Identity Crisis

18 Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”

21 And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” – Luke 9:18-22 ESV

After recounting the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, Luke jumps ahead in his narrative to a scene that took place sometime later. A comparison with the other synoptic gospels reveals that Luke chose to skip over a series of other significant events that occurred before Jesus had this important conversation with His disciples. It seems that Luke was attempting to focus on the questions surrounding Jesus’ identity. It began with Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, who was perplexed by all the rumors he had heard concerning Jesus. One of the most concerning conclusions he had heard was that Jesus was actually the resurrected John the Baptist. That prospect would not have thrilled Herod since he was the one who had ordered John’s beheading.

There were others who were speculating that Jesus was actually the prophet Elijah. They were basing their conjecture on the prophecy recorded by Malachi.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

Another rumor circulating among the people was that Jesus was “one of the other prophets risen from the dead” (Luke 9:8 NLT). But as all these wild opinions filtered into Herod’s palace, he was left with a perplexing question:

“…who is this about whom I hear such things? – Luke 9:9 ESV

That same question filled the minds of many of those who were present at the feeding of the 5,000. They too were perplexed by this Rabbi from Nazareth. His miracles and messages intrigued them, but they were having difficulty comprehending exactly who He was. It should not be overlooked that the rumors and speculations of the people did not include Jesus being the Messiah. In fact, when Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Luke 9:18 ESV), they too omitted any mention of Jesus being the Messiah. 

And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” – Luke 9:19 ESV

Despite the many miracles Jesus had performed, it seems that the people were not ready to crown Him as their new king. They fully recognized that there was something supernatural and other-worldly about Jesus, but He did not meet their long-held expectations concerning the Messiah. Jesus didn’t look like a conquering king. He obviously had power, but he lacked an army. He was an impressive orator, but He wouldn’t be able to talk the Romans into surrendering. In their minds, Jesus appeared to be much more like an Old Testament prophet than their long-awaited Messiah. After all, He had shown up on the scene preaching a message of repentance, and He had performed miracles much like Elijah and the other prophets had done. So, they concluded that Jesus must be the opening act for the main attraction. Since He didn’t act in a messianic manner, they assumed He must have been sent to prepare the way for the Messiah.

As always, Jesus was most concerned with the thoughts of His 12 disciples. He had chosen these men for a reason and was heavily vested in their training and preparation for the future. So, when they had answered His question, Jesus focused His attention on them, asking, “But who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20 ESV).

These men had spent their every waking minute with Jesus. They had seen every one of His miracles and had heard all of His messages. They enjoyed intimate access to Jesus and the privilege of hearing Him explain some of His more cryptic parables. So, Jesus wanted to know who they perceived Him to be. What was their conclusion regarding His identity? And the ever-impulsive Peter was the first to respond.

“The Christ of God.” – Luke 9:20 ESV

The term “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of “Messiah.” Peter was confessing that Jesus was the Messiah. And in his gospel account, Mathew records that Peter added the further description: “the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). Peter, speaking on behalf of all the disciples, acknowledges Jesus to be the Messiah but also the Son of God. His words revealed a level of understanding and insight that the rest of the people did not share. But Matthew lets us know that Peter did not come to this conclusion on his own. Jesus reveals that Peter had received divine insight from God the Father.

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 16:17 ESV

God had opened Peter’s partially blinded eyes so that he could see the truth of who Jesus was. This statement from the lips of Peter was like an unexpected epiphany. Even as the words came out of his mouth, Peter must have wondered whether he truly believed them. And He would go on to reveal that his understanding of who Jesus was and what He had come to do was still cloudy and indistinct. He would continue to wrestle with the weight of his own words and the expectations of his own heart. But the time would come when he and his fellow disciples would see everything clearly and distinctly.

This confession earned Peter a blessing from Jesus and yet, Jesus warned the disciples to keep this news to themselves.

he instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. – Matthew 16:20 NET

Luke adds, “he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one” (Luke 9:21 ESV). But why? What prompted Jesus to command His disciples not to disclose His true identity to the people? If He was the Messiah of Israel, why would He not want everyone to know?

It all had to do with expectations. Jesus knew that the Israelites were longing for the coming of the Messiah, but their understanding of the Messiah’s role was misguided. They had been raised to believe that the Messiah would come as a conquering king and a powerful military figure who would set them free from their oppressive Roman overlords. Even the 12 disciples were hoping and praying that Jesus was the kind of Messiah they had been taught to expect. It’s likely that Peter hoped his confession would prompt Jesus to get down to business. It was time to stop performing miracles and delivering messages. Like the rest of his companions, Peter wanted Jesus to start acting like a Messiah.

But what Peter failed to understand was that Jesus came to suffer and die, not rule and reign. He had come to sacrifice His life so that they might be freed from their captivity to sin and death. Little did they know that their real problem was not the presence of the Romans but the pervading presence of sin in their lives. Their enemy was not a foreign power but their own fallen natures. And Jesus disclosed to them the part of His mission they had failed to understand.

“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” – Luke 9:22 ESV

We know from Matthew’s account, that Peter did not take this news well.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” – Matthew 16:22 ESV

Peter was appalled by Jesus’ disclosure. He found it so reprehensible and unacceptable that he basically vowed to keep it from happening. And Jesus delivered a stern rebuke to His impulsive, yet well-meaning disciple.

“Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” – Matthew 16:23 NLT

Peter did not realize that his rash response reflected a total disregard for the will of God. In a matter of seconds, he had gone from speaking under the influence of God to contradicting the very will of God. He had let his own personal opinion and perspective get in the way. Peter had preconceived agenda for the Messiah and it did not match that of God Almighty. None of the disciples had a concept of the Messiah as a suffering servant. They had no need for a martyred Messiah. What good would a rejected and murdered Messiah do for their dreams of national deliverance and personal prominence?

But Jesus was beginning to reveal the true nature of His incarnation. He was disclosing the part of His coming that they had failed to comprehend. And even as Jesus began to open their eyes to the reality of His mission, they were unable to hear the most important part. He clearly told them that He would die but be raised again on the third day, but all they heard was the bad news. His disclosure regarding His coming resurrection went in one ear and out the other. And these men would continue to wrestle with the news that their Messiah was destined to suffer and die. They had no way of knowing that Jesus’ glorification as the Messiah must be preceded by His humiliation and execution. His death would be the key to eternal life. His sacrifice would result in deliverance. And His ultimate victory would be over sin and death, not the Romans. But Peter and his companions still had a lot to learn.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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