Take up the cross: identity

Who do you say that I am? 27 Now Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Messiah.”

Earlier in the gospel (6:14-16), we hear a prelude to the question of Jesus’ identity as Herod speculates that he is John the Baptist come back from the grave. Now Jesus asks the disciples what is the “buzz” among the people; what are they saying about Jesus’ identity. Herod’s guess continues to float, to which is added other prophets – one might well conclude at least the word of the street acknowledges Jesus as sent from God. Jesus then puts the same question to the disciples. Peter replies, “the Messiah” (v. 29). This confession is the first correct human statement about Jesus’ identity in the Gospel. Human witness now replaces the shouted confessions of demons that Jesus had to silence.

But what was the content of the confession? It is easy for 20th century believers to think, “Well, there it is. Peter and the apostles finally get it!” But we must remember that we just passed by a miracle of Jesus healing a blind person – and it did not happen all at once. The people have already noted that Jesus is anointed in the role of prophet – and recall the messiah literally means “the anointed one.” In the OT anointing represents God’s affirmation that the prophet, priest, or king is the divinely chosen leader of the people. Cyrus, the king of Persia, who returns captive Israel from Babylon to Jerusalem is called “Messiah.” Even if we assume Peter and the apostles hold that Jesus will play a unique role in salvation history, what follows makes it clear that they do not understand the fullness of the confession – and so are partially blind even in their moment of witness and confession.

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