Jesus asks us the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
Christians often don’t agree on who Jesus is, just as Christians often disagree about what makes America great.
In our Divinity library you can find a new book published this year. It is written by Kate Bowler and is entitled, “Everything happens for a reason and other lies I’ve loved”. Before being diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, Kate use to worship in a small church that believed that God blesses Christians with prosperity and prosperity is what makes America great.
A quote from her book . . .
The prosperity gospel has a very simple way of explaining why life as it is must be inherently just. As it is told, God established a set of principles that keep the world in order. Just as there are natural laws of gravity and thermodynamics, there are spiritual laws that steer the courses of lives and ensure that good things really do happen to good people. The Law of Confession activates the power of positive thoughts, drawing our desires out of the heavens and into reality. The Law of Agreement allows two or more people to harness their spirituality corporately to create an answer to prayer. The Law of the Tithe supernaturally multiplies an offering of 10 percent gross income given to the church, often with a guaranteed tenfold or hundredfold return. The number of these spiritual laws depends on who is preaching. There are the Law of First Fruits and the Law of Seed Faith and an entire Laws of Life book series by the televangelist Mike Murdock, advertised as people's "favorite book outside the Bible."
It's also the same premise as anything your aunt sent you about the Oprah-endorsed book The Secret. (Spoiler alert: The secret is to think positively.)
One Sunday I watched a woman grow so impatient that she called down the rain. It was the First Lady of the little prosperity church I studied, a slight woman who always sat in the front row, impassively fanning herself as her husband stirred up a fiery sermon. Then, one Sunday, she suddenly stood up and turned toward the congregation.
“Our faith requires action!” she declared with surprising strength. “We must see disease, poverty, and un-answered prayers for what they are – Satan’s work. Now stand up! Stand up!” The small room shuffled to stand up, murmuring with excitement.
“Now, after I say, ‘Money, cometh unto me,’ you call out to God for what you are entitled to. God’s blessings are already poured out for you. Now you must claim them. Claim them! Are you ready?”
“Money!” she shouted. “Now say it with me! Money! Cometh unto me . . . now!” And with that, the First Lady began to dance. She kicked her high heels under a chair and bounced in place, reaching her arms higher and higher as she plucked invisible dollar bills from the sky. The room erupted into dance as some eighty believers, young and old, shook off their nerves and slowly joined her. It started as a murmur, as people began to speak their true hearts, and grew as their legs pumped in place and people began to shout.
“The green house.”
They reached out for blessings visible only to them. Young mothers jostled their babies as they jumped, while elderly women waved their arms to catch what fell. Tears streamed down people’s faces as they dug up their deepest desires and the losses they hoped to replace.
A husband and wife who had lost all of their children simply clutched each other with one arm each and with the other reached up to the sky.
“A baby,” I said quietly, as the shouting faded and people slumped back into their seats, exhausted. A baby.
Jesus knew his disciples better than they knew themselves, and he knew that their preferences for the kind of Messiah they were looking for needed refining and redefining. Here, in this largely Gentile region near the Cave of Pan (which many people in the ancient world regarded as one of the entrances to Hades), Jesus begins to turn his disciples’ attention from their needs and desires toward the way of the cross — admittedly, a much tougher sell!
As they were walking, Jesus suddenly gave them the first question: “What’s the word on the street about me? Who do people say that I am?” (v. 27).
As they traveled with Jesus through the villages of Judea and Galilee, they listened, feeling the pulse of the crowd. The crowd had a variety of opinions to begin forming a profile of this healer and teacher from Galilee.
One significant characteristic seemed to dominate: The crowd believed Jesus was a prophet in the mold of John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the others who dominated Israel’s history.
This was a radical interpretation, but it wasn’t quite radical enough.
Jesus then asked a follow-up question of his disciples: “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter, an eager guy, gives his opinion without hesitation: “You are the Messiah” (v. 29). That seems like the right answer. Mark has already told us up front that his gospel is “the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). “Christ” is the Greek rendering of “Messiah” and so it seems that Peter has grasped the message.
But like the crowd, his own bias gets in the way of understanding what that word, that title, actually means. There is still great potential for misunderstanding, which is why Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” (v. 30).
Jesus himself then begins to fill in who he is. In the first of three predictions about his death, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be rejected, undergo great suffering and be killed. But then he will rise again after three days (v. 31).
Mark reiterates that Jesus said this “quite openly,” giving the information as clearly as possible (v. 32). But this new piece of information doesn’t fit Peter’s messianic profile, and he took Jesus aside and began to “rebuke” him (v. 32).
Many opinions about the Messiah’s role and mission were in circulation. Messiah wannabes had popped up before Jesus and would continue to do so afterward, each gathering their own group of followers and selling their particular vision of what God had planned to do through them.
The common thread of the prophecy around the Messiah (which means “anointed one”) was that he would be a descendant of David and restore Israel’s sovereignty, bringing earthly deliverance to the earthly kingdom of Israel. This vision of a Messiah was also skewed by the bias of people looking for relief from oppression by Rome and years of foreign domination previous to the current regime.
This is why, when people heard the word “Messiah,” they thought of someone who might be the modern equivalent of a new King David who would make Israel great again.
This is also why the crowd saw Jesus as a prophet and not a Messiah. He wasn’t acting like someone who wanted to rumble with Rome, and thus his poll numbers would not seem to indicate that he would be a viable candidate.
Peter was close to Jesus, however, and saw some potential. After all, one who could feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish and then walk on water had to have the ability to be the kind of Messiah who would do great things and kick out the Romans. But now Jesus was talking about rejection, suffering and death. How can you be the Messiah if you’re dead? That kind of prophecy made no sense to him.
But it made perfect sense to Jesus, who understood the bigger picture of where things were trending. Jesus rebuked Peter’s rebuke with a stern word: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (v. 33).
In Peter’s rebuke, Jesus recognized the temptation to be the kind of Messiah that would attract strong polling numbers, the kind of Messiah Satan himself had tempted Jesus to become (1:12).
But Jesus is moving in a different direction — one in which few want to go. We may choose to opt out as well. Jesus makes it clear: It’s not about comfort; it’s about the cross. It’s not about prosperity, it’s about the cross. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (v. 34). To get behind Jesus is to get under a cross and walk on a road to rejection, suffering and self-denial.
It’s a life of doing what’s right and hard, rather than wrong and easy. Following Jesus is not trendy and cool. And if it ever is, we’ve got the wrong Jesus.
It’s following Jesus in a life lived on behalf of others. Those are the “divine things” Jesus wants his disciples to focus on, not the “human things” of popularity, prosperity and power.
To follow Jesus, in other words, is to embrace a downward mobility in which one’s own preferences are set aside in favor of Christ’s preferences for us.
Marketers easily prey on the fact that we want things for ourselves and will always prefer things that match our own best interests. Jesus calls us to check a different box. We save our lives by losing them, and real profit only comes through giving our lives over to Jesus, living for his sake and the sake of his kingdom (vv. 35-36).
Jesus recognized that this isn’t a popular way, and that there would be Christians who would market him as the way to prosperity.
It’s easy for those of us who are 21st-century disciples of Jesus to want to tailor our message and our methods to better fit market trends. We’d like to be popular, trendy and have a lot of people following us. We’re tempted, like Peter, to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” by making him into a Messiah who fits our profile.
But Jesus won’t have it. There’s only one real answer to that question — Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, and he calls us to follow him to the cross.
And when we get to the cross, to climb up on it and suffer and die with him.
It’s the way of self-denial, self-sacrifice and self-giving. It’s not just about information; it’s about imitation. Who do you say that he is? Your answer matters!