READ : Mark 8:27-29
And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”
Mark 8:27-29 rsv
WHO IS JESUS?
Who is Jesus Christ? That’s a strange question to ask, isn’t it? Do we raise it about any other historical figure? Has anyone wrestled lately, for example, with the question, “Who is Julius Caesar?” Or have you ever been asked, “Who is Plato?” or “Who is Michelangelo?” or “Who is Napoleon?” Yet year after year significant books are published that probe the question, “Who is Jesus?” Why is that, do you suppose, after all these years still a live issue? Why is it that the question of Jesus’ identity still sparks interest and stirs up controversy? We seem to talk about this first-century person at times as though He were a contemporary. And perhaps we sense that a great deal hangs upon the answer we give to the question, “Who is Jesus?” Of this we can be sure, the answer we give will determine the attitude we take toward Him.
Will He be for us only a memory from the distant past? A respected religious leader, perhaps? Or will He be the Lord of our lives? Perhaps that last possibility is what makes a decision about Jesus difficult. If you answer in a certain way, it may cost you your life. At the very least, it will cost you the right to run it in your own way.
The question began to be raised as we’ve seen right at the start of Jesus’ ministry. The Gospel according to Mark sketches for us how that happened. People were impressed from the outset at the power of Jesus’ words. They shook their heads and whispered to each other, “What is this, a new teaching? With authority he commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him” (Luke 4:36), as though to say, “What’s going on here?” Sometimes they were incensed at the claims He made for Himself. On one occasion when He pronounced the word of forgiveness to a crippled man, the authorities complained angrily, “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy. Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21).
Even His disciples were astounded when they saw Him quiet a raging storm. They began to ask each other, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). The people from His own hometown couldn’t solve the mystery either. They asked, “Where did this man get all this? Where is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands!” (Mark 6:2). There it was: the things He did, the words He spoke, the majesty of His bearing – all of that puzzled people, awed them, raising troubling questions in their minds. Who could He be?
Then came a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. We read about it in the Gospel according to Mark, chapter 8, at verse 27: “Jesus withdrew from the crowds and went with his disciples to the region of Caesarea Philippi.” There, amid its rounded hills and clear springs, He raised the question Himself, `Who do men say that I am?’” That is, “What’s the popular impression of Me?” He wanted to know: “when people get together in the marketplace, when they witness a healing, when they hear what is taught and later talk it over among themselves, what do they say?”
“Some,” they answered, “say that you are John the Baptist restored to life; others say that you are Elijah come back again; and still others class you as one of the prophets.” Those were illustrious names. John, for example, had been a popular hero, a man of immense influence. Some were saying that his fearless mission was now being perpetuated in Jesus. To call Jesus “Elijah” was an even higher tribute. That man of faith and fire was remembered by the masses as greatest of the prophets. Never before or since had God’s power been so evident in a human life as in that of Elijah the Tishbite. And everyone else, it seemed, even if they didn’t see Him as John or Elijah, at least acknowledged that Jesus was in the prophetic tradition. They saw that He was a man with a divine commission, sent to proclaim the Word and will of God to His people.
WHAT DO YOU SAY?
The disciples probably expected Jesus to be pleased at their report. These were high commendations. For what other man in Israel could such large claims have been made? But Jesus seemed unimpressed. He wasn’t content somehow to be thought of as another John, a contemporary prophet, or even a new Elijah. Those men, great as they were, had all been forerunners, announcers of great things yet to be.
Jesus saw His coming not as promise only but as fulfillment, not as merely announcing something wonderful, but as bringing it. And so He made the question personal for His followers, “But who do you say that I am?”
This was different. Before, it had been like the relaxed atmosphere of a classroom. They were telling Him about the talk that was going around, the popular gossip of the day. They were dealing with the academic armchair question, “What are the various views expressed about Jesus?” Now the query was far more direct. Now they had to expose their own convictions. They were hardly ready for that. They hadn’t been told what the “right answer” was, so that they could repeat it with confidence. Jesus was probing, “What do you think of Me? What am I to you?”
And that’s the way it comes to us whenever it’s a genuinely religious question. You can’t answer with a learned discourse, reciting all the possible views. Nor can you hide yourself in a neutral crowd. It isn’t what your parents say or your pastor or the people in your church. It’s a question for you and you must respond to the one who raises it. “Yes, that’s all very well that you’re familiar with the options,” Jesus seems to say, “But when you add it all up, where do you come out? Speak for yourself.” In the original language here, the pronoun you receives special emphasis. It’s as though Jesus had said, “You, who do you say that I am?”
As often happened, the one who spoke for the group of disciples was Simon Peter. His answer was brief but electric with excitement, “You are the Christ.” A hush must have fallen then over the group. This went far beyond what the crowds were saying. It set Jesus apart from the prophets, even the grandest of them. It marked Him as the One for whom every prophet, Israel herself and all the world had long been waiting. Prophets and priests, heroes and kings had been God’s anointed ones before but always as a kind of foreshadowing. In their day the final word had not yet been spoken. The ultimate sacrifice had yet to be offered. The long-awaited king was still unborn. There loomed in Israel’s hope a mighty figure in whom all these partial fulfillments were to be gathered up and consummated. Peter was saying, “Jesus, You are the anointed One. You have come in God’s name to save and to rule. You are the Lord.”
That was the answer Jesus wanted to hear. He didn’t want it told abroad at that time. He urged His disciples to tell no one. He had no desire to encourage the various mistaken notions abroad about what it meant to be the Messiah. But He had needed to know where these disciples of His stood. Were they still as confused and uncertain as the multitudes, still classing Him with giants of the past, or had they glimpsed something of His divine glory? Now they had declared themselves. Now they were ready for the further things He had to say to them, hard things, grimly forbidding.
“He began to teach them,” writes Mark, that “the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” There was much in all of this that they couldn’t comprehend. Peter, the man who had made that magnificent confession, now completely missed the point. He began to chide his Master for these words about suffering. It seemed impossible to Peter that such gloomy days could be ahead. But in spite of his dullness and presumption, he and all the others in that apostolic band had grasped the heart of the mystery. They knew who Jesus was.
THE DIFFERENCE IT MAKES
Your answer to the question will be a turning point too. In a sense, the issue is being raised for you in the same way it was for them. When we Christians proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, we aren’t simply talking about someone. Jesus is not merely the central subject of what we say. He is the real speaker as well. That’s what the Resurrection means. Jesus is alive. He isn’t confined to the history books or to some prominent shelf in a cathedral somewhere. He confronts people today. It is He who keeps alive His church, in spite of all her weaknesses, failings, and even treacheries. It’s He who summons men and women to be His witnesses, who sends them to herald His name. And in their very human words, He addresses all of us now. He asks of each who hears His word that inescapable question, “You there, who do you say that I am?”
Let’s suppose for a moment that you say what the crowds said in His day. “He’s a prophet …. He’s a great teacher” or “He’s a shining example of faith.” That sounds fine, but what difference will that make in your life? How much have others who could be described in that way affected you? If you class Jesus with other men of religious genius, you can select what you like of His teaching. You can put it together with what other sages have said and form your own religious philosophy. But you will have drained away by that any unique significance for Jesus’ life. It won’t make a great deal of difference to you.
And what about His death? That may impress you, even move you. You may think about it as the noblest example of martyrdom the world has witnessed, but it will leave you on that view with no great sense of personal indebtedness to Him. Limited ideas of who Jesus is tend to cloud the meaning of His ministry and obscure the preciousness of His death.
The issue, dear friends, is this: Does Jesus Christ belong in a list? Is He only one – perhaps the best – among many? Is He, notwithstanding the claim of the Christian church, after all, just another good man? Or is His appearance in the world unique? Does His coming represent not merely a word from God, a mission from God, but God Himself coming in person? Is what He did not merely interesting but decisive for the whole human race? Is the death He died not simply a sad occurrence but God’s action to save His people from their sins? And does He live on today not simply as a hallowed memory but as master of everything, ruler of history, Lord of glory? That’s what’s at stake.
No one can compel belief on your part. It would be foolish and offensive for anyone to make such an attempt. Even if it succeeded, the results would not be real faith. All we can do is raise the question, point to the evidence, bear our witness, and highlight the importance of the issue. The rest is up to you.
But let me tell you what it means to me that Jesus is the Christ. It means that my faith can have a sure and final resting place in Him. I know that what Jesus says, God says. What Jesus does, God does. How Jesus feels about human beings shows me unfailingly the heart of God.
Since He is truly a man, Jesus can die a death like mine. But since He is the illimitable God, He can also die for me, bearing away my sin and guilt. And His dying can convince me, as nothing else could, that I am wonderfully loved by the Lord of the universe.
Because Jesus is the Christ, I owe Him the worship, honor, gratitude and obedience that every human being owes to the Creator. And He, as the ever-living, risen Lord, is with me through all my days. He gives me a mission to fulfill in a cause that cannot finally fail. And He is coming one day, Judge of the living and the dead, to welcome all His people home.
Now, friends, if Jesus is not the Christ, then all of what I’ve just said is admittedly just a wistful dream. But if He is – if He is – then there is nothing so wonderful in all the world as to know that and say it for yourself, “You are the Christ! Jesus is Lord!”
PRAYER: Father, we pray that everyone sharing this message today may have open eyes and responsive hearts to say with Simon Peter to Jesus, “You are the Christ.” Amen.