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“Who do you say that I am?”

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Imagine we find ourselves in the context of Matthew 16:13–17. Jesus’ arrival in Gentile territory with his disciples quickly receives people’s attention. We’re about 120 miles from Jerusalem in the northern part of Palestine, a pluralistic setting rife with idol worship.

Jesus’ question to his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” is not for his own benefit, but, as we will explore, for theirs and for ours. Jesus isn’t insecure about his identity, nor does he need to bolster his approval ratings at the request of his PR team. The response of the disciples – “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (v. 14) – summarizes the diverse opinions people hold about Jesus’ identity.

As I reflect on this response, I wonder what people are thinking. They’re confused, trying to figure him out. Can you hear the buzz as they ask one another, “Who do you think he is?”

One thing is for certain: we cannot make a decision about Jesus Christ by taking a poll, although some people choose to get their “spiritual knowledge” this way! People have varied responses to the authoritative ministry of Jesus. Some view him as John the Baptist raised from the dead. Some believe Jesus to be the fulfillment of Elijah’s prophesied return. Others see a stark resemblance between Jesus and the weeping prophet Jeremiah. Still others believe him to be a prophetic person, not unlike those of old.

Jesus doesn’t respond to the misconceptions about his identity. Instead, he focuses on his disciples with the question, “But who do you say I am?” Jesus is not looking for approval, but for truth. He invites his disciples to express the truth that ultimately shapes their own identity.

Who they are is shaped by who they believe Jesus to be. What matters is not what others say, but what the disciples themselves say. This is what determines the trajectory of their lives.

Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Peter’s confession is his response to the revelation of God. His answer is not the result of his own investigation. It’s the result of the work of a gracious God, who has hidden these things from the proud, religious elite, and instead revealed them to a fisherman. It’s the sincere expression of a man taught by God. Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession affirms this: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (v. 17).

The same challenge given to us

Jesus’ question to his disciples is the same question we need to answer today. Everything in our lives hinges on how we respond. It’s an identity-producing question.

Who we are and become is shaped by who we believe Jesus to be. Our faith response to Jesus’ identity establishes us individually as believers and corporately as a community of faith. When we recognize Jesus for who He is, we also discover our God-intended identity.

How we answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” determines how we spend our time, what we do for a living, who we choose to marry, how we spend our money, how secure we feel about our future, how free we are from our past, and our sense of confidence about our eternal destiny. Our response shapes how we define and engage in mission. The question is so simple, yet so profound. It sits right under our noses and seems far too ordinary to have such cataclysmic consequences.

Our answer determines whether we will let the Holy Spirit guide us, develop us, and grow us into the person he created us to be, or whether we will choose to go it alone. The Father reveals the Son to those who recognize their need of God’s saving work through Jesus Christ.

If we think we’re above the need for God’s forgiveness, we will not get it; not because God will not give it to us, but because we will not recognize the gift he’s trying to give. If we think we have to earn God’s forgiveness, we will not get it either, because we remain blind to what Jesus has already accomplished.

We need to respond to the most pressing question of our time, which Jesus puts before us: “Who do you say that I am?” How we respond shapes our life trajectory and how we engage other Canadians in answering this question for themselves.

Willy Reimer is executive director of the Canadian Conference of MB Churches. He lives in Calgary with his family.
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