Who do you say that I am?

By addressing the question of all time to the disciples, Jesus wanted to draw out from us the redemptive answer He sought: a confession that was crucial to discipleship.

“Now Jesus and His disciples went out to the towns of Caesarea Philippi; and on the road He asked His disciples, saying to them, ‘Who do men say that I am?’ So they answered, ‘John the Baptist; but some say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered and said to Him, ‘You are the Christ’” (Mark 8:27-29 NKJV)1

This dialogue between Jesus and His disciples takes place while Jesus is active — teaching, preaching, and healing throughout the towns and villages of Galilee. More and more people were hearing about Jesus and following Him. His ministry was marked by many miracles: turning water into wine, restoring sight to the blind, cleansing the lepers, feeding multitudes, casting unclean spirits, raising the dead, calming storms, and many other miracles. The religious leaders were suspiciously watching and scheming. The disciples were witnesses to Jesus’ mighty works and His divine authority and power. The whole of Galilee seemed to be astir. Against the rising popularity of Jesus, the Master asked the question that confronts every age and every person: who is Jesus? This is perhaps the greatest question of history.

Matthew 16:13-20 and Luke 9:18-20 also report this incident, with slight variations and additional details. In reviewing all three reports, I find an intriguing scenario.2 Why would Jesus ask this question specifically here? Did He really care what people thought of Him? Was this really His intent here? What was He trying to achieve by probing His disciples on what was being said about Him, or more directly, what the disciples thought about Him?

The incidence occurs in Caesarea Philippi: a predominantly Gentile city several miles northeast of Galilee, known for its worship of multiple gods and goddesses — a fitting place for Jesus to be declared the Son of God.3 He has been rejected in His own hometown of Nazareth. He has to redirect His ministry to other regions, because His own people refuse to accept Him and His claim as the Messiah. And wherever He goes, His acceptance is matched by rejection, the chief concern being that of the religious leaders of the time — the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who sought every possible means to get rid of Jesus (Luke 4:29). As their plot thickens, they keep track of Jesus’ whereabouts continuously, observing His teachings and actions, seeking a word here or an action there that could be used against Him as a lawbreaker, sufficient to warrant the end of His life and ministry.

Thus, on the one hand there is Jesus’ increasing popularity amidst the common people, and on the other, increasing suspicion and plotting by the Pharisees and Saducees to do away with Him. Against this conflicting background, Jesus takes His inner circle, His disciples, aside and confronts them with history’s momentous question: Who do people say I am? Who do you say I am?

By addressing the question to the disciples, Jesus wanted to draw out from them the redemptive answer He sought: a confession that was crucial to discipleship. Jesus was probing to see what the disciples had heard and observed and what they believed. First, Jesus was inquiring to know the opinion of the people: who they thought He was. Second, Jesus wanted to know the disciples’ own understanding of the issues involved in the question.

Confession of the individual

The disciples first chose to answer the easier part: the response of others to the identity of Jesus and His mission. Three popular answers were suggested, and each one of them was true, easy, and would not get anyone into trouble. From the immediate past to the distant historic archives, the disciples chose three persons with whom people identified Jesus. Was He the Baptist, risen from the dead, to confront an evil generation with a Messianic message of repentance, reformation, and salvation? Or was He Elijah the prophet, who was expected to return to God’s people with his judgment of fire against the Jezebels of today and inaugurate the expected kingdom of promise and peace? Or was He Jeremiah, another such prophet, set out to open the high way of God and inaugurate a new day of reformation?

Then as now, Jesus was more interested in the confession of the individual. Peter was quick to grasp the importance of the personal nature of the question. Did he become the self-appointed representative of the disciples? We do not know, but his response knew no hesitation: “You are the Christ.” Matthew and Luke refer to Peter’s response as “the Son of the living God” and “the Christ of God,” respectively.

The disciples had plenty of evidence to believe and agreed that Jesus was the Christ — the Messiah. They had heard His authoritative words and had seen His deeds, performing great and powerful miracles. They had seen Him working as the Messiah — the “Anointed One” — preaching the gospel to the poor, proclaiming the kingdom to everyone, and calling all to repentance. They recognized Jesus as a king and ruler — the one who was to come as foretold in the Scripture — and did not stop the crowds from crowning Him as king after the feeding of the 5,000. But at this junction in Caesarea Philippi, they could not quite comprehend the probing nature of His question.4

The scenario has some important assumptions. The disciples, religious leaders, and many of the people had varying expectations of Jesus, and because of these they misunderstood His role. Most expected Jesus to be a stern, powerful ruler, about to overthrow the Roman bondage and establish the Messianic kingdom. They expected Jesus, the Messiah, to take His rightful place in His kingdom. Clearly, they were thinking of an established earthly kingdom. But the kingdom of which Jesus spoke was a different kingdom; it was the kingdom of salvation — a kingdom not of this world. Jesus’ role was “not to conquer but to suffer and die as the Servant of the Lord — an atoning sacrifice for sins.”5

Jesus was pleased and relieved that at least Peter recognized Him as the Messiah, although human portrayals could never fully describe Jesus Christ. “Right you are,” Jesus responded. I can imagine Peter feeling proud for giving the correct answer. However, Peter did not truly understand what was taking place, because at a later time, in Matthew’s account, Jesus rebuked Peter for disagreeing with the prediction of His own death (Matthew 16:23).

Preparing the disciples

Reading further into Mark’s account, we realize that Jesus was preparing the disciples for the events that were to come in the very near future. Jesus warned them, “The Son of Man must be rejected and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and He must be killed, and on the third day be raised to life.” This is the first time the disciples heard Jesus predicting the coming events of His life. Jesus spoke plainly and clearly about His death and resurrection, telling them three times that He would soon die (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33, 34). He alerted the disciples to His impending death, with that being the turning point of His entire ministry.6 Additionally, in other instances, Jesus taught the disciples that the cost of discipleship was one of suffering and sacrifice (8:33-38; 9:35-37; 10:42-45).7

The incident concluded with another warning to the disciples. Jesus cautioned them to refrain from telling anyone about their discussion. This is strange! Why would He make such a request? Perhaps because Jesus realized that although the disciples had been with Him and had been witnesses to His works, they still did not fully comprehend His ministry. More teaching needed to take place. If the disciples, who had been with Jesus, did not understand His role fully, then others were likely to misunderstand His person and work as well. They were not quite ready to understand the predictions Jesus made concerning His impending death. It was not until His death and resurrection occurred that the disciples and many others would come to believe and understand what He had come to do and what He was ultimately trying to prepare them for.

Personal reflections

As I reflect on this incident at Caesarea Philippi, I continue to think about how we would answer Jesus’ question today: “Who do you say that I am?” Is this question important today? Most definitely it is! The answer to the question would depend on how well we know Jesus. Do we know who Jesus is? “It is not enough to know what others say about Jesus: You must know, understand, and accept for yourself that He is the Messiah. You must move from curiosity to commitment, from admiration to adoration.”8

Through careful study of God’s word, I know that when Jesus asks a question, He also provides the answer. He does not leave anything to chance. He is clear and direct. We should never be confused or unsure of Jesus’ identity. We can know Jesus through the power of His work in our lives, by intimate communion and personal time with Him, and thorough study and application of His word. Throughout Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, we find what we need to know about Jesus and the Father.

Thus, the eternal question Jesus posed at Caesarea Philippi stares at every generation, demanding an answer. Not what others think of Jesus, but what I personally think of Him, and how I relate to His call, claims, and demands. Through the assertive words of Jesus, I hear Him saying to me and to every Christian receptive to hear His words: “What do you know about Me? I am counting on you to tell and share with others. I am the salvation to this world and you are the ‘link’ to help those that do not know Me and are not prepared for My return.”

The answer to the question “What do you think of me?” is not found in one’s knowledge of history or philosophy, but in one’s personal commitment to Jesus. Says William Barclay: “Our knowledge of Jesus must never be at second hand. We might know every verdict ever passed on Jesus; we might know every Christology that human minds have ever thought out; we might be able to give a competent summary of the teaching about Jesus of every great thinker and theologian — and still not be Christians. Christianity never consists in knowing about Jesus; it always consists in knowing Jesus. Jesus Christ demands a personal verdict. He did not ask only Peter, he asks every one of us: ‘You — what do you think of me?”9

Our response can be neither philosophical nor sociological. We do not have the option to deal with Jesus as a great teacher, as an ethicist, or a radical reformer. Our answer must be profoundly personal, focused on our need for abiding in Jesus and Him alone. That journey of abiding in Jesus is neither easy nor temporary. “The Christian life is not a paved road to wealth and ease…”; oftentimes, it involves hard work, oppression, denial, and deep suffering.10 We will have challenges, just as the disciples did. In the end, though, we know Jesus is with us always and will not leave us.

Marilyn Scott is an associate pastor of the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church, Maryland, USA. E-mail: m.scott@spencervillesda.org.

REFERENCES

  1. All scripture passages in this article are from the New King James Version.
  2. Kermit Zarley, “Ministry Beyond Galilee,” The Gospels Interwoven: A Chronological Narrative of the Life of Jesus Interweaving Details from the Four Gospels in the Words of the New International Version of the Bible (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor, 1987), 132-134.
  3. Andrews Study Bible: Light (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 2010), 1308; Mark Strauss, Mark: Four Portraits, One Jesus (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2007), 184.
  4. Ellen White comments in The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 428-434, 629-630, 774.
  5. Strauss, 200.
  6. Strauss, 183-185.
  7. David Michael Coogan, Mark (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1807.
  8. Study helps, The New Living Translation, 1502.
  9. William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975), 161.
  10. Study helps, The New Living Translation, 1502.