Keep in mind it’s not me who’s asking – it’s Jesus Himself. I’m just one of His many ambassadors passing along the same question Christ posed to His disciples one day at Caesarea Philippi. And what a pivotal day in His ministry that was! You see, at that juncture His celebrity status that previously had folks itching to crown Him “king of the Jews” was fading fast. His stock had plummeted. The path He now walked led straight to Calvary. A line had been crossed and there was no turning back. Caesarea Philippi was somewhat remote, located in the far north region where the springs of the Jordan flow near Mount Hermon. It was here, alone with the apostles, that He presented His question to them. It was so important it appears in three of the four Gospels. Thus it’s vital all Christians ask it of themselves. Everything rides on how we respond.
One thing’s for sure. Christ harbored no doubts about who He was. He was the Messiah, the only begotten Son of God. It’s made evident early on when the devil tempted Him in the wilderness because it’s nonsensical Satan would’ve even bothered if Jesus wasn’t his arch enemy. It was also confirmed audibly by the Heavenly Father at His baptism. Some think it was there that Christ was first made aware of His divinity but it seems more probable it’d been something slowly but surely solidifying since childhood. James S. Stewart wrote, “…What happened in the hour of baptism was not a sudden awakening of Jesus to His own nature and function, but the receiving of power from on high.” Our Savior knew who He was. Yet, before the huddle at Caesarea Philippi, He’d deliberately chosen not to make a big deal out of it. The men and women He’d healed were instructed to not “go viral” with their miracle. He even commanded a demon that’d recognized Him to clam up. “…There was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘Leave us alone, Jesus the Nazarene! Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’ But Jesus rebuked him: ‘Silence! Come out of him!’” (Mark 1:23-25). One of the reasons Christ referred to Himself as the “Son of Man” was to keep His name out of the tabloids. He knew the spiritually-minded would connect the dots to the prophesies in the Book of Daniel regarding that Messianic moniker but His critics wouldn’t. Even on this momentous day when He openly affirmed His true identity, “…He instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ” (Matthew 16:20).
Why? Well, for one thing, He was acutely aware that what the nation of Israel expected the promised Messiah to be and what the genuine article was had little in common. The Jews anticipated the arrival of a score-settling, war-mongering superhero who’d promptly restore the throne of David to its former glory. Jesus knew full well that if He wasn’t careful the populace would demand things of Him He wasn’t here to deliver and His soul-saving message would get smothered. Therefore it was crucial He first tactfully renovate their misguided concept of what the Messiah’s actual mission was. He had to get them to discard the idea of their deliverer being a political Messiah and embrace that of His being a suffering one. Obviously that was a tall order that required all His patience to fill but it was doable because of who He was. Another reason is that He thoroughly understood, having designed it, human nature and that actions speak louder and make a more lasting impression than mere words ever will. Once a bunch of Pharisees ganged up on Him and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10:24). But the Lord was cognizant of their ulterior motive and dealt with them accordingly. The fact is “plain talk” will never be able to adequately convey lofty subjects like love, grace, beauty, etc. Breathtaking sunrises leave us speechless. Words fail when we try to describe the overpowering emotions we experience when one of our newborns takes their first breath. So imagine how difficult it’d be to convince someone you’re God Incarnate using only language. No, Jesus had to show us. Ravi Zacharias noted, “…Jesus declared that wisdom reveals itself by what it produces.”
Which brings us back to the “elephant-in-the-room” question. In light of what you’ve learned about Christ, who do you say He is? That day in Caesarea Philippi, when his poll numbers had nosedived and the once-adoring crowds had thinned dramatically, Jesus knew it was time to come clean with the disciples who’d stuck beside Him throughout. His reasoning becomes clear in the Gospels. Christ was about to inform them of what was looming on the horizon for Him and He knew that His alarming update would test their confidence in Him severely. The moment had arrived to tell them He was soon going to be executed. He had to find out if their faith was strong enough to handle the raw truth. After all, these were men, not puppets. Like all of us, they had free will, meaning they weren’t compelled to hang in there when the worst occurred. He began by asking them a somewhat innocuous question – “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). The general consensus was that there wasn’t a general consensus, save the fact that everybody agreed He was obviously someone special. Some opined He was John the Baptist resurrected. Others thought maybe He was Elijah or Jeremiah. It’s no stretch to say little has changed in 2,000 years. Too many earthlings still don’t know. However, even atheists will admit Jesus is the most influential human being in history. But the Lord knew it was essential He establish once and for all time to come that He wasn’t just another entry on a list of saints. As Stewart commented, “Christ claimed to be something and someone unprecedented, unparalleled, unrivaled, unique.” God didn’t anoint a clever guru to redeem mankind, He sent His one and only Son.
At Caesarea Philippi our Savior then followed up His initial question with a pointed one we all must answer – “But who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Notice how skillfully Jesus shifted from the impersonal to the personal in the discourse. It was a familiar maneuver. Recall His conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. He started by engaging her in small talk to put her at ease and then got right down to the real nitty gritty. Later on He did the same with Pilate. In the beginning of the interrogation Christ played it cool with the conceited Roman prefect but when Pilate asked Jesus if He claimed kingship over the Jews our Lord quickly took him down a notch, confronting him personally with, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or have others told you about me?” Pilate immediately went on the defensive, exclaiming, “I am not a Jew, am I?” (John 18:34-35). Christ always wanted to know what the individual He was talking to thought, not what their peers reckoned. That’s why His direct question of “But who do you say I am?” is one that’s troubled a lot of folks over the centuries. No one can sidestep its implication. History forces it on us. Conquerors like Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon and Hitler have made their mark but none put even the slightest of dents in Christ’s enduring legacy. The Bible forces it on us. How could a person born in a barn grow up to firmly declare, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father” (Matthew 11:27) and then back that statement up performing inexplicable miracles? As Philip Yancey wrote, “The God who created matter took shape within it, as an artist might become a spot on a painting or a playwright a character within his own play.” Why, even our conscience forces it on us. Nobody can read His words and not hear a voice inside their heart gently whisper to them “Pay heed. This is the truth!” They can deny it till the cows come home but that doesn’t render that voice imaginary.
Picture the scenario in your mind. Jesus poses the “big question.” The stunned disciples look around at each other. Their Master’s never asked them that. Predictably it’s bold Simon Peter who raises his hand and answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Some have respectfully tagged Peter’s utterance “the great confession” and that’s spot-on. To comprehend its significance we must release Peter’s revelation from the confines of Jewish orthodoxy and apply it to the world at large. Note that Jesus said to him, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven!” (Matthew 16:17). In other words, religion didn’t open Peter’s eyes, God did. And God’s no respecter of persons, races or countries of origin. The Messiah is the hope this whole fallen planet yearns to be rescued by. The Messiah is the fulfillment of every promise and the answer to every prayer. The Messiah is the One who’ll fix what’s wrong down here and bring the kingdom of heaven to our planet. Every news bulletin announces another horrible atrocity, another wave of terror or another threat of war. Nothing our civilization does makes anything better because nothing will improve until every man and woman turns to Jesus and acknowledges, as Peter did, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
However, the outspoken apostle’s declaration was more than a clarifying admission. It’s worth mentioning the other eleven didn’t challenge Peter’s assertion. He simply verbalized what they’d each concluded on their own. Stewart wrote, “They found now that, when they tried to think of God, it was Jesus’ face they saw…” Yet recognition of something and dedication to it are two separate responses. The Scriptures tell us only God can inspire a person to surrender their life to serving Him exclusively. A steely conviction such as the apostles had can only result from living in the company of the Lord or, in our case, from experiencing His literal presence in our hearts. It’s a conviction that begins with a faith miniscule as a mustard seed. Up until then Christ may as well be a myth. That’s why so many remain lost today. They refuse to open the door Jesus knocks on and till that happens He won’t come in. John Ortberg wrote, “Everybody has a little lock on the door of their heart, and nobody, not even God Himself, can force that open.” Peter’s a fine example of someone who started with the tiniest speck of faith, wanting only to find out what this “Jesus dude” was into. That’s all our Lord asks of anyone. He doesn’t dictate what we’re to make of Him. He doesn’t require we recite a pledge. On the contrary, He accepts us as we are and where we are. He knows if we give the Holy Spirit an inch He’ll take a mile.
But, as I mentioned earlier, Christ didn’t tell His disciples He was none other than the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, He showed them. Daily they heard him preach in a manner that exuded authority while they witnessed the profound effect His words had on even the most skeptical of people. They saw firsthand how He consistently rose to every occasion. They stood awestruck as He healed the unhealable and repaired the shattered lives of those who’d determined they were beyond help. They perceived the wonderful, dramatic changes that were taking place in their own hearts just from being near Him. And gradually they came to believe that the Holy man they’d opted to follow was qualified to forgive sins – something only God can do. Therefore Peter’s heartfelt confession of “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” was a set-in-stone belief they shared. It’s also my belief and something I’d stake my life on. And, like Peter, my certainty about who Jesus is didn’t come to fruition via logical deduction, brain-straining study or from my being “talked into it” by a slick evangelist. My conviction isn’t man-made. It’s God-given. It’s beyond material proof. It’s not something I can explain, nor do I feel a need to. I just know. Stewart quipped, “Only God can make us finally sure of God.”
It wouldn’t be right to omit the remainder of this New Testament episode, so I won’t. After duly congratulating Peter for answering His question correctly, Jesus announced, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19). No doubt the Master was expressing not only His gratitude but relief that the task of making sure the Good News got spread across the globe was in capable, trustworthy hands; that the persecution Jesus endured wasn’t going to amount to zip after all. He knew the apostles would get the job done after He’d ascended to the right hand of His Father. The tremendous honor He laid on Peter serves to illustrate the value of a person’s faith to our Creator. Did Jesus mean Peter the man was to be “the rock” of His church; or did He mean Peter’s avowal of unadulterated faith would serve as its metaphorical foundation? Most likely it’s a combination of both. It was upon Peter, the fully-believing and thoroughly-convinced human being, that Christ’s church would be erected. And we can see with our own eyes that the church has grown and has continued to expand mainly due to the unwavering faith its human members have invested in it all these years. Dallas Willard wrote, “The objective of Jesus’ church-growth strategy was not to build a single, behemoth social institution with a limited set of ordained authorities. Instead, His Spirit was to be poured out on all flesh to effect a widening, deepening base of influence within every nation, worldview, and social institution.”
So are we going to be the generation that, due to lack of conviction and faith and guts, stands idly by and watches Christ’s church collapse into rubble? Or are we willing to stick our necks out, go against modern secular trends and courageously ask our floundering neighbors, “What’s your take on Jesus?” How they answer that question will determine where they’ll spend eternity so we must be loving Christians educated sufficiently to successfully set them straight about precisely who Christ was and still is today.