Who Is Jesus? – Part 2
Introduction: In 1980 Samuel Levine published the book You Take Jesus, I’ll Take God: How to Refute Christian Missionaries. He argued that Christians misunderstand the Old Testament when they apply passages such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 to Jesus. Books like this continue to make sensational splashes and contribute to the never ending debate over Jesus of Nazareth.
The true identity of Jesus Christ remains one of the most controversial issues in the history of religion—beginning with the different views of Jesus in his own day. Some saw him as a healer, a teacher, a prophet, maybe even Elijah come back from the dead (Matt. 16:14). Others saw him as a demon possessed man (Matt. 9:34; 12:24), a political troublemaker, or simply Joseph the carpenter’s kid (Mk. 6:3). But Peter clarified Jesus’ identity after Jesus asked his disciples outright, “But who do you say that I am? Peter answered, under the Spirit’s inspiration, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (Matt. 16:15-16). But this specificity is a problem today.
The British philosopher and authority on Immanuel Kant, Norman Kemp Smith, spoke for many of his contemporaries when he remarked, “I have no difficulty with the idea of God, but I do with that of Christ: one time, one place. Very difficult.” His comment acknowledges that when we say the words Jesus Christ we are not talking about an idea, symbol, or principle but a specific historical figure.[i]
A recent Gallup survey revealed that 84 percent of Americans believe Jesus Christ was God or the Son of God. Overwhelmingly Americans believe that Jesus was sinless, brave, and emotionally stable. By lesser margins they regard him as easy to understand (!), physically strong and attractive, practical, warm, and accepting. Athletes come up with creative portrayals of Jesus that elude modern scholarship. Norm Evans, former Miami Dolphins lineman, wrote in his book On God’s Squad, “I guarantee you Christ would be the toughest guy who ever played this game…If he were alive today I would picture a six-foot-six-inch 260 pound defensive tackle who would always make the big plays and would be hard to keep out of the backfield for offensive linemen like myself.”
Fritz Peterson, former New York Yankee, more easily fancies Jesus in a baseball uniform: “I firmly believe that if Jesus Christ was sliding into second base, he would knock the second baseman into left field to break up the double play. Christ might not throw a spitball, but he would play hard within the rules.”[ii]
These two notions are every bit as misguided as that of Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, one time associate editor of Christianity Today who now identifies herself as an “evangelical lesbian.” She proclaims, “Many of us would understand Jesus to be our elder brother, the trailblazer and constant companion for us who are here in time and space but ultimately one among many brothers and sisters in an eternally, equally worthy siblinghood. (He was) firstborn only in the sense that he was the first to show us that it is possible to live in oneness with the divine source while we are here on this planet.”[iii]
Orthodox Christianity throughout the ages has thought otherwise. The church has always affirmed that the Jesus Christ of history was at the same time truly God. Paul proclaimed that “Christ…who is over all” is “God blessed for ever” (Rom (9:3, 5). And in Col. 2:9: “In him the whole fullness of Deity dwells bodily” (cf. Col. 1:15). In II Cor. Paul speaks of “the power of the Lord who is the Spirit” (3:18) and “the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (4:4 cf. 4:6). In I Cor. 2:8 Paul describes Jesus as “the Lord of glory,” which is tantamount to acknowledging his Deity. John confesses, “The Word became flesh; he came to dwell among us, and we saw his glory, such glory as befits the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth: (Jn1:14). In I John Christ is described as “the true God and eternal life” (6:20). And in Revelation he is exalted as the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (19:15). Other texts that explicitly refer to Jesus Christ as God include Matt. 4:7; Lk. 4:12; Jn. 20:28; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; and II Pet. 1:1.
In addition to the direct affirmation, “There is,” observes Ramm, “an abundance of indirect evidence for the Deity of Christ. Even if the direct appellations of Deity to Christ are overstatements, the indirect evidence is not, such as the worship Jesus received, his authority to forgive sins, his preexistence, and his claim to have power in himself to perform miracles.”[iv] While the New Testament indeed teaches the Deity of Christ, it also insists on his true humanity. According to Paul, Jesus was: “born of woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4). God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3; Phil. 2:7). The author of Hebrews refers to Christ as “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin:” (4:15). The sinlessness of Jesus is pictured as a result of conscious decision and intense struggle rather than being a formal consequence of his divine nature (Heb. 4:15; 5:7-9; 12:2-4). He “became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). In the words of the Apostles’ Creed, he “was crucified, dead and buried.”
I. The Situation and Jesus’ Interrogation
A. The situation (Matt. 16:13). The retirement to Caesarea Philippi afforded our Lord opportunity to ask two questions. First, what did the people think of Him? And, second, who did the disciples think He was? H.P. Liddon, in his masterful study on the Deity of Christ wrote, “When then Jesus Christ so urgently draws the attention of men to His Personal Self, He places us in a dilemma. We must either say that He was unworthy of His own words in the Sermon on the Mount, or we must confess that He has some right, and is under the pressure of some necessity, to do that which would be morally insupportable in a merely human teacher. Now if this right and necessity exist, it follows that when our Lord bids us to consider His Personal rank in the hierarchy of beings, He challenges an answer. Remark moreover that in the popular sense of the term the answer is not less a theological answer if it be that of the Ebionitic heresy than if it be the language of the Nicene Creed. The Christology of the Church is in reality an integral part of its theology; and Jesus Christ raises the central question of Christian theology when He asks, ‘Whom do men say that I the Son of Man am?’”[v]
B. The interrogation (13-15). The text calls His companions, “disciples,” but from the accounts it appears that the revelation and the teaching given at this time were given only to the apostles. Playing an important role in the conversation here is Peter, who has been called “the American of the apostles,” no doubt because he was always, it appears, putting his foot in his mouth![vi] We are inclined to think of the great Apostle as a colossal blunderer (cf. 17:1-11, 24-27; 18:21-22; John 13:1-10), but we must remember that it is our Lord who said to him, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona” (v. 17). He addresses him by his full Jewish name. Bariōna has been frequently translated as “son of Jonah” (as in the NIV), but this would contradict John 1:42 and 21:15 unless Simon is simply seen as a spiritual son of Jonah. It is better, therefore, to recognize that the Greek spelling is a legitimate transliteration and abbreviation of bar Johanan (“son of John”). Jesus’ calling Peter “son of John” nicely balances Peter’s address to his Lord as “Son of God.” Jesus attributes to Peter’s confession insight stemming from divine revelation rather than human deduction. The language does not specify how God revealed himself nor does it require some sudden flash of insight, but it does affirm that God has led Peter to his correct understanding. “Man” is literally flesh and blood, a stock Semitic idiom for mortal humanity.”[vii]
1. The Interrogation Opens with a General Question (13-14) addressed to the disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” It seeks an evaluation of what men in general have placed upon the identity of the Lord Jesus. It is, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” The answers are probably to be understood as “three specimen answers,” typical of the kinds of answers that were being given by those who, unlike the leaders, were trying to put Him in the context of the biblical revelation in a serious way.
a. The first was the view that Herod had espoused when he said that he was John the Baptist risen from the dead. There were similarities between John and Jesus, for both had official positions in the messianic program, but there the likeness fades, and the superiority and uniqueness of the Son become evident, as John himself admitted (cf. John 3:30). John, the ambassador, was an agent in the preparation of men for repentance, but Jesus was the King who could give it.
b. The second suggestion also points to certain similarities between the great prophet and Jesus, for the Son was the greatest of the line of the prophetic messengers of God. Elijah and He were both men of prayer, men of miracles, and warriors for the truth in conflict with false prophets. Elijah, however, wavered in his faith, but Jesus never did. Elijah won many of his victories by shedding the blood of others, but Jesus won His by shedding His own blood.
c. The third suggestion is not surprising, and it is the opinion of more than one that Jeremiah, of all the Old Testament prophets, was most like our Lord. He was a living example of patient endurance and of suffering for the truth he proclaimed. And he came to be known as “the weeping prophet.” The picture he presented reminds one of the Suffering Servant of Jehovah, the Lord Jesus, of whom Isaiah speaks in this way, “He is despised and rejected of men, A Man of Sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). A true likeness existed between them, but there it ends–with a likeness. For while Jeremiah had prophesied of a New Covenant to come, it was the Man of Sorrows who inaugurated that New Covenant in His blood, obtaining the forgiveness of sins for His people.
2. The Individual Question (15) naturally follows, for general answers do not suffice for Him, and so He replies, “But who do you (the word is emphatic in the Greek text) say that I am?”
C. The Confession of Peter (16). The only adequate answer is Peter’s “Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter knew that He was not just another of the prophets, important though they were. He sensed that He was the Messiah, and that Messiahship was grounded in an even deeper relationship to Jehovah. He was the Son of the living God, who knew the inmost thoughts and purposes of the Father and possessed His essential nature. This insight probably did not come to Peter like a bolt from the blue.[viii] Stonehouse comments, “In Peter’s confession we are invited to observe then, not a new objective revelation, but genuine subjective apprehension. And even this apprehension is not clearly intimated to be a completely new apprehension.
The fundamental contrast of the narrative is not between the disciples’ previous lack of apprehension and their suddenly bestowed understanding, but between the inadequate and erroneous estimates of men, who held that he was at best one of the prophets, and the evaluation of his disciples who belonged to the inner circle and who had eyes to see and ears to hear. (Mt. 16:13ff; cf. 13:11-17).[ix] “It was,” Calvin adds, “a brief confession, but one which contains the whole sum of our salvation.”[x] In its ultimate bearings it contained all the Messianic work that leads to His eternal Kingdom with its subjects, the saints of God. Reymond rightly contends, “I would urge that by his confession Peter self-consciously intended, as the result of the Father’s revelatory activity, to affirm full, unabridged Deity to Jesus as “the Son” of “the Father,” and that Jesus, by declaring him in making such a confession to have been directly blessed by his Father, tacitly claimed to be God incarnate.”[xi]
Conclusion: Buddha and Confucius, Zarathustra and Mohammed are indeed the first confessors of the religion founded by each of them but they are not themselves the content of such religion. Their connection with it is in a sense accidental and external. Their religion could remain the same even though their name should be forgotten or their persons be supplanted by others. In Christianity, however, all this is very different. Christianity stands in a very different relationship to the person of Christ than the other religions do to the persons who founded them. Jesus was not the first confessor of the religion named after His name. He was not the first and the most important Christian. “He occupies a wholly unique place in Christianity. He is not in the usual sense of it the founder of Christianity, but He is the Christ, the One who was sent by the Father, and who founded His Kingdom on earth and now extends and preserves it to the end of the ages. Christ is Himself Christianity. He stands, not outside, but inside of it. Without His name, person, and work there is no such thing as Christianity. In one word, Christ is not the one who points the way to Christianity, but the way itself. He is the only, true, and perfect Mediator between God and men. That which the various religions in their belief in a mediator have surmised and hope, that is actually and perfectly fulfilled in Christ.”[xii]
[i] cf. Timothy George, “Big Picture Faith” Christianity Today (Oct. 23, 2000), p. 91.
[ii] cf. Philip Yancy, The Jesus I Never Knew (Zondervan, 1995), p. 19.
[iii] Cited by D.G. Bloesch, Christian Foundations: Jesus Christ Savior & Lord (IVP, 1997), p. 21.
[iv] B.L. Ramm, An Evangelical Christology: Ecumenic & Historic (Nelson, 1985), p. 41.
[v] H.P. Liddon, The Divinity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (rpt. Klock & Klock, 1978), p. 6.
[vi] S. Lewis Johnson, The New Testament Revelation of the Messiah (Believers Bible Bulletin, 1982), no. 14, p. 4.
[vii] Cf. C.L. Blomberg, Matthew: The New American Commentary (Broadman, 1992), p. 251.
[viii] “In the first place, Peter’s confession is represented as the result of a strictly supernatural revelation given him by God; not “flesh and blood,” that is, not man, not human nature, has led Peter to make this confession, but the Father of Jesus, and more particularly the Father in heaven, which stresses the revelation-origin of Peter’s confession still more strongly. The verb “has revealed” reminds me of Matt. 11:27, where it is said that only the Father knows the Son, and where the context represents it as the exclusive work of the Father to reveal the Son. If this reminiscence is not accidental, we shall have to infer that Jesus finds here a concrete instance of such revelation by the Father of His unique sonship. Peter is one of the simple and unwise ones to whom it is the Father’s good pleasure to reveal the truth concerning Jesus. The phrase “my father,” instead of “God,” also suggests that the disclosure made to Peter had reference to he paternal and filial relationship between God and Jesus. Even if the higher sense of a super-Messianic sonship were not required by the resemblance of the train of thought to that of chapter 11, we should still have to say that, considering our passage by itself, the mere fact of Jesus’ Messiahship could scarcely have been represented by Jesus as requiring, in the case of Peter, such a strictly supernatural revelation for its knowledge and acceptance. The ordinary means of self-disclosure during our Lord’s long association with Peter would have sufficed for the basis of a mere confession of Jesus’ Messiahship.” G. Vos, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus (P & R, 1953), p. 179.
[ix] N.B. Stonehouse, The Witness of the Synoptic Gospels to Christ (Baker, 1979), p. 216.
[x] Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries II (Eerdmans, 1972), p. 187.
[xi] R.L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nelson, 1998), p. 285.
[xii] Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (rpt.. Baker, 1977), p. 281.
A First Century Account of the Christ and His Apostles
Also available on Kindle!
“For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)
The work that you hold in your hands is of inestimable value. Within its pages is the astonishing story of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the Christian Church—an historical account which has changed millions of lives for two millennia. Though scores of books have been written about Jesus and the Christian Church, here in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts we are led ad fontes, that is, back to the first-century source concerning the ministry of Christ and His early followers.
Composed sometime between 60-62 AD, this two-volume work was written by a man named Luke (Greek: Loukas). In addition to being a devoted follower of Christ, Luke was a missionary, a physician, and a historian. As a Greek from Antioch in Syria, Luke may or may not have been raised with the knowledge of God’s Word. What we can be sure of, however, is that at some point in his life he was exposed to the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, and by grace he believed it. As a “far off” Gentile, Luke was mercifully, through God-given faith, “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13).
Whether you are a professing believer or simply investigating the Christian faith, I encourage you to read this book with the author’s original intent in mind: that you “may have certainty” concerning the truth about Jesus (Luke 1:4).
–from the Foreword
In this modernized reading of Luke and Acts from the 1599 Geneva Bible, you will experience the life of Jesus Christ and the early history of the Christian Church as never before. With chapter and verse divisions removed and formatted for easier reading, Luke’s studious 2-volume historical work comes alive. As the lone Gentile author of any of the 66 books of the Bible, Luke provides a unique perspective on Christ and the early church. He understood well that Jesus came, not only as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, but also to give light to everyone who sat in darkness (Luke 1:79). As one of the apostle Paul’s traveling companions, Luke was instrumental in taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the uttermost parts of the Roman empire, even to the city of Rome itself, where he alone remained by the apostle’s side as he awaited execution under the emperor Nero (2 Timothy 4:11). Luke’s faithful reporting of these first century events—both the ones he carefully researched and the ones he witnessed firsthand—are a much needed reminder to our modern age that even though nearly two thousand years have come and gone, Jesus Christ is still the most important, and controversial, figure to have ever walked the face of this earth; and his question to the disciples is still the most important question that each one of us must answer: “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20)