Back in 1972 a long-haired Christian rock musician named Larry Norman wrote a song about Jesus called ‘The Outlaw’. In the song, Larry explored the different categories that we use to try to understand who Jesus really is. Here are the words:
Some say he was an outlaw, that he roamed across the land
with a band of unschooled ruffians and a few old fishermen.
No one knew just where he came from or exactly what he’d done,
but they said it must be something bad that kept him on the run.
Some say he was a poet, that he’d stand upon a hill,
and his voice could calm an angry crowd or make the waves stand still;
that he spoke in many parables that few could understand,
but the people sat for hours just to listen to this man.
Some say he was a sorcerer, a man of mystery;
he could walk upon the water, he could make a blind man see.
That he conjured wine at weddings and did tricks with fish and bread,
that he talked of being born again, and raised people from the dead.
Some say a politician who spoke of being free;
he was followed by the masses on the shores of Galilee.
He spoke out against corruption and he bowed to no decree,
and they feared his strength and power, so they nailed him to a tree.
Some say he was the Son of God, a man above all men,
but he came to be a servant, and to set us free from sin.
And that’s who I believe he was ‘cos that’s who I believe,
and I think we should get ready, ‘cos it’s time for us to leave.
I love the way this song captures the journey of understanding we take as we try to make sense of the person of Jesus. None of these ideas are entirely wrong, are they? Yes, Jesus did strange miraculous signs, and some people might see that as sorcery. Yes, he had a lot to say about freedom and caring for the poor and needy, and some might see that as being political. All these ideas have a grain of truth in them, but still, most of them aren’t totally adequate to describe who Jesus really is. Probably no human category is fully adequate, which is why, in the end, we have to try to understand how Jesus himself saw his mission: ‘That’s who I believe he was, because that’s who I believe’.
Even today this journey of understanding is still going on. Some people believe that Jesus is an entirely fictional character. Some see him as a crazy apocalyptic prophet who believed the world was going to end in his lifetime, and was sadly mistaken. Some see him as primarily a miracle worker, and they want him to carry on working miracles in their own lives, healing their diseases and giving them financial prosperity. Some see him as the gatekeeper to life after death: his main job is to make sure that they go to heaven when they die. Some see him as an extraordinary human figure, a wise religious teacher, a good example to follow. Some see him as a prophet, a man sent by God with a message we need to hear. And some see him as even more than that: somehow, in him, God has walked the earth and revealed himself to us.
In the first half of the gospel story, this question of the identity of Jesus has never been far from people’s minds. ‘Who is this man?’ they ask. “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:27). “Why does this fellow speak this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). People notice that he speaks with authority, as if he has a right to say things their scribes and Pharisees can’t say, because he knows what he’s talking about and they don’t! People are astounded by the fact that evil spirits have to obey his commands, and at times he even raises the dead.
What category are they going to use for him? There was a ready-made one in their culture that seemed appropriate: ‘prophet’. Today we talk about prophecy as ‘foretelling the future’, but the Old Testament prophets weren’t fortune-tellers: they were messengers from God, challenging Israel to leave behind their false gods and return to the true and living God. And sometimes prophets did extraordinary miracles as signs of their authority.
This seemed like a pretty good category for Jesus, and so in today’s gospel that’s the category the disciples use. Jesus asks them “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13) (‘The Son of Man’ is a title Jesus uses for himself, so the question simply means ‘Who do people say I am?’). The disciples are quick with their reply: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (16:14). Elijah and Jeremiah are famous prophets from Israel’s past. John the Baptist, of course, was much more recent; everyone in the disciple group remembered him and some of them had known him well.
But Jesus isn’t content with second-hand news; he wants to know what’s on their minds. Do they agree with the opinions they’ve cited? Or do they have ideas of their own? He wants to know how carefully they’ve been watching and listening and thinking and praying, so he asks “But who do you say that I am?” (v.15). Matthew doesn’t mention it, but I imagine there being a pause at this point; the disciples look down, none of them wanting to be the first to speak; they don’t mind sharing what other people have said, but they feel a bit shy about sharing their own opinions. And then finally Peter acts as their spokesman: ‘Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God”. And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven”’ (vv.16-17).
You see, there is a right answer to this question. Nowadays it’s fairly common to hear people being asked the question ‘Who is Jesus for you?’ On the face of it, it’s an innocent enough question, but it does give the impression that we each get to make up our own Jesus, the one who would do the best job of meeting our particular set of ‘felt needs’. It’s as if Jesus has no reality of his own, but only the reality I create for him. I need a revolutionary to lead my armed struggle for freedom? Jesus can be my revolutionary. I need a therapist to help me with the pain of my childhood? Jesus is the best possible therapist, and his fees are very reasonable!
But Jesus isn’t asking his disciples “Who am I for you?” He asks “Who do you say that I am?” and his response to Peter’s reply shows he believes there’s a right answer to that question. He hasn’t spelled it out for them, because he would rather they figure it out for themselves – watching what he does, listening to what he says, thinking and praying and talking about it together.
What is the right answer? Let’s look briefly at these three titles used for Jesus.
‘The Son of Man’ is a figure of speech; it can mean nothing more than ‘human being’, just as in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories Aslan the Lion addresses humans as ‘sons of Adam’ and ‘daughters of Eve’. But it can mean more than that as well. In the Old Testament book of Daniel there’s a judgement scene: the various beasts that symbolize the empires that have been troubling Israel and the world are judged and condemned. But then a new figure arrives on the scene:
‘I saw one like a son of man
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed’ (Daniel 7:13-14).
Who is this strange ‘son of man’? Jewish scholars see him as a personification of the nation of Israel – kicked around by so many superpowers, but now coming into its own and becoming ruler of the world! But Jesus takes this title and uses it for himself. It’s a subtle way of speaking; he might just be calling himself a ‘human being’, but what if he wasn’t? What if he was saying “I’m like that Son of Man in Daniel – the one who is presented before the throne of God and receives a kingdom, so that all the people of the earth come to serve him”? What does that tell us about how Jesus saw himself?
So the first title is ‘Son of Man. Secondly, Simon Peter uses the word ‘Messiah’, which in older translations is usually ‘Christ’ ‘Messiah’ is Hebrew and ‘Christ’ is Greek, but they both mean ‘the anointed one’. Kings of Israel were anointed with olive oil as the sign of God’s power coming down on them. So ‘Messiah’ came to mean ‘God’s anointed king’. In the time of Jesus, many people were looking for a particular kind of ‘messiah’, a king like their old King David who would lead Israel’s armies against the Romans and the corrupt leaders in Jerusalem. He would set Israel free from injustice and oppression and make it a holy nation again.
I’m sure you can imagine that ‘messiah’ would have been a dangerous word in the time of Jesus. There had been people before who claimed to be messiahs, and they’d always led rebellions. The Romans and the Jewish leaders were very wary about Messianic movements. That’s probably why, at the end of our gospel reading, Jesus ‘sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah’ (v.20). He was about to radically redefine what ‘Messiah’ meant – turning away from the violent and power-hungry versions of that word – and until he did, he didn’t want his disciples making any royal announcements in his name.
‘Son of Man’ – ‘Messiah’. ‘Son of the living God’ is the third title used for Jesus in this passage. In the Old Testament God sometimes calls Israel his ‘firstborn son’, and sometimes the king of Israel is spoken of in this way. God says to David about his son Solomon, “I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me” (2 Samuel 7:14). So in the early stages of the New Testament, ‘Son of God’ can be just another way of saying ‘Messiah’, God’s anointed king.
But it’s already starting to mean more than that. It’s true that in the Old Testament God occasionally speaks of the king of Israel as ‘my son’. But no king of Israel ever uses the singular possessive in response: no king of Israel ever refers to God as ‘my Father’. Jesus, however, is not shy about doing that: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven!” (v.17). His relationship with the God he calls ‘his Father’ is deeply personal and intimate. We’re not yet at the Christian teaching that Jesus is God the Son, the second person of the Trinity; that’s going to take a few more years to be worked out. But we’re on the way there; we might even say that the destination is coming into view.
So there is a right answer to the question “Who do you say that I am?” and Simon Peter gets it right. Jesus is a prophet – that’s not a wrong answer – but he’s more than a prophet. He’s the Son of Man – the one who will be presented before the throne of God to be given authority as Lord of all. He’s the Messiah – the king who will set us free from all that binds us, the King who announces the coming of the Kingdom of God and challenges us to follow him joyfully as his disciples. And he’s the Son of God, the one who knows the Father intimately, the one who is authorized to speak in his Father’s name, the one who reveals the Father to us as no one else: we might even say, ‘Like Father, like Son’.
So yes, there is a right answer to this question. But I also want to say this: we all have to get there for ourselves. In the past, we were perhaps too quick to quote the right answer. We’d been taught that Jesus was the Son of God, and so when someone asked us ‘Who do you say Jesus is?’ we were quick with the reply. But it wasn’t the reply we’d come to for ourselves, by our own reading of the gospels, our own thinking and praying and talking it over with others. It was a second-hand answer.
Nowadays, I think people are not so quick to give second hand answers, and I think that’s a good thing. Maybe not everyone here today can honestly say ‘amen’ to the idea that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord of all. Maybe we find that the word ‘prophet’ is the best we can do right now: “I know he was sent by God with a message for us, but I struggle with this idea of him being the son of God”.
If that’s you, there are a couple of things I’d say. First, thank you for your honesty. There’s no point in pretending we’re further along than we are. After all, God knows what’s in our hearts; we can’t fool him, and we shouldn’t try.
Second, don’t be surprised if it takes you a while to get to “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. It took the disciples a while to get there too. I expect that when they first began to follow Jesus, they weren’t clear in their own minds just who he was. They were impressed with his teaching and amazed by his miracles and healings, but they didn’t look at him and say “You must be God!” It was only as they spent time with him, watched and listened and prayed and thought, that they were led further along.
So by all means, if you need to start with “Jesus is the smartest man who ever lived”, start there. But don’t stop there. Pray for deeper understanding, pray for guidance, and meanwhile, if you truly do believe that he’s the smartest man who ever lived, then why not try putting his smart sayings into practice? Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. Live simply and be generous to the poor. Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you. Do to others as you would have them do to you. And all the time, pray that God would give you more light on the path.
In next week’s gospel we’re going to discover that it’s no easy thing to follow Jesus as the Messiah. Peter still thinks ‘Messiah’ means ‘conquering king like David’, and he’s shocked when Jesus starts talking about being rejected by the Jewish leaders, and being killed; he even tries to rebuke Jesus. But Jesus won’t back down: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. In Jesus’ day, if you saw someone carrying a cross you knew what it meant: the Romans thought you were a dangerous rebel, and they were about to execute you. That’s what they did to Jesus, and he responded not with anger and judgement but with nonviolent love: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 22:34).
That’s what it means to put your faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus spreads his kingdom not by conquest and war, but by suffering and sacrifice and nonviolent love. To follow him is to become like him. Next week we’ll think some more about what that means for us.