The path of discipleship is not short or easy. But it is a road well worn by the many faithful saints that have gone before us. As disciples, and as disciple-makers, there is no other better guide than looking at the first disciples of Jesus. The Bible gives us precious peeks into both the way Jesus made disciples and the way the disciples responded and grew as they followed him. Their journey of seeking to know and obey Jesus was filled with success in understanding the gospel at times and forgetting it later. Their time with Jesus was marked by faithfulness to the good news and failure to apply it. They forgot the good news of Jesus and they struggled to understand what Jesus was doing. And yet, Jesus walked with them patiently and didn’t give up on them. We have everything to learn from Jesus, and we have every right to place ourselves in the story as his disciples. In the Gospel of Matthew we find a powerful moment that we all must enter, a conversation we must all have. This moment is the turning point in Matthew’s story. It isn't the call to discipleship, though that is fundamental. In this case it is not a command but a question. A question we must answer for ourselves. A question we must continually ask as we make disciples of Jesus.
Within the Rhythm of Life
Before we get to the question and the key moment, we must understand the context. Because discipleship happens life-on-life and not in a vacuum, we can’t become over zealous and just skip to the short moment. What was going on in their lives? What had the disciples seen in Jesus? Leading up to this question, Jesus began his ministry. He called 12 men into his inner circle and they spent their days with him. They saw Jesus perform miracles and run into opposition from the religious rule keepers.
They saw Jesus teach with authority. They saw his compassion for people. A compassion not based on dire circumstances but based on the condition of the people's hearts. He grieved because he saw how exhausted they were, trying to earn God’s love by keeping an overwhelming set of added-religious rules. Jesus' message was different from rules, he said, “Come! Come to me if you are worn out from trying to be good enough for God. Come connect with me and you will enter into a new life where we walk together in a way that gives freedom and life and peace - because my way of life isn’t heavy, it’s free." (personal paraphrase of Matthew 11:28). Jesus poured his heart out in teaching about what life was meant to be like. He told parables, made claims about the Kingdom of God and did miraculous things.
Jesus' words and ministry were drawing huge crowds. Matthew tells us many in the audience wondered out loud the greatest question that has ever been or ever will be: “Could it be that Jesus is really the savior that God has promised to us?” The more people witnessed Jesus, the more this question about his identity grew. I know for me, the more I saw Jesus in the lives of others, the more I saw his handiwork, the more I asked, "Is this Jesus, the thing I've been looking for?"
The Question in a Place of Fear and Lust
This was daily life for the first disciples’ when Jesus asks his discipleship question in the town of Caesarea Phillipi, a pagan town outside jewish territory. A place famous for the worship of the greek god Pan, the god of fertility and the god of fear. Though it was a pagan place, it was a beautiful city nestled at the foot of a huge rock. And from this place of fear and false life Jesus stood up and asked his closest friends and followers the question, the most important question in history, the dominate question facing humanity: “Who is Jesus?”
Jesus began the conversation, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples collaborated and answered with things they had heard, “Well most people think you are a prophet like Elijah or John the Baptist or one of the other guys.” How often do we speak more to what others say about Jesus than to what we know and believe to be true about Jesus ourselves?
And this is where we stop and place ourselves in the story--as we have every right to do and in fact should. Because in this story, you are just like the disciples--you are a follower of Jesus. You aren’t fully aware of it, but the reality is you have left everything to follow Jesus, you’ve seen him perform miracles, you’ve heard his words and your heart still leaps every time he speaks. However, the reality is on most days you struggle to get it. You don’t understand who he really is and what that means for you and for the whole world.
Like the disciples, you are probably in both a beautiful and sinful context. You stand in a place that is full of false hope for life--fertility through lust, lust for things and lust for people and lust for some fake version of real life, i.e. the American dream. You stand in a place of fear--fear that controls, fear that paralyzes, fear of what people will think, fear that you can’t really cut it, fear that you’ll be found out for who you really are, fear that at the end of your life there will be nothing to hope for.
Who Do You Say I Am?
Then Jesus looks at you specifically and asks the question: “Who do you say I am?”
And for all the times you’ve screwed it up, this time you get it right and you don’t even know where it came from. You’ve never thought it before, but as you say it you know it’s the most true thing you’ve ever said and you believe it: “You are the Messiah - the anointed savior and deliverer - you are the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus says, “Bless you, because you didn’t get that from any book or any teacher or any friend, but God himself, my Father, has revealed that to you.” (Matthew 16:15-17).
We have to know who Jesus is. Everything rests on who he is and who you believe he is. When the glamour fades, the pain kicks in, and you really don't have anything left, the disciple will have an answer for that question: "Who is Jesus?"
Who Jesus is and what he has done has everything to do with who you are and how you live:
- If Jesus is the savior, you are saved and can rest in his work.
- If Jesus is king, he is ruling and you are not. His reign is coming and yours is ceasing.
- If Jesus is the Lamb of God, then your sin, fear, insecurity and iniquity has all been dealt with. You are delivered.
- If Jesus is the Son, then his life, death, and resurrection is sufficient. Nothing else can be added! So you can stop trying to be good enough for others and God.
- If Jesus is Lord, he is bringing everything under his authority, we can trust him with unwavering hope. All of our lives are submitted to him.