“Who do you say that I am?”

by Peter Ditzel

A large question mark
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)

It’s common for Christians to ask others if they are saved. Those people can answer with a mere yes while holding a completely wrong understanding of salvation. Another question asked is, “Do you know the Lord?” Again, the people asked can reply with a simple yes while holding entirely erroneous views of the Lord. Jesus, on the other hand, asked His disciples a question they could not answer with a yes or no. Jesus’ question is like a razor that splits humanity into two groups—those who answer correctly and those who do not. How would you answer? Who do you say Jesus is?

Jesus’ Razor

I think no question cuts to the heart of the Christian faith quicker and more precisely than the question Jesus asked His disciples when they were in the area around the city of Caesarea of Philippi. Jesus first asked, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” (Matthew 16:13). The disciples answered with what they knew others at the time believed about Jesus: “They said, ‘Some say John the Baptiser, some, Elijah, and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets'” (verse 14). We know that Herod believed the first one on the list, superstitiously thinking that Jesus was John the Baptist, whose beheading he had ordered, come back from the dead (Matthew 14:1-2; Mark 6:15). Others apparently believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecy that Elijah would return (Malachi 4:5). Probably no one today would think that Jesus was John the Baptist or Jeremiah or Elijah. Many, however, believe that Jesus was a prophet. All of Islam believes that Jesus was a prophet. But none of these answers was the answer Jesus was looking for.

Jesus responded to the disciples by asking them the more personal question, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). How you answer this question reveals who you are, where you are going, and what will be your fate for all eternity. Of course, I am not saying that if you answer this question wrongly now that you have no hope. As long as you are physically alive, there is the hope that you will one day be able to sincerely give the right answer. Others might also give the right answer, but insincerely; they are merely giving a memorized answer that they think others want to hear. Peter, however, gave the right answer and he meant it: “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God'” (verse 16).

How did Peter give the right answer? Did he, by giving this answer, save himself? Jesus quickly explained: “Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven'” (verse 17). Peter didn’t get his answer from another human. He didn’t even get the answer from himself. God miraculously revealed the answer to him. We cannot truthfully and sincerely give the answer that Peter gave, or words that have the same general meaning, unless God has worked in our minds and given us that answer. Our giving the right answer doesn’t save us. That would be salvation by our works instead of by grace through faith. God graciously gave Peter the answer, and that answer was an outward expression of the gift of faith that God had given him. What Peter was saying was that he believed in Jesus, in who Jesus really is.

The answer to Jesus’ question truly is the line drawn in the sand. The right answer sincerely given reveals whether someone is saved. The answer is not what saves. Jesus saves. But the right answer to that question shows that we have faith in who Jesus is and what He has done, and, therefore, are among those the Father is calling and giving eternal life to. “No one can come to me,” Jesus said in John 6:44-45, “unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who hears from the Father, and has learnt, comes to me.” Peter’s answer revealed that the Father had drawn him, that he had heard from the Father, that he had learnt, and that Jesus would raise him up in the last day. Peter believed in Jesus, and, as Jesus said, “Most certainly, I tell you, he who believes in me has eternal life” (John 6:47).

What Is Implied in Peter’s Answer

Remember that Jesus originally asked, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” If you answer this with Peter’s answer, you are implying the Incarnation because you are saying that the Son of Man is the Messiah and the Son of God. The Jews, including Peter, understood that Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God was a claim to be equal with God (John 5:18). Thus, Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Son of God included his belief that Jesus is God. Remember, too, that Jesus had already, before Peter stated his confession, said He was the Savior (see, for example, John 3:14-17). So, now Peter’s answer also means that the Messiah and Son of God is God and has been incarnated as the Savior. This is why professing that Jesus is your Savior amounts to giving Peter’s answer, because it implies all the rest. It is also why those who teach what are essentially qualifying addenda to their professions of faith (e.g. Jesus saves me from my past sins but now I must keep the law; or, as Mormons teach, Jesus saves me from my sins if I then continue to follow Him and keep His commandments) are blasting holes in Peter’s confession. Being the incarnate Christ and Son of God, the Savior saved me completely, leaving not an atom of my salvation for me to complete.

How Do People Answer Today?

Whom do people today say that Jesus is? As I’ve already mentioned, Muslims say that Jesus is a prophet. As disappointing as it may be to those who are trying to smooth over the differences between Christianity and Islam, simply believing that Jesus is a prophet is not good enough. You must believe that Jesus is the Christ (the prophesied Messiah), the Son of the living God. And, as I’ve just pointed out, what Peter said implied much more than the bare meaning of his words.

Who else do people today say that Jesus is? The Jehovah’s Witnesses admit on their own website, “…we do not worship Jesus, as we do not believe that he is Almighty God.” So, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs do not meet the criteria of Peter’s confession. Many other people, of course, deny Him completely. They say either that He didn’t even exist or that He was merely a charlatan.

Others go so far as to admit that He was a good man, a great teacher, a spiritual leader of one of the world’s religions who taught many important truths. When asked about Jesus, they will reply, “He’s a great example,” “He was a good moral teacher,” “He ranks right up there with other spiritual leaders like Buddha and Mohammed.” Probably you have relatives and friends like this—Uncle Henry, your cousin Sophie, the neighbor across the street, your co-worker in the next cubicle. They may attend a liberal, Christian church. They may even be clergy in such a church. Sadly, their beliefs are foolish. Why? Isn’t it better to believe that Jesus was a good teacher than to believe He was a charlatan? No, because it amounts to the same thing. Jesus didn’t deny Peter’s confession. All that Peter said and all that it implied, Jesus claimed to be. Besides that, He explicitly stated many very particular claims about Himself (see “Things Jesus Said He Was“). If Jesus wasn’t these things that He claimed and was just a good teacher or spiritual leader or good man, then He was either both a liar and charlatan or He was insane. So, all of those nice people who smile as they talk about Jesus as a wonderful example but who never confess Him as their Savior and never teach that He was the incarnate Son of God are, in the end, really denying Jesus.

An example was recently in the news. A columnist posed Jesus’ question to a prominent figure: “Who do you say Jesus is?”

“Jesus to me is somebody I can think about for security and confidence,” the man replied. “Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind.” This same man, when asked about forgiveness, replied, “I will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won’t have to be asking for much forgiveness.”

I don’t point this out to ridicule this man or make any judgment. I use him as a typical example of someone whose answer to the question misses the mark, whatever some unscrupulous evangelical leaders trying to do damage control later claimed about his being born again.

Although it is possible for someone to make an artful profession of faith that sounds like a faithful one by parroting a formula he or she has heard, I will not judge the salvation of someone who has rightly answered Jesus’ question, whether they have done so either directly or implicitly by professing Jesus as Savior. How can I know what is in someone’s mind? God knows whether someone is sincere. Professions that don’t come up to the standard Peter set, however, are not true professions at all. They are really accusations that Jesus was either a liar or mad, and they are denials of Jesus’ Godhood, denials of Jesus’ Sonship, denials of Jesus’ Messiahship, denials of Jesus’ incarnation, denials of Jesus as our only Savior. Jesus would have none of it, and, as His followers, we can hardly help but see the falsity of such professions. Those who make weak, Jesus-denigrating confessions may be prospects for evangelizing, but we must not assume them to be brethren or baptize them until we see beyond reasonable doubt by their making a good confession that the Holy Spirit has truly regenerated them.

What we say in answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” is critically important. It identifies us and others as Christians because it takes saving faith to earnestly make a good confession. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6), and, “Everyone therefore who confesses me before men, him I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before men, him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).

“If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart, one believes unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”
Romans 10:9-10

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