Have you ever noticed that some of the best solutions come from good questions?
For example, a fledgling company called Rocket Chemical Company and its staff of just three set out to find rust-prevention solvents and degreasers for use in the aerospace industry. Working in a small lab in San Diego, California, it took dozens and dozens of attempts asking for the right solution to displacing water. It was on their 40th attempt that they solved the problem, thereby creating…
WD-40, or Water Displacement, 40th formulation. Today, WD-40 is found in 4 out of 5 American households. We use it for everything from silencing squeaky hinges to removing road tar from automobiles to protecting tools from rust and removing adhesive labels. And it all came from asking the right question.
Surprisingly, we find the same…in Jesus. He almost always taught through parables. But his second most common way of teaching was by asking questions; questions that cut through the smoke and jump to what matters most.
The New Testament shows Jesus being asked questions more than 180 times. But of the times Jesus is asked a question, he directly answers…only three of them. What he did instead was ask questions of his own. In the encounter we come to this week, in the exact center of Mark’s gospel, we find the turning point of Jesus’ ministry. Everything that follows this encounter is fueled by the question Jesus asked them, which today he asks us.
Turn with me to Mark chapter 8. We jump in at verse 27, where we read…
Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” – Mark 8:27-29
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include this core question, and Jesus’ call for personal decision: “Who do you say I am?”
If you surveyed the neighbors who live in your subdivision;
If you asked your co-workers or fellow students what they think of Jesus…
we would learn that everyone has an opinion.
Everyone has an opinion about Jesus.
- Some believe he was a good man who others later lied about, embellishing the facts to make Jesus God in the flesh.
- Others respect his teachings as profoundly inspirational, but that’s about it.
- Some say he’s a prophet and stop there.
- Many admire him as a good man who loved the least and stood up for outcasts.
- Many in history remake him to be what they want him to be to serve their interests.
But everyone has an opinion about Jesus.
Who Jesus is, is arguably the most important question anyone ever answers. This is someone from an obscure village a couple thousand years back, who never ventured more than a few hours’ walk from his hometown. Yet he continues to shape the trajectory of world history. He inspires breathtaking generosity. Hospitals and schools, universities and human trafficking rescues, feeding and educating orphans, women’s right to vote, abolition of slavery and more, all flow from who people believe Jesus is.
The novelist H.G. Wells, best known for the sci fi War of the Worlds, once calmly commented, “I am a historian. I am not a believer. But this penniless preacher from Galilee is irresistibly the center of history.”
So who is he?
When I was in grad school, I came across a multi-volume History of the Expansion of Christianity by historian Kenneth Scott Latourette. Latourette earned his Bachelors, Masters, and PhD from Yale University and went on to teach there for 32 years. Smart guy. And one who understood world history like few others.
Here’s a screenshot from Latourette on the influence this obscure Jew continues to have on world history. Latourette writes:
“No life ever lived on this planet has been so influential in the affairs of men as that of Christ. From that brief life and its apparent frustration has flowed a more powerful force for the triumphal waging of man’s long battle than any other ever known by the human race.”
“Through [the life of Jesus], millions of people have had their inner conflicts resolved.
Through it, hundreds of millions have been lifted from illiteracy and ignorance and have been placed upon the road of growing intellectual freedom and control over the physical environment.
It has done more to allay the physical ills of disease and famine than any other impulse, and it has emancipated millions from chattel slavery and millions of others from thralldom to vice (moral depravity). It has protected tens of millions from exploitation by their fellows, and it has been the most fruitful source of movements to lessen the horrors of war and to put the relations of men and nations on the basis of justice and peace.”
So when Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?,” the real question is, do you grasp the fullness of his identity? Do we have any idea who we’re dealing with?
A couple of years ago a previously unknown masterpiece by one of Scotland’s greatest artists was rediscovered. The painting had been hidden for a couple of centuries by someone who had painted over it on a church wall.
Art experts immediately began uncovering and restoring this masterpiece. And they’ve found several more works by the same artist in that church, including Jesus interacting with the Samaritan woman, and Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son being welcomed home.
Those portraits of Jesus are just beginning to come to light. Many people, and I count myself among them, were raised or are being raised with an incomplete portrait of Jesus. They’re being taught some of what Jesus taught, and some of who the Bible declares him to be. But not his fullness. That’s what I want to take a stab at this week, that we take in the fullness of who this One we follow is.
If you take the time to read or listen to the gospels, you’ll find that when people came into contact with Jesus, their reactions were not polite indifference.
- People fell in love with him, drawn like a magnet to his teaching and authority over the spiritual realm.
- Others feared him as a threat and so they came to hate him.
But no one remained neutral when it came to Jesus. Because his question begs a decision: “Who do you say I am?”
He claimed to have authority to forgive sins—at which those who were astonished rightly declared, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Ah, they were getting at something, even if they didn’t see it.
Jesus spoke to wind and waves which at his command calmed—provoking his disciples to intense fear, asking with astonishment, “Who is this, that even the wind and waves obey him?”
No one was neutral over who Jesus is. Back to our text, from this point forward, everything in Mark’s gospel shifts surround this question.
Chapters 1-8 reveal Jesus’ identity as Messiah.
Chapters 9-16 show and tell Jesus’ mission as Messiah, that is, what it means that he is Messiah. It turns out that Jesus is more than we imagined.
Remember those undetected paintings in the Scottish church? There’s a masterpiece in verse 31 that many miss. We pass by it without catching the picture that it’s meant to reveal. When Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?,” and Peter replies, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus immediately warns his disciples not to tell this to anyone. Not yet. Why not?
Here’s why. Verse 31:
“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.”
Who must suffer many things? Not Peter’s answer of Messiah, but Jesus’ own preferred title for himself, which is…Son of Man.
Here’s why: The title Messiah had become so tightly defined by Jews at that time to mean a political-military king, that Jesus intentionally and immediately switched to a different title—one that remained uncorrupted.
I want you to see the origin of where Son of Man comes from. Because when you understand who the Son of Man is, your vision of who Jesus is will enlarge greatly. This is no pocket-sized Savior.
Turn with me to the OT book of Daniel. Daniel 7:13. Daniel is given a series of visions filled with prophetic symbolism. The prophet Daniel writes, beginning in verse 13…
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” Daniel 7:13-14
What Daniel sees leaves him pale and weak-kneed. Given a glimpse into heaven itself, before heaven’s throne comes ‘one like a son of man’ who is given what no man is ever given: sovereign power, meaning over-all authority. And with that sovereign power, people from all nations gather to…worship him.
The best an American president can hope for is eight years. Russians just approved a change in law allowing their president, Vladimir Putin, to potentially stay in power until the year 2038! Jesus’ reign is forever. His kingdom is permanent, global, and undefeatable.
That understanding of the Son of Man is essential to answering Jesus’ question correctly. Because the title by which Jesus refers to himself more than any other in the gospels…is this from the revelation given to Daniel. Jesus is the eternal, all-powerful, ruling globaly Son of Man.
- In Mark’s gospel of 16 chapters, we hear Jesus calling himself Son of Man 17 times.
- In Matthew’s gospel of 28 chapters, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man 29 times.
- In Luke’s 24 chapters, Jesus the title Son of Man to himself 28 times.
It’s unmistakable. Yet it’s very much like that masterpiece painted over in the Scottish church. It’s been there all along, but no one saw it.
You may have grown up in a church where God was domesticated, made safe. He was portrayed as heaven’s version of Mr. Rogers. Kind and gentle, but boring.
Or perhaps you grew up in a church that seemed to have an answer for everything, but awe about nothing. You learned about believers falling to their faces in awe of Jesus, but everyone seemed to have Jesus all figured out.
But when we read the gospels, we see that the people Jesus was teaching and healing and driving demons out of, they without realizing it, were witnessing the embodiment of Daniel’s vision: the Son of Man who has all authority over us, and is deserving of our unreserved worship.
But that’s too big for us to get our arms around, right? Try this on for size. Matt Proctor says:
My 5-year-old, Carl, and my 3-year-old, Conrad, love it when I dress like them. After they put on jeans and a blue T-shirt, they’ll come ask me to wear jeans and a blue T-shirt. When I do, they have a saying. They will survey me, survey themselves, and say, “Look, Dad—same, same.”
For my birthday, 5-year-old Carl bought me a North Carolina blue mesh shirt … because he has a North Carolina blue mesh shirt. So that we could be “same, same.”
When I play living room football with my boys, 3-year-old Conrad won’t let me play standing—so big and scary and towering above him. Instead he insists I get on my knees. When I am down at eye-level, Conrad puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “There. See, Dad—same, same.” They like it when I enter their world ….
This summer, Matt continues, I scraped my leg working on my house. When 5-year-old Conrad fell down and scraped his leg, he pointed at my scab, then showed me his and said, “Hey, Dad—same, same.”
Here’s the conclusion. If everything so far sounds out of touch with your everyday experiences, here’s where Jesus comes to us. Matt concludes:
In the Son of Man, God has felt what we feel.
In the Incarnation—God becoming one of us—he chose not to stay hidden.
In the Son of Man, God got down to eye-level with us, and experienced everything we experience:
- The Son of Man knows what it’s like to be tired or discouraged;
- The Son of Man knows what it’s like to feel abandoned by God and by those you trusted;
- The Son of Man felt the powerful pull of temptation, especially temptation to abuse power and position;
- The Son of Man felt the pain of rejection and slander;
- The Son of Man felt pain and bled;
- The Son of Man suffered and…died.
- And the Son of Man…rose, reigns, and will return for those who love him.
So when you think, “God has no idea what I’m going through,” the Son of Man responds, “Actually, I do.” He points to your wounds, then to his own scars, and says, “Look: same, same. Me too. I’ve walked in those shoes. I’ve been there. I understand how it feels. And I want you to know I care, and I am able to lead you through this.”
Matt Proctor, “Carols for Any Season of Suffering,” Christian Standard magazine (12-23-07)
So in this unsettled time, who is this One we as Christians follow? Answer: more than you imagine.
- Jesus is the One promised in Eden who would one day crush the serpent’s head.
- Jesus is prefigured in Noah’s ark, saving all who enter in, despite impending judgment.
- Jesus is the ultimate descendant of Abraham through whom all nations will be blessed.
- Jesus is the ultimate Moses, delivering from captivity all who follow him.
- Jesus is the scepter rising from Israel promised by Balaam, saying some 1,500 years before Jesus, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near.” For us, we can say that the Son of Man has now come near.
- Jesus is the final Joshua, bearing the same name with the same meaning—the Lord saves.
- Jesus is the promised descendant of David, whose throne will endure forever.
- Jesus is wiser than Solomon, the wisest king who ever lived.
- Jesus is the end-goal of the Law given to Moses—personal and societal holiness.
- He is the one in whom perfect holiness and perfect justice and perfect love come together to at once judge our sin and yet acquit us sinners.
- Jesus is God in the flesh, fully God and fully human, tempted in all ways like we are, yet without giving in to sin.
- Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
- Jesus is the Co-Creator and he has already begun the new creation.
- He embodies in his flesh heaven’s covenant with us and for us.
He’s not whoever we imagine him to be.
He not limited by what popular opinion insists he must be.
He is the One Mediator between God and man.
He is the substitute for our sins.
He is the Savior of the world.
He is all of this…because he is the Son of Man.
Today, he calls us to decide and act on his question: “Who do you say I am?”
This week isn’t about what you or I need to do. It’s about what we believe, deep down, concerning who it is that we follow.
Would you join me in calling on him? We close with an early 5th-century prayer by church leader and thinker Augustine. Let’s pray.
Look upon us, O Lord,
and let all the darkness of our souls
vanish before the beams of your brightness.
Fill us with holy love,
and open to us the treasures of your wisdom.
All our desires are known by you,
therefore perfect what you have begun,
and what your Spirit has awakened us to ask in prayer.
We seek your face,
turn your face toward us and show us your glory.
Then shall our longings be satisfied,
and our peace shall be perfect. Amen.