Who do you say that I am?
Who do You Say that I am?
St. Luke 9:18-27
What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does it look like to be his disciples? We’ve seen all sorts of responses to Jesus so far in Luke’s Gospel. Some people heard his message and rejected him. Some people were so angry they drove him out of town or even tried to stone him. Crowds of people were in love with him. When he crossed to the other side of Galilee, crowds were waiting at the dock when he returned. People hailed him as a miracle-worker. People hailed him as a prophet. But the group that actually followed him was relatively small. The group that was willing to go out to preach his message taking with them no money, no food, and no change of clothes amounted to twelve men. Lots of people liked Jesus, but only a few followed—only a few were disciples. And so far in the story, those disciples still haven’t been truly tested. Their faith hasn’t been seriously challenged yet. So we wonder: What kind of seed will they turn out to be? Will their faith wither under testing? Or will they put down deep roots and eventually bear fruit? Israel had failed to bear fruit in response to God planting his Word, but this time it’s different. This time the Word himself has come, incarnate as one of us to give birth to a new Israel.
I said last week that Chapter 9 is about two things: discipleship and Jesus—and more specifically, who Jesus is. These two things feed and strengthen each other. If you want to know Jesus, you have to follow him—you have to be his disciple. At the same time, if you want to grow as a disciple, you need to know just who Jesus is and what he’s all about. And our passage today, Luke 9:18-27, gets right at the heart of this. This is where Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And then on the heels of their response Jesus launches into a teaching on the meaning of true discipleship. Again, if you want to follow Jesus more closely, you’ve got to know him and if you want to know him better, you’ve got to press more deeply into being his disciple—you’ve got to follow him more closely, more faithfully.
In the first part of Chapter 9, Jesus went off to be alone with his disciples so that they could report back on their mission to preach the good news in the surrounding villages. The crowds interrupted their debriefing session, but now in verses 18-20 we see Jesus finally alone with his disciples.
Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” (Luke 9:18-19)
Notice that Luke puts special emphasis on the fact that Jesus was praying with his disciples. That’s important. It’s the context in which Jesus asks his next two questions. It’s what gives us a good idea of what Jesus was praying about. He asks them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
The disciples tell Jesus the same thing Herod had heard. People in the street were saying that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead. Other people said that he was Elijah or one of the other Old Testament prophets returned. The people recognised Jesus as having the same kind of authority that the old prophets had. They saw him calling for repentance and rebuking the nation the way the prophets had. They only knew miracles from the stories of the days of the prophets, but now they saw Jesus working miracles as the prophets had.
Yes, Jesus was a prophet. But he wasn’t John or any other prophet raised from the dead. The people were thinking in the right direction, but they weren’t going far enough. The big question, though, is whether or not the disciples understood that Jesus was more than a prophet. So far they haven’t really been able to grasp Jesus’ identity. And so he pushes his disciples further.
Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” (Luke 9:20)
“Who do you say that I am?” Those other people weren’t purporting to be disciples. These men were. Jesus had called them. But Luke shows us that to truly be a disciple—to truly be able to follow Jesus in faith—requires an understanding of who he is. It requires the understanding that Jesus is more than a prophet. And Peter gives the right answer: “Jesus, You are the Christ, the Messiah, whom God promised to send.” “Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah”. This is the key to following Jesus. People might listen to a prophet and go home having repented and with a new motivation to be more holy. People might look to a prophet to heal a sickness, cast out a demon, or even raise the dead, but that doesn’t mean they’ll give up everything to follow the prophet. But people will follow the Messiah—a Saviour—because he promises life and not just life, but a completely new kind of life. Where the Messiah is, there is God’s promised kingdom. And so people will follow the Messiah if they want to be part of that kingdom.
And now we see what Jesus was praying about. The disciples hadn’t connected the dots. As we’ll see, they still haven’t connected all of them. But in response to Jesus’ prayer, they finally realise that Jesus is the long-promised and long-awaited Messiah. Jesus’ prayer is a reminder to us that for human beings to grasp the nature of Jesus, to know who he is, what he’s all about, what he’s come to do, requires God’s intervention. As St. Paul reminds us, the good news that Jesus brought is foolishness to those whom the Holy Spirit hasn’t yet given understanding. Like the scales falling from Paul’s eyes, our eyes have to be opened to the truth of Jesus and that opening only happens as the Spirit renews our hearts and minds. Jesus prayed and as a result the disciples were finally able to connect the dots—to connect “Jesus” and “Messiah”. It’s a reminder to us to pray for those in spiritual darkness. You and I might share the good news with them, but only God can open their eyes to the truth of who Jesus is.
We would think that this new understanding the disciples have should be spread around. Everyone was talking about the things Jesus had preached and the miracles he had done, but they only got as far as recognising him as a prophet. Wouldn’t Jesus also want them to understand that he’s the Messiah? Look at verses 21-22:
And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Peter said that Jesus was the Messiah and in response Jesus says, “Good for you, Peter! Now don’t tell anyone. And I mean it. Really. Why? Because I, the Son of Man”—remember that the “Son of Man” is one of the characters from Daniel 7—“first have to be rejected by the Jewish authorities, killed, and raised from the dead.” You see, Peter connected the dots to get from “Jesus” to “Messiah”, but he and the other disciples still didn’t really understand the role and mission of the Messiah. Just like everyone else, they were thinking of the Messiah as a political saviour—as someone who would come and wreak the Lord’s vengeance on the Romans and the corrupt Hasmoneans. They were thinking of someone who would condemn the gentiles and vindicate the Jews by re-establishing the old kingdom of David. But as we’ve seen, while Jesus has been clearly inaugurating God’s kingdom, it’s not like any kingdom anyone expected. It’s not a kingdom centred on the law or on circumcision or on Jewish ethnic identity. It’s a kingdom centred on him and open to all who come in faith.
And, of course, that means that this Messiah and his kingdom will confront not only Caesar, but first it will confront the Jewish elders and chief priests and scribes. We’ve already seen the start of this. Jesus doesn’t worry about clean or unclean. He embraces lepers and women with menstrual disorders. He touches the dead. He eats with gentiles and tax collectors. He allows prostitutes to wash his feet. When uncleanness comes into contact with Jesus, instead of making him unclean, his purity bursts forth to heal and to purify and to restore life. And most important: Jesus offers forgiveness, but he offers that forgiveness without any ritual, without any sacrifices, without any priests, and without any temple. So far it’s just been the Pharisees who have confronted Jesus on these things, but Jesus knows that eventually he’s going to come face to face with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.
Now, all of this raises a question: How does Jesus know all of this? We touched on this question briefly when we looked at Luke’s account of Jesus visiting the temple when he was twelve years old. Remember that Mary and Joseph went looking for him and they found him in the temple with the teachers and Luke told us that those teachers were “amazed at his understanding”. It’s easy to think that because Jesus is the divine Word incarnate that he simply knew everything. God knows everything, Jesus is God, therefore Jesus must know everything. But remember that Jesus was as fully human as he was fully God. You can’t be fully human and you can’t live the human experience as Jesus did and at the same time be all-knowing. Somehow—and I doubt we’ll figure it out this side of eternity—but somehow in the incarnation, the divine Word chose to limit his knowledge. We see this in the statements Jesus makes about only Father knowing the course of future events (Mark 13:32). Jesus learned the same way that the rest of us do: he studied the Scriptures. Jesus had the advantage of being full of the Holy Spirit from the get-go, but he still had to study and figure these things out. He put two and two together. No doubt having been told about his virgin birth, he put that together with the teachings of the Old Testament. He gradually came to understand who he was and what his ministry was going to be. And we see him pulling together the promises of the Old Testament as no one else had done before. He understood that he was the Messiah—the king in the line of David who was promised to come and restore the kingdom. He identified himself with the Son of Man in Daniel—the one who would embody Israel as the Lord’s representative. And he realised that he was to be the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecies—the one who would suffer for the redemption of his people, taking their sin on himself.
You see, no one before had connected these dots. But as Jesus connected them he understood the big picture and understood that he was himself the focal point of all of Israel’s history. This is why we see him so often symbolically telling Israel’s story as he teaches about his kingdom. As he put all this together, he knew that Israel’s story was going to reach its climax in a battle against the devil, sin, and death and that the Lord would win and that he would rescue his people from their captivity to sin and death once and for all. That was the mission of the Son of Man. He knew that the mission of the Messiah—the son of David—was to go up to Jerusalem to claim his kingdom, and in that sense this right here is the turning point in the story as Jesus leaves Galilee and starts slowly making his way to Jerusalem. But Jesus also connects both of these missions with the ministry of the Suffering Servant: the battle with evil will result in his death before he and his people experience God’s vindication and their own victory. As Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days, so he would be in the grave, but God would vindicate his Servant.
Did Jesus know the exact details or the exact timeline? I don’t think so. He knew what he could glean from the Old Testament and with the Spirit’s understanding. But that was enough and it was confirmed in his baptism at the start of his ministry. The Holy Spirit descended and the Father spoke: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus understood his identity. He’s connected all the dots. The Disciples are only part of the way there. That’s why Jesus tells them to keep Peter’s revelation that Jesus is the Messiah to themselves. It’s going to undermine Jesus’ ministry if they go out preaching that the Messiah has come without first understanding the Messiah the way Jesus understands the Messiah. The need to understand that he’s also the Son of Man and the Suffering Servant. Knowing he’s the Messiah—whatever that means to them—is going to encourage them to follow him closely, but they aren’t ready to go out preaching about the Messiah yet. At this point Jesus is interested in discipleship and that’s what we see next. Peter has taken a big step in his understanding, recognising Jesus is the Messiah and that means he’s ready to take another step as a disciple too. Look at verses 23-25:
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?
Everyone would want to follow the Messiah, but instead of creating a powerful army to take back Judaea from the Romans or to overthrow Herod Jesus describes his disciples as humble men and women who deny themselves. A lot of Jews were ready to take up arms to take back what they believed rightly belonged to them. They wanted to restore the glory days of power and wealth that Israel had seen under David and Solomon. But Jesus is describing disciples who set aside their own rights. Instead of looking to reclaim what’s theirs, they’re looking for ways to share what they have with others. Jesus describes them as daily taking up their crosses as they follow him. For years I struggled with this passage. Yes, Jesus denied himself and took up his cross for our sake. But what did this saying mean to the disciples. Jesus hadn’t done any of that yet. What could the cross have meant to them at this point in his ministry?
It actually does mean what it meant for Jesus when he literally took up his cross. I don’t think that Jesus suspected that he would be crucified. That was the way Romans executed criminals. Jesus just said that he was expecting to be killed by the Jewish authorities. That probably would have meant stoning. And yet in the end these word turned out to be prophetic. He really did deny himself and take up his cross. What he was envisioning was the Roman practise of making the condemned carry the crossbeams for their own crosses to the place of crucifixion. They would be paraded through the streets as they carried the heavy beam across their own shoulders. Crucifixion was meant to be a humiliating form of death and it was meant to show everyone else what Rome did to criminals and to rebels. What Jesus is saying is that his disciples will face public humiliation for following him. The crowds will laugh and jeer at them as the world parades them through the streets as examples of what happens to those who refuse to follow its system and values. But it’s also a reminder that God vindicates his people. Jesus was to be condemned and killed, but he was also to be raised from the dead to the only kind of life that matters eternally. And just so with his disciples. “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
There are two kingdoms in this world. One belongs to the devil and the other to God. One will be destroyed and the other is eternal. You can spend your life laying up treasure in the devil’s kingdom, but what profit is that when, in the end, you lose your soul for it? Jesus is talking about radical discipleship again. For the sake of his kingdom we need to be ready to set aside all worldly allegiances and obligations. Think back to all the things Jesus as said and done so far. He walked away from his own family when they wanted him to hook them up with his miraculous power. When his mother and brothers came to see him he responded that his true mother and brothers were those who hear the word of God and do it. When he spoke about doing good to those who persecute us he undermined the whole system of patronage and obligation on which his society was established. Now he adds economics: what profit is it to gain the whole world but lose your soul?
Brothers and sisters, if you’re inclined to take this as hyperbole, Jesus goes on in verses 26 and 27. He really does expect a radical kind of discipleship—just the sort of discipleship you’d expect of people who were following the Messiah into a new kingdom.
For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”
Jesus began by describing himself as the Son of Man and that’s where he ends. This is the imagery of Daniel 7 where the Son of Man comes in glory. Daniel illustrates that glory very dramatically with the language, with the figurative imagery of the Son of Man coming on the clouds. That’s the day on which the Son is presented by the Ancient of Days—by his Father—to have dominion over the kingdom he’s inaugurated and established. From that time on the Son will have authority over that kingdom. That’s a good thing for his disciples, but it’s a bad thing for those who rejected him. The world may shame those who follow Jesus, the same way the crowds shamed the condemned men carrying their crosses through the streets, the same way the crowds jeered at Jesus as he carried his cross to Golgotha, but what counts for more: the approval of the world or the approval of Jesus? If we are ashamed of him in this world, we will be shamed when his kingdom is established—we will have no part in it. His promise to us is that if we have been true disciples, if we have not been ashamed of him and if we’ve been willing to give our lives entirely over to him, he will never be ashamed of us.
Jesus gives his disciples a big challenge, but he also promises that some of them will see his kingdom within their own lifetimes. Bible scholars disagree on exactly what Jesus is referring to. Some think it’s a reference to the Transfiguration in the next section of the chapter. I think that’s a stretch. Most see it as a reference either to his resurrection or to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in a.d. 70. It’s very possibly a combination of both. Jesus came to inaugurate his kingdom. In his death and resurrection he accomplished the work needed to establish it. When he was raised from the dead and ascended it showed the Father’s vindication, which was shown again forty years later when the great symbols of the old kingdom that had persecuted Jesus and his disciples were wiped out once and for all. Again, I don’t think that Jesus was privy to the details of the timeline. He may have even expected that some of his disciples would die with him. What he did know was that in his death and resurrection his kingdom would be established and he would begin his reign as King. In these events we see the work of the Son of Man—Israel’s representative—accomplished; in them the Suffering Servant suffers and accomplishes his saving work; and in them the Messiah—the Davidic King—takes his throne. In them we see the glory of both the Father and the Son. The good news for us is that whatever the specifics of what Jesus referred to, those events are in the past for us. The Son came in all his glory almost 2000 years ago to vindicate his people—his disciples—and as a result you and I can follow him, devoting our all to him knowing that our hope is not just a future hope in a work yet to be accomplished, but that our hope is in the kingdom established in the death and resurrection of Jesus and over which he has reigned ever since his ascension.
Brothers and sisters, we all like to think that we’re following Jesus, but do we truly and on a daily basis “take up our crosses” to follow him? How often do we hide our devotion to Jesus because the world mocks our “foolishness”? How often do worldly loyalties get in the way of or trump our loyalty to Jesus? We all have needs in this world, but how much of our time is spent deliberately laying up treasures here rather than in Jesus’ kingdom? These are all questions we need to ask. Are we truly following Jesus? If we’re not, we may need to read the Scriptures more, to think, and to pray that we might have a bigger idea and a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and what he’s done for us. We may need to ponder the love God has shown us in Jesus, who gave his own life for ours. Doesn’t that require our deepest commitment in return? To follow Jesus is to make sacrifices, but we do so knowing first the sacrifice he has made for us and, second, knowing that our faith will be vindicated. If we are not ashamed of him, he will not be ashamed of us. And never forget, the King we follow sits today on his throne at the right hand of the Father. His kingdom has been established. If we don’t see it, it’s only because we, his Church, still have work to do as heavenly colonists. With his help and full of his Spirit, we will spread the rule of his kingdom and we do that walking as his disciples.