on Earth is Jesus?
do you think of Christ?” (Matthew 22:42).
it or not, this is one of the most important questions any of us will
ever be asked to asked to answer. Our conclusions about the identity
of Jesus inevitably influence the role he has in our lives, the kind
of people we become and where we will spend eternity. The first
disciples were confronted by the same issue. It is clear from the
Biblical record that the decision was anything but easy; in fact only
divine revelation enabled them to perceive the correct answer. If we
wish to be relevant Christians in a rapidly changing world it is
important that we know who Jesus is. There are plenty of detractors
around to try and convince us otherwise.
following story is recorded in Matthew 16:13-16.
three years of non-stop ministry to communities virtually within
walking distance of his home town, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.
He had only been there on a handful of occasions and few people
outside his immediate sphere of influence would have recognised him
in a crowd. He knew he would be misunderstood (again) by people, who
just couldn’t, or didn’t want to, grasp his priorities
and message. He had enemies who were out to get him. Everything he
stood for challenged their vested interests. He knew that he would
be rejected by the religious establishment, betrayed by one of his
best friends for the price of a common slave, handed over to the
secular authorities and finally judged and consigned to judicial
execution by crucifixion.
then, was the moment of truth. Hundreds of object lessons, thousands
of miracles, since he first called the small band of disciples to
follow him, now he was proposing to leave them. Did they understand
who he was? Did they grasp the purpose of his ministry? Had they
appreciated his mission? If not, maybe they were following him for
the wrong reasons. Would they remain committed to fulfilling his
plan on earth when he returned to his Father in Heaven? The
paramount question, in light of the risk that they would abandon him
at the moment of betrayal, was whether or not they had worked out his
an intimate encounter he put that question to the whole group.
Surrounded by the litter of pagan gods in the region of Caesarea
Philippi, near the headwaters of the Jordan River and within sight of
where the Greek god Pan (the Greek god of nature) was worshipped, the
question was framed and put: “Whom do men say that I, the Son
of Man, am”?” The common people. The priests and the
lawyers. The charlatans. The decision makers. The politicians.
Whom do they say that I am? What have you heard?
the inception of Jesus’ ministry people were formulating
opinions about him. Some loved him and sought him out. Others came
because of what they thought he could do for them. Many were simply
suspicious, suspending judgement until they could get a better
picture in the light of developments. Others overtly hated him,
called him names and accused him of being in league with the devil.
Then there were those who feared him, this seemingly inscrutable man
who could bring the wrath of the Roman authorities or zealous
followers down on their heads. Love him or hate him, no one could
remain indifferent. Everyone had a view. But who was right? Who
and what was Jesus of Nazareth?
John the Baptist
disciples seemed happy to pass on the positive images they had heard.
“Some say that you are John the Baptist”. John had
challenged the nation with his sermons on the banks of the Jordan
River. He had baptised multitudes of people who were convicted in
their hearts by his preaching and wanted to wash away their sins in a
rite that went back to Old Testament days. He had challenged the
religious establishment, openly calling them a “brood of
snakes”. He must have been brave – no one ever did that
with impunity. He went so far as to tell Roman soldiers how to live,
how to relate to their commanding officers. John was an enigma. He
was popular, but he was also potentially dangerous. Some people
thought he was the Messiah, who was to come and bring deliverance to
Israel. However, he had denied this emphatically. John was also a
friend of the new teacher named Jesus (they were cousins on their
mothers’ sides), another dangerous man in the eyes of the
priests in Jerusalem. Finally, John went too far. He had the
audacity to take on powerful King Herod, accusing him (among other
things) of committing adultery. For these affronts, Herod had him
locked up in a dungeon and beheaded. There was something about Jesus
that reminded the common people of John. In fact, some thought John
had risen from the dead (Matthew 14:2). People who saw them together
would not make this mistake, but something in the hearts of those who
felt aggrieved at the murder of John (he had disciples of his own)
made them prepared to transfer their allegiance to Jesus. Perhaps he
was really John, raised from the dead .
an Old Testament prophet
say that you are Elijah”. Elijah was perhaps the greatest
prophet in the Old Testament and his influence on the nation was
profound. The Bible says that he did not die. At the end of a
powerful ministry, he was caught up to heaven in a fiery chariot (2
Kings 2:11-12). Many of his followers thought he would come back.
Indeed, the prophet Malachi had foretold that he would do so (Malachi
4:5-6). There was something about the ministry and authority of
Jesus that reminded the common people of the prophets of former
times, who thundered across the land and declared God’s
messages, as though they knew him personally and were speaking for
him. Jesus was audacious. When he opened his mouth it was if though
God himself were speaking. He was afraid of no one. He openly
challenged the religious status quo. He spoke about judgement, fire,
brimstone, death. Maybe Jesus was really Elijah, the one who had
challenged the might of the Sidonian Queen Jezebel and called down
fire from heaven to immolate sacrifices drenched with water and gone
on to kill the prophets of Baal and the prophets of the grove in a
fundamentalist religious frenzy. But Jesus had already said that he
was not Elijah (ironically, he pointed to John the Baptist as the
personal fulfilment of this prophecy. People who waited for Elijah
did not recognise him when he came (Matthew 17:10-13).
Jesus one of the other prophets then? Was he Jeremiah, the “weeping
prophet” who saw judgement coming on the nation because of sin
and lamented the refusal of the people to save themselves by
repenting and turning back to God. Some people thought so. Was he
“the” prophet about whom Moses had spoken (Deuteronomy
18:18)? Was he from God, sent with a special message to deliver them
from the hands of their enemies and those who hated them? Had he
come to lead them into a new era of prosperity and liberty? Of
course, all this was pure speculation. No one really knew. Only a
few would end up knowing for sure who Jesus was, during his life on
earth. Only a few would understand the purpose of his ministry.
about the disciples. What was their opinion? Could they come up
with anything better? They must have debated this matter
continuously. Otherwise, why follow Jesus at all? One by one, they
looked around the circle, waiting for someone to speak. “Who
am I, guys?”
Son of God
Peter, one of the older men in the group, spoke up, “You are
the Christ, the anointed one, the Son of the Living God”. Your
birth has been expected for generations. Everyone has waited for
this day. It has finally come. Peter stated what many of them were
privately thinking. I wonder why they had not asked it before they
left all and followed him. Jesus is more than a good man with a
vision to carry out a particular task for God. “You are the
Son of God”. It must have sounded preposterous. Either this
statement was blasphemy, which Jesus should have refuted immediately
(otherwise he would have totally compromised his integrity) or it is
true. There is no compromise, no misunderstanding such a
of God? How can God have a son? Islamic scholars bridle at the
idea. The Koran specifically teaches that God does not have
children. The notion of incarnation (God coming in human flesh) is
“too much”. Why would Almighty God humble himself by
visiting our planet, made like one of us? It just doesn’t make
sense. But just suppose, if God really did have a Son, and if that
Son took on himself human flesh and bones, the stuff of manhood, and
came into the arena of creation itself, is it possible to know him?
"Show us the Father and it is enough for us”, declared an
exited Thomas in the days to come. Jesus’ amazing statement
said it all, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father. I
and the Father are one” (John 14:9-11). It was love that drove
him to do it. Love for a race condemned by sin and in need of
redemption (John 3:16).
did Peter reach his conclusion about who Jesus was? Everything in
his human intellect and theological understanding recoiled at the
idea. Jesus approved of what he said and added, “You are
blessed, Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood have not revealed
this to you. The One who has shown you this truth is none other than
God the Father Himself”.
stands alone in human history. I once met a man who claimed he was
God. I thought he was deranged and his behaviour appeared to confirm
this. But never before Jesus – or since - did God come down
and live among us as a person. If we fail to grasp this aspect of
who Jesus was we have missed the point. He did not come to be a good
man, a knowledgeable rabbi, a paragon of godliness, but as “God
with us” (Matthew 1:23). This makes Christianity different
from every other faith system.
stands with us. All the other heroes are dead. There is a sense in
which even genuine heroes have use-by dates. The book of Hebrews
challenges us to recognise some of their lives as examples of godly
living, but leaves us flat by reminding us they were only human.
Abraham is called the Father of Faith. He is an example to the
church of the meaning of relationship and obedience to God. But
Abraham lived thousands of years ago and his world was totally
different from ours. His son Isaac, another one of the Hebrew
Patriarchs, is dead. His son Jacob, in turn, returned to the dust.
And so on. The disciples who gathered around Jesus on that day in
Caesarea Philippi grew up with the deeds and examples of Abraham,
Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, the prophets and the military might of
the Macabees ringing in their ears. They were the super-heroes. But
now they are gone. Only Jesus remains. He is the same yesterday,
today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He is the “God of the
Living”. He is immutable; nothing about Him changes. What he
said to the disciples long ago he continues to say to us.
have stood at the grave of King David in Jerusalem. I have also
stood inside an empty tomb that speaks of the greatest of them all,
who rose from the dead. Not a prophet, teacher or martyr for a
cause, but God incarnate. He is the Son of the Living God and we owe
him our total allegiance. The thing that makes Christianity stand
out from all other faiths in the modern world is that He is alive and
we live in Him.