By Alyssa Roat, Crosswalk.com
“Who do you say I am?” Jesus asked His disciples. The question is recorded in three of the four Gospels. But this question is more complicated than it might seem. Their answer wasn’t just “Jesus.” It was so much more. At some point in all of our lives, we are faced with a similar question. Who do we say Jesus is? A prophet? A moral teacher? A heretic? The Son of God? Who is Jesus?
Where in the Bible Does Jesus Ask, “Who Do You Say I Am?”
The disciples answer with, “‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, [Jeremiah or]* one of the prophets’” (Matthew 16:14, Mark 8:28, *Matthew 16:14 only). Or, in Luke 9:19, instead of simply “one of the prophets,” they say, “‘and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.’”
Was Jesus Testing the Disciples with This Question?
Jesus, of course, knew who He was. He didn’t need the disciples to tell Him. Being divine, He also already knew what the disciples thought.
Rather, Jesus often asked questions to teach and make people think. He would often answer a question with a question, leading people to find answers. In saying things aloud, they were led to think about situations.
First, Jesus asked the disciples what others said about Him. They responded easily enough, with a slew of speculations. But then He turned the tables. “Who do you say I am?”vWhat the world thought didn’t matter anymore. The mentality of the crowd was irrelevant.
Now, it was time for the disciples to claim Jesus’ identity for themselves. “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’” (Matthew 16:16).
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Jesus showed just how important Peter’s statement was: His identity as the Messiah and Son of God was the very rock, or foundation, on which the church would be built.
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What Was Happening When Jesus Asked This?
In all three of the accounts, Jesus’ exchange with His disciples is recorded shortly after the feeding of the four thousand (after the five thousand in Luke). At this point, Jesus has traveled all over teaching. He has healed many, forgiven sins, walked on water, driven out demons, and even raised the dead.
The disciples had seen all of these miracles and had been following Jesus for some time. They had even been sent out in His name, preaching repentance, healing, and casting out demons. After all of this, Jesus turned to His disciples and asked, “Who do you say I am?”
The disciples were beginning to understand more of who Jesus was. The title “Messiah” was often misunderstood at the time; most expected the foretold Messiah to be a military leader who would deliver Israel from Roman rule. This may be part of why Jesus told the disciples after Peter’s confession not to tell anyone He was the Messiah; people would misunderstand. However, Jesus came to do much more than free us from earthly rule.
It would still take until after Jesus’ death and resurrection for the disciples to quite “get it.” However, right after telling the disciples that He was indeed the Messiah, Jesus began foretelling his death. “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21). Jesus wasn’t going to be the type of Messiah—or God—that anyone expected. So, what is the meaning of ‘Who do you say I am?’
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The Meaning of ‘Who Do You Say I Am?’
“I Am” is an important phrase throughout the Bible. God first declares this name for Himself in Exodus, when He appeared to Moses in the burning bush. Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14)
Jesus also uses multiple “I Am” statements:
I Am the Bread of Life (John 6:35)
I Am the Light of the World (John 8:12),
I Am the Door of the Sheep (John 10:7)
I Am the Good Shepherd (John 10:11)
I Am the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25)
I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6)
I Am the True Vine (John 15:1)
And let’s not forget: “before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58). Through these, He alludes to His identity as divine.
The “I Am” statements continue into Revelation, for example, “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty’” (Revelation 1:8). God is constantly claiming His identity. Even in asking the question, “Who do you say I am?” Jesus is leading the disciples to a recognition of God. Why does all this matter so much?
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Why it Matters to Say Who Jesus Is
Even in Jesus’ time, people had a lot of answers for who Jesus was. As recorded in the passages above, some thought He was a prophet, while in other passages, He was accused of being of the devil. The Jews killed Jesus as a heretic, the Romans as a potential insurrectionist. Yet His followers claimed that He rose from the dead and worshiped Him as God, and for this, they were willing to die. Clearly, whoever Jesus is, what we believe about His identity has consequences.
According to the Bible, proclaiming Jesus’ identity is part of salvation. Romans 10:9 says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” If Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, He made some outlandish claims. He claimed He existed before Abraham (John 8:58). He confirmed that He was the Son of God (Matthew 16:16). He offered forgiveness of sins, something only God can do (Mark 2:5). He even claimed, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
In the words of famed theologian C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Only as the Son of God can Jesus offer hope.
What About You? Who Do You Say That Jesus Is?
The core principle that sets Christianity apart from every other religion is our belief that the supreme God of the universe took on human flesh, lived among us, and then, in His immense love, died that we might be forgiven.
If we are willing to claim Jesus as Lord and submit ourselves to Him, we are invited to live with Him forever. This is something no prophet, teacher, or revolutionary can offer. Are we willing to accept the great power and love of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God?
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Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. Her passions for Biblical study and creativity collide in her writing. Her debut novel Wraithwood releases Nov. 7, 2020. She has had 150+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.