In the region of Caesarea Philippi, named after Caesar and Philip the Tetrarch there was a grotto reputed to be the birthplace of Pan, the fertility symbol of ancient religion; the god of nature. Throughout the region were temples of classical pagan religion to serve the Greek and Syrian population. There was a massive new temple to the Roman emperor. It was in this place that Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?”
Today, multiculturalism challenges the Christian claim of the uniqueness of Jesus. Chinese, Sikhs, Hindus, Parsees, Muslims, Buddhists, Psychics, Scientologists, Secularists and adherents of a multitude of other faiths jostle for attention in our marketplace of ideas. It is easy to forget that the seductions of syncretism in religion were every bit as attractive in the world of Jesus as today. Millions died for their conviction that Jesus was unique. According to one church leader the greatest peril facing the church in the near future is syncretism. He said that it was a far more dangerous challenge to the Christian church than atheism is ever likely to be (Willem Visser ‘t Hooft). Syncretism: the attempt to sink differences and effect union between sects or philosophic schools (OED).
A young man discussed with me his undecided attitude to Christianity. He is somewhat cynical about the different claims of religion due to the unchristian behavior of some hardcore fundamental Christians he has experienced. Yet he is attracted to the teaching of Jesus. I tell him that we all have to make up our minds about Jesus. Who is he?
The answer of the disciples was that the people were saying that he was John the Baptist raised from the dead, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. All of these were revered figures in the Old Testament who spoke for God. Jesus asked them, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”
The reply of Simon Peter is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. ‘Christ’ is the Greek title of the Hebrew term ‘Messiah’: the anointed one. This term denoted a kingly figure who would triumph in the last days over Israel’s enemies. ‘Son of the living God’ reminds us that he was more than an earthly king. Jesus asked the Pharisees, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They replied, “The Son of David.” Jesus corrected them by pointing out that David called the Messiah ‘Lord’, so how can he be his son? (Matthew 22:41-46)
Simon Peter and the disciples could not fully understand the implications of this revelation of the identity of Jesus. It was not revealed to them by man but by the Father in heaven. The identity of Jesus cannot be understood in human terms. No arguments will persuade a sceptic to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Reason can only take you so far.
When you are seeking to know what to believe, and who to believe about God, yourself and life, you have to make a decision about Jesus. “Who do you say I am?” You can say that he is one among many prophets and holy men. You can look at the evidence of his life and teaching. You can consider his claims to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, the Word of God, God in the flesh, the Resurrection and the Life. You can examine the historical record to see if it is reliable. You can read about the effect of his life upon his followers. You can set yourself up as an investigator to determine the truth that would cause you to believe. You think that you are a detached observer and can make an unbiased, objective decision about Jesus. You become the judge and jury of that search for a verdict. But that is a delusion for we are part of the problem without knowing it. How could Simon Peter with his limitations and prejudices come to an informed conclusion about Jesus? How can anyone? What we see happening to Simon Peter in the process of answering this question of Jesus is what has to happen to us. His answer came not from his natural capacity but from a revelation by God.
Human reason must give up its claim to being the ultimate authority about Jesus. God gives understanding through faith, but on the condition that human knowledge recognizes its own limitations. Our arrogant human intellect wants to presuppose what God can and cannot do. That is why people in Jesus’ day, and throughout history, are offended by the claims of Jesus to be the eternal presence of God.
The truth about Jesus is learned neither by speculation, nor through imagination, nor by historical investigation, but rather by virtue of a divine revelation received by the gift of faith. This results in a new birth, a conversion to Jesus as the Christ. It involves admitting the limitations of our own human reason. Our mind needs to be redeemed and renewed from its blindness and self-centeredness. Human reason is infected and damaged by unbelief. So God has to give us the means to understand – the gift of faith. God has to reveal himself to us by his Spirit and give us the means to understand who Jesus is.
Jesus came knocking at the door of my life. Reluctant to open it to a stranger I asked, “Who is there?” He replied, “Who do you say I am?” I had to make a decision about opening the door of my life to Jesus. Who was he? Would he be a threatening presence? Would he be intimidating? Would he be a scold? Would he come in as an intruder or as a friend? Why would I want to admit him into my life? Would he fit in with my other interests, or would he be disruptive, an embarrassment to me? What about my own privacy? How would I accommodate him with my lusts, my selfishness, my ambitions, my critical spirit, my egotistical needs, my unkindness, my hurtful tongue? What about my guilty conscience, my anxieties, my fears, my apprehension about the unknown, about death? Jesus could not do anything about any of those parts of my life as a mere prophet. He would have to be the Christ, the Anointed One who could triumph over all my enemies, the Son of the living God.
I opened the door and it was revealed to me as the years went by that the Jesus who entered my life was all that he claimed to be: the living water that satisfies my thirst, the bread of life that never perishes, the light of the world that dispels the dark, the gate through which I enter, the good shepherd who lays down his life for me, the resurrection and the life who gives me eternal life, the true vine who enables me to bear much fruit.
Who do you say Jesus is? Our answer is our choice, our decision about Jesus. The world is filled with alternatives to Jesus. There is a marketplace of world views and gods on sale. Pan, the fertility god of nature, Aphrodite and Venus command the attention of millions. Dionysius and Bacchus appeal to our senses. There are even the gods of Caesar, the political and military powers of government that promise much. They all knock on our doors and on the doors of our loved ones to delude them so that they will believe the lie.
In the last day all of them will be finally revealed for what they are. The Lord Jesus will overthrow them all with the breath of his mouth and destroy them by the splendor of his coming. Those who are deceived will perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved (2 Thess. 2:8-12). Who do you say Jesus is? What do you think?