Read: Matthew 16:13-16
Who do you say I am? It’s the most important question you will ever answer: who is Jesus Christ? If you need a hint about the answer, stay tuned.
In Matthew chapter 16 we find Jesus traveling with his disciples to a place called Caesarea Philippi. Jesus has taken his followers outside Jewish territory to an area north of the Sea of Galilee where they can have an uninterrupted conversation on a very important topic. He is finally ready to talk to them about his true identity, to reveal to them the real purpose of his life and mission.
Now it has taken Jesus a long time to reach this point. By chapter 16 we have gone more than halfway through the Gospel. Jesus has already spent two years living with his disciples, allowing them to watch his actions and listen to his words. Isn’t it interesting how patient he is? He didn’t burst on the scene shouting, “Hey, everybody, look at me! I’m the Son of God!” Rather, Jesus introduced himself slowly, giving people time and space to observe him before addressing the issue of who and what he actually is. But that time has now come, as Matthew relates.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:13-16)
“Who Do You Say I Am?”
Even now Jesus doesn’t start right out with a big declaration: “OK, now I’m going to reveal my great secret to you.” Instead he proceeds inductively, beginning with a question. “What are people saying about me?” And his disciples answer. “Well, some are saying that you’re John the Baptist, risen from the dead; others think you’re Elijah or Jeremiah or another of the prophets.”
“But what do you think?” Jesus asks them. I wonder: Is there any more important question in all the world than this: Who do you say Jesus is? As usual, Peter answers for the group. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” That statement is known as the Great Confession—confession as in “confession of faith.” It is the bedrock belief on which Christianity is built.
“You are the Christ”
But what does it mean? Let’s take Peter’s Great Confession one part at a time. “You are the Christ.” Christ, of course, is not Jesus’ last name. It is a title. Christos in Greek and Messiah in Hebrew both mean the “Anointed One.” This most important of all Jewish titles referred to the coming Deliverer whom all devout Jews believed would be sent by God into the world at the end of time to restore the kingdom to Israel and set all to rights. The Messiah would be the Champion, the Savior, the Promised One. Bible scholar Dale Bruner says you could paraphrase the title Messiah as “The Answer.” Jesus is ultimately the answer. Whatever question you have, whatever problem you are faced with, Jesus the Messiah is your answer.
But there’s also a more specific meaning to the title. In the Old Testament three kinds of people were called by God and then anointed as a sign of ordination or inauguration into their office. Prophets, priests, and kings were all “little messiahs” in this sense. Jesus the Messiah is all three of those things—the ultimate prophet, priest, and king.
As the true prophet of God, he doesn’t just teach us about God; he shows us what God is like. God now has a human face, and it is the face of Jesus Christ. As our great high priest, Christ is both the one who offers the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself that brings us back to God, that covers our sins and sets us free from the tyranny of the devil. And Jesus is the eternal King who governs, guards, and keeps us always. He reigns at the right hand of God, and one day he will return in triumph and glory bringing the new creation.
“You Are the Son of God”
So that’s part one. You are the Christ. Now part two of the answer that Peter gives to the question of Jesus’ identity goes even further. The Messiah would be the greatest man Israel ever produced, but Jesus is greater still. “You are the Son of the living God.” In Peter’s view, Jesus was more than just the Jewish Deliverer/King. Jesus was divine. He was God himself, come in human flesh to be the Savior.
Now that truly was an amazing confession for a man of Peter’s background and upbringing. Remember that Peter was a devout Jew. For 1500 years the Jews had been taught to confess as the center of their faith that there is only one God: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” That’s the shema, the great confession of faith of ancient Israel, and Peter could not have been expecting this one and only God to have a Son who would take human flesh.
Furthermore, remember the moment at which Peter said this. He had been living with Jesus now as one of his most intimate companions for a long time. All told, Peter would spend three years in the closest possible fellowship with Jesus. As we all know the quickest way to discover somebody’s foibles and shortcomings is to live with them. It would be a rare wife indeed who thought of her husband as perfect, or a man to ascribe deity to his brother. Close, day-to-day contact is the surest way to see through anyone’s claims to perfection.
But when Peter looked at Jesus, that is exactly what he saw, perfection. In fact, he saw even more than just a perfect man. When Peter looked at Jesus, he realized he was seeing God. So the question is: What in the world made him think that?
We could point to a couple of things that Peter witnessed firsthand that helped him realize Jesus was infinitely more than just a great human being. One of those was Jesus’ words. Despite the widespread opinion that Jesus was a great moral teacher, he in fact said many things that sound very odd coming from a great moral teacher. It’s true that some of the things Jesus said have entered our ethical vocabulary, things like, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
But many of the things Jesus said aren’t ethical at all; in fact, they sound either like lies or delusions—if the one who spoke them was merely a man. For example, Jesus claimed that he had the authority to forgive peoples’ sins, not just their sins against him personally, but all their sins. He claimed to be equal with God, to share God’s status, even God’s very being. He once said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), and, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58b), applying to himself the personal form of God’s very name. He claimed to possess all authority in heaven and on earth and to be the one who would judge every human being, both living and dead, at the end of time.
These are not the claims of a great religious teacher. They’re not even the claims of a good man. As C. S. Lewis famously put it in Mere Christianity:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was and is the Son of God or else a madman or something worse . . . but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He did not leave that option open to us. He did not intend to.C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 42
The other thing that revealed Jesus’ identity to Peter was his actions. It is easy enough to claim to be God. Whenever people do, usually it’s because they are mentally ill. But the difference in Jesus’ case is that he lived up to his claim. He healed the sick. He cast out demons. He calmed storms and multiplied bread and fish to feed multitudes. He loved his enemies and blessed those who cursed him, and when they finally put him to death, he rose again in triumph to a life that cannot die. Jesus lived exactly the sort of life we would expect—a life of awesome power mixed with astonishing love—if God in fact had become a man. His life was the perfection of love in action. And no one who ever met him thought that he was unbalanced or deceitful. When confronted with the person of Jesus, some loved him and some hated him, but none could deny his goodness.
So back to the original question: Who is Jesus Christ? More importantly, Who do you say he is?
When Peter uttered his great confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus himself added an interesting comment. He blessed Peter and then said that flesh and blood had not revealed this truth to him but rather God had. Peter heard Jesus’ claims and he witnessed his actions, true; but in the end, Jesus’ real identity was only revealed to Peter when God opened his eyes to the truth.
That might make it seem like there’s nothing anyone can do, that it’s all up to God. Either he gives faith in Christ or he doesn’t, right? So why does he hold us responsible? But here’s the deal. Do you really want to know the truth? Are you a genuine seeker after God? He gives faith to anyone who wants it. If you honestly consider the claims of Jesus and open yourself to him, God will make him known to you. Then you too will say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”