Mark begins his gospel by telling us exactly who Jesus is: Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. As Mark unfolds the story, the identity of Jesus remains a central focus. The pressing question throughout the book is: who will recognize Jesus for who he truly is?
John the Baptist appears first on the scene and announces that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah who brings salvation for the people of God. John was given a special insight into who Jesus is, yet he did not see the whole picture and at one point even starts to have doubts that Jesus really is the Messiah.
In Mark’s account demons and evil spirits are among the first to identify Jesus as the Son of God and recognize the power he has to overthrow them. Their concern with the identity of Jesus has to do with their own well-being and the continuation of the kingdom of Satan. The demons might recognize something of the divinity and holiness of Jesus, but they only see the threat it poses and not the hope it presents.
Throughout his ministry Jesus healed many in response to the faith they displayed. That faith sprang from an understanding, however partial, of the identity of Jesus. For example, a leper believes Jesus is someone who has the power to heal his disease, as clearly shown in his bold request: If you are willing, you can make me clean. And when Jesus heals the paralyzed man who was lowered into the house by his four friends, Mark notes that Jesus saw their faith. Other examples abound of the sick and lame who put their faith in Jesus as the One sent from God with the power to heal and to forgive. However, none of them could truly grasp the full picture of who Jesus was, nor understand the full significance of his healings.
The massive crowds that followed Jesus around the countryside could clearly perceive that Jesus was in a category of his own. Jesus taught with extraordinary authority, answered his critics with wisdom, healed with divine power, and performed miracles with no effort at all. The crowds saw Jesus as the promised king who would put an end to their miserable subjection under Rome. As they focused on one aspect of who Jesus was, they completely missed the true identity and mission of Jesus.
The disciples are infamous for their slowness to understand who Jesus was. As those closest to Jesus, we expect the disciples of all people to arrive at the clearest understanding of Jesus. And perhaps they did understand better than most, but it’s plain that they only got bits and pieces of Jesus’ identity and never put all the pieces together until after the resurrection.
And so, when we come to chapter eight of Mark’s gospel and hear Jesus asking his disciples about his identity, we must not miss the significance of the moment: Who do people say that I am? The disciples’ answer confirms for us that the majority of the people were puzzled about Jesus. Some said Jesus was a resurrected John the Baptist, or Elijah, or another one in the long line of prophets. They couldn’t fathom that he was God in the flesh.
Then Jesus directs the question to the disciples: Who do you say I am? Peter responds first and gives a simple, yet profound answer: You are the Messiah. It will be clear later on in the story that Peter doesn’t understand the full meaning of Jesus’ identity as Messiah, but at this moment, he understands that Jesus is the Promised One sent by God to restore the people of God. Peter has seen and heard enough to know that Jesus is God-approved and is someone worthy staking your life on.
Who do you say I am?
This truly is one of the most fundamental questions in all of life. As we encounter Jesus in the gospels and in all of Scripture, we come to a point where we must all answer Jesus’ question. The question is personal and does not allow for us to parrot the answers of others. We cannot just follow the crowd, even if it is the crowd following Jesus. We must decide for ourselves who we believe Jesus is because it is Jesus himself who puts the question to us.
The question is personal, but it also gives insight into the corporate task of the church. We are to bring Jesus to all peoples and press this question upon them. We are to tell the Jesus story, provide the context, explain the significance, answer any doubts, and then we put the question to them: Who do you say Jesus is? The answer to this one question makes all the difference in the world because Jesus is the person at the center of history. Jesus brings together all the strands and storylines and makes sense of it all. To miss Jesus, or to misunderstand who he is, is to remain in the dark on the meaning of everything.
Who do you say I am?
What’s your answer?