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“Who Do You Say That I Am”

Mark 8:27-30, Luke 9:18-21, Matthew 16:13-20
Bob DeGray
July 16, 2006

Key Sentence

The most important question to answer in life is "Who is Jesus?"


I. Who do men say that I am?
II. Who do you say that I am?
III. What difference does it make?


        C. S. Lewis is famous for his writing, from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Screwtape Letters to Mere Christianity. In that book he gives simple and clear arguments for the existence of God and the work of Christ. At one point he takes on the common belief that Jesus was just a really nice guy, a good Jewish teacher. In a famous passage he points out that “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg - or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us." Sadly, even today, Jesus is still mis-understood in that way and in many other ways, and not often understood to be who he really was. But that shouldn’t surprise us - when he walked the hills of Galilee people struggled to answer the question ‘Who is this man?’ And that’s still the most important question in our lives.

        For three weeks we’re going to look at three neon moments in the life of Jesus that are reported in sequence in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Today we’ll look at Peter’s confession of Christ, next week at Jesus’ prediction of his crucifixion and call to discipleship, and the following week at his transfiguration. These neon moments all help us to answer the question ‘Who is Jesus’? And your response to that question is the most important response of your life.

I. Who do men say that I am?

        We begin with Peter’s confession of Christ in all three of the gospel accounts, reading Mark’s report first, as it is the shortest. Mark 8:27-30 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, "Who do people say I am?" 28They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." 29"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ." 30Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

This is a neon moment in Mark. Not since the first verse has this Gospel recognized Jesus as Messiah, despite a remarkable sequence of events in which his power astonished his followers and caused his enemies to propose demonic explanations. His disciples raised the question of Jesus identity over and over, but found no categories by which to understand him. For example, in chapter 4, when Jesus calmed the storm, ‘They were terrified and asked each other, "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!"’ Until now they’ve had no answer, but once Jesus is recognized, he will begin to speak openly of the cross and move toward the culmination in Jerusalem. As one commentator says “Mark could not have more sharply underlined the historical and theological significance of this conversation.”

        Jesus leads his disciples some 25 miles north from Bethsaida to the region of Caesarea Philippi, at the source of the Jordan River near Mt. Hermon. Caesarea Philippi was a new city, built by King Herod and his son Herod Philip as a tribute to Caesar. In this intensely Gentile region there would have been a measure of privacy for Jesus and his followers. Verse 27: ‘On the way he asked them, "Who do people say I am?"’ This is the question of man’s understanding of Jesus, which is critical in every culture. The attitudes of any individual toward Jesus is largely based on the attitudes of people around them. The crowds who followed Jesus got their opinions from each other and from popular theories and expectations. In the same way, our culture gets its opinions of Jesus from the mass media and popular theories and images. In both cases these understandings fall short of reality.

        Verse 28: ‘They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets."’ Now how could Jesus be John the Baptist? The Gospels tell us John was arrested by King Herod, imprisoned, and after Herodias intrigued against him, beheaded. So when Herod heard of the ministry of Jesus his guilty conscience caused him to say, Matthew 14:2, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Others didn’t share Herod’s guilt, but many shared this conviction about Jesus, even though Jesus and John had been contemporaries. But not everyone. Another common idea was ‘Elijah’. This prophet was one of only two people in Scripture who were taken into heaven while alive, taken away in a chariot of fire. This resulted in wild speculations, yet Scripture itself supports the idea that before the Messiah came, Elijah would return to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” And the New Testament connects the return of Elijah to the ministry of John the Baptist, so that Jesus said of John “And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.”

        But if you didn’t believe John was Elijah, it would be easy to think of Jesus fulfilling that role, and even easier to simply identify him generically as ‘one of the prophets’, such as Jeremiah. But all these explanations were inadequate. These were human explanations that limited Jesus to categories they already knew. And Jesus has already taught that the category ‘prophet’ is not even big enough to hold the ministry of John. Jesus is so much more that to limit him to that category is to misunderstand him almost entirely.
        Now how does all this relate to us? Human misunderstanding of Jesus has continued in every generation and is rampant today. If you ask 100 people ‘who is Jesus?’ you could get 100 answers. What would they be? If you listen to PBS or other contemporary accounts you’d get the idea that we can’t answer the question. The PBS series ‘From Jesus to Christ’ quotes principally liberal scholars who say things like: “In my own view, the earliest layer of evidence is still an interpretation, so what we can know is only the range of interpretations in the Jesus traditions. Jesus is seen by some as a sage and wise man, by others a super hero and miracle worker. Still others see a Jesus who is the sacrificed, risen and enthroned Savior. One finds the plurality of Jesuses even at the earliest stage of interpretation.” This whole ‘many Jesuses’ approach fits well in a post-modern culture that has rejected absolutes and truth claims; we end up with an unknown Jesus whose contradictory words and acts were created by his remote followers. Others would add that those followers had their own axes to grind. If you heard Mike Svigal’s teaching on the DaVinci Code, you know he cited several scholars who would disagree with The Code’s conspiracy theories, but would agree that a power elite suppressed the true history of Jesus to promote their own interests. So they claim we can only know the truth about Jesus by discerning the motives of those who put down the truth.

        Another common view is the theory C. S. Lewis addressed, that Jesus was just a great moral teacher. This idea comes from the 19th century, the so-called ‘quest for the historical Jesus’. The New Dictionary of Theology says that ‘many of the questers were skeptical about miracles, so they tried to explain the Gospel accounts on the assumption that the real Jesus was not a supernatural figure. The general picture produced was of an inoffensive ordinary man, an effective teacher of somewhat trite religious truths.’ That’s the view Lewis debunks. But it could be that Jesus was a prophet or spiritual leader, but only one of many. The Bahai faith, says Jesus was a ‘Messengers of God’, which would include Mohammed, Moses, Buddha and their own founder Baha’u’llah. He said ‘the Messengers of God are not to be set up as rivals in the world, each competing with the others for the homage of the human race. They are like teachers in the same school.” So Jesus was one of many manifestations of God; his words were not the last word, or at all unique.

II. Who do you say that I am?

        The point is that men still have their own opinions of Jesus, and these always fall short of the reality revealed in Scripture. We ought to take seriously that the answer to the most important question in life, ‘Who is Jesus?’ can’t be found in the opinions of men alone. The true answer is found in Scripture as applied to our hearts by God. We see this in the three Gospel accounts. Mark records it the most briefly: "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ." Luke adds a little bit more: "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "The Christ of God." And Matthew records the fullest answer: 15"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" 16Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
        The question is not about other people’s opinion of Jesus. The question is ‘Who do you say that I am?’ What is your understanding of Jesus? Is it right and true? Jesus isn’t asking for their opinion; he’s checking their understanding to see if they’ve discerned the truth. And of course it is Peter that answers. Over and over we see him as the spokesman, often impulsive in what he says. But this time he gets it right. Mark’s short version is entirely sufficient: ‘You are the Christ’.

        Peter had recognized Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. But what does that mean? Different Jewish groups focused on different Old Testament teachings, but it seems clear that ‘Messiah’, for most ordinary Jews in Jesus’ day, would have pointed to a coming king of the line of David, whom God would use to restore his people to national independence. At it’s root the word Messiah means anointed: an individual was initiated into the role of priest or king by being anointed with oil. The political rescuer the Jews expected grew out of God's promises to Israel of an anointed ruler, especially one of King David’s line. Some might also have thought of a suffering savior: one of the Jewish sects looked for two messiahs, one suffering and one victorious. But there is no direct Biblical link, up to now, between the Suffering Servant of Isaiah and the Messiah.

        But there are some great prophecies of the anointed one. Daniel 9:25 “Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven 'sevens,' and sixty-two 'sevens.' . . after the sixty-two 'sevens,' the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing.” A ‘seven’ is a week of years, and this prophecy pinpoints the coming of the Messiah and even implies his suffering. Another prophecy which Jesus took as a key ministry verse was Isaiah 61:1 “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD'S favor.” Jesus uses this prophecy to imply that he’s the anointed one, and that his is a mission of healing and teaching, rather than political victory.

        Finally, the fuller reports of Peter’s statement in Matthew and Luke give us insight into his Messiah. In Luke he says ‘You are the Christ of God’. There had been many false political Messiahs in Israel, attempting to rally the people and kick out the Romans. But Peter and the disciples had recognized in Jesus was ‘of God’, that he was someone far greater than they had ever experienced. Matthew expands the report even more to say ‘The Son of the Living God’. What Peter has seen in Jesus is more than just anointment by God - he has seen a relationship between Jesus and God that is intimate and living: He has seen God in Jesus and so his expectations of ‘the Christ’, though probably still vague have been raised - he’s looking for what God will do through His own Son.

        All this is entirely at odds with how the people of that day saw Jesus, and with most understandings of Jesus today. Those with an ‘unknown’ Jesus can’t say these things about him: they’d attribute them to the later mythology of the church. Those with a ‘nice’, un-supernatural Jesus won’t see these things in him because they are supernatural. Those with a messenger-from-God Jesus can’t tolerate the uniqueness of the Christ. But their opinion doesn’t have to be yours. Can you answer the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ by affirming that God sent his Son to be our Savior?

        That’s the angle John focuses on some years later. He says “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. . . . 14And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 1 John 5:5 “ Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” These are the implications of Peter’s confession: Jesus is Christ, the anointed Savior; Jesus is the Christ of God, sent to rescue men; Jesus is Christ the Son of the Living God, sent to be a sacrifice for our sins, that we may have eternal life. If the most important question is ‘Who is Jesus?’, the most important answer is “he is the Christ, the perfect sacrifice for my sin. He is the one I trust by faith to rescue me from my sins and to give me eternal life.’ If you haven’t come up with those answers yet, I encourage you to seriously study the Scriptures. Next week, for example, we’re going to hear Jesus the Christ predict his own death and resurrection, and the following week we are going to see his glory in the transfiguration. The Scriptures can lead you to faith in Christ, the one who loved you and died for you.

        You have to remember, though, that the Jews mostly expected, not a suffering servant, but a political Messiah. So Jesus is cautious about using the title Messiah, as we see at the end of the passage: Mark 8:30 “Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.” Matthew 16:20 “Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.” Why would Jesus give this kind of warning? First, because of the crowd, who were always wanting to make the Messiah king. In fact there were several times in the Gospels, when the crowds tried to make Jesus king, and he wouldn’t have it. But the disciples didn’t fully understand this either. In the verses we’ll look at next week Mark says “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” This is a clear prophecy of his suffering death and victorious resurrection. But as one commentator said “Jesus’ mission of suffering and death, with its aim the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of a broken relationship with God, could not fail to be at least a puzzle, more likely a total disappointment, to those whose idea of the Messiah was political.”

        But our answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” does and must include his death for our sins and his resurrection victory. Paul will write “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ [the Messiah, the anointed one] died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” This is the heart of the Gospel and the heart of the Messiah - and that’s why the recognition of Jesus as the Christ of God, the Son of the living God is so important. Jesus is unique; his death and resurrection are the most significant event in human history for in no other way could sins be forgiven. We all face the dilemma of sin - all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God - and we all have to find our answer in faith in Jesus.

III. What difference does it make?

        So that’s really the neonness of this moment. But Matthew adds a little dialogue to the end of this episode that is worth looking at, however briefly. Between Peter’s confession and Christ’s warning not to spread it about, Matthew adds, verses 17 to 19: Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. The first point of this additional dialog is perhaps the most important: that you don’t get answers to the question of Jesus from men, but from God. Unless God reveals your need of Jesus and the Holy Spirit works in your heart to trust him you will keep getting the wrong answer. Recognition of Jesus as the Christ and faith in him as the Savior is a gift of God, not given in response to man’s merit but in response to his need. Peter and the disciples were given this gift, of seeing Jesus for who he was.

        But Jesus goes on to say “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” This verse has been the focus of controversy for ages. The Roman Church uses it as justification for apostolic succession through the Popes, for papal infallibility, and for exclusive authority for the successors of Peter. But none of these doctrines is even implied here. They were all developed later. The doctrine of papal infallibility was only affirmed in 1870. Even if we admit that a reasonable way to understand this passage is that Peter is the rock, and that Christ was going to build his church on the foundation of the apostles, nothing about a Pope would be implied. The text would be saying what the New Testament affirms, that Christ established His Church on the apostles: their teaching, their writing, their organizing, all were the necessary ways that Christ began to build His Church. Another way of looking at it, and one I find helpful, is the recognition that the rock on which the Church will be built is the confession Peter just made, the revealed truth about Jesus. Matthew makes a play on words distinguishing between Christ’s use of Peter’s name - ‘you are Peter’ and the ‘rock’ on which the church is built. In Greek the person is masculine, while the word associated with the church is feminine. So it’s not unreasonable to think that the second use of the word refers to Peter’s confession. Only those who have answered this most critical of life’s questions as Peter did will be part of the church he is building.

        And the church he builds from these believers will be secure: the gates of hell will not prevail against it. We live in an age where the very concept of ‘church’ is under attack, when people see churches as weak and ineffective. Our culture belittles the church and even some believers question whether ‘church’ is the right way to do ministry. But this Scripture and the letters of the New Testament make it plain that the church is the vehicle God is using in this age to bring the Good News of Jesus to the world and to make disciples. She - the church - stands against the schemes of Satan and emerges victorious. So we can’t downplay the church

        In fact Jesus goes on to say: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." This gives Peter in particular, and by repetition in Matthew 18 the other disciples, and by extension the church, a daunting amount of Christ’s authority on earth. An early instance of Peter’s exercise of this authority was when he was chosen by God to precipitate the Church’s acceptance of Gentile converts. And it is clear in Greek that this is not arbitrary personal authority. The tense, future perfect, would literally read “Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” One commentator says “It’s not that heaven will ratify Peter’s independent decisions, but that Peter will pass on decisions already made in heaven.”

        So by this additional dialog Matthew reinforces the importance of Peters recognition of Jesus as ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’. Without this revelation from God there would be no foundation for the Church, no distinction between Christ and merely human ideas about him and no opportunity for people like you and me to grasp that in his death and resurrection is the salvation of our lives. Sandi Patti, back in the day, used to sing a song called “Upon This Rock” which focuses on the distinction between how men answer life’s most important question and how we must see Jesus. The song said “When others see with earthly eyes, just what they want to see, you will see the things that never die. You will know and recognize by simple child-like faith the priceless truth that others will deny. When others say I'm just a man who liked to dream His dreams; when others call a miracle a myth, you'll listen for eternity in moments as they pass, and see with Spirit eyes what others miss.” So the answer to life’s most important question is not man’s answer but the one given by God; not the human significance of Jesus, but the spiritual significance of Messiah, one who came to rescue sinners from sin and make them part of his kingdom through faith. The song says “Upon this rock I'll build My kingdom; and on this rock forever and ever it shall stand; and all the powers of Hell itself shall never more prevail against it.” The foundation for your life and mine and for the church is the answer of faith: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Have you given that answer?