Surely how we answer the question “Who is Jesus?” is of greatest importance. The answer we give determines not merely the course of life—for the answer and its implications govern all our thinking, choices, affections, worldview, and responses to life’s circumstances—but certainly our eternal destiny. On the great final day of our Lord, when all humanity stands before Him to be judged, all will be guilty of capital crimes against the God of heaven. All will be rebels. None of their works are sufficient to be the ground of acceptance by a holy God. Yet innumerable millions will be acquitted, declared righteous, and vindicated as God’s chosen people despite their rebellion and the mocking rejection of a fallen universe—why? Because, by God’s sovereign grace alone, these have had their eyes opened and with genuine (though always imperfect) faith laid hold of the only right way to answer the most important question.
The entire gospel of Mark has been arranged to show us who Jesus is. The apostles are like all of us—they have seen impressive and majestic displays of our Lord’s glorious power and person, and they still do not see clearly, as the previous narratives indicate. But eleven of them have had their eyes opened by the Holy Spirit to see the most important thing, if somewhat dimly.
Who is Jesus, really? Who do you say He is? There is only one right answer. This week’s text unfolds for us that answer, and by it exhorts us to affirm it with a whole heart and spirit entirely turned towards the Lord.
A. Jesus Asks a Probing Question (v. 27)
The Lord and His band have left Bethsaida, traveling about 25 miles to the north. They are heading towards Caesarea Philippi, a Gentile, pagan stronghold with a temple dedicated to Caesar worship and named after Herod Philip, the tetrarch. (To curry political favor with Caesar Augustus, who had given the region to his father Herod Antipas, Herod Philip renamed the city Caesarea.) It is while He and His men are on the way to this pagan stronghold that our Lord gives them this final exam. Shortly, they will have to proclaim not only to Jews but to a pagan and pluralistic world that there is only one true and living God, become incarnate in Jesus Christ, and that only He is Savior from sin and hell. And they will have to proclaim that all other religious worship is false, demonic, and damning. They must know who Jesus is o do so, and they must know not merely as a matter of intellectual affirmation but deep, whole-souled commitment.
Before Jesus asks them their personal understanding, He asks more broadly to broach the subject: “Who do people say that I am?” “People” is Gr. anthropoi, the generic term for people. Who do people in general say I am?
This was an important question for several reasons. First, it would demonstrate their awareness of popular opinion and estimation of Jesus, of which they could not afford to be ignorant. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it would eventually require them to deal with these opinions where they were wrong—they would have to know what opinions were wrong, why, and how to explain the truth to people of different viewpoints. This is all excellent intellectual preparation for ministry! It is the same today. God’s people cannot afford to be ignorant of general thinking in the world or in the church. We cannot merely know the truth, but must also have a working knowledge of wrong ideas and be able to basically explain why they are wrong and what the Bible teaches. While not every person needs to know the same things to the same degree, it is the better part of wisdom to be aware of what people believe and both what (if anything) it gets right as well as how it falls short of the biblical standard.
B. The Disciples’ Response (v. 28)
Here, the disciples mention three things that are general consensus of who Jesus is. None are heretical; in fact, all have truth to them and would be considered rather esteemed views of anyone, never mind a carpenter of suspicious birth from the Podunk part of Israel. But all err greatly in what they leave out, and they fall short of the whole truth about the Lord Jesus.
John the Baptist. This view was popularized by Herod, whose guilt over his unjust execution of John led him to believe that the glorious supernatural wonders he saw in the Lord proved he was a supercharged John the Baptist returned from the dead. Well, Jesus was supernatural, and He was a prophet who proclaimed the kingdom as John had. But He was more: He was John’s creator and Lord, and John humbly pointed away from himself to the One he proclaimed—Jesus.
Elijah. The awesome miracles Elijah worked during his ministry, along with the fact that he had not physically died but was carried up to heaven, still living, by a fiery chariot, led some to believe Jesus was Elijah returned or incarnate. Additionally, of course, the OT clearly taught that Elijah would come and have a new covenant ministry before the day of our Lord—so perhaps that also mean Jesus was him. But rather Jesus was the Yahweh whose day “Elijah”—a collective term with one meaning, denoting all of the men used and anointed by God for His work, culminating in that final Elijah during the tribulation period—would announce. Jesus tells us that He is not Elijah, but that John, His forerunner, was (Matt. 17:12).
One of the prophets. Matthew’s account specifies that Jeremiah was named specifically (16:14). Surely Jesus spoke for God in both foretelling (prediction of God’s future work via divine revelation) and forthtelling (the primary work of the prophets—declaring God’s will and ways and calling His people into fresh obedience and covenant renewal). And Jesus would weep over Jerusalem for its rejection of His divine visitation (Luke 13:34-35). Jesus was a prophet, but more than a prophet—He was the God who woke up early sending His prophets to Israel (Jer. 7:25, 44:4 KJV). Matthew 23:37 implies that the judgment the nation will face in AD 70 for rejecting Messiah is the latest in a long series of judgments on the nation from which the Lord Jesus has sought to protect them by sending them prophets in the past—prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Malachi! And verse 34 says that He will again send Israel and the world prophets and apostles from among His own followers, just as He has done in the past. Jesus is a prophet, but He is more—He is the one God for whom they speak and in whose heavenly council they stand.
C. Jesus Asks a Personal Question (v. 29a)
Jesus narrows in: “But you—who do you say I am” (lit.)? Having elicited the incorrect views of Him popular among the crowds, Jesus turns to His closest followers and asks them who they think He is. They are not exempt from the query. They have to answer. They must deal with Him for themselves.
And so must we! Our parents, friends, or children cannot believe for us. We must answer Him in the depths of our soul. On that day, the last day, it will be just us and God with no intermediaries or recourse. Only having answered this question correctly can we have assurance now that then the blood of Jesus will perfectly cover us and we will be welcomed as forgiven, justified sons and daughters into the arms of a loving Father.
D. The Great Confession (v. 29b)
Peter, speaking for the eleven saved disciples and for all true disciples to come after, gives the only right answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Who is Jesus? Messiah and God! “Christ” has only been used once before in Mark’s gospel—in 1:1, where Mark’s narrative is “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (The “gospel,” then, is Jesus’ person, teaching and work—this began with His humble incarnation and climaxed in His victorious bodily ascension into heaven. The whole thing, including His teaching, is the gospel, though its heart is certainly His bodily death and resurrection.) Christ, of course, is a rich OT word that carries the idea of anointing and empowerment to serve and represent God—kings, protests, and even prophets were anointed. Most frequently the term is associated with those kings in the great line of David who were the initial fulfillment of the Davidic promise, until the One came who in His First and Second Advents, as well as His work in between them, is the glorious final and complete fulfillment of that promise.
“Son of God” has multiple aspects to its meaning. In Matthew and Mark, it appears to primarily denote Jesus’ kingship, given that the Davidic promise assured David that His line would be sons to the one true God (2 Sam. 7:14), while John carries the more familiar denotation of Jesus’ sovereign, eternal deity of one essence with the Father. As I have explicated before, “Son of God” most fully denotes (1) His eternal, absolute, complete deity, for He shares the nature of God as a son shares the humanness of his father; (2) His humiliation and incarnation, for in the virgin conception God literally fathered a son; and (3) His anointed kingly authority in the line of David to rule God’s present-future kingdom.
This is who Jesus is. While our understanding of His person and work grows as we mature, this basic response must be in the heart for faith to be saving.
Matthew tells us that Jesus pronounces Peter (and us) blessed, for it is only by God’s work of revelation that we see Jesus for who He is, and that it is upon the truths Peter confessed that Jesus would build His Church.
But Mark simply takes us to Jesus’ command in response to the confession, to which we turn.
E. The Sovereign Command (v. 30)
“Warned” is a stern admonition, even “to order” (it is used in chapter 1 of Jesus “ordering” the unclean spirit to leave). Jesus is commanding them to tell no one?! Why?
Jesus does here what He has often done: He does not want the truth getting out in ways that can be misunderstood, misapplied, or be spiritually damaging to people. Shortly He will set His face to go to Jerusalem, where only one thing awaits Him. How ill it look to shout from the rooftops that He is Messiah to a people that have a very truncated misunderstanding of what that implies? He will only look like a failure and fraud if He is crucified (and indeed that is what they thought and still do). Only after His glorious resurrection can His men openly proclaim all that He is (Matt 17:9, Luke 9:36). Besides, the blindness yet residual in the disciples meant they could not fully understand the truth, and needed to grow (and be baptized and filled with the Spirit!) to rightly herald it. Soon, they will have all they need to tell the world.
And we are among their audience, and we have to answer the same question they did. Who is Jesus? May God help us answer rightly for the glory of His great name!