When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?"
They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"
Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:13-16 TNIV).
Can I confess something to you? I don't like True/False questions. I'm always looking for the trick word or the trap thought behind these "either/or" questions. I keep coming up with scenarios where the answer might be true or might be false, depending on slight variations in the wording. I don't want to have to choose between the two: I want to explain the nuances of both!
What's more, I don't like having to choose only two vegetables at Cracker Barrel. I love turnip greens, hash brown casserole, green beans, carrots, lima beans, along with mashed potatoes and gravy. I don't mind picking — I'll have one of each, please — I just don't want to have to choose and miss something!
The post-modern view of reality has washed over our culture and caught us in its undertow. We have almost instinctively begun to shun "either/or" thought, and have instead pursued either "both/and" or "yes, but" thought. We don't mind picking answers; we just don't want to have to choose between one completely right answer and one completely wrong answer. If we're not careful, we can find ourselves doubting that any absolutes and hard lines truly exist — everything becomes nothing more than nuance, fuzzy lines, and shades of gray. We join culture in saying, "Don't give us any right or wrong, good or bad, black or white choices. Life isn't like that!"
Before we get all high and mighty about what we see as the slippage of values in our culture, let's admit that we have all been overly simplistic about some things. In reality, many of our decisions are not between right and wrong, but between better and best. Then there are those decisions we dread most, when we have to choose between bad and worst. Reducing life to a toggle switch of diametrically opposed positions, or ridiculously exaggerated caricatures of reality, is not only overly simplistic, but in many cases, it is divisive politically, culturally, and socially.
That being said, there is an area where we have to choose: the identity of Jesus. The faith of Christianity hinges on this. Jesus asked followers who they believed him to be. He makes clear this is the bedrock decision of faith (Matthew 16:13-18). The early church proclaimed that there was no other way to find salvation other than Jesus (Acts 4:12). They believed this so strongly that they were willing to die for this faith, and prayed for boldness not to back down in their proclamation (Acts 4:23-31). The letter of 1 Peter is an extended reminder to Jesus' followers to bear up under unjust suffering for the faith, hoping to have an opportunity to give the reason for the hope they have. They were to be bold in sharing their faith in Jesus, while treating others with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15-16).
These early believers traced their claim of exclusivity all the way back to Jesus, who said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). They claimed that Jesus was God in human flesh, come to reveal God (John 1:1-18). They believed that Jesus was the final and greatest truth about God (Hebrews 1:1-3).
Jesus can't be nuanced into being just a great teacher, or just another good man. We are left to choose. Is he ...
- Messiah or mad man!
- Lord or lunatic!
- Savior or charlatan!
There is no middle ground. While we can nuance different truths from Jesus' teaching, we can't nuance his ultimate identity. We are compelled to choose. Jesus asked the question, "Who do you say I am?"
Of course, our decision won't change the reality of who Jesus truly is. That decision, however, will determine our relationship to Jesus. This is entirely appropriate since Jesus comes to us as Savior, Messiah, and Lord. This reality is proclaimed from his birth (Luke 2:11), and was declared during the first proclamation of Jesus' followers after his ascension (Acts 2:36).
Fundamentally, all major world religions declare that there is something broken with our world and with ourselves. Of course, most of us don't need religion to tell us that: we sense it in our world and we feel it in ourselves. But, how do we fix the mess of our world, and even more importantly, how do we fix what is broken in ourselves? Religion's answer: we need to learn to live better, think better, gain better control of ourselves, and improve ourselves so that we can be worthy before our god or gods.
Jesus, however, sets this concept on its ear. God comes to us, and for us, in Jesus. He dies as the sacrifice for sinful humans, so that by grace, they can be made holy and righteous before God. They don't live to earn this holy status, but they live to thank God for the sacrifice of Jesus that made them holy. Even that new life is marked by grace, because Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to live in us, to help us be what we could never be left to our own will power.
This is why the issue of Jesus' identity is crucial. This is why all of the Christian faith hinges on his identity. Without Jesus, the Christian faith is just another religion telling people that they must be good, and teaching them how to try to be good. With Jesus, we don't earn anything. We are made God's children by grace through faith. We are declared righteous because of our faith in Jesus' sacrifice. We are empowered to become more like Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, sent to us by the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. As John puts it:
Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known (John 1:16-18).
So we return to the place where we began: Jesus' question to his closest followers: "But what about you? ... "Who do you say I am?"
Everything for us hinges on our answer!