Identity: A Man for All Seasons

Original Date: 
Sunday, March 9, 2014

Mark 8:27-30 The Jesus Profile: Identity: A Man for All Seasons

How Does a Man’s Name Become a Swear Word?
About a dozen years ago or so, a friend shared his season tickets to a sporting event with me. I’ve been to a few sporting events. Several major league baseball games, some NCAA tournament games, a lot of UNI stuff. But this was the first time I ever went to an Iowa Hawkeye Football game at Kinnick Stadium.

It was one of the worst experiences I ever had as a spectator.

I don’t know if what happened that night was typical of Hawkeye fans in general, or if my friend had tickets in a particularly nasty section of the stadium, but I heard a lot of cussing that night. I mean a lot.

Now, understand something: just because I’m a preacher, that doesn’t mean I’ve never heard a swear word. I find it funny sometimes, when I’m hanging around with someone, and they let a bad word slip out. People often apologize to me for swearing, as though my occupation means I have especially sensitive ears, and if too many profanities are uttered in my presence I might melt or something. I have heard plenty of swear words. I’ve uttered a few of them myself on occasion—though I try not to.

On this particular occasion, however, somewhere above the south endzone, I heard some of the crudest, rudest, and sustained swearing I’ve ever encountered. They cursed at the refs. They cursed at the other team. They cursed at the Hawkeyes. They cursed at each other.

But it wasn’t the vulgarities that really bothered me. What really bothered me was that I kept hearing the same name repeated over and over again in anger. Do you know what name that was?

Jesus.

There are few things, in my opinion, more offensive than using the name of Jesus as a swear word. It hurts my heart every time I hear it. I’m not especially offended if you use a dirty word around me, but use the name Jesus like that and my hair stands on end. I would guess a lot of you feel the same way.

But now, think about this: how strange is it that people would use the name of Jesus as a swear word at all? Where does that come from? Do you know of any other person in history whose name is used as a curse? How strange would it be if some guy on a golf course missed a putt and shouted “Confucius!”? Have you ever heard somebody take the name of George Washington in vain?

I know it’s a strange way to measure impact, but by this one measure alone Jesus has had an outsized influence on the world. People use His name as a swear word. Who else can you say that about?

Jesus is the man around whom we date our calendars. In His name wars have been fought, universities have been founded, missions have begun, hospitals and churches have been created. “From christenings to weddings to sickrooms to funerals, it is in Jesus’ name that people are hatched, matched, patched and dispatched.” (John Ortberg, Who is this Man?, p. 14) John Ortberg points out that normally when a person dies, their impact on the world begins to diminish. But with Jesus, the inverse has happened: His impact was greater a hundred years after his death than it ever was during His lifetime; even greater 500 years later; after a thousand years his legacy laid the foundation for much of Europe; and after two thousand years He has more followers in more places than ever before. (Ortberg, p. 11)

Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, “Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries.” (quoted by Ortberg, p. 14)

H.G. Wells, the War of the Worlds guy, wrote:

More than 1900 years later, a historian like myself, who doesn’t even call himself a Christian, finds the picture centering irresistibly around the life and character of this most significant man…The historian’s test of an individual’s greatness is “What did he leave to grow?” Did he start men to thinking along fresh lines with a vigor that persisted after him? By this test Jesus stands first. (quoted by Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 17)

And N.T. Wright has said that what we do know about Jesus

is so unlike what we know about anybody else that we are forced to ask, as people evidently did at the time: who, then is this? Who does he think he is, and who is he in fact? People who listened to him at the time said things like, ‘We’ve never heard anyone talking like this’ and they didn’t just mean his tone of voice or his skillful public speaking. Jesus puzzled people then, and he puzzles us still.

Who Is this Man?
Who is Jesus? That’s the question we are going to be asking for the next several weeks, especially as we lead up to Easter. Just who was this man who has had such enormous impact on world history? This man in whose name we pray, bless, and curse? Who is this man whose birthday is the world’s biggest holiday, whose death we still mourn, and whose coming back to life is the reason we are here Sunday after Sunday?

My goal for this new series is to create a profile of Jesus. I’ll be working largely from a book by Philip Yancey called The Jesus I Never Knew. That book will also serve as the source of our small group discussions the next several weeks. I’m also using a book by John Ortberg called Who Is This Man? And, of course, we’ll be looking at the Bible: Jesus’ four official biographies, the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Who is Jesus Christ?

The question, apparently, was asked frequently right from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Just do a quick survey of the gospel of Mark. In chapter 1, when He starts teaching publicly in the synagogues the people are amazed at the power of His words and begin asking: “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority!” (1:27)

Then, in chapter 2, when four friends break through a roof to get their paralyzed buddy to Jesus, He starts by saying: “Son your sins are forgiven.” The people in the audience react by thinking to themselves: “Who does He think He is? Doesn’t He know that only God can forgive sins?” (2:7)

Still later, in chapter 4, when Jesus and His friends are overtaken by a terrible storm while floating in the Sea of Galilee, Jesus silences the storm with a simple command: “Peace! Be Still!” The disciples react by falling to their knees in their little boat and asking themselves: “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (4:41)

In chapter 6, the people of His hometown of Nazareth asked: “Where did this man get these things? What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us? And they took offense at him.” (6:2-3) In other words: We know His Mom and Dad. We know His brothers and sisters. How are we supposed to make sense of this man?

What Are People Saying?
But the real turning point comes in Mark chapter 8, verse 27. This is going to be our primary text this morning. It’s where Jesus asks the question Himself. Let’s take a look at it:

27Jesus and his disciples went on to the village around Ceasarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

Caeserea Philippi was a beautiful area along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was established by the Romans as a sort of resort area for high ranking officials and was named for Tiberius Caesar. As Jesus and His disciples walked through it they could probably see all sorts of symbols of Roman authority and the various gods the Romans worshipped. Perhaps they were even having a conversation about what those various symbols represented.

Then Jesus asks his disciples: “What’s the word on the street? What are people saying about me? Who do they think I am?” Jesus will never strike you as someone who was all that concerned with popular opinion; but He obviously sees something important in this question. And He has a lesson to teach the disciples. So He asks: Who do people say I am? Verse 28:

28They replied, “Same say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

The answers are varied and speculative. Clearly the people had no idea what to make of Jesus. I find it interesting that they were guessing He was someone come back to life. Reincarnation was not a part of Israel’s belief system, but clearly there was something about Jesus that forced people to supernatural explanations.

And just as there was confusion about Jesus then, I think there continues to be confusion about Him now. As John Ortberg says: “Jesus is as hard to nail down as Jell-O.” (p. 17) So what I’d like to do is take these three guesses about Jesus from His day and compare them to three common ideas about Jesus that people hold today.

A Radical
So first, some people thought He was John the Baptist. Some people today see Jesus as a Radical.

John the Baptist, of course, was a relative of Jesus. His mother Mary, and Mary’s mother Elizabeth, were cousins of some sort. And John was known for being a bit “out there.” He dressed in camel’s hair—probably with the itchy part on the inside. He ate locusts and wild honey. He preached in the wilderness and people came flocking to hear him.

And John wasn’t afraid to tell it like it was. He challenged religious leaders and Roman soldiers. His moment of glory—and his end—came when he took on King Herod publicly for marrying his own brother’s wife. Herodias, the woman in the center of the scandal, couldn’t stand John and arranged to have his head removed.

And now some people are wondering if the spirit of John the Baptist has entered Jesus because they see in Him the same willingness to “speak truth to power.” If you read through the Gospels, you will see Jesus making pointed statements against the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day. He’s not afraid to say “Woe to you!” and call them a brood of vipers and blind guides (i.e. Matthew 23). He’s not afraid to challenge injustice and stand up for the oppressed.

So, a lot of people today look at Jesus and see the ultimate social activist. His teachings on loving your enemy and turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-48) became the inspiration for the non-violent protest strategies of Mohatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. His challenge to love “the least of these” (Matthew 25:45) and to give a cup of cold water (Matthew 10:42) have become a battle cry for poverty fighting organizations around the world.

Jesus was a radical in so many ways. He saw power and authority as an opportunity, not to line your own pockets, but to serve others (i.e. John 13). He wasn’t willing to accept the status quo just because “that’s the way things have always been done”, but talked about putting new wine in new wineskins (Mark 2:22). He didn’t reject the law, but sought to get to the heart of the law rather than just slavishly following the letter of it (i.e. Matthew 5-7).

Under this view of Jesus, then, His death becomes the noblest example of martyrdom ever. Jesus died for a cause He could believe in, and so He becomes an example to everyone else to take a stand for what is right, no matter what the cost. An essay I found comparing the lives of Jesus and Martin Luther King put it like this: “Both Jesus and
King chose nonviolent love without compromising their insistence upon justice. They believed that the movement for God’s Beloved Community was worth giving their lives to—and they invite us to do the same.” (Ched Myers, “Was Jesus a Practitioner of Non-violence?”( www.jesusradicals.com/wp-content/uploads/jesusnonviolencemyers.pdf)

Now, understand, there is a lot about this understanding of Jesus that is true. Jesus said some truly revolutionary things that challenged conventional thinking in His day, and which continue to challenge us today. Jesus is always calling us to stand up to injustice and to serve the oppressed.

But if this is your dominant view of Jesus, then He can become a spokesperson for every cause. Jesus can be applied as the stamp of approval for whatever your issue is—kind of like a Che Guevara poster. Whether it is a campaign to save the environment, a call for free trade coffee, gay rights, sex trafficking, wage injustice, voting rights, immigration, or whatever, Jesus can be drafted into service as the crusader par excellance.

But is that really the best explanation of who Jesus is?

A Superhero
Or, again, some of the people thought He was Elijah come back to life. Some people today see Jesus as a sort of Superhero.

Elijah’s story is told in the book of 1 Kings. Elijah was a man of God who did some of the most spectacular miracles in the Old Testament. It was Elijah who fed the widow of Zarephath with a jar of flour and a jug of oil that never ran empty. He also brought the same widow’s son back to life after he died. It was Elijah who called down fire on Mount Carmel and who left this world in a whirlwind. In a lot of ways, Elijah’s story reads like the story of a superhero you might expect to find in a Marvel Comic Book.

And I’m afraid that’s how a lot of people see Jesus today: sort of like Thor, the Norse God of Thunder who’s come to earth from the Bifrost.

If you think about it, Jesus does appear to have superpowers. I’ve already mentioned the time He silenced the winds and the waves with a simple command. He went to a wedding that was verging on disaster until He changed several jugs of water into the best tasting wine ever (John 2). All four gospels tell us how He changed a little boy’s sack lunch into a buffet for well over 5000 people. He regularly healed people of lameness, blindness, and other diseases. And He brought people back from the dead: Jairus’s daughter in a story that reads a lot like Elijah reviving the widow’s son (Mark 5:41), the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17), and, of course, His close friend Lazarus (John 11).

It’s hard not to be fascinated by the miracles Jesus did. He walked on water! (Mark 6:45-56) Let’s see SpiderMan do that! And, in fact, from the very beginning, people were obsessed by Jesus’ power. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, for example, a document dating from about 150 AD reads kind of like a comic book. It imagines Jesus as child, growing up in Nazareth, and trying to come to grips with His amazing powers. In it Jesus fashions some clay sparrows out of clay on the Sabbath. When a neighbor child complains to Joseph that Jesus is working on the Sabbath, Jesus resolves the problem by turning the clay sparrows into real birds. The story includes many more miracles by the boy Jesus, including several in which people anger Him and He strikes them dead or blind. Of course, once others have learned their lesson, He resurrects or heals all those He has cursed.

It’s not hard to figure out that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is a bunch of made up stories, it simply doesn’t have the same ring of truth that the Biblical gospels have. But there is no doubt that there are plenty of miracles in the Biblical gospels, and it’s easy to get caught up in the supernatural power Jesus possesses. Clearly, He’s not just another man.

But if this is your dominant view of Jesus, it’s easy for Him to become a sort of lucky amulet to be pulled out in times of crisis. When emergency comes, that’s when we cry out for Jesus to help. People who only think of Jesus as a conduit to God’s power are the sorts of people who invoke His name after touchdowns or movie awards. Jesus is the One who fixes all problems, the name to call on when nothing else will work.

But is that really the best explanation of who Jesus is?

A Teacher
Or, again, some people say Jesus is “one of the prophets.” Some people see Jesus today as a Great Teacher.

A prophet, in essence, is a spokesperson for God. Deuteronomy defines a prophet as someone in whom God puts His words. (Deut. 18:18). That’s why the prophets of the OT are always saying “Thus saith the Lord!” Their job was to speak God’s truth to people. To convey God’s wisdom.

And Jesus does a lot of speaking for God. The gospel of John begins by calling Him “the Word.” Jesus teaches with authority and wisdom. In the Sermon on the Mount He repeatedly says “You have heard it said… but I say to you.” (i.e. Matthew 5:27-28). Jesus had the ability to summarize God’s truth in memorable ways: such as the Golden Rule to do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12) and the Greatest Commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37). And Jesus told remarkable stories which made profound points like the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Prodigal Son.

So maybe Jesus is a Great Teacher. You could spend a lifetime absorbing all the wisdom He taught.

And, of course, there are a lot of people today who see Jesus just as a great teacher. Thomas Jefferson, for one, is notorious for taking a Bible and cutting out all the parts that struck Him as supernatural. He was happy to follow Jesus’ teachings, but he couldn’t abide the parts that weren’t explainable by science.

More recently, a group of academics known as the Jesus Seminar grabbed headlines by holding conferences in which they would vote by colored bead if they believed Jesus really said or did something recorded in the Bible: Red beads if they were sure Jesus said it, pink beads if they thought it might be similar to something Jesus said, gray beads if they thought it at least contained an idea Jesus would have believed, and black beads if they were sure he said nothing of the sort.

Besides being incredibly arrogant and subjective in how they determined what was authentic, the idea behind efforts like this was to get back to the essence of what Jesus taught. If we could just get rid of the stuff about miracles and resurrection, and just focus on the things Jesus taught and believed, we’d have a philosophy which would improve the world.

If this is your dominant view of Jesus, then, Jesus becomes the world’s greatest kindergarten teacher: the thing about Jesus is He really teaches us how to be good little boys and girls who play nice together.

A story: when I was in college I did some work study for a couple of history professors, doing research and some office work. And one was a gal who had a young child at home. She knew I was a Christian and I went to church regularly. So one day she asked me: “So, if I take my son to church will he learn to be a nice little boy?” She didn’t really have room in her worldview for God, but she wanted her son to have good manners. She thought maybe a couple of years of Sunday School could take care of that for her.

Of course, Jesus was a great teacher—but is that really the best explanation for who Jesus is?

Again, I want to emphasize, there is truth in all three of these understandings of Jesus. He does radically challenge the status quo. He does possess incredible power. He is the ultimate revelation of God and has tons of truth to teach us. But the question is: do any of these narratives explain why we are still talking about Jesus 2000 years later? Do any of these descriptions of Him give a reason why we should alter our lives because of Him?

Who Do You Say I Am?
For His part, Jesus isn’t entirely satisfied with any of these explanations of who He is. But what He really wants to know is what those closest to Him think. And so, He asks, in verse 29:

29”But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say that I am?”

Ultimately, that’s the question that matters, isn’t it? It doesn’t really matter what the man on the street thinks. It doesn’t matter what the social activists say about Jesus, or the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, or the Jesus seminar people. What really matters is what you think. The question of Jesus’ identity is ultimately one which must be settled by each of us individually.

As usual, it is Simon Peter who speaks for the group of disciples. The rest of verse 29:

Peter answered, “You are the Christ.”

There’s a freightload of meaning in that answer. It sets Jesus apart from John the Baptist and Elijah and all the other prophets. It means Jesus is the one for whom every prophet, the entire nation of Israel, indeed, even the whole world has been waiting for. It means Jesus is the anointed one, the one set apart, to not only represent God to us, but also to make a way for us to God. It means Jesus has come to rule and reign, but also to rescue and redeem.

The disciples didn’t fully understand all the implications of what they were saying yet, but they were certainly on the right track. Jesus wasn’t just a revolutionary, or a miracle worker, or a profound thinker, He was someone He deserved their absolute commitment and allegiance. And yours too.

It’s immediately after this that Jesus begins speaking about the cross. Verse 31:

31He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.

Whatever else you think about Jesus, and whatever else it means for Him to be the Christ, you cannot separate Him from His death and resurrection. The cross is central to who Jesus is, and why He came.

And, more than that, Jesus’ identity puts a claim on your life. Verse 34:

34Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Ultimately, the question of who Jesus is puts demands on you. If He’s just a social crusader, then maybe He’s a good example. If He’s just a supernatural force, then maybe He can help you out when you need a little good luck. If He’s just a great teacher, then maybe you can learn some things about being a better person. But if He really is the Christ, then that’s going to cost you your life. Or, at the least, it’s going to cost you the right to run your life your own way.

William Brownson puts it like this:

Because I believe that Jesus is the Christ, my faith can have a sure and final resting place in him. I know that what Jesus says, God says; what Jesus does, God does; how Jesus feels about human beings shows me unfailingly the heart of God.

Since he is truly a man, Jesus could die a death like mine, but since he is the illimitable God, he could also die for me, bearing away my sin and guilt. And his dying convinces me, as nothing else could, that I am wonderfully loved by the Lord of the universe.

Because Jesus is the Christ, I owe him the worship, honor, gratitude, and obedience that every human being owes to the Creator. And he, as the ever living, risen Lord, is with me through all my days. He gives me a mission to fulfill in a cause that cannot finally fail. And he is coming one day, judge of the living and the dead, to welcome all his people home. (Meeting Jesus, p. 55-56)

And so, Jesus poses the question to each of us: Who do you say that I am?

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