An odd thing happened to me shortly after I began serving my previous congregation. One day, late in the afternoon, the secretary buzzed my office to tell me I had a phone call. I picked up the receiver and spoke. The man at the other end of the line said, “Is this Craig Watts?” “Yes, it is,” I answered. “Did you recently move to Illinois from Oklahoma?” he asked. “Yes, I did.”
At that point his voice took on a sharp edge. “I’m calling you from the Heartfield Collection Agency. You owe Sears a significant amount of money and you have bills that are long past due.” I was totally caught off guard, but managed to sputter out, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Sure you do, Mr. Watts,” he replied, “or, if you don’t, your wife certainly does. Maybe you need to have a talk with her about your credit cards.”
I answered, “Listen, I know my wife and she’s more frugal than I am.” He responded, “Maybe you don’t know her as well as you think — all I know is that you need to pay Sears now.” That was just the first of a series of harassing phone calls and letters. But, the fact was, I didn’t owe Sears a dime. You see, someone else named Craig Watts had moved from Oklahoma to Illinois about the same time I did. He was the one who owed Sears a lot of money. The collection agency confused the two of us. They had my name right, but my identity wrong.
The apostle Peter seemed to have had a similar problem with Jesus Christ. In the passage of Scripture immediately preceding the gospel text for today, a turning point in the ministry of Jesus is described. He had been teaching, healing and becoming involved in conflicts with the religious establishment for some time. Crowds of people had been coming out to see Him, and Jesus was a hot topic of conversation. He was a first-century celebrity. And celebrities, then and now, are the objects of rumor and speculation.
“Who do people say that I am?” asked Jesus of His apostles. He wanted a sampling of the fruit from the grapevine. Evidently, Jesus had been getting some National Enquirer-type coverage. The apostles told Jesus the stories that had been going around. Rumor had it that He was a reincarnation of some hero of the past, some religious leader of days gone by.
You can see the headlines: “THE PROPHET ELIJAH RETURNS IN THE FORM OF CARPENTER TURNED WONDER-WORKER” or “THE SPIRIT OF BEHEADED JOHN THE BAPTIST TAKES POSSESSION OF FIRST COUSIN FROM NAZARETH.” Sounds off-the-wall, but rumors about celebrities are often like that, aren’t they?
Turning to Peter, Jesus brings the question closer to home. “Who do you say that I am?” It’s one thing to talk about other people’s opinions and speculations. It’s quite another to go on record by expressing your own convictions. As long as you talk about other people’s views, you can evaluate, ridicule, renounce or commend those views from a nice safe distance. They don’t obligate you. They don’t impinge on your life. They don’t demand anything from you. You can play at being objective, even superior. If a certain position becomes unpopular and is attacked, it’s no skin off your nose.
Jesus wouldn’t allow Peter that safety. He asked him, “Who do you say that I am?” That was, and remains, the central question of Christian faith. The question is not, “Do you agree with my teachings?” The question is not, “Do you think I manage conflict with the authorities well?” Nor is the question, “Are you impressed with the miracles you’ve seen me perform?” The fundamental question is a question of identity: “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” When Peter made that statement, that confession, Jesus replied with obvious joy. He blessed Peter and made a striking claim: “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” In other words, “Peter, you didn’t learn who I am from the rumor-mill or because of your strictly human insight. You didn’t educate yourself into or reason your way to this truth. This knowledge was not discovered, but revealed. It is not a work of the human mind, but a gift from God.”
Elsewhere in the Bible, the apostle Paul echoes the view when he says to the Corinthians, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 12:3). There is no way from the human to the divine. The only truly divine knowledge we can have is that which is given by God.
Peter was the first to confess his faith in the great truth about Jesus. Apparently he confessed better than he comprehended. At times a person who is solidly right can be deplorably wrong. I remember, years ago, enduring the math classes I had to take in high school or college. I seemed to have a knack for coming up with the right answer without working out the problem in the right way. Instead of using the formulas the teachers taught, I’d come up with the answer in some round-about way of my own. I can’t count the times I heard the teachers tell me, “It’s not enough to have the right answer. You need to know the correct way to arrive at the answer. Your method won’t always work.” They were right, of course. Their advice has spiritual application.
Peter was right when he confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. But when it came to understanding just what that means, he tried to use a flawed, all-too-human formula instead of listening to the revelation of God. Shortly after Peter made his great confession, Jesus began to speak to His disciples about events to come. He would go to Jerusalem, face rejection, suffer shame at the hands of the authorities, be executed, and then be raised on the third day. Peter was appalled.
Peter thought he already knew what it was for one to be the Christ. After all, he knew what his people needed. He knew what others had taught about what the Christ would be like. The Christ was God’s answer to the people’s problems. He was the rightful sovereign of a wrong-filled world. That much was true.
What Peter was not prepared to accept was that the Christ would right the wrong of the world not by gloriously trampling all opponents, but by means of an apparent defeat and a humiliating death of His own. A beat up, hung up, dead and buried Christ was about as far as anything could be from what Peter meant when he confessed to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
So when Jesus spoke of His suffering to come, Peter found it unbearable. He pulled Jesus aside and tried to straighten Him out. Peter offered a more cheerful alternative. As one translator renders the verse, Peter said, “Grace is yours, Lord; may this [suffering] never happen to you.” No doubt Peter meant well. But Jesus’ response was swift and sharp. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”
This same Peter, who confessed the truth about Jesus which was given by divine revelation, turns around and tries to define the meaning and mission of Christ. But he seriously blunders because he attempts to define the Christ by means of human needs and notions. Jesus denounces this as Satanic. Peter was only the first of many who have rightly named Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” and then offered definitions of the Christ that have little to do with what God intends. How we define the Christ makes all the difference in the world with how we follow Him.
If we define the Christ strictly as a teacher, then all we need to do is tune-up our cognitive equipment and learn His lessons. If the Christ is a political revolutionary, intent on overthrowing the unjust powers of the world, then we need to take up arms and let the shooting begin. If the Christ is a harmless, caring guy, then we need to be careful never to offend or make others uncomfortable with what we say and do.
But the Christ of the Bible is different from any of these definitions. He was, in the words of scripture, begotten of God. He came from God in a unique and unrepeatable way. There was no one ever like Him before or since. He was not just an engaging teacher, someone who wonderfully cared, or a revolutionary activist. Rather, He came as the saving presence of God, to save by enduring suffering and displaying the depth of divine love.
It was not a pain-free and convenient Christ that declared, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me, for those who want to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Let’s admit it, we need to know more fully the meaning of the confession “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Our too-human agendas can get in the way. Our faulty formulas lead us to mistaken conclusions. If we want to know Him more completely and follow Him more faithfully, we need look to Jesus alone to give us the definition of what it means to be the Christ. Only then will we know how to be His people.
We will miss the truth of His mission and grandeur of His identity if we try to impose our dubious definitions on Him. It is not enough to voice His name or speak His titles. We need to learn from Him who He is, so we can have a deeper relationship with Him.
The well-known playwright Arthur Miller was sitting alone in a bar when he was approached by an especially well-dressed man; “aren’t you Arthur Miller?” he asked. “Why, yes, I am,” Miller responded. “Don’t you remember me?” asked the man. Hesitantly, Miller replied, “Well, your face seems familiar.”
The fellow declared, “Why, Art, I’m your old buddy Sam! We went to high school together! We went out on double-dates!” Miller still couldn’t place him. Sam continued, “I guess you can see I’ve done alright — department stores. What do you do, Art?” The author replied, “Well, I write.” “Whaddya write?” the man asked. “Plays, mostly,” came the reply. “Would I know any?” the man pressed. Miller responded, “Well, perhaps you’ve heard of Death of a Salesman?”
Sam’s mouth fell open. His face drained of color. He stood speechless for a moment and then cried out, “Why, you’re ARTHUR MILLER!
If we’ll not insist on defining Christ according to our limited experiences, human agendas, and questionable assumptions — but instead learn from Him — maybe we’ll find that our confession means more than it ever did before the next time we confess “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

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