“Who Is the Real Jesus?” (Matthew 16:13-23)
In Bible class on Sunday mornings, we just started a study based on the book, “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?” In this book, the author discusses twelve false christs that are popular in our culture today, but all of which miss the mark. These twelve redefinings of Christ are Jesus as: The Mascot; One Option among Many; The Good Teacher; The Therapist; The Giver of Bling; The National Patriot; The Social Justice Warrior; The Moral Example; The New Moses; The Mystical Friend; The Feminized Jesus; and The Teddy Bear. I encourage you to come to this Bible class, because I guarantee you, you are going to meet people in your circle of relationships who hold one or more of these false views. In fact, you may have held some of these views yourself. So a study like this can help you to be a better witness for Christ in your personal life and may help straighten out your own thinking about who the real Jesus is.
“Who Is the Real Jesus?” This is the theme for our midweek Lenten services this year, as we pick up on some of the ideas from the book. We want to ask: How does the real Jesus contrast with some of the false christs current in our culture? And so we begin tonight with that fundamental question: “Who Is the Real Jesus?”
Our text is the reading from Matthew 16, which we just heard. In this text, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” He then asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” So that’s where we’re going with our message tonight.
First, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” That’s what Jesus asked his disciples, using his usual self-designation as “the Son of Man,” a messianic title going back to the Book of Daniel. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples could answer that question by now, since they had been with Jesus for quite some time, traveling with him in his ministry. They had seen and heard the reactions of people to Jesus, as he went about preaching, teaching, healing, and so on. So they were aware of the opinions that were out there, circulating among the people. They knew the buzz. Jesus was a very talked-about person. He would have been “trending on Facebook,” if they had had such a thing back then.
And so the disciples report back the various opinions they had heard: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” What do all of these viewpoints have in common? On the one hand, they all ascribe to Jesus some sort of significance as a religious figure. They all regard Jesus as an important prophet sent from God. But on the other hand, all these opinions sell Jesus a little bit short–indeed, quite a bit short. They all ultimately miss the mark.
And if all those opinions about Jesus were off base then, it’s gotten even worse in our day. Now the popular opinions about Jesus are all over the map, sometimes with only bits and pieces related to the real Jesus. Some people would just draw a blank if you asked them who Jesus is. They probably have heard of him, but they wouldn’t have much accurate information about him in their head that they could articulate. That’s how far our culture has fallen, in terms of biblical illiteracy.
But a lot of people will have something to say about Jesus, and a lot of it will be positive, from their perspective. They will at least pay lip-service to Jesus, as, for example, a good moral teacher, an inspiring figure, a gentle nice guy, or something like that. But that may be as deep as it goes, which is pretty shallow.
And when push comes to shove, if they were to hear some true things about the real Jesus, what he taught and so on, they would not go along with that. “Oh, I don’t believe Jesus would say such a thing! He wouldn’t judge people. Didn’t he say, ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged?’ That’s in the Bible somewhere, isn’t it?”
This view represents a woman we meet in the book, Jillian, the ethical hedonist. She believes God just wants people to be happy, and so whatever makes you happy, that must be all right in God’s sight. That’s just how she feels. So Jillian projects her feelings onto the Jesus she imagines in her mind. Never mind that it does not square up with the real Jesus we meet in the Bible. Jillian is just going to go with her feelings.
Friends, this is the world we live in today. I bet you even know people like Jillian in your circle of acquaintances, maybe even among your own family members. This is a prevalent view among people today. It’s called postmodern relativism. It goes like this: Whatever your truth is, that must be true for you, and nobody can say anything against it. If you do, then you are being mean and intolerant, and that’s the worst thing you can be in our society today.
So how can we help these people to see the light, to see who the real Jesus is? Well, to do that, we ourselves need to know the real Jesus. That’s why Jesus asks his disciples, after they had reported all the wrong answers, then Jesus asks them, “But you–who do you say that I am?” And Peter pipes up and gives the right answer. He says: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
“You are the Christ.” That’s right, Peter. Jesus, this man Jesus of Nazareth you have been hanging around with now for a while–this Jesus is indeed the Christ, that is, the Anointed One, the Messiah, the promised deliverer and king sent from God to usher in the kingdom of heaven here on earth. That’s what Jesus has been doing, what with all his preaching and teaching and miracles of healing. Jesus has been bringing God’s kingdom into our midst, a kingdom of grace and mercy and blessing and righteousness, a kingdom of light and life, right here in the midst of our sin-darkened world. That’s what Jesus has been about, and you got it right, Peter.
What’s more, this same Jesus is the Son of the living God. He is God in the flesh, the eternal Son of God incarnate. True God and true man, in the one person, Jesus Christ. You’re batting 1.000%, Peter!
But a little later, Peter will take a big swing and miss. When Jesus starts talking about them going up to Jerusalem, where, he, Jesus, will suffer many things at the hands of the religious leaders of Israel, and that he, Jesus, will even be killed–well, to Peter this is just crazy talk. “No way, Lord! This should never happen to you!”
But here Peter just doesn’t get it. He does not understand what Jesus’ mission as the Messiah will entail. That it will mean rejection and suffering and death. But that’s what it will take for the real Jesus to do the real job he came for. That job will mean a cross. A cross–dying in shame on a cross–just does not make sense to the natural man. It seems weak and powerless. It sounds foolish. It’s not “Ten Tips for Happier Living.” Suffering and death is a real downer.
And the reason why, in Jesus’ case, it is even more offensive to people, is that Christ crucified is telling us we need the Son of God dying for us, in order to atone for our sins. You see, that does not appeal to people. They don’t want to hear that they need that kind of a Savior. It offends their sensibilities. It offends their pride. “Hey, I’m not that bad!” And so people will try to redefine Jesus to fit their image of what they think he should be like. That’s what Peter did. That’s what Jillian did. That’s what your friends and neighbors and family members do. And, I hate to admit, that’s what we do sometimes too. We tune out the parts of Jesus we don’t like, and we redefine him to suit our feelings.
Brothers and sisters, let us give up on trying to reshape God and Jesus to fit our feelings. Let’s go with the real Jesus, just as he is. He’s the only one there is, really, and that’s just fine. The real Jesus came, not to condemn you, but to give you life in his name. He forgives your sins. He puts the love of God in your heart, and he will never let you go. Your salvation is secure in his hands. His are the hands with the nail marks in them, to show you just how much he loves you. Hands he showed to his disciples when he rose from the dead.
So, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And here you will hear a lot of opinions bandied about, some with a grain of truth in them, but often half-baked in a loaf of untruth. But you, dear Christian, you know the real deal! “But who do you say that I am?” And you can answer, gladly and confidently, with Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And you can also say, as Peter would learn to say later on, that you rejoice and praise God that Jesus did go to Jerusalem to suffer and die, for in so doing, the real Jesus won your real forgiveness and your real salvation. What’s more, now that you know the real Jesus, perhaps God will use you to gently steer the Jillians in your life away from the false christs they have constructed and bring them to know the real Jesus, their Savior and yours.