Who Do Men Say That I Am?

Matthew 16:13-17

March 19, 2006 | Ray Pritchard

If you ever travel to the Holy Land, one of the places you may visit is an Arab town called Banias. To get there you will have to travel north from Jerusalem to some place like Tiberius or Capernaum and from there travel even farther north into the finger of Galilee. You will pass through a kibbutz called Kiryat Shemona. On your left will be a mountain range. Beyond that mountain range is Lebanon. On your right will be a mountain range. Beyond that mountain range is Syria. Once you leave Kiryat Shemona you will travel north again, out of Galilee altogether, and go east for a few miles. At last you will come to Banias. I called it a town. It is really more like a settlement.

What you will see there are a few buildings, some partially-excavated buildings, a spring, and behind the spring an enormous rock cliff. Built into the cliff is an ancient Catholic monastery. Not far away is the majestic snow-capped peak of Mt. Hermon. That’s all there is to Banias today. Many generations ago it was called Paneas after the Greek god Pan. About the time of Christ, Phillip the Tetrarch enlarged Paneas and renamed it after the great Caesar Augustus. He added his own name so that no one would confuse this city with any other city built to honor the emperor. Thus the name Caesarea Philippi.

A Critical Turning Point

Matthew 16 marks critical turning point in the ministry of Jesus Christ. By this time he has been preaching for many months. He is well-known to the nation of Israel, and his fame has spread far and wide. The common people have embraced him. They have seen his miracles and heard his teaching. And the word has spread from village to village, “Have you heard about this man Jesus?” And along the dusty roads of Galilee men discussed him and wondered who he really was. Most importantly the religious leaders have heard about Jesus Christ and they don’t like what they have heard. He is a threat to their vested interests. Earlier there had been a bitter confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. They had accused him of doing miracles by the power of Beelzebub, prince of the demons. In essence they say, “You have come straight from hell.”

When we come to Matthew 16 it is clear that Jesus has been rejected by his own people. His fate is sealed. The shadow of the cross looms overhead. And even though the common people heard him gladly, they did not know who he was. They liked him, but they did not worship him. To them he was a great teacher and a great miracle-worker, nothing more. So Jesus, in the midst of growing opposition and surrounded by crowds of people who liked him but did not understand him, in the rising turmoil that would lead eventually to Golgotha, did an unusual thing. He took his disciples and left the territory of Israel. He went north out of Israel into Gentile territory, to a place called Caesarea Philippi. What happened there would change the course of history. Jesus knows that before long he will hang on a cross. It is inevitable because the nation has rejected him. Therefore his time is limited and his strategy must change. He must form a new society to carry on in his name after he is gone. But before he can do that, he must know where his men stand. He must bring them out in the open. Are they with him? Do they know who he really is? If you want to think of it in school terms, Matthew 16 is the disciples’ final exam.

He has never before put them on the spot. He has never before directly asked them this question. But he does in Matthew 16. In fact, Jesus actually asked his disciples two questions. One was the warm-up; the other was the real thing.

I. The First Question

“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’” (v. 13) This was the first Gallup Poll. Jesus already knew the answer. He wanted his disciples to acknowledge what other people were saying. So they gave him the four most popular answers about who Jesus is. “Some say John the Baptist” (that was Herod’s answer); “others say Elijah” (that was very popular because the Jews expected Elijah to return); “and still others, Jeremiah” (he was the greatest of the later prophets) “or one of the prophets” (that is, he was a spokesman for God). When we read a passage like this we tend to downplay those answers because we already know the right answer to the question. And we think, “Those fools, they didn’t know the answers.” But those answers were meant to be flattering. It would be as if someone came in and said, “Who do you think I am?”, and people said, “Well, I think you’re George Washington” or “I think you’re Abraham Lincoln.” If they really meant it, that would be a great compliment even though it’s the wrong answer. So you have to give them credit. At least they were wrong on the right side of the issue. At least they knew that Jesus wasn’t a bad man. One commentator said that when the common people gave these answers they were like “a moth hovering around the light.” They were fascinated by what they could not understand.

There are two worthwhile points to note: First, the common people loved Jesus even though they did not fully understand him. Second, it is quite possible even with a very sincere heart to misunderstand who Jesus is. It is possible for a person to be very sympathetic to spiritual truth and still not understand who our Lord is. It is possible to misunderstand with the best of intentions. This is quite typical of America today. There are many people who like the Lord Jesus but do not worship him. They think he’s a good man, even a great man, even a man who had a special relationship to God. But they do not believe he is the Son of God from heaven.

Suppose we took a camera crew to the downtown section of a major American city during lunch hour. We find a few volunteers and ask them, “Who is Jesus Christ?” Here are some of the answers we would get: “A good man… The Son of God … A Prophet … A Galilean rabbi … A teacher of God’s Law … The Embodiment of God’s Love … A Reincarnated Spirit Master … The Ultimate Revolutionary … The Messiah of Israel … Savior … A first-century wise man … A man just like any other man … King of Kings … A misunderstood teacher … Lord of the Universe … A fool who thought he was God’s Son … Son of Man … A fabrication of the early church.”

Mel Gibson and Dan Brown

Jesus has become popular again. His name pops up in the news all the time. Two years ago Mel Gibson did what Billy Graham could not do. Through his movie The Passion of the Christ, he took the cross of Jesus and planted it squarely in the middle of American public life. For a few fleeting weeks, everyone was talking about Jesus. I remember turning on TV the morning the movie opened across America. On CBS they were talking about Jesus. On the Today show, Katie Couric was talking about Jesus. On Good Morning America Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson were talking about Jesus. It was the same on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. That afternoon I turned on CNBC, a financial channel, and they weren’t talking about the latest news from Wall Street. They were talking about Jesus. That night on Hardball, Chris Matthews was talking about Jesus. Although he lived 2000 years ago, for a brief moment, Jesus took center stage in American public life, and no one could ignore him.

Let me mention another name that may not be as well-known. Several years ago Dan Brown wrote a blockbuster bestseller called the Da Vinci Code. It has already become one of the bestselling adult fiction books of all time. So far it has sold over 40 million copies, meaning that one out of every three American adults has read the book. It has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over 250 weeks. It has been translated into 44 languages. Recently Time magazine named Dan Brown one of the 100 most influential people in the world. But we haven’t seen anything yet. In May the Da Vinci Code movie starring Tom Hanks will be released. I think it is likely to garner more attention than The Passion of the Christ, if that is possible. Several weeks ago I read the Da Vinci Code and found it an enjoyable page-turning suspense thriller. But there is something else going on in the book that goes beyond normal fiction. Dan Brown suggests that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were in love and that she was pregnant with his baby when he was crucified. Later she gives birth to a girl and moves to France, where there are to this day lineal descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The novel suggests that the church (he means the Catholic Church) knew about all of this but covered it up in some vast conspiracy, but the truth can be discovered in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci. Though that may sound shocking to some people, this is really nothing more than a modern version of an ancient heresy called Gnosticism. And Dan Brown’s wild speculations have been thoroughly answered by many capable scholars. There really isn’t anything to it.

Here are three resources that offer solid answers to the Da Vinci Code:

The Da Vinci Deception by Erwin Lutzer

The Da Vinci Codebreaker by James Garlow

The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code by Richard Abanes

The movie is likely to become the blockbuster hit of 2006. And with it will come a tidal wave of questions about Jesus Christ. For the record, I think that’s a good thing. The incredible popularity of the Da Vinci Code points to three intersecting cultural trends:

1) Widespread skepticism

Polls repeatedly show that many people feel like they have lied to by those in authority. Recent church scandals have weakened the trust people once felt for religious leaders. Thus they are susceptible to claims about long-hidden secrets and bizarre conspiracies involving riddles, codes, and clandestine societies.

2) Enormous Spiritual Confusion

This no doubt follows from the first trend. Once you begin to doubt the very principle of authority, you will soon be open to believe anything.

3) Deep Spiritual Hunger

Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God has put eternity inside every human heart. We were made to know God, and our hearts are restless until we come to know our Creator. There is a “God-shaped vacuum” inside every heart.

I should note that tagline for the Da Vinci Code movie is “Seek the Truth.” That’s always excellent advice, isn’t it? Seek the truth. Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Christianity has nothing to fear from an honest investigation. I hope the widespread interest generated by the movie leads millions to pick up the New Testament and investigate the claims of Christ.

That leads me to the second question Jesus asked.

II. The Second Question

“Who do you say that I am?” (15) In the Greek text, that word you has an enormous stress. In fact, the you really goes at the first of the sentence. It is as if Jesus is saying, “But you who have followed me and have known me from the beginning, who do you say that I am?” It is the greatest question in the entire universe and it is one which every man must eventually answer.

You will notice that Peter answers for all the disciples. That’s because he was the D.L.—the Designated Loudmouth. Whenever there was a question, Peter would always be the first one to answer. And when Peter answers here, he is not speaking simply for himself, but for all the disciples. His answer is very, very specific. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Again if I may go back to the Greek, the word “the” is repeated four times. You could translate it this way: “You are the Christ, the Son of the God, the Living One. Peter was saying, “I know who you are. You are the Messiah sent to save us and you are the Son of God from heaven.” It is short and simple. Everything necessary for salvation is included in that statement.

I think some people would read that statement and say, “Well, that’s no big deal. I would say that, too.” Sure, everybody here would probably stand up and say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But Peter was the first person in human history ever to say it out loud. And he said it when few were with Jesus and many were against him. He deserves all the credit, for without his confession there would be no Christian church. Without Peter’s confession, we wouldn’t be here today.

“Pastor Ray, isn’t that a little harsh?”

On Thursday I recorded a one-hour radio interview based on my book Credo: Believing in Something to Die For for a program that will be broadcast nationwide on Good Friday. After we finished the main interview, they asked me several other questions that are part of a “bonus” segment for people who want to know more. Here was the last question:

You write “If you truly do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, you have placed yourself outside of the boundaries of orthodox Christianity and are not a Christian at all—and you shouldn’t be treated as one even if you happen to be a pastor or a seminary professor.” Pastor Ray, isn’t that a little harsh?

I gave a brief answer and then later decided to record the question and my answer on my weblog:

I replied that I was not being harsh, just blunt and truthful. The key word in the quote is “truly.” It means that a person has studied the evidence and come to a settled conclusion that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. Such a person has placed himself outside the boundaries of the Christian faith. There aren’t many things that all Christian have believed at all times in all places, but the resurrection of Jesus Christ falls into that small category. Believing in the resurrection goes to the heart of our faith. If Christ has not been raised, then our faith is in vain, we have believed a lie, and we are of all men most to be pitied. The resurrection is not a debatable or secondary doctrine of the faith. If Christ is still in the grave, then his death cannot save us, and we are still in our sins. Therefore I conclude that what I wrote in the book is entirely correct. If you deny the resurrection, you are not a Christian and should not be treated as one, even though you might be a pastor or a seminary professor. By saying that, I am not suggesting that we should be rude or unkind to such a person, only that we should not extend Christian fellowship to him. Why recognize a person as a Christian who denies the very heart of our faith? I would add that such a person should not be preaching or teaching under the guise of Christianity. A person who denies the resurrection might be brilliant, a gift orator, a renowned scholar, and might even have a genial personality, but all of that doesn’t matter when it comes to salvation. If you truly don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, you are not a Christian. All the religious merit badges in the world can’t change that simple fact.

Whenever you post something on the Internet, you never know who will read it. I received an email from a man who runs a website called Jesus Politics. With a name like that, you might think it’s a rightwing website, but it’s not. It’s actually on the liberal side of the spectrum. The man who runs the site sent me this email:

Hi, wanted to let you know I still read what you have to say now and then and I thought what you said today was interesting and I linked it at Jesus Politics.

I thought it was interesting that on the same day I read your post, I also read Robert Jensen’s article.

I’m afraid I agree more with Jensen’s point of view. I think it is better for the Christian faith to be expansive and open-hearted in its definition. A Christianity based on dogmatism, exclusivism, and division seems to me only a sign of its weakness rather than its strength.

And who is Robert Jensen? He’s a professor at the University of Texas. He recently wrote an article called Why I Am a Christian (Sort Of). The article begins this way:

I don’t believe in God.

I don’t believe Jesus Christ was the son of a God that I don’t believe in, nor do I believe Jesus rose form the dead to ascend to a heaven that I don’t believe exists.

Given these positions, this year I did the only thing that seemed sensible: I formally joined a Christian church.

He goes on to say that he joined a Presbyterian church in Austin, Texas. Then he adds these words:

So, I’m a Christian, sort of. A secular Christian. A Christian atheist, perhaps. But, in a deep sense, I would argue, a real Christian.

There are millions of people who believe some version of Jensen’s lowest-common-denominator Christianity, but they don’t have the courage to say it publicly. I want to make two points. First, there is no connection between what Jensen believes and the truth revealed in the New Testament. Second, too many people want a “taffy-pull” Christianity where they can take the words of Christianity and stretch them and stretch them and stretch them until the words bear no resemblance to their original meaning. If an atheist can be a Christian, why be a Christian at all? Why not just be an atheist?

By the way, I do not object to Jensen going to church, but I do object to a church welcoming an unbeliever as a member. Churches should open their doors to anyone who wishes to attend–believer, unbeliever, doubter, skeptic, freethinker, seeker, whoever wants to come. Our services and our classes ought to be wide open. But there ought to be a wide gulf between attenders and formal members of the church. Let anyone attend, including those who don’t believe a thing we preach. But membership should be reserved for the truly regenerate. We weaken the church and we do not help the world when we lower our standards for membership. If anything, churches would do well to raise the bar so that membership truly means something.

The World is Flat

Let’s come back to the words of Jesus for a moment. These two questions tell us two things that have enormous significance for contemporary Christians:

1) We need to know what others think

2) We need to know what we believe

As I pondered this, it occurred to me that this has huge implications for the church today. Recently I’ve been reading The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, a writer for the New York Times. I’m finding it one of the most exciting and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. If you wonder how technology has changed the world, read Friedman and find out. The Internet has flattened the world and made it possible for people from many different nations to converse together and work together instantaneously. Young people travel the world and think nothing of it. The major American cities have become a meeting place for people from every nation on earth. But it is the same in London, Berlin, Singapore, and Sydney. And through the Internet, our teenagers can email and IM with people from every other nation on earth. This means that our young people are exposed to alternate worldviews and competing religious claims from a very early age.

I compare that to my own background growing up in a small town in Alabama in the 50s and 60s. We didn’t have any Hindus, Muslims or Buddhists. We didn’t even have a Catholic Church in our town until I was in high school. Back then almost everyone was Baptist, Methodist or Church of Christ. Growing up in a Baptist church, reaching the unreached meant talking to the kids who went to the Methodist church or debating baptism with the Church of Christ kids. That was the extent of our evangelism.

But the world has radically changed, and I for one think it’s a good thing. And there is no going back to the way it was a generation ago. Our teenagers are growing up in a global village, and all of us now live in a shrinking world. Since 9/11 we’ve thought a lot about Islam and the challenges it poses to Christianity. Welcome to the world of the 21st century.

Does it matter what we believe? Peter’s answer is very specific and very clear: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Does it matter whether or not we believe in the resurrection of Jesus? Here is Paul’s answer in Romans 10:9. “That if you confess with your mouth, ’Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That’s clear enough. The resurrection is not an optional doctrine for the followers of Jesus.

Does it matter what you believe? Let me call Dan Brown to the stand for a moment. Recently he was sued by the authors of a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail because they allege he borrowed certain ideas from their book for the Da Vinci Code. As I have noted, Dan Brown clearly believes some very heretical things. However, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail suggest that Jesus faked his own crucifixion. What does Dan Brown think of that?

Suggesting a married Jesus is one thing, but questioning the Resurrection undermines the very heart of Christian belief. (People magazine, March 13, 2006, p. 76).

Dan Brown may be wrong about everything else, but he’s right about that. The resurrection of Jesus is the heart of what we believe. You cannot deny that and still be a Christian.

Does it matter what we believe? These are the words of C. S. Lewis, from Mere Christianity:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the 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. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (pp. 52-53)

To be almost right about Jesus is to be totally wrong. Why? Because we are not saved by good opinions about Jesus. We not saved because we have a good feeling about Jesus. We are not saved because we like his moral teaching. That is not enough. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. If you almost-right about Jesus, you are really totally wrong. Does it matter what we believe about Jesus? Yes, it does. The truth about Jesus is the difference between heaven and hell.

Which leads me at last to the great truth for today. What are we doing here? And what is the church all about? The church is made up of men and women who confess one revolutionary truth—that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of the living God. That is our fundamental organizing principle. It is the thing which makes us forever different from every other organization, guild, club and fraternal order. We are joined together as men and women who believe one thing—that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of the Living God. We have staked our lives upon that fact.

And until you believe that, and confess that, you cannot be called a Christian. It matters not that you may have positive feelings about Jesus Christ, or that you think he was a very good man. You are not a Christian until you confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

A Man Like No Other Man

I am saying in short that we believe something special about someone special.

—We believe that a man once walked this earth who was like no other man who ever lived.

—He said things no other man has ever said.

—He did things no other man has ever done.

—He made claims for himself which, if they are not true, brand him as history’s greatest fraud.

—He gathered around himself a group of men who believed his claims.

—He predicted his own death … and then he predicted his own resurrection.

—He made good on all his claims.

—After He left, his followers took his message and spread it around the earth.

—And for 2,000 years countless men and women have believed that this man was indeed the Son of the living God. And they have staked their lives upon it.

—That man is Jesus of Nazareth.

—That is what Christians believe.

We’ve come now to the very end of this sermon. If you are still unsure about Jesus, let me encourage you to pick up the New Testament and read it for yourself. You don’t have to take my word for it. If what I am saying is true, then the facts ought to be self-evident to any intelligent man or woman. Please don’t make a final decision about Jesus without checking things out for yourself. Pick any one of the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke or John—and read the story of Jesus for yourself. Make notes. Ask questions as you read. Think about this amazing man who walked on planet earth twenty centuries ago.

Who was he? Who is he? What do you say?

A good man? A great teacher? One of the finest fellows who ever walked the face of this earth? Or is he the Christ, the Son of the Living God?

Men say …

We say …

What do you say?

Who is Jesus Christ?

What is your answer?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?