Summary: In God’s covenant, he took on our identity and we take on his.
In today’s western culture, the average person has multiple changes of clothes in the closet, but in less affluent times in history that was not the case; nor is it the case in many parts of the world today. In those times, the average person typically had one outer garment, which usually was unique in some way. As a result, the coat, robe or outer garment represented the person, which allowed others to identify them at great distance before seeing their features.
We see examples of this in the Bible. For example, the famous story of Joseph and his special robe which made his brothers jealous because it was evidence Joseph was their father’s favorite son. (see Gen 37:3-4) Another biblical example is found in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.” (Lk 15:20). How could his father recognize him from a great distance? Because he could see the features of his outer garment long before he could see his face.
In such a culture, a person’s clothes represented their identity, so when two people entered into covenant, they typically swapped their outer garments as a very significant, symbolic gesture. Exchanging outer garments in covenant symbolized giving all of oneself, or one’s identity. This meant each person shared the other’s identity and no longer lived only for themselves. We see this symbolism in the new covenant, as well, but there it is a reality not just a symbol.
God Took On Our Identity
In a very real and literal way, God took on our identity by becoming human. The Gospel of John opens with the following: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us.” (Jn 1:1, 14) The “Word” was Jesus, the Son of God, a member of the divine Trinity. Elsewhere we read he “made himself nothing,” meaning he laid aside his original nature and position to become fully human. (Php 2:7) In covenant terms, the Son of God put on our human identity, form and appearance. He was born into the world as a human, so he became one of us and looked like us.
Why would he do this? Specifically, Jesus came into our world as a perfect, sinless human to make covenant with God as a human and to take our sins upon himself and die for us so we might be reconciled to God in that covenant relationship. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) No sinful human could ever uphold the terms of a covenant with God, so a sinless human was needed to mediate or ratify the covenant in behalf of sinful humanity.
Jesus entered this world as a sinless human, then on the cross he became sin by taking on even the sinful aspect of our nature. In exchange, we take on part of God’s nature — righteousness — and the sharing or exchanging of identities is complete. The covenant was legally initiated between God the Father and Jesus the man, but we can enter that covenant by accepting Jesus’ sacrifice in faith. Jesus, the Son of God, paid an extremely high price to exchange identities with us.
Why was it necessary for Jesus to become human? “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil.” (Heb 2:14) A human brought sin into the world, and only a human could die for the sins of humanity. Jesus lived a totally human but totally sinless life, which meant he did not have to die for his own sin and therefore could qualify to die for ours. (Heb 4:15; 7:26-27)
We Take On God’s Identity
So, God clearly took on our identity, but how do we take on his? God the Father worked out all the details before he sent his Son. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Rom 8:29) Once we accept Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin, making him our Savior and Lord, God begins the process of conforming us to Jesus’ image or form. That is, we take on Jesus’ identity so he might be the firstborn among many brothers. The word translated “firstborn” is very similar in spelling and meaning to our word “prototype.” A prototype is an original which serves as a model for others, so Jesus is the standard, the pattern to which the rest of us are compared.
We’re to become like the Lord Jesus, or “clothe” ourselves with him. (Rom 13:14) This means we’re to get into or dress ourselves with Jesus’ identity and nature, as if we were putting on a garment. The covenant act of exchanging garments as an expression of sharing identities was an excellent analogy for our literally exchanging identities with God.
In a very real and literal way, we take on God’s identity by becoming increasingly like his Son. “And we … are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory ….” (2 Cor 3:18) This transformation changes our essential nature and transfigures us into Jesus’ likeness, the same point we saw in Romans 8:29, but here it describes a gradual and progressive process. We’re transformed with every-increasing glory, becoming more and more like him. So God predestined us to be conformed to Jesus’ nature and identity, and he does the work gradually and progressively. Our part in the process is to consciously and intentionally clothe ourselves by rejecting or taking off our old nature and putting on his. As we choose to engage in this process, God honors our choice by making the transformation happen. If we could do this by ourselves, we wouldn’t need a Savior, but we don’t have what it takes. The reality is that God does it all when we embrace his process in faith.
Becoming like Jesus is a vital part of our covenant with God; it’s not an option. As we become increasingly like him, we’re able to more fully participate in the new covenant.