When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Matthew 16:13-14 (see also Mark 8:27-28 and Luke 9:18-19)
Jesus was planning to plant his first ever Church.
He decided to follow the course of a good Rabbi in working with his students. He asked a question.
No. Make that two questions.
Call them a pre-test, if you will. The kind good teachers often come up with as a way of measuring where folks are in starting the class. Maybe you’ve taken such a class before. And maybe you’ve noticed that there comes a time for a post-test that asks the same questions just to figure out what, if anything, you may have learned since day one.
The first question, according to the first 3 Gospels of the New Testament, essentially came down to this: Who do people say that I am? Jesus started them off with the easy one first. Indeed, he’d had roughly 3 years to build a platform of followers. He was now widely known. And talked about. Even admired. And among his own people who knew him best, the answers were “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets,” according to Matthew 16:14.
The Hebrew prophets, you may recall, were messengers from God. They were God’s mouthpiece. And the best of the best were those like Elijah and Jeremiah. But regardless of who the students (i.e., disciples) said in answer to that first question, the answer was basically correct. It was a gimme. Jesus was human like the rest of us, the prophets included. Good answer!
“And who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)
This was the clincher. If Jesus were to plant a Church to continue his ministry on earth after he was gone, then at least somebody in the class would have to get this one right. Answer something like “a great Hebrew prophet” and the Church would be little more than another Synagogue. They would know about God just as before through yet another prophet. But they would not know God.
You may know the rest of this story in that one disciple, Simon Peter, says Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God here in the flesh. Jesus was divine, unlike the rest of us, the prophets included. Good answer! From this point on Simon Peter became the one who led this new Church plant.
Okay, so now let's fast-forward a ways. How about to June 2022? Time for a post-test.
Slightly different wording, but here goes: Who do today’s Christian people say that Jesus is?
Raise your hand if you’d say some variation of this description taken from Isaiah 53:5-6: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” That answer sound about right?
If that is roughly what Christians would say about who Jesus was in coming to start his Church, then maybe it’s time to get a bit more personal. Maybe if Jesus were here today in any one of our Christian Churches, we may find him throwing out this kind of post-test.
“And who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)
Just maybe this question is still the clincher. Or just maybe Jesus wants to know even now whether we’ve learned anything at all about him since day one. If not, maybe it’s time for Jesus to plant another Church in the world. One that would come closer to figuring out who he really is and why he really is. One that could come up with a more original description of what it means to be a Christian than what the various churches have said and are still saying. One that could, if noting the answer Jesus gave to Simon Peter, reflect not the revelation of men but of God (MT 16:17).
To show you how seriously I take this test-question Jesus asked his Church then and perhaps still now, I will volunteer my own answer first. And it goes something like this.
You, Jesus, are who you say you are, which is far more than what the world of so-called Christian Churches has centered its religious doctrines around. Sure, the Church has made Isaiah 53:5-6 your defining story. But you, Jesus, told a very different story that has seldom made its way into the public discourse about you. Yes, you are who you said you are:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” LK 4:18-19
And then, v. 21 to follow, Jesus said to everyone there in his hometown synagogue: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus is who he said he was.
Not saying my answer is right. That’s not for me to judge. Others will surely judge me as wrong and use a mix of other statements attributed to Jesus in doing so. I dare say his other self-definitions will come closer to IS 61:1-2 than to IS 53:5-6 upon which the Church has grounded its core values and doctrines. Yet, others will judge me wrong on that count as well.
How Jesus will judge my answer, or your own, remains to be seen. But if any of us takes this post-test and answers both questions the same (i.e., what “they” say and what “you” say) or both the same as when we first heard about Jesus and yet today, then we will still know about Jesus as opposed to knowing Jesus.
If Jesus were planting a Church in our world today, who would he ask? What would he ask? And if we are at all serious about being a Christian Church in June 2022, what would we answer?