Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

Matthew 16:13-16

April 30, 2006 | Brian Bill

One day a teacher asked her fourth grade class this question: “Who is the greatest human being alive in the world today?”  The responses came quickly.  One boy said, “I think its Tiger Woods.  He’s the best golfer ever.”  A girl said, “I think it’s the Pope because he cares for people and doesn’t get paid for it all.”  A very wise and perceptive student responded, “It’s Brett Favre because he’s coming back for the Pack.”  The kids shouted out one celebrity after another until Donnie spoke up: “I think its Jesus Christ because He loves everybody and is always ready to help them.”  The teacher told him that his answer was OK but that she was looking for the greatest living person, and of course Jesus lived and died almost two thousand years ago.  To which Donnie replied, “Oh no, Mrs. Thompson, that’s not true at all.  Jesus Christ is alive and He lives in me right now!”

He got the answer right, didn’t he?  This morning we’re going to go on a quest for some answers by focusing on what are perhaps the two most important questions that we will ever be asked: “Who do people say Jesus is?” and “Who do you say that He is?”  Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 16:13-16.  As you’re turning there, I want to welcome those of you who are here, or listening by tape or online to these sermons because of your interest in the DaVinci Code.  I heard that one person this week thought that we were actually promoting this book because we’re doing a series on it.  Actually, we’re promoting Scripture as we shine the light of truth on this book.

We’re going to go to class together today.  Since there will be a lot of data and I don’t want you to get lost in it, every once in awhile I’m going to ask if you’re still with me, and I want you to answer “yes.”  Even if you’re not with me I want you to still say “yes” because I’ll at least know you’re awake.  Are you with me?

Jesus has spent about two years teaching and training His students.  After an interaction with some false teachers, He warned his students in verse 6 to “be careful” and to “be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  At first they didn’t get what Jesus was talking about then they realized that yeast stood for the false teaching that the leaders were propagating (see verse 12).  The thing about yeast is that it doesn’t take much of it to affect big change.  That’s because while it is small and subtle in how it works, it is also alive.  By itself, not much happens, but when combined with other ingredients, it is activated and unleashes its power.  

Like we learned last week, much of what is found in the DaVinci Code is insidious because it scorches some of the core beliefs of Christianity like the deity of Christ, which we will study today.  The book also casts aspersions on Scripture, which is our topic next week.  Two weeks from today we’ll look at the spurious claim that Jesus was actually married.   Sprinkled among some fact is a bunch of fiction; worked into the dough is some yeast that when activated threatens to fracture the faith of many.   We learned last week that in order to separate fact from fiction, we must apply at least four diagnostics:

  • Take a truth test
  • Make Christ the key
  • Remember that God is greater
  • Practice limitless love

Verse 13 tells us that Jesus takes his students to the “region of Caesarea Philippi.”  The tide has shifted against Him as many of the religious leaders are now plotting His death.  The disciples are probably tired and weary from all the controversy and tension and so Jesus gets alone with them in a retreat setting in order for them to regroup, refocus and recalibrate.  This afforded them the opportunity to get away but the location was also linked to a lot of religious symbolism and even secret codes, if you will.  It was no accident that Jesus brought them here.  What happened at this retreat center would alter the course of history.

Located about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea Philippi was considered pagan territory and was the capital of that Roman Province.  It was a beautiful and picturesque spot, 1100 feet above sea level near the foot of the towering snow-capped Mount Hermon.  You’d have to go to Wisconsin to find something that beautiful today.  But they are also face-to-face with multiple images of false gods.  On one side of the mountain there was a cave where Philip had built a temple to Caesar and to the pagan god Pan.  In the niches of the rock there were statues of various idols.  Historians tell us that there were 14 temples to the god Baal in this region.  One pastor points out that it’s significant that Jesus took His students to this area because it was believed that it was through the cave in this mountain that Baal entered Hades.  The entrance then would be known as the gates of Hades.  Are you with me?

Who Do Others Say Jesus Is?

The disciples were surrounded by the plurality of religions and pagan worship God had always condemned but they were no doubt happy to be alone with Jesus.  I picture them settling in to their retreat center when Jesus asks the first of two questions in order to probe them and prepare them for what was coming.  This was like a pop quiz because I don’t think they were expecting this kind of examination: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” This was a pretty easy question because the misguided multitudes were talking about Jesus and it seemed like everyone had a different idea of who He was.  We don’t really know who answered this question but four answers bubbled to the surface:

  • John the Baptist.  Since John had been held in high honor by the people, some thought that he had come back to life.  This is what Herod believed in Matthew 14:1-2: “At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead!’” 
  • Elijah.  Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Elijah exposed what was in human hearts, performed miracles and inspired people; since Jesus was able to do these same things, maybe he was really Elijah.  In Malachi 4:5-6, the last book of the Old Testament, we read this prophecy: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.” During the Passover meal, a cup is poured for Elijah and the door to the house is opened because they believed he would return to earth.  Interestingly, when Jewish people cannot answer a question, it’s common for them to say, “We’ll have to wait for Elijah to come to answer that one for us.”  
  • Jeremiah.  This prophet was known to speak boldly and yet mourn over the hardness of people’s hearts.  People saw Jesus pronounce woes and also weep and so they wondered if he was Jeremiah.  A tradition also held that Jeremiah had hidden the Ark of the Covenant in a cave and that maybe he had come back now to restore this form of worship.
  • One of the prophets.  Others could not decide and so they thought he must be another prophet who had come back to life.

Are you with me?  These are not bad answers in themselves but they all fall short of who Jesus really is because no one was openly confessing that Jesus Christ was the Messiah.  Here’s the point.  Whenever you ask a group of people about Jesus, they’ll come up with many different answers.  Friends, they can’t all be right.  The disciples knew what people were saying about Jesus and they were able to summarize these beliefs.  Likewise, it’s important for us to listen to the different views about Jesus today so that we know what people are thinking and how we can help them see the truth.

Our culture is just as confused about Christ as was the first century

Recently two guys showed up at our front door and wanted to talk about their faith.  When I asked them what they believe about Jesus, they said he was a very important prophet but that there were other prophets as well.  I told them that Jesus is the only Son of God and that He paid the total price for our sins.  They started to respond by saying, “But…” I interjected that there is no “but.”  Jesus is the sinless Savior who sacrificed Himself on the cross as our substitute.  He did it all.  They persisted and said something like “what Jesus did was good but there is more that we have to do.”  I smiled and said, “Jesus is Savior and Lord and there is nothing we have to do but believe and receive Him into our lives.”  They politely excused themselves and headed back down the street.  Our culture is just as confused about Christ as was the first century.

That leads to the question: How does the DaVinci Code characterize Christ?  One of the major implications of this book is that Jesus was just a man, not the Messiah and definitely not God.  Here are some actual quotes from pages 232-235 in the book:

  • “Nothing in Christianity is original” (page 232).
  • Referring to the Council of Nicea, the character Teabing states: “Until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet…a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless.  A mortal” (page 233).
  • “By officially endorsing Jesus as the Son of God, Constantine turned Jesus into a deity who existed beyond the scope of the human world, an entity whose power was unchallengeable” (page 233).
  • “It was all about power,” Teabing continued. “Christ as Messiah was critical to the functioning of Church and state.  Many scholars claim that the early Church literally stole Jesus from His original followers, hijacking His human message, shrouding it in an impenetrable cloak of divinity, and using it to expand their own power” (page 233).
  • “The twist is this,” Teabing said, talking faster now.  “…Constantine upgraded Jesus’ status almost four centuries after Jesus’ death…”  (page 234)
  • “What I mean,” Teabing countered, “is that almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false” (page 235).

These views of Jesus contribute to a wide spectrum of beliefs about Him, and according to Ray Pritchard, the DaVinci Code has capitalized on three intersecting cultural trends.

1. Widespread skepticism. 

Polls show that people distrust all authority and are therefore susceptible to claims about long-hidden secrets and complicated conspiracies involving riddles and codes.  Even the judge in the suit against Dan Brown included hidden codes in his written ruling on the case and it was just solved this week.

2. Enormous spiritual confusion. 

Once someone doubts authority, they are soon open to believe anything.  If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.

3. Deep spiritual hunger. 

I made reference to this last week, pointing out that according to Ecclesiastes 3:11, each of us have been created to know God.  Our hearts are indeed restless until we know Him.  

Who Do You Say Jesus Is?

Are you with me?  Jesus expects us to know what others are thinking and He expects us to know what we believe.  The first question is relatively easy to answer.  The second one is much more personal and your answer reveals more about you than you may know.  To paraphrase A.W. Tozer: “What comes into our minds when we think about Christ is the most important thing about us.”   Look at Matthew 16:15 where we see that there are really two parts to this question: “But what about you?  Who do you say that I am?”  This is like a very intense and abrupt interrogation, with the “you” coming at the beginning of the sentence.  He’s literally asking it this way: “But you, who (with reference to) Me do you say that I am?”

Jesus is easy to like but not so easy to love, for to love Him means to obey Him

You see, Jesus is easy to like but not so easy to love, for to love Him means to obey Him.  Many admire Him but few adore Him, for to adore Him means that we must submit to Him.  Jesus wanted them to put into words whether or not they were ready to worship Him.

The passage doesn’t really tell us, but I think this question is met with some initial silence because the disciples weren’t used to thinking about Jesus like this.  He was their companion and friend and teacher but they may not have formed a firm opinion yet.  One reason that only Peter spoke up may be because they were afraid to give a wrong answer.  I used to do this in school.  When the teacher would ask for an answer I would avoid eye contact so I wouldn’t have to answer and risk being wrong.  Peter took a risk with his response because if he got it wrong, he could have been stoned to death…by the other disciples.  I heard one pastor point out that to call an ordinary man God would be blasphemy, and had not the disciples shared that conviction, they would have had to kill Peter.  

The fact that this did not occur demonstrates that they were in agreement with Peter’s emphatic affirmation in verse 16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus is not a mythological figment such as Pan or a mortal “deity” like Caesar.  We could read it this way: “You!  You are the Christ-the Messiah-the Son of the living God!”  His answer is very specific in the Greek as he repeats the word “the” four times.  It could be translated like this: “You are the Christ, the Son of the God, the living One.”   The name Christ is the official title of Jesus, occurring over 520 times in the New Testament.  It means that He was anointed as the Messiah and Savior.  There were three types of people who were anointed in the Old Testament: prophets, priests and kings.  And in Jesus we find all three.

Peter had the courage to confess Christ in a pagan setting and was willing to give a view that was contrary to the prevailing climate of this culture.  His answer became the bedrock for the launch of an unstoppable community called the church, against which the “gates of Hades will not overcome” (Matthew 16:18).  We participate in Peter’s profession when we stand up and say in response to the deceptive errors in the DaVinci Code: “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Is it true that almost everything our fathers have taught us about Christ is false?  Let’s take a look at this spurious claim by first looking at what Scripture teaches.  As I studied this it became clear very quickly that all 27 books in the New Testament can be dated to the 1st Century and each one references the deity of Christ in some manner.  It’s absurd to think that the deity of Christ wasn’t established until Constantine “upgraded Jesus’ status almost four centuries after Jesus’ death.” 

What Does the Bible Say?

Are you still with me?  I’m going to list a number of passages without comment so that the Scripture can speak for itself.  This is but a sampling and I encourage you to do your own study.  If you’ve been reading the Gospel of John, the letters of John and the Book of Revelation like we suggested last week, you’ll compile an overwhelming amount of information about who Jesus really is.  I jotted down some verses this week just from the first ten chapters:

John 1:1-3: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

John 1:29: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

John 1:45: “We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth…”

John 1:49: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God…”

John 2:11: “…He thus revealed His glory and the disciples put their faith in him.”

John 5:18: “For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”

John 5:27: “And He has given Him authority to judge because He is the Son of Man.”

John 5:46: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.”

John 6:69: “We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

John 7:31: “When the Christ comes, will he do more miraculous signs than this man?”

John 8:24: “…If you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.”

John 8:58: “…Before Abraham was born, I am!”

John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.”

Here are some other key passages from the New Testament, which unfortunately Brown does not even refer to; even though they were written much earlier than the Gnostic nonsense he does quote:

1 Corinthians 8:6: “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”

Colossians 1:19: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.”

Hebrews 1:8: “But about the Son he [the Father] says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever…’”

2 Peter 1:1: “…our God and Savior Jesus Christ…”

What Did the Church Fathers Say?

The claim that Jesus was just a mortal man until the Council of Nicea is ridiculous and Brown’s statement that the early church hijacked Jesus’ message, shrouding it in “an impenetrable cloak of divinity is absurd.”   Not only are the Scriptures strong in their assertion of the deity of Christ, the early church fathers were unequivocally clear that Jesus Christ is God.  In his book called, “Cracking DaVinci’s Code,” James Garlow includes some statements made by these leaders (page 94).  I’ve included the approximate date in parenthesis:

  • Ignatius (A.D. 105): “God Himself was manifest in human form.”
  • Clement (A.D. 150): “It is fitting that you should think of Jesus Christ as of God.”
  • Justin Martyr (A.D. 160): “The Father of the universe has a Son.  And He…is even God.”
  • Irenaeus (A.D. 180): “He is God, for the name Emmanuel indicates this.”
  • Origen (A.D. 225): “No one should be offended that the Savior is also God.”

Are you with me?  Peter was the first person to make his confession of Christ out loud.  It’s important for each one of us to also do that, not only individually, but also corporately.  Since the Council of Nicea gets a bad rap from Dan Brown, let’s pull out these ancient words that do such a great job of capturing what it is that Christians confess.  Let’s affirm the part of this creed that speaks of Christ as a community right now.   

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end…

Christianity is a confessional faith.  If you’d like to do some more study on this topic, I highly recommend Ray Pritchard’s new book called “Credo.”

What Does Dan Brown Believe?

One of the questions I received this week was this, “What does Dan Brown really believe?”  I hesitate to answer this because no one can ever really know what someone else believes in their heart.  However, I have read transcripts of interviews and have also gleaned some information from his website.  When asked why he wrote the book, Dan Brown replied: “I wrote this book essentially as a group of fictional characters exploring ideas that I found personally intriguing.”  When asked if he is a Christian, he responds by saying, “Yes” but then says this: “By attempting to rigidly classify ethereal concepts like faith, we end up debating semantics to the point that we entirely miss the obvious – that is, that we are all trying to decipher life’s big mysteries, and we’re following our own paths of enlightenment.  I consider myself a student of many religions.  The more I learn, the more questions I have.  For me the spiritual quest will be a life-long work in progress.”  Wouldn’t it be great, if like fellow author Anne Rice, his searching would end in a relationship with the Savior?

I should mention that Dan Brown has gone on record as a believer in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Here’s what he said in People Magazine last month: “Suggesting a married Jesus is one thing, but questioning the Resurrection undermines the very heart of Christian belief.”  While I’m glad that he does not question the Resurrection, by claiming that Jesus is not God in his book, he is essentially denying the core beliefs of Christianity.  How do we make sense of this?  Let me suggest that Dan Brown is no different than most Americans who just pick and choose what they believe, grabbing some stuff from Dr. Phil, coupled with some conspiracy theories, a dash of a Sunday School lesson from their youth, a sprinkle of something they heard someone say once, mixed together with a commitment to not be too exclusive, and you end up with an amalgamation of contradictory comments and confusion about Christ and Christianity.

Interestingly, I heard both Tom Hanks and Ron Howard say this week that they hope the book and the movie will generate discussion that will help people figure out what it is they really believe.  That’s my desire as well.

Do You Know Him?

Not all the answers about Jesus can be right.   Ultimately it must become personal; not what the public professes but what you personally profess.  Who is Jesus to you?

Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”  In the midst of false views and cultural confusion, Peter confessed who Christ really was.  I like how Pastor Jim Butcher summarizes our three options when it comes to examining the claims of Christ. These options go back to something C.S. Lewis once said and were made popular by Josh McDowell.

  1. Jesus was a liar. One option is that Jesus made all these statements about “being equal with God” knowing that it wasn’t true.  The problem with this is that we can hardly take the moral teachings of a habitual liar seriously.  
  2. Jesus was a lunatic. A second option is that Jesus genuinely thought that He was God, but He was genuinely mistaken.  In this view He was really just a mortal man, but He had “delusions of grandeur.”  The problem here is that people who go around claiming to be God are generally put in an institution, not on a pedestal to be adored by millions.  If Jesus was genuinely deluded, that nixes the authority of His teaching.
  3.  Jesus is Lord.  The third option is that Jesus was exactly who He said He was.  There are many who want to accept Jesus as a good teacher without giving Him control of their lives. If Jesus is Lord, and He is, we must submit and surrender to Him.  This is no easy task for those of us who are sinful and selfish.  Many want the benefits of belief in Christ without having Him be in charge.

    C.S. Lewis put it this way: “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… 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 on Him and kill Him…or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.”

    Lewis is exactly right: Jesus did not leave the option open for us to take what we like of His teachings and leave the rest on the table.  Do you believe this morning that Jesus was telling the truth when He claimed to be God?  He is either a liar or a lunatic; or He is Lord.  Who do you think He is?   Who is Christ to you?  Malcom Muggeridge once said: “You must answer.  And you.   And you.  And you and you.”

It’s important to know what others say about Jesus; but it is imperative to know what you personally believe!  You won’t be held accountable for what others think of Jesus, but you will be eternally accountable for what you think and what you do about it.  How you answer the question will affect both your life, and your afterlife.  It has to become deeply personal because we all need a personal relationship with Christ.  

There is an exam coming for all of us.  The good thing is that we have the question ahead of time: Who do you say that I am?  Friends, to be almost right about Jesus is to be totally wrong.   Romans 10:9-10 give us the answer, “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.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”  Are you read to commit to Christ and then confess that He is your Savior and Lord?  I wonder, do you know Him?  

One of the titles that people used against Jesus was that He was a friend of sinners (see Luke 7:34).  I’m glad that’s what He was known by because I’m pretty good at sinning…and so are you.  In C.J. Mahaney’s new book, Living the Cross Centered Life (Multnomah, 2006), this father shares his advice to his young son, Chad: “This is what I hold out to my young son as the hope of his life: that Jesus, God’s perfect, righteous Son, died in his place for his sins.  Jesus took all the punishment; Jesus received all the wrath as he hung on the cross, so people like Chad and his sinful daddy could be completely forgiven” (Quoted by Mark Dever, “Christianity Today,” May 2006, page 33).

Are you ready to admit your guilt and accept His grace?  

I wonder, do you know Him?  

Are you with me?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?