This blog uses the Bible to set out the truth of Christianity in face of many popular distortions. It follows the Common Lectionary daily readings in tandem with some aspect of the day’s news.
J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)
Jesus asks a question and receives Peter’s momentous answer
18 Then came this incident. While Jesus was praying by himself, having only the disciples near him, he asked them this question: “Who are the crowd saying that I am?”
19 “Some say that you are John the Baptist,” they replied. “Others that you are Elijah, and others think that one of the old-time prophets has come to life again.”
20 Then he said, “And who do you say that I am?” “God’s Messiah! said Peter
21-22 But Jesus expressly told them not to say a word to anybody, at the same time warning them of the inevitability of the Son of Man’s great suffering, of his repudiation by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and of his death and of being raised to life again on the third day.
23-27 Then he spoke to them all. “If anyone wants to follow in my footsteps, he must give up all right to himself, carry his cross every day and keep close behind me. For the man who wants to save his life will lose it, but the man who loses his life for my sake will save it. For what is the use of a man gaining the whole world if he loses or forfeits his own soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him, when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and the holy angels. I tell you the simple truth—there are men standing here today who will not taste death until they have seen the kingdom of God!”
There is an oddity here. The story tells us about a religious title of which Jesus was unsure, and another one which he used often. Yet the former (Messiah = Christ) became the one by which Luke’s church knew him, and his own favourite designation (Son of Man = the holy one (s) of God) was almost forgotten. Why?
Christian believers can see why Jesus would have had some reserve at being called Messiah. It was a specifically Jewish title, denoting the anointed leader who would establish God’s justice by raising up Israel to moral and religious pre-eminence in the world. The gentile nations would willingly seek instruction” from Messiah and his people. There were indeed variations in Messianic expectation but all of them had a strong nationalist flavour. Above all, the Messiah, in God’s power, would succeed in defeating God’s enemies.
“Son of Man” is a more obscure title from Daniel Chapter 7 where it is used as part of a vision where Daniel sees four brutal kingdoms symbolised by fierce animals, succeeded by a just and humane kingdom symbolised by a “Son of Man”, that is, a human being. Additionally the term is explained as meaning “the holy ones of the Most High”. In Jesus’ usage (we have to use some guesswork here as we are never quite sure if we are reading Jesus’ words or the words of the gospel writers), the title seems to point to himself as the singular figure who stands for a new kingdom of justice; but he invites other holy ones (disciples) to share his task of making this kingdom real in the world.
Jesus would have reflected on the Messianic prophecies, valuing them as did all Jews as a great expression of their people’s trust and hope in God. Other forces in his own society, the jihadist zealots, for example used Messianic expectations to rally the people against their Roman overlords. We can only speculate that Jesus realised any claim to this title would involve not only the danger of violence but also the danger of misinterpretation: he did not see his mission as bringing worldly success. Rather he interpreted the mission of the Son of Man in the light of the prophecies of God’s servant in Isaiah chapters 40-55, the one who is “despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
Luke omits from his story the words which Mark’s Gospel, his source of information, reports that Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you Simon, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Rather he immediately gives Jesus’ re-definition of the role of the Messiah. he will be rejected, and killed, before rising again. Moreover those who follow him must be prepared to carry the cross (to risk Roman execution) and even to lose their lives for the sake of the kingdom. But these are not suicide soldiers; they are bearers of the words (and example) of Jesus. Those who are ashamed of Jesus’ words and example will be put to shame (shown to be in the wrong) when the Son of Man comes back to rule. That return will be sooner than even his disciples expect, perhaps in their lifetimes!
Two things are clear:
1. This is where Jesus divides sharply from Mohammed(Peace upon them both). The latter permits, even encourages his followers to use violence against the enemies of Allah. Jesus utterly declines violence as a means of conquest or defence and invites his true followers to do the same. It is true that not all who call themselves believers have obeyed his teaching on this issue but it is the great division between Christianity and Islam. Disciples of Jesus should make this division clear. I’m not writing this as a put-down to Islam or its great prophet. It’s by no means evident to everyone that Jesus was right on this issue. Moslems may well argue that Jesus’ non-violence allows many preventable evils and evil people to flourish while many good people go to the wall. Disciples of Jesus however, have presumably chosen to be his disciples because they believe passionately that he is right and that they will take his side by risking their own lives to oppose evil peacefully.
One of my great heroes, nevertheless, is Dietrich Bonhoeffer who decided to be actively involved in assassinating Hitler, for which crime he was killed by the Nazis. I understand why he did so, but I think he was mistaken.
2. Unless Luke is a defective story-teller he intended to show Jesus prophecy of the “arrival of the kingdom” being fulfilled. I think he does this in his story of Jesus resurrection, ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples. For Luke I think these are events in which the rule of God breaks through into the world in the modest and vulnerable form of the multinational community of believers in Jesus. In this community, Jesus is known as “Messiah” because they know him as a rejected and suffering Messiah. To their Jewish contemporaries this will be grossly offensive; to their Gentile contemporaries it may seem simply daft, but they believe that the crucified messiah is the power and the wisdom of God (read 1 Corinthians 1). In view of this history the term “Christ” must never be used aggressively by Christian people.