At a pivotal moment in his ministry, Jesus asked his disciples two vital questions. The first, “Who do people say that I am?” wasn’t too hard to answer; they all had a sense of what people were saying about Jesus. But then came the next, really challenging one: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:27, 29, emphasis added).
Jesus didn’t ask these questions on a whim that day. He had spent years praying, poring over the Hebrew Scriptures, and asking them of himself: “Who do people say that I am? And who do I say that I am?” From his earliest childhood, Jesus knew that he was different from everyone else, but it was only as he took these questions to prayer that he came to understand who he truly was.
Who Is Jesus? It can be tempting to dismiss these questions. “Jesus was God! He always knew that he was the second Person of the Trinity.”
But Jesus wasn’t just God hiding within a body, complete with every bit of knowledge about the entire universe—and about himself—from the day of his birth. He was truly human as well, and like all men and women, he still had to learn about the world around him. Even Scripture tells us that Jesus “advanced in wisdom” as he grew and matured (Luke 2:52). So while never ceasing to be God, and while having a special grace to help him realize who he was, Jesus still had to grow in understanding. That’s the only way he could be like us “in every way, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
So how did Jesus come to understand who he was? The simple answer is that he learned this from his heavenly Father. But what did that look like? Well, for one thing, he learned about himself as he read the Scriptures and heard them proclaimed in the synagogue. He must have also heard stories about his birth and early childhood from Mary and Joseph. We can be sure that he took all of these things to prayer and asked his Father to open his heart and teach him.
And the result was amazing. No rabbi or priest or scribe in all of Israel had ever interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures in the way Jesus did. With his mind and heart free from the cloud of sin and with his special relationship to his heavenly Father, Jesus came to understand who he was in relation to the Father and to Israel—as well as his all-important mission.
This month, we want to imitate Jesus as he brought his questions to prayer. We want to delve into the word of God and grow in our understanding of the prophetic words that point to Jesus. We also want to ask our heavenly Father to open our minds to spiritual truths about who Jesus is and what he came to do for us—just as Jesus did.
A People Longing for the Messiah. For centuries before Jesus was born, the Jewish people had longed for God to send someone to rescue them.
They recalled the time of King David and his son Solomon, when Jerusalem was established, the Temple was built, and Israel was a free and sovereign nation. But then trouble began. First the nation split in two. Then both the northern and southern kingdoms began their long decline into sin and idolatry. Soon enough, the people were overrun by pagan armies and sent into exile. After they returned decades later, they had to submit again and again to foreign rule. First it was the Persians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans.
Many Jews in Jesus’ day would have prayed with the psalmist, “How long, Lord? Will you hide forever?” (89:47). They would have recalled the promises of the Lord to send a Messiah to save them: “I have sworn to David my servant: I will make your dynasty stand forever and establish your throne through all ages” (89:4-5). “When will you fulfill these words, O Lord?” they must have asked. Little did they know that their longed-for Messiah was already with them, living as a carpenter in the village of Nazareth.
“He Has Anointed Me.” For the most part, Jesus avoided openly calling himself the Messiah. He knew that most people’s hopes focused on a political or religious leader who would expel the Romans from Israel and cleanse the Temple from corruption. So rather than directly refer to himself as the Messiah, Jesus taught and acted in ways that showed the people what God’s Messiah had come to do.
St. Luke tells us that Jesus began his public ministry with a homily in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. There, he purposely opened the Scriptures to Isaiah 61, where he read a passage that many Jews of his day saw as a prophecy about the Messiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to
bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to
(Luke 4:18-19; see Isaiah 61:1-2).
“He has anointed me.” Those words had special significance for the people because the word “messiah” in both Greek (Christos) and Hebrew (Mashiach) means “the anointed one.” So Jesus must have surprised everyone when he began his homily by saying, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). At first, the people were “amazed” that this son of a carpenter could expound on the Scriptures with such wisdom (4:22)!
But then Jesus went on to talk about how this Messiah would be rejected in his own hometown by his own people but would find acceptance among those who were not God’s people (Luke 4:23-27). According to Jesus, the Messiah would come not only for Israel but for the whole world, and it was happening right in front of them! Clearly, this was not the kind of Messiah they were expecting. It’s no wonder they tried to throw him off a cliff (4:29-30)!
An Unexpected Messiah. Even though Jesus didn’t often openly declare himself the Messiah, there were many other times when his actions pointed to this truth. When Peter confessed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus didn’t correct him. In fact, he commended him! “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (Matthew 16:16, 17). But then when Jesus went on to tell his disciples that as Messiah, he would be rejected and put to death, Peter became upset and rebuked him (16:22). Again, just as it happened in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus’ vision of the Messiah was radically different from what people, even his closest disciples, were expecting.
Jesus’ final week was full of messianic symbolism. His entry into Jerusalem on a donkey reminded the people of an Old Testament prophecy about an anointed king who would enter the holy city in the same way (Matthew 21:1-5; Zechariah 9:9).
Later that week, Jesus exercised authority over the Temple, both by driving out the money changers and by claiming that he would rebuild it. Again, Jesus was fulfilling a prophecy about the Lord coming to the Temple and purifying the Levites who ministered there (Malachi 3:1-3). Still, his way of purifying the Temple didn’t fit the leaders’ expectations. Matthew tells us that “the blind and the lame approached him in the temple area” (21:14). The chief priests and scribes were known for keeping people with disabilities from entering the Temple because they were considered unclean—but Jesus welcomed them. He even healed them!
Over and over again, Jesus showed the people that he was the true Messiah—but a Messiah who was so different that they couldn’t see how he was fulfilling their cries for salvation.
Who Do You Say That Jesus Is? Of course, it wasn’t enough for Jesus himself to know who he was. He wanted his disciples to accept him as their Messiah—and not just accept him but experience his power as Messiah to bring forgiveness, deliverance, and his Father’s kingdom to Israel. That’s what Jesus wants for us as well. As Messiah, he has won us freedom from sin and has offered us an abundant life in his kingdom. These amazing truths should move us, as they did his disciples, to follow him, no matter where they lead us.
Who do I say that Jesus is? This is a question that we should ask ourselves regularly as we grow in our lives as disciples. Over the next week, take the following Scripture passages to prayer and ask God to show you more deeply what it means that Jesus is your Messiah, your King who has come to set you free:
Of course, you may have some other questions. Did Jesus really know that he was God? Did he know that he was going to have to suffer and die? Let’s take up those questions in the next two essays.