“Who Do You Say That I Am?”: Jesus’s Question and the Hinge of Our Faith

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But you,” He asked them, “who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 14:22–33)

With the scene thoroughly set, we move on to the question Jesus asked of his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”

I think it’s key here to note that he asked his disciples, not the masses, this question. It makes the question come down to us, his present-day disciples, differently—more resonantly. For us too, this is the question on which our lives hinge.

This passage is the hinge point of the gospel of Matthew, as I pointed out in the last post, but equally it can be said to be the hinge of our faith, of our discipleship, of our very lives.

“Who do you say that I am?” This is the question in its final form, the question ultimately being asked of us. Who do we, who do I, say that Jesus is?

Jesus Is the Message

The question matters so much because uniquely, in a way that is true of no one else in human history, Jesus IS his own message. It’s not just that he embodies it, as though he embodies perfect goodness and love (though he does), or that he embodies self-sacrifice or kindness (which he also does), or that he embodies reconciliation with God in some exemplary sense—the way someone like Mother Teresa or Saint Francis or the faithful Baptist preacher laboring every week in his church with a truly pastoral heart embodies reconciliation with God.

Jesus is not just an example or an icon; he is the thing itself. Jesus is reconciliation with God. He is the message; he is the gospel.

But I’m getting ahead of the passage.

This question is perennially important because it brings us face-to-face with the gospel itself. It’s the question that, in some sense, launches our journeys as followers of Jesus. We do not typically follow him without “believing in” him first. The same question, asked again and again at different points of our journeys, in different circumstances, with new layers of understanding, depth, and surrender, has the power to shape those journeys, renew them, launch them all over again.

It is the question that precipitates faith.

Who we say that he is?

Messianic Expectations

Jesus’s first form of the question was not so confrontational. Before asking his disciples for a confession of their own faith, he asked them what other people thought.

They were out and about; they’d heard rumors, had conversations. Who did people, the mass of people out there in the world, think Jesus was?

The disciples’ answers are interesting. The first two are related: Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah. John’s resemblance to Elijah was unmistakable; he was understood by at least some people to be a second coming of Elijah in some sense.

But people didn’t just interpret John’s life that way because he wore camel’s hair and confronted kings. They interpreted it that way because the Jewish people already had an expectation that Elijah would return, and that he would do so in connection with the Messiah. The source of this belief is Malachi 4:5-6, which in our modern Bibles are the last verses of the Old Testament:

Look, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome Day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:5-6)

This passage led to a link between the Messiah, the anointed king who would come to judge the oppressing nations and set the world right again, and Elijah.

That so many people in Jesus’s day were quick to think at least one of the wandering preachers in Galilee was Elijah points to how heightened messianic expectation in their day was. The obvious reason for this was the timeline given by Daniel.

Daniel led the people to believe a Messiah would arise in the time of the fourth great empire to rule over Israel, roughly 490 years after the return from exile in Babylon. Rome was the fourth empire to rule Israel, and Jesus was born approximately 500 years after the return, so the time was right—and a lot of people were looking for the Messiah to show up in their day. This timeline is also why Messiah claimants in general were common at the time, enough to cause Jesus to warn people against false messiahs and people claiming to be the Christ.

(You do not have to agree with this timeline, by the way, or the interpretation of the four beasts in Daniel as Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece, and Rome, but it is an accurate depiction of what people in Jesus’s day thought and the expectations that flowed from that.)

Identifying Jesus as Elijah, therefore, meant the people saw him as a prophet, one whom they expected to confront the corrupt powers of the world in some way, and one whom they saw as connected to the messianic kingdom.

When Jesus preached “the kingdom of God is at hand,” as he regularly did—it was his primary message, as we’ve seen all along—the people who heard him understood his message in these historical-political-spiritual terms. Elijah, after all, confronted King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, toppled their kingdom, and slaughtered the priests of a foreign god. He was not a preacher of personal devotional practices or morally exemplary behavior. He was the last prophet of God in a nation on the verge of total apostasy.

Or One of the Other Prophets

Calling Jesus “Jeremiah or one of the other prophets” has fewer directly messianic overtones. Yet, it should be remembered who and what the Old Testament prophets were—and it needs to be stated that Israel hadn’t had one in a very long time, not since Malachi in about 420 BC.

The prophets were the mouthpiece of God to the nation. Jeremiah, for example, was commissioned “to tear down and to build up” (Jeremiah 1:11). He was God’s prophet in apostate Judah, who declared God’s judgment on Judah and its neighboring nations with crushing and heartbreaking accuracy.

He was also an unfailing intercessor for his people, famed not only for prophecy but for lamentations—for the heart of compassion and repentance he carried on their behalf. Jeremiah prophesied horrific judgment and destruction, but he also promised God’s continuing faithfulness and reminded the people that the Lord’s mercies are “new every morning,” for his “compassions fail not; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).

Jeremiah was one of the greatest of the prophets, but most operated in the same vein. They anointed kings, threw down dynasties, called people to repentance and faithfulness, and embodied the voice of God.

To call Jesus a prophet like this is, again, not simply to see him as a moral teacher or even a revolutionary spiritual thinker. He was understood by most of the people around him—well, except those who thought he was demon possessed or a fraud, which the disciples kindly didn’t mention when Jesus asked them what people were saying—as embodying the voice and work of God in some way, as being, in himself, a turning point in God’s history. He was the herald of a new age.

The truth was even more radical. As I’ve already said, Jesus was the new age. But even in its less radical forms, we can see that people thought something incredibly unusual and important was happening in and through him. He was not “just” a teacher, “just” a good man, even “just” a prophet—he was not “just” anything.

Like this passage in Matthew, he was a hinge in history, and somehow, people knew it.

The Missing Confession

It’s interesting that no one apparently came out and said Jesus was the Messiah. A few people in the recent past had: the Syro-Phoenician woman, addressing Jesus as “Son of David,” certainly did. John the Baptist, asking “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” wanted to know whether Jesus was the fulfilment of the messianic promise.

But these answers didn’t come into the disciples’ response. Maybe not enough people were saying it, or maybe those who did think Jesus was the Messiah were counted as disciples already and not as “the public,” whom Jesus was clearly asking about.

Who Do YOU Say I Am?

Having received the answers of the people, Jesus pressed his disciples for an answer of their own. He didn’t allow them to hide in the opinions of the masses. He did not permit them to wait and see. He wanted to know, here and now, in the shadow of Caesarea Philippi and the shrines at the gates of death, who they said he was.

And so the question comes to us:

Who do we say Jesus is?

Who do I say he is?

Who do you say he is?

A Question with Two Branches

There’s a duality to this question, and I think we should let it hit us in both ways. Who is Jesus—historically? Who is he in the world? Who is he, what does he mean, in a global sense?

And who is he to you? To your heart? To your mind? To your will, your emotions, your daily life? Who is Jesus? Who do you say that he is?

In asking this question in this way, Jesus invited his disciples (us) to personally grapple and engage with the answer. To be clear, he does not ask us to define him, as though by our view of him we can somehow define who he is. Jesus was (and is) a real person, who said and did (and says and does) real things. He has an identity that is independent of our perceptions. We don’t pretend Jesus into existence or define the limits of his importance and identity. But he asked his disciples to really face what they really believed, to confess it, and having confessed it, to deal with it.

This is true for us too. If we confess with our mouths “Jesus is Lord,” what does that really mean? If we say he was (is) the Son of God, or our Savior, or the King of angels, or the Lord of the universe, what does that answer ask of us?

The Lord of Reality

The answer to this question of Jesus’s identity births more questions, but not in some open-ended way. Rather, precisely because he is who he is, his identity defines reality. All other questions are just us searching that reality out. Ask, seek, knock. Blessed are the hungry, for we shall be filled.

We’ll look at Peter’s response in the next post, but for now, I think it’s worth sitting with this question, either in both its branches or in just one of them for now. If you ask yourself, honestly, who he is, what answer comes back?

There has never been another who could ask this question and have it mean so much. That alone is a measure of him, a hint of his meaning. If I ask who I am, or who you say the president is, or what you think of your next-door neighbor, the answer will be more or less important, depending on a number of factors. But nothing, NOTHING, matters like the question of who Jesus is.

Nothing has shaped history like this question has; that is a simple fact. Nothing has shaped individual lives like it either.

Jesus matters in the macrocosm and the microcosm; it matters, urgently, acutely, definingly, who we say he is.

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This is Part 241 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

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