea that the goal and directive for the Christian of life is to model our lives after Christ. In other words, we are to become imitators of Christ. Augustine famously said that our call to follow and imitate Christ is the great redemptive reversal of our imitation of Adam, that is, to live a life in sin. As we follow Christ, we should bear in mind that our obedience to Him and what he says is a sufficient ethic for the Christian life. It might be more complex, but it certainly isn’t more complicated than that.

Participation in Mission with Christ

There are many other things we could discuss regarding what it means for us to share in the identity of Christ, modeling our lives after him, but another idea is worth noting. As we study Matthew, we will run headlong into the idea that our identity with Christ means a participation in His mission. Not only will life in Christ include our personal transformation to looking more like Him, but it will also entail a proclamation of the gospel message to those who do not know Him. This aspect of our identity with Christ, again, is not hidden in Matthew. Three examples:

  • In Matthew 4:14-15, we see a quotation from Isaiah 9: ““The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Christ was to be the light to the world. Peculiarly, in Matthew 5:13-16, we see Jesus turn this around by telling his disciples “YOU are the light of the world“. This interplay is important because Jesus is showing us that to be His followers and to share in identity with Him means participation in God’s work of redemption.
  • Matthew 4:18-25 gives us the very first blueprint of what it means to follow Christ. Two aspects stand out: 1) the disciples left their nets and FOLLOWED Jesus, meaning they modeled repentance and allegiance to Christ, 2) they joined Him in the ministry of proclaiming the coming Kingdom and healing the sick, meaning they participated in His mission. This is a fundamental aspect of the identity of the Christ-follower.
  • Matthew 28:18-20 deemed The Great Commission calls the disciples of Christ “go and make disciples“. To be a disciple of Christ is to be a disciple-maker for Christ. This is an irreducible and unavoidable reality for those who belong to Him.

In conclusion, identity with Christ is an important theme throughout Matthew’s Gospel and a crucial aspect of our understanding of the gospel call. To be a follower of Christ means to share in His identity, living not for ourselves but in obedience to Him and His Kingdom, as we long to see the world transformed by His work of redemption. From cover to cover, our lives should be shaped by this call to follow the person of Christ, becoming like Him and participating with Him in every facet of our lives.

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