“Jesus went out with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the road he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ They answered him, ‘John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, one of the prophets.’ ‘But you,’ he asked them, ‘who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Can I pull back the curtain on my nerdiness with you just a bit? I love tests. I do. It’s disgusting, I know, but I love them. It helps that I’m generally a pretty good test taker. I don’t get anxious; I just get to work. But I really do enjoy them. Well, mostly. When it’s a test I’m pretty sure I’m not going to do well on, I don’t look forward to those. Generally speaking, though, I look forward to them. They give you a chance to prove what you know. They give you a chance to demonstrate that you really do know something. The other side of that, though, is equally true. They reveal whether or not you actually know it. As Jesus and the disciples were on this retreat through Gentile lands, Jesus gave them what amounted to their mid-term exam. There was just one question and the answer was pretty straightforward. What hung on that answer, though, was eternity. Well, we may hundreds of years removed from this mid-term exam, but the question is still one we all will have to answer at some point in our lives.
The disciples had finally seen enough. How Jesus knew that we can’t say except to acknowledge He was Jesus and He had a knack for knowing things He needed to know. However He knew it, He knew the disciples had seen enough to put their conclusion-drawing abilities to the test. And think for a minute about all they had seen just to this point in Jesus’ ministry. They had seen Him feed enormous crowds with basically nothing. Twice. They had seen all manner of miraculous healings. They had seen a little girl raised from the dead (Jesus said she was sleeping, but as far as they were all concerned, she was dead). They’d seen Jesus assert His authority over against the authority of the religious leaders and even the Law itself on several different occasions. They had seen Jesus exercise authority over demons, even at a distance. They had seen Him still a storm and walk on water. Their hearts may have been hardened to the reality of who Jesus was before, but the sheer flood of evidence had done its work. It was time for a testing.
So Jesus asked them: “Who do people say that I am?” What’s the word on the street about me? Now, there is no doubt He already knew all the answers they were going to give. He heard people talking just like they did. He was savvy enough to know what the rumor mill was churning out. He didn’t have a social media account to be able to Facebook- or Twitter-stalk His critics, but He could read minds and that certainly didn’t hurt.
Some folks thought He was John the Baptist back from the dead. Mark has already told us specifically that’s what Herod thought. As we talked about a few weeks ago, John the Baptist was a hugely popular figure in Jesus’ day. Jesus’ fame had only recently started to eclipse John’s. That’s not obvious from a cursory reading of the Gospels, but when you look just a bit more closely, it’s there to see. John was a superstar. His death would have rocked the whole nation. For Jesus to be doing and saying things like what John had said suggested to some that He was John brought back.
Still other folks knew that probably wasn’t the case. They could do the math. Jesus was around when John was still alive. He couldn’t be John returned. But He was at least a prophet. Maybe one of the other prophets returned. Some thought He could be Elijah himself. Simply reading through the Bible without any outside knowledge or references, like the actual position of John, we don’t appreciate just how important a character Elijah was in the Jewish mythos of the day. There were some non-Scripture writings produced in the season between the two testaments of our Bible in which Elijah was a dominant figure. We catch a glimpse of this at the end of Malachi when he prophesied that Elijah would return before the coming of the Lord. And if He wasn’t Elijah, then, again, He was at least a prophet.
That was just the warm-up question, though. Jesus really didn’t care who anyone else thought He was. Once He got their juices flowing a bit, He dropped the big question on them: “Who do you say that I am?”
This changed things. Now it was personal. Did they buy into the going rumors about Jesus? Or had they come to see Him for something more; for who He really was? I can imagine when Jesus asked this the group was silent for a minute. They were all just looking back and forth from one to another; waiting. They understand that if they got this wrong, they’d fail the test. Maybe Jesus wouldn’t let them follow Him as disciples anymore. The pressure they felt had to be intense. Thank goodness Peter’s mouth ran faster than his brain. He spoke before any fear or reluctance had the chance to kick in all the time. This one was no different.
“You are the Messiah.”
This was big. It was the first time someone who wasn’t demon-possessed had accurately identified Jesus. But more than this giving Jesus’ title, this identification came with a huge set of expectations rigorously defining who He was. Or at least, they defined who all the people thought He would be; who He should be. This confession meant Jesus was the guy who was going to restore Israel to the glory it had achieved under King David and King Solomon. It meant He was going to drive out and utterly defeat their Roman oppressors. He was going to be the signal that would draw all the Jewish people back to Israel from the places to which they had been scattered. He was going to restore faithfulness to the Law and bring about a new season of righteousness and justice. He was going to rule over an eternal kingdom in holiness and power. There were all kinds of hopes and expectations about who Jesus was if He really was the Messiah.
And nearly all of them were wrong.
We’ll talk more about that later in the next couple of days, but the very fact that Peter made this confession meant He passed the test. He had picked up on the clues. He knew who Jesus was. Of course, as we’ll talk about soon, He didn’t actually know who Jesus was at all. Jesus’ follow-up lesson revealed this rather dramatically. But He had the big idea right. Jesus could work with this. He would work with this and change the world.
Friends, Jesus may have given His disciples this test nearly 2,000 years ago, but the question still hangs in the air today. The simple fact is that Jesus is the single most consequential figure in human history. There’s really no case to be made for anyone else receiving such a designation. You may not be sure what to make of Him, but His impact on human history is impossible to deny. We still mark our calendars by His approximate birth year (even if it is off by a bit). Who you think He is matters. There is a day coming when you will have to decide. There is a day coming when all decisions will be final and we will all begin to live with our choice.
Who do you say Jesus is?
You may not believe me now, but your answer to that question will determine everything about where your life goes from here. Getting the answer wrong will set you on a path of heartache and frustration that you can’t imagine sitting where you are right now. Getting it right will set you on a path of life and abundance beyond what you’ve ever hoped. All these outcomes may not arrive immediately. Some of them will take a lifetime to manifest. But they will come. And listen, even if you don’t have any idea what the right answer actually means, committing yourself to it nonetheless is okay. That’s what Peter did and the most famous church in the world still bears his name.
The simple truth is that Jesus is Lord. One you have that down, the rest will fall into place.
So, who do you say He is?