What is the greatest question you have ever asked or been asked? Questions can be so important in life, can’t they?
Before moving to Stowe, I was working as an Uber driver in Washington, D. C. I met a lot of interesting people as an Uber driver and had some fascinating conversations with some. One day I was driving a very distinguished African American lawyer across town. We got into conversation and I learned that his wife was also a lawyer, but that she quit her job to go back to school and train for the Christian ministry. I told this lawyer my story, that I was working for Uber part time while looking for a full-time job. The lawyer asked me what kind of jobs I was looking at. I told him that I was looking at nonprofits, writing jobs, and pastoral positions. Then he asked me, “If you could have any job you wanted, what would it be?” And I said, “I would like to be pastoring a church full time.” As that lawyer got out of my car that day he said, “There is just the right church out there for you somewhere.”
That lawyer’s question got me to focus in on exactly what I wanted most to do, and eventually that focus led me here.
Like that lawyer, Jesus was a great question-asker. And he asked one of the most important questions of all time in the passage we are about to read.
Listen for God’s word to you from Mark 8:27-30….
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”[a] 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
The first thing we see in this passage is Jesus and his disciples going on a field trip, as it were, to a place called Caesarea Philippi.
Caesarea Philippi is twenty-five miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee. It was, in Jesus’ time, outside the area controlled by Herod Antipas and was within the region of Philip the Tetrarch. Both were sons of Herod the Great.
Like every great teacher, Jesus wanted to make sure of what his students were absorbing. And also like other great teachers, Jesus realized the power inherent in a good field trip. Thus, Jesus took his disciples far away from their usual stomping grounds and asked one of the greatest questions of all time: “Who do you say that I am?”
In order to understand the significance of this question, we need to understand more about the place where Jesus posed this question to his disciples.
First, Caesarea Philippi had temples all around belonging to the ancient Syrian worship of a god named Baal. When Jesus posed this question to his disciples he was standing in the shadow of one of the ancient gods of the people who opposed Israel.
Secondly, the place where Jesus posed this question was on the lower slopes of Mount Hermon. And on one of these lower slopes, beneath the rocky hillside, was a deep cavern which was believed by some to be the birthplace of the Greek god, Pan, who was half-human and half-goat, one of the most famous fertility symbols in ancient paganism. Thus, the original name of Caesarea Philippi was Panias, or as they say in that region—Banias. The legends of this Greek god were hovering around Caesarea Philippi.
Thirdly, in the cave where the god Pan was supposedly born were the springs that served as the main source for the river Jordan—a river deeply important in the life of Israel. Thus, this place, for a Jew, would have been full of all the collective memories of Jewish history.
Fourthly, Herod the Great had built a temple of white marble in honor of Caesar Augustus in Panias. Herod’s son Philip further adorned the temple and changed the name of the place from Panias to Caesarea, which means “Caesar’s own town”. Then he added the name, “Philippi”, which means “of Philip”, thus honoring himself as well. No one could look at Caesarea Philippi and that great temple of white marble without thinking of Caesar and how he was worshipped as a god.
Thus, we have a poor, itinerant preacher from Galilee surrounded by twelve very ordinary men, mostly fishermen. He stands in an area covered with temples in honor of the gods of three great civilizations as well as in a place replete with the memory of Yahweh’s dealings with Israel. And in Caesarea Philippi, of all places, Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus was clearly setting himself up in contrast to the gods of the ancient world and offering himself as a different way.
Robert Webber tells in his book Who Gets to Narrate the World? The story of traveling on a plane from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He is sitting next to the window reading a Christian book. The man next to him is obviously from the Eastern hemisphere of the world. Webber’s neighbor asks, “Are you a religious man?”
“Well, yes,” says Webber.
“I am too,” responds the man in the seat next to him.
They begin talking about religion. In the middle of the conversation Webber asks, “Can you give me a one-liner that captures the essence of your faith?”
“Well, yes,” says the other man. “We are all part of the problem, and we are all part of the solution.”
The two talk about this one-liner, a statement Webber finds very helpful. After a while Webber asks, “Would you like a one-liner that captures the Christian faith?”
“Sure,” responds the other man.
Then Webber says, “We are all part of the problem, but there is only one man who is the solution. His name is Jesus.”
When Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” he was asking that question against the backdrop of some of the other gods of the ancient world, and Jesus was, implicitly offering himself as a unique solution to the problems of the world.
It is interesting that Mark places this story of Jesus taking his disciples to Caesarea Philippi right after the story of the blind man whom Jesus heals by taking him out of his village. Perhaps part of Jesus’ point is that sometimes we have to stand outside of our current situations to see life more clearly.
Jesus actually asks two questions on this occasion. The first one is: Who do people say that I am?
I had someone in a former church say to me once, something to the effect of: “I don’t think it matters who Jesus was. What matters is living like Jesus.” I get where that person is coming from, and I applaud anyone who is trying to live more like Jesus or follow his teachings. But at the same time, I have to point out that this sort of logic breaks down when confronting what the Gospels actually say about the words and deeds of Jesus. Jesus himself made his own identity an issue, and so we cannot avoid his question and still go on thinking that we are dealing with the historical Jesus.
Having said that, let’s take a look at how Jesus’ first disciples answered the question: who do people say that I am?
The disciples said that some people believed Jesus to be John the Baptist. Apparently, Herod Antipas was not the only one who thought John the Baptist had risen from the dead.
Other people thought Jesus was Elijah come again. In saying this, the people were honoring Jesus for being as great as the greatest prophet of the Hebrew Scriptures. They were also saying that Jesus was the forerunner of the Messiah. According to Malachi, God had promised, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”
Still others thought that Jesus was like one of the prophets.
This too is like the story of the healing of the blind man earlier in Mark 8. Tom Wright points out:
… both stories tell of a two-stage process of illumination. The blind man sees people, but they look like trees walking about; the crowds see Jesus, but they think he’s just a prophet. (If you want to get a good picture of how Jesus appeared to his contemporaries, forget ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ and read the stories of John the Baptist, Elijah and the other great prophets: fearless men of God who spoke out against evil and injustice, and brought hope to God’s puzzled and suffering people.)
When the crowds said that Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the other prophets, they were, in a sense, paying him a great compliment. But all of these seeming compliments fell short of stating who Jesus really was.
Thus, Jesus brought the conversation around to ask his disciples what they believed: Who do you say that I am? In a similar fashion, I think the Gospel of Mark faces us with the question: Who do you say that Jesus is?
When Peter answered, “You are the Christ!” he undoubtedly used one of the greatest titles in the Hebrew Scripture. For the title “Christ” is the Greek version of the Hebrew word “Messiah” which means “Anointed One”.
Three types of people were anointed with oil and thus set apart for their work according to the Hebrew Scriptures. Prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed ones. Thus, by calling Jesus “the Christ” Peter was saying that Jesus was the great prophet, priest, and king. Notice: Jesus was not simply a great prophet, speaking against the wicked rulers of his time. He was God’s anointed king, come to replace those evil rulers himself.
Again, the story that precedes this one in Mark’s Gospel, helps us to understand what is going on in our present story. Just as Jesus heals the blind man more fully with a “second touch”, so too Jesus gives to his disciples, here, a “second touch” as it were. And now, at last, their eyes are opened.
Tom Wright helpfully explains,
It’s vital for us to be clear at this point. Calling Jesus ‘Messiah’ doesn’t mean calling him ‘divine’, let alone ‘the second person of the Trinity’. Mark believes Jesus was and is divine, and will eventually show us why; but this moment in the gospel story is about something else. It’s about the politically dangerous and theologically risky claim that Jesus is the true King of Israel, the final heir to the throne of David, the one before whom Herod Antipas and all other would-be Jewish princelings are just shabby little impostors. The disciples weren’t expecting a divine redeemer; they were longing for a king. And they thought they’d found one.
Nor was it only Herod who might be suspicious…. A Messiah announcing God’s kingdom was a challenge to Rome itself.
Today, I believe Jesus is asking us the same question: who do you say that I am? And a lot hangs on our answer. I believe that Jesus wants us to respond personally and individually to that question. When Pilate asked Jesus if he was the king of the Jews, Jesus in turn asked him, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” (John 18:33-34)
I do not believe God wants our knowledge of Jesus to be secondhand knowledge. It is one thing to know about Jesus; it is quite another thing to know him.
Jeremy Bowen, the presenter of a BBC documentary on Jesus stated: “The important thing is not what he [Jesus] was or wasn’t—the important thing is what people believe him to have been. A massive worldwide religion, numbering more than two billion people follows his memory—that’s pretty remarkable, 2,000 years on.”
Yes, it is remarkable that we are still following Jesus 2,000 years later. But we are not just following his memory; I believe we are following a living person who rose from the dead after being crucified for our sins. And it IS important what Jesus was or wasn’t. Jesus made it important. He made his identity part of the focus of his ministry. He didn’t say, “Follow these ten steps to a better life.” He said, “Follow me!” And he didn’t ask his disciples in some vague way, “What do you think about God or God’s kingdom?” He asked, “Who do you say I am?” Who Jesus was, and is, is crucial. Our answer to that question, I believe, is vital. Like my answer to the question of that lawyer in Washington, D.C., our answer to Jesus’ question may well determine the direction of our life….