Who was Jesus, really? In this sermon, Alistair Begg reminds us that people did not have neutral feelings about Jesus when He walked the earth; rather, He inspired both devotion and hatred. The question of who Jesus is became personal when He asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” As we consider our response, like Peter, no one else can answer for us. Is Jesus merely who we want Him to be? Or is truly who He says He is?
“[And] 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 Christ.’
“Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.”
That is the reading from Mark chapter 8. You can also read the parallel passage in Matthew 16 or in Luke chapter 9; it is covered variously between the three sections, but all affirming the same truth.
I was glad that Jon and Matt went out and conducted those interviews, because I found them fascinating. I think you probably did as well. The one thing that was apparent that they told me when they came back was that everyone to whom they spoke had an opinion. They never asked anyone the question and had somebody answer, “I do not know.” Everybody had something to say, everybody had a view. And when you take the various views that were expressed there, inasmuch as they are, I think, quite honestly, fairly representative of what you would get if you conducted a much larger study than that, then the underlying notion is simply and aptly summarized in the title from an album from an old group—well, they’re not very old, but they’re quite old—the Manic Street Preachers, and they had an album entitled This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. Because when you take the variety of answers that were given there, there’s really no two of them that agree with one another in their entirety. And the underlying presupposition would be: Jesus is actually whoever and whatever you believe him to be for you, and that doesn’t mean that he has to be the same for anybody else.
So this question is a good question, it’s an important question, and it is a question that lies at the very heart of Christianity. Nobody actually knows the exact date of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and yet that one date, that one event, has divided the whole of world history to this point in time between BC and AD. H. G. Wells on one occasion said, “I am a historian. I am not a believer. But … this penniless preacher from Galilee is irresistibly the center of history.”
Now, the question is, what are, then, we to make of Jesus? Is he, as the one young man suggested there, simply an invention—something that was created in order to get as many people as possible to believe in the falsehood? Some of you may actually believe that. Others of you may actually have formed other opinions, and perhaps you’ve formed an opinion without ever really giving very much thought to the question at all. In fact, when you think about what you believe about Jesus, you’re not sure just where it came from or why you believe as you do.
One of the men who will be a speaker at next year’s pastors’ conference here in May writes in one of his books that that was how he viewed Christianity when he was just a young man in his teens. He says, “I had a vague idea of a rather weak figure … who went around being nice to everyone. He had long permed hair, [Birkenstocks] and a permanent smile—fine for those who like that kind of thing, but not really my cup of tea.” You can tell the person was obviously English who answered the question in that way. In the States, you would’ve said, “Not my cup of coffee,” but it was not his cup of tea.
Now, in Mark’s Gospel—and we’re dealing here just with Mark’s account—the source for Mark was probably Peter. And Peter was very clear when he wrote his letters to let those who read his letters know that he wasn’t dealing in the realm of invention, but he was actually dealing in the realm of factual material. When he writes, he says, “We did not follow clearly invented stories when we wrote to you concerning Jesus, but we reported the facts as we knew them.”
Now, I understand that for any who are here tonight and you are not convinced about the person of Jesus, for myself or for anybody else to start on the basis of the New Testament begs one of your questions. And your question may be simple and straightforward, and it would be this: that you actually doubt the validity and the veracity of the New Testament itself. And so, for the person answering the question immediately to go to that source, it causes problems for you. I’d like to be able to address that now; I can’t. Perhaps we can have it as one of the questions. And I can recommend a book to you by F. F. Bruce entitled [Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?] if that is your question. “Can I really trust—I read The Da Vinci Code—can I really trust the New Testament? I’ve read a number of things, Gnostic heresies. Can I trust the New Testament?” But we’ll set that aside for the moment.
What we need to do is go directly to this text. If you want to read the Gospel of Mark, you can probably do it in less than two hours, and it will repay your reading. And when you do, it will become very apparent to you that when people came in contact with Jesus of Nazareth, their reaction to him was seldom if ever the kind of reaction that is customary today—namely, the reaction of polite neutrality. In actual fact, when you read the Gospel—Mark and the others—you find that Jesus inspired devotion in people; people were prepared to die for the things that Jesus said. He inspired fear in people; they were awestruck by his words and by his deeds, and they recoiled from him. And in certain instances, and increasingly towards the end of his life, he inspired hatred in people. So they loved him, they feared him, they hated him, but it’s hard to find anybody saying, “I’m fairly neutral on the subject.” When they considered the words that he spoke and the deeds that he did, they were full of wonder.
In one of the wonderful accounts, of four friends letting a sick man down through the roof of a house and Jesus speaking on that occasion to this man and pronouncing the forgiveness of his sins, the cry went up, “Who can forgive sins but God alone? What is this Galilean carpenter doing saying, ‘Your sins are forgiven’? He’s a Galilean carpenter, for goodness’ sake! He can say a number of things, but only God can say your sins are forgiven. Who is he?”
Or later on, when he had called another to his disciple band—somebody who had come out of a kind of murky background and was used to having these fantastic parties at his house—and Jesus went down to one of these parties, and people came around, and they said, “Who is this person that he eats with sinners? The same fellow who’s pronouncing forgiveness of sins is going to parties at Matthew’s house?”
And even the disciples themselves, when they spent time in his company and became fearful on one occasion on a voyage on the Sea of Galilee, thinking that the boat was about to be swamped by the water, they wakened Jesus, and he calmed the winds and the waves. And they looked around at one another and they said, “Who is this that even winds and waves obey him?”
Now, it is this same Jesus who inspired those kind of questions—and still does today, if people are honest—who then, if you like, turns the tables on this occasion on his disciples, and he asks essentially one question, although he poses it twice.
The first one is, “Who do people say [that] I am?” “Who do people say I am?” Essentially, what he’s saying is, “What’s the word on the street?” The disciples moved amongst the crowd, they mingled in the marketplace—Jesus did too—but they would be the kind of individuals who would be picking up the sort of things that were being said. And so they report to Jesus. And essentially, they were saying that “everybody has pretty well reached the same conclusion about you, Jesus. They think that you’re a prophet. Some of the people are suggesting that you’re John the Baptist. Others have a notion of you as a kind of reappearance of Elijah. And others really haven’t got anybody they can tie you to, but they recognize that there is in your words the note of eternal reality, and in your deeds there is something that is so striking that they cannot dismiss it out of hand. That’s essentially what they’re saying of you.”
Now, you see, it’s not surprising—it may surprise us, but it’s not surprising when you understand where these people were coming from. Because in the Old Testament—and many of them would’ve been brought up with the Old Testament—in the Old Testament, the prophets were always pointing forward. Isaiah points forward to one who will come without knowing really who the one is. The same is true elsewhere. Peter, when he writes his first letter, says that the prophets were like men standing on their tiptoes, looking, as it were, down through the corridors of time to see what the fulfillment of their words would be. And as a result of that, the people who read the prophets grew up with the notion that somehow or another, the Messiah would one day come, and he would establish God’s kingdom, and he would put matters right.
On one occasion, early on in Nazareth, which is where Jesus grew up, he went back around the age of thirty, he went back to his local synagogue, and he had the occasion of reading the Scriptures. And when he read a portion from the prophetic Scriptures concerning the Messiah who was going to come—who would give sight to the blind, and would heal the lame, and would deal with the misfortunes of men and women—when he finished the reading, he sat down, and everybody looked at him, because he had sat down in the position of the teacher. And he said the most striking thing. He said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He said, “I am him: I am the one who gives sight to the blind, brings peace and reconciliation, heals the lame, unstops deaf ears.” And the people, of course, were amazed. But when they began to process all of that information, still they couldn’t get to the right conclusion. And so their answer was a good answer, it was an understandable answer, but it was an answer that fell short of what the right answer really was. The popular opinion was, if you like, respectful, it was close, but not close enough.
So Jesus says, “Well then, let me ask the question a second time. Thank you for letting me know what the people on the street are saying, but let me ask you,” and he looks his disciples in the eye, and he says to them, “What about you? … Who do you say I am?” A very personal question, isn’t it? I mean, we could have a discussion here about what the sort of consensus view is at Parkside; we could take a survey from section one, section two, section three, and put together the answers, and find out what the communal view is, and that would be of interest. But the real issue is, this question is asked from Christ himself, addressed to you as an individual and to me in such a way that it would be as if there wasn’t another single person in the room: “Who do you say I am?” That’s the question Jesus is asking.
Now, this is actually the turning point; it’s the watershed in all of the Gospel records, here in Mark chapter 8; everything shifts after this. All that Jesus does after this is in direct relationship to the answer that is now about to be given. If you know your Bible at all, you won’t be surprised that the one who steps up and says, “I know the answer to that!” is none other than Peter himself. Infuriating kind of character, the kind of chap at school who always was the first one up with the answer: “I know how to do that!” or “I’ll have a go at that!” or “Please, may I do that?” A real pain in the neck to the rest of the disciples on many occasions. You may be just like him. I may be just like him, I don’t know. But Peter speaks for more than himself when he says, “You are the Christ.”
In Matthew’s record, Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” “The Son of the living God” is just, if you like, a qualifying phrase. To say “You are the Christ” is to use a Greek word for “Messiah,” to use a word for “the Anointed One.” And again, the Old Testament picture was of the Lord’s Anointed. God had anointed kings, and he had anointed judges, and he had anointed prophets, and they were the representatives and the spokesmen. But they were always pointing forward to, finally, the one who would come, who would be the Messiah, who would be the Christ, who would be the very Anointed One of God. The word actually means “a deliverer.” And what Peter is declaring here is remarkable. He is saying to Jesus, “You are that one. You are the one concerning whom the prophets have spoken. You are the one who is the focus of all the ages.”
Now, it becomes quickly clear that he didn’t fully understand the totality of what he was saying, but he knew enough to answer in this way. “Well,” you say, depending on your view of the New Testament, “why would we be surprised by this? After all, we would expect somebody to answer in this way, otherwise we wouldn’t have a proper New Testament. The people who wrote the New Testament wrote from a biased perspective. They had an agenda, they wanted to get the message across; they pose the question, and they have the person to stand up and give the answer. And so Peter stands up and quotes the party line.”
Uh-uh! It wasn’t the party line. Do you think this was the party line? For a Jewish boy? For a Jewish fisherman? Who had grown up, in the evening hours with his father and his mother lying on his bed with him and saying, “Now Peter, before you go to sleep tonight, let’s go over it one more time. ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord [your] God, the Lord is one. [And you shall] love the Lord your God…’” And so he would have gone through it, and he would have grown up all of his tiny life with that reverberating in his mind: the truth of monotheism, the oneness of God—there is one God, and one God alone. And that was what was at the very core of his conviction. So for him to answer in this way was the very last thing that you would ever expect from his lips. Indeed, his confession at this point is a breakthrough moment of monumental proportions—a staggering statement, an unlikely statement, a statement that no man then nor no man or woman now will ever make except as a result of the same disclosure that Peter enjoyed.
And how had he reached this conclusion? What did he have to go on? Well, he had the first eight and a half chapters of Mark’s Gospel, if you like; he had the material to this point. He had the encounters with Jesus, he had seen these events, he’d been part and parcel of his journeys, he had heard his teaching. Essentially, what he had was the information that you and I have this evening. And it was this material which suddenly, if you like, formed up in the mind of Peter. And Jesus later on explains to him, he says, “You know, you didn’t come about this statement, Peter, because you’re smart or because of your capacity for logical and rational thinking. But you have come about this declaration, Peter, because God the Father has actually revealed this to you,” so that the Spirit of God was taking the word of God as Jesus had both spoken it and performed it and bringing it to the mind of this man in such a way that he declares the messiahship of Jesus.
Now, let me say in conclusion… because the great beauty of these “Sundays at Seven” is, the talks are significantly shorter. My wife asked me, “Is it much easier to give shorter talks?” and then she added, “Actually, you haven’t given a shorter talk yet.” But tonight’s the night. The Bible, my friends—this is the claim—the Bible provides all the truth we require to make this same declaration. The Bible contains all the truth we require. If you will examine the Scriptures with an open mind, with a seeking heart, then God is pleased to convince people’s minds by the truth of his Word, so that those who do not believe may come to declare that Jesus is Messiah God.
Now, the question that we’ve addressed is, as I pointed out to you, a personal one. The person next to you cannot answer for you. When the New Testament addresses the issue of knowing Jesus, it’s always on the level of personal discovery. It’s never about the passing on of a report that has been learned from other people. And when we look at this question and think about it in relationship to ourselves, we need to do so in light of the warning that followed Peter’s statement: “Jesus [then] warned them not to tell anyone about him.” How strange is that? You have a Messiah who is declared, and as soon as the declaration of his messiahship is made known, he says, “Don’t let the message out. Don’t let anyone know. Don’t tell anyone who I am.” How can you start a movement if you’re not gonna let the word out? What’re you doing?
Well, he was doing what needed to be done. Because the expectations on the part of the population were directly related to the overthrow of the Roman authorities, were directly related to triumph and to glory and to the overarching wonders of God’s kingdom, and what Jesus had come to do in the first instance was very different from that. And so the last thing in the world that he needed was a big advertising campaign where people began to rush out onto the streets of Jerusalem declaring, “The Messiah is here! The Romans will be overthrown!” That’s why—and this is not really within our framework, but I have to mention it because the context demands it—that is why Jesus then immediately began to teach his disciples that he “the Son of Man must suffer many things … be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law … that he must be killed and after three days rise again.”
And the Peter who just made the great declaration is the Peter who takes Jesus aside and remonstrates with him and says, “Oh no, we can’t have any of that, Jesus; we don’t want that for a messiahship; we don’t want that for a kingdom. We want glory, we want power, we want majesty, we want might.” And Jesus says, “No, my kingdom comes along the lines of rejection, humiliation, and shame. Indeed, if you want to be my disciple, you better be prepared for rejection, humiliation, and shame.” 
And this, of course, was to be the rest of the journey. The disciples, once this declaration had been made, were then going to have to try and figure out how the rest of the pieces of the puzzle—a dying Jesus—fitted into his messiahship. They were going to have to wrestle with a question that you may have thought of: If God, in his love, as the Bible says, longs to forgive sinners—longs to enjoy friendship with those who have turned their backs on him—if in his love he longs to do that, and yet at the same time, if in his justice, he cannot ignore our rebellions and our sins, and they have to be punished, how then can he display his love and execute his justice? That, if you like, is the great question. And the answer to that is in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ: that at the cross Jesus is an emblem of the Father’s love and Jesus is the one who bears the Father’s wrath . If he were simply to excuse sin or let it off, he would not be true to himself in the perfection of his holiness; therefore, sin must be punished. But because of the magnanimous, unbounded nature of his forgiving love, he executes his justice on his Son, so that those who deserve that judgment may find in that Son their forgiveness and his love and their life. And then it becomes very wonderful: “Who do you say that I am?” “Oh, you are the Christ. You are the Messiah. You are the one who bears our punishments. You are the one who expresses your love.” And he invites us to come and take our place beneath his cross.
Do you know what’s most remarkable about what I and my colleagues do? About this little talk tonight? Do you know what the Bible says about this little talk tonight, and what I’m forced to believe about this talk? That somehow, in the mystery of God’s purposes, God speaks by his Spirit, through his Word, and through my lips. So that God makes his appeal to you tonight through lips of a mortal. Preaching, giving talks like this, speaking to people in this way, expecting that there would be a life-changing response in anyone, is almost completely bizarre when you think about it. I mean, preaching, talks like this, are not just difficult. The task is not just challenging. It is impossible. It is impossible! There is no possibility of me being able to marshal the English language; to produce ordered, reasoned thought; to urge upon you, by dint of personality or any form of influence, anything that can do one solitary thing in your heart and mind to cause you to declare with Peter, “Oh, I know who you are now, Christ: you are the Son of the living God.” But here’s the mystery: God by his Spirit deigns to take one mortal’s mouth, so that the salvation of one man depends on the voice of another man. So when I say, “I beseech you … by the mercies of God” to “be reconciled to God,” I do.
Now, I don’t know you all, but I know that any kind of company like this has skeptics in it. God is able for all your skepticism. Any company like this has a significant representation of sexual promiscuity and people whose lives are held in the grip of stuff that they long to be freed from. God is able for all of that. A company like this tonight has a significant number of individuals who are, frankly, self-righteous and who, in listening to what is being said, are already marshaling arguments against the prodding word of a loving God. And a company like this tonight has people in it who are tyrannized by their sordid past, and their consciences drive them virtually insane.
And here in the majesty of Jesus, here in the cross of Christ, is the answer to all of that and more. And so my word to you, which is the word of God to each of us, is: cast yourself upon him; come and bow your knee before his cross; declare with a faltering tongue, but a tongue nevertheless, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And remember, no one else can answer for you. He asks you, “Who do you say that I am?”
 Attributed in Vaughan Roberts, Turning Points: Is There Meaning to Life? (Carlisle: Authentic Media, 2003), xiii.
 Roberts, Turning Points, 61.
 2 Peter 1:16 (paraphrased).
 F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
 Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21 (NIV 1984).
 See Matthew 9:10–11; Mark 2:15–16; Luke 5:29–30.
 See Matthew 8:23–27; Mark 4:35–41; Luke 8:22–25.
 See 1 Peter 1:10–11.
 Luke 4:21 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 4:18–20, 21 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 16:16 (NIV 1984).
 Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 16:17 (paraphrased).
 Mark 8:31 (NIV 1984).
 Mark 8:32 (paraphrased).
 Mark 8:34 (paraphrased).
 Romans 12:1 (KJV).
 2 Corinthians 5:20 (NIV 1984).