So often when we read the Apostle Paul, he is writing to Gentile churches who would be very aware that there are Jewish roots associated with this new way in Christ. Often Paul is dealing with Jewish false teachers that come among the Gentile churches and strive to revert the church back to the Old Covenant. I can only imagine the pressure on first century churches from the Roman empire on one side requiring worship of Caesar and the Jews on the other requiring adherence to Old Covenant laws. In between these two pressures are people who have come to know that Christ is the risen Lord who has died for their sin and that they can stand right before God through faith in Jesus.
You can pick just about any of Paul’s letters and see these pressures within his words of admonition, rebuke and encouragement to stand strong in the faith. We particularly see it in the book of Galatians where Paul even uses an account of rebuking Peter for withdrawing from gentile believers out of fear of pressure from Jews. In Galatians 2:15-16, Paul makes it clear that both he and Peter may have been born as Jews and not gentile sinners, but they know that their natural birth and previous practice of the law means nothing to them in obtaining right standing with God (justification). They are now identified in the same way as the rest of the Antioch Church, as Christians.
It would seem that losing Jewish identity was a difficult thing for many Christians. I can understand how cultural pressures would be a huge obstacle when taking on an identity that seems to be so counter cultural. To Jews who could not see that the law always pointed toward our need for God’s grace, the law was everything to them. The fact that Christians were proclaiming that righteousness does not come through law keeping struck at the very heart of many Jews perceived identity. So, in Galatians 2:15 when Paul says to Peter, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners,” he is actually using this statement as an example for his next sentence where he basically states that neither of these identities mean anything when you consider that justification is through faith in Christ alone.
As I was reading through the book of Ephesians, I was struck by the fact that Paul makes a similar statement to Ephesian Gentiles. “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” (Ephesians 4:17). How can Paul tell Gentiles not be Gentiles? Previously Paul had told these Ephesians to no longer be like children tossed to and fro by every wind and wave of doctrine (vs. 14). He also told them to put off their old self which belongs to their former way of life. In other words, Paul was saying that they should forget their former birth and practices as Gentiles because justification through faith in Christ has given them a new life. With this comes a new identity. This is the same sort of thing that he was saying to Peter in Galatians. “Peter, forget your birth and practice as a Jew, you have been justified not by works of the law but by faith in Christ Jesus. You have been given a new life in your identity in Christ.”
One thing we should all understand when it comes to justification is that we never stand before God with a righteousness that comes from any other source than Christ. The only identity that has eternal status in the court room of the Judge of all the universe is Christ. The only real identity questions that ever matter are whether you have been justified through faith in Christ or whether you remain under the eternal condemnation of your sin before God.
Galatians 3:26-28: “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.” And…. we could add many more identities to that list.