We don’t do it right. We hear the stories our first time in Sunday school or youth group, and the way we picture it in our minds is the scene we see for the rest of our lives whenever the passage is mentioned. In the privacy of our own minds, it does not particularly matter to us whether Jesus was standing on a hillside, in the courts of the Temple, or in the home of one his followers.
Even more, we so often read the Bible in unorganized chunks such that we have no sense of chronology. “Who cares if the words of Jesus in John 14 happened on the night of his betrayal! What did he say?” We are used to our pastors telling us, “context is king,” but then that same charge is usually followed by a reading of Scripture completely devoid of inflection, tone, and emotion. So we walk away from our encounter with God’s Word with a Jesus in our mind who is standing in the wrong place, wrong time, and the wrong tense and tone, and we wonder why we sometimes feel like we do not know him as well as we would like to. We wonder why the world routinely talks about versions of Jesus that we have never heard. A Jesus who is conveniently okay with our most beloved sin. A Jesus who hates our enemies but is a big fan of us. A Jesus who is easy to put on a shelf with all of our other idols.
Yet this, too, comes from centuries of reading the Bible and leaving the bits about Jesus up for debate, even though he routinely left no room for debate about who he actually was and even demanded from his most immediate followers that they decide who he is and live their lives according to that conclusion. The follower of Jesus 2000 years later must face that same moment of hearing who Jesus is, what he has done, and affirming who we believe him to be. We must follow the real Jesus or follow no Jesus at all because there is none other to choose from.
Jesus Makes Us Choose
Peter might have been considered Jesus’ most ardent follower. In the three years of walking behind Jesus, he jumped out of a boat to walk on water, he begged Jesus to wash his whole body as opposed to simply cleaning his feet, and he even cut off a man’s ear in defense of his rabbi. Yet these moments brought about simple moments of teaching from Jesus.
Perhaps the most powerful moment between Jesus and Peter is in Matthew 16 when Jesus made Peter choose. After asking his disciples who everyone else says that he is, Jesus heard responses like John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. It is easy to imagine that Jesus simply nodded at this, knowing how easy it might have been for someone watching from afar to simply think he was a prophet. After all, he had been publicly performing miracles and uttering radical new teachings, and this was in line with much of the work of the prophets seen in the Old Testament.
At this point, it was the quieter moments of Jesus’ ministry that might have enlightened someone to the fact that he was so much more than a prophet. Here he stood looking at the twelve men who had heard the explanations of his parables and had witnessed the more mundane moments of life where the divine might have been even more evident than the grandest of miracles.
So he asked Peter, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”
We Must Get Jesus Right
It might be easy to dismiss any assertion that we must pursue truth in regards to the person of Jesus as an academic pursuit. So often the differences that Christians have had about the finer details of Jesus have been regarded as secondary issues, things on which we can “agree to disagree.” Who Jesus is is not one of those issues; it is instead the first of the primary issues. The Christian must realize that our theologies of the cross and resurrection are impacted by the answer to Jesus’ question to Peter.
And it isn’t that Jesus left the issue up for debate. He made himself clear that he was the son of man. He made himself clear that he was the son of God. He often drew himself out to be equivalent to God the Father. It seemed of the utmost importance to Jesus that he was not to be mistaken with the other miracle workers, teachers, and prophets of his day. Yet the preaching, teaching, and writings of so many modern Christians have allowed the Church and the culture around her to slip into old heresies, heresies that leave room for Jesus to be less. Less than pre-existent. Less than perfect. Less than pure. Less than incarnate. All of this has begun to propel the Church towards a finished product which is a Jesus who is actually less than God.
On the cross, when Jesus uttered the words, “It is finished,” he was of course referring to the finished work of salvation for mankind. Few people would ever choose to edit that finished work, but they will gladly reshape the narrative that led to it. We think that if we can make Jesus agree with our politics, then the finished work is more desirable. If we read into the Gospels that Jesus might have been affirmative of our chosen sexual sin, then the salvation of the cross and resurrection is more inclusive. If we can make Jesus less perfect and divine, then his teachings are less authoritative.
Yet when we look at what the Gospels truly say, our paradigm is radically changed and we come to some life-altering conclusions. We see that Jesus and the salvation he brought humanity is more desirable than we could have ever imagined. We wake up to the fact that Christianity is more inclusive than any other faith in the world because it indicts all humanity in their sin and expects each of us to turn away from it. And we are joyfully offended when we realize that Christ’s words are the most authoritative a human has ever uttered because he is and was exactly who he claimed to be.
For these reasons and so many others, we must get Jesus right. We must not settle for the intellectual and spiritual laziness that abounds in our culture at the moment that supposes it is perfectly okay to shape a Jesus that looks like me, that thinks like me, that speaks like me, and is therefore perfectly okay with everything I am perfectly okay with. A Jesus who hates exactly who and what I hate. This leads to people coming to inquire about Christianity and finding that the Jesus we are following is not worth following at all. This, too, is why our evangelism has faltered so much in the last 100 years of the American Church—if we are being truly honest, the Jesus we sometimes hear about in our sermons and worship songs is not worth evangelizing about. That Jesus is less than. The true God incarnate found in the Gospels is greater.
Our Mission is to Make People Say Yes or No to the Real Jesus
A dear friend and mentor of mine accepted Jesus at a Billy Graham revival. He sat and listened to Billy for three days, and when the last night came and the choir began to sing “Just as I am,” he realized something incredible—Billy had made him accountable to say “yes” or “no” to the Gospel. This is one of our missions as Christians and especially as those who preach the Gospel regularly. We are to tell people the truth about who Jesus actually was. We are to live out lives that demonstrate the grace and power that Jesus demonstrated. We are to lead our families and churches in living out the kind of faith that sees the fruit of the Spirit abound everywhere we go.
And then we must look those people in the eye and ask them a similar question to the one Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say Jesus is?” And just as we must not settle for living as a Christian yet never truly confessing Christ, we too must never settle for allowing our people to confess a lesser Christ because our witness led them there. It matters who Jesus is.
Peter looked at Jesus and responded, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Peter had seen the miracles; he had heard the parables. He had walked on water. Yet, here in a simple phrase, we see one of the most powerful instances of Christ’s lordship in Peter’s life—the confession of who Jesus actually was and not simply what everyone else was saying about him. We are called to this same kind of life filled with the confession of Jesus as he actually is and was, and not simply what everyone else says about him. We are called as well to follow after Jesus so faithfully that when people inquire as to who he is, who we describe to them is someone worth following and saying “yes” to.