I have been fortunate to have had a number of jobs and roles. Second only to my role as a pastor, has been the times I have been able to teach the Bible at a number of colleges. The lectures go well, the conversations are enjoyable but there is one part of the class that always stresses out my students. And that is exams. I understand that, I’m quite happy to be on the instructor side of the exams. As I hand out the exams to the class, I tell the students that there is plenty of room to get questions wrong. But there is one question that they need to get correct and that is the place on the exam for their name. If they get that one wrong, they get zero. Identity is key.
It is the same thing when it comes to our Christian faith. There is plenty of room to get certain things wrong about our faith. We might be wrong about the process by which God created the world. We might be wrong about the nature of Noah’s flood. We might be wrong about how some Old Testament battle took place. But there is one question that we cannot afford to get wrong. This time it is not our identity but that of Jesus. We could get every other theological or historical question right, but if we get who Jesus is wrong, we have failed the exam.
That might seem like an awful lot of pressure. Everything is depending on this one truth and yet we know that there is plenty of disagreement as to the answer to the question. I believe the passage that we are looking at should encourage us. The one who gets the correct answer in our story is Peter, the one who normally gets things wrong. This should tell us that the truth about who Jesus is definitely within our grasp.
Who Do People Say That He Is?
In our passage, we find Jesus beginning with an important question, but not the most important question. Jesus asks the disciples who people were saying that Jesus was. We need to remember it was much more than just the twelve disciples that were spending time with Jesus. We should be thinking of the twelve, and then a larger group of disciples, and then a larger group of observers, either trying to figure out who Jesus was or just entertained by the show. It is this larger group that Jesus asks about.
The disciples report on three identities that were floating around. One was John the Baptist. We find earlier in this chapter that Herod feared that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead. Since Herod had John killed, he was understandably concerned. Others thought that Jesus was Elijah. Why Elijah? Well the Old Testament teaches that Elijah never died but was rather taken to heaven before death. Malachi, in the last book of our Old Testament, prophesied that Elijah would return. Many Jews then and even now look to the return of Elijah. Finally, some thought Jesus might be one of the prophets of old. The reason for this is that many Jews believed that there would be no more prophets after the Old Testament. Since Jesus sure seemed to act like a prophet, he could not be a new prophet but he could be an old prophet risen from the dead. None of these possibilities were accurate.
While we do not need to know every ancient opinion about Jesus, we should be aware of what people today are saying about Jesus. We should not just assume that our neighbours believe the same things we do about Jesus or that they have no ideas about Jesus.
We have Muslims who believe that Jesus was a prophet but that he was not the Son of God and that he never died on a cross. We have Jehovah’s Witnesses who believe that Jesus is powerful but that he is not God. Rather he is the first being that Jehovah created and he is to be identified with the archangel Michael. There are spiritual people who say that Jesus was just a great religious and moral teacher. There are atheists who say that Jesus was deluded. There are even people who say that Jesus never existed.
What do the people in your life say about Jesus? Why is this important? We want to be a church that is relevant and engaged with our community. We don’t adopt unbiblical beliefs but we should know what other people believe in order to be able to communicate with them effectively.
To do this we may have to leave our comfort zones and actually talk to people about Jesus. This is not about forcing our views about Jesus on others but simply asking people what they believe. The wonderful thing is that if we ask and listen with respect, they will be more willing to hear what we have to say.
Who Do You Say That He Is?
I do believe it is important to understand what other people are saying about Jesus. But it is even more important that we wrestle with our own understanding of Jesus.
In our passage, the disciples would have been much more comfortable about discussing other people’s views about Jesus. But Jesus made the question personal by asking who they thought he was.
Try to use your imagination to fill in the gaps between Jesus’ question and Peter’s answer. Did all of the disciples start staring at their sandals, hoping that if they didn’t make eye contact, they wouldn’t have to answer? Was there a long awkward silence before Peter meekly offered his answer? Or did Peter immediately blurt out his reply, excited that he finally knew the answer to one of Jesus’ questions?
What we do know is that Peter did answer Jesus and said, “The Christ of God.” We might not be impressed with that answer. Of course he was the Christ, his name was Jesus Christ, wasn’t it? Despite what some people may think, Christ is not his last name. Nor was it obvious that Jesus was the Christ.
We sometimes think that there was one Jewish understanding of what the messiah or Christ would be like and Jesus so perfectly fulfilled that job description that no one had an excuse. The truth is that there were many Jewish theories about what the messiah would be like, some even expecting two messiahs. And even within the multiple theories, people were not expecting a messiah like Jesus.
Until this point, the only ones who recognized Jesus as the Christ were the unclean spirits that Jesus was casting out and he ordered them to be silent. Peter is the first human being to recognize Jesus as the Christ.
Who do we say that Jesus is? We may acknowledge him as the Christ, but what does that even mean?
As a young person, I did not have a very accurate understanding of who Jesus was. I saw him as sort of a demigod, that is half human and half God, sort of like Heracles. He was powerful but not God the Father powerful. He could probably take Satan out in a fight but they would be fairly equally matched. This is not a very orthodox understanding of who Jesus is and I have learned much since those days.
Here are some things that the Bible says about who Jesus is.
- Jesus is God incarnate. He is not half God, nor is he a lesser god who the main God created. Jesus is co-eternal with the Father and the Son and participated in creation.
- Jesus was really incarnated as a human. Jesus did not just pretend to be human, he had a real human body. He grew and learned, just like all of us.
- Jesus was both a teacher and a miracle worker. While people today may be skeptical of miracles, those who witnessed Jesus’ ministry did not doubt his miracles.
- Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. His death was not just an unfortunate event imposed on an innocent man. The cross was always a part of the plan. It is through the cross that we find forgiveness of sins.
- Jesus rose from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus was not a spiritual experience or even a powerful memory. Rather the tomb was actually empty and Jesus was able to interact with his disciples.
- Jesus promised to return. Despite all of the predictions about the end of the world and our suspicions about such claims, Jesus will return. And when he does, we will join him in his resurrection.
This is the basic teaching about who Jesus is. How does that fit with your understanding of Jesus? Please do not take my word for it. The goal for the Christian should be to agree with my opinions, but to know the truth. I encourage you to study the Bible and discover what it says about Jesus.
Why do we date our years from the birth of Jesus (even if the dating was not done perfectly)? The reason is that people have long known that the appearance of Jesus was not just about another religious leader trying to start a movement. All of history hinges on the coming of Jesus into the world. Who do people say that Jesus is? There are many theories and we should be aware of them. But even more important is reflecting on who we believe Jesus to be. It should not be about who we want Jesus to be. It must be what the Bible says Jesus was. You may be at different points in your journey of understanding Jesus. That is okay, as we should all be learning more about Jesus. The point is to continue on the journey and always be committed to finding the truth.