Notes from the sermon by Adriaan van Klinken at All Hallows’ Church on 17 May 2020
“Who Do You Say That I Am?” – Jesus Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God
In our series about “Tricky questions from the Bible”, today we think about the question who Jesus is for us. Libraries full of books have been written about this question – so by definition I’m going to simplify a very complex issue. But still, many of you may think it’s far too complicated what I’ll be sharing with you. At least I hope to give you some food for thought.
Reading I: Matthew 16:13-17
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.
Who do you say that I am? That’s the question Jesus asks his disciples. They have been following him for some time. But walking around with Jesus and closely observing his ministry is not necessarily enough to know with whom, exactly, they are dealing. That is true for the disciples as much as it is true for us today. We can devote our lives to him, worship him, follow him. But that doesn’t mean we are able to articulate who, exactly, he is. In our Christian language, we refer to him as the Messiah, the Christ, Lord, Son of God, and even as God the Son. What do these titles mean? What truth about Jesus do they try to capture?
Throughout the ages the answer to this question has been deeply divisive. Very early in Christian history, it caused the division between Jews and Christians – as Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah that Jews had been expecting for centuries, while most Jews did not agree. In the early centuries of the church, the truth about Jesus was subject of heated debate. Each of the three classic creeds that the church formulated was an attempt to capture the truth about him with more detail – about the virgin birth, about the eternal existence of Christ, about the relation between his human and divine nature, about his relationship to God the Creator, about his position in the Trinity. But with each creed, certain views were labelled as heretic, and the people who upheld them were excluded from what was seen as orthodoxy. This culminated in the greatest schism in Christianity, between the Western and the Eastern Church, in the year 1054. Here in England, in the 17th century, the understanding of Jesus Christ caused the split between the Unitarian Church – our friends at Mill Hill Chapel – and the Anglican Church. Nowadays, different understandings of Jesus not only cause divisions between and within Christian denominations, but also in the relation between Christians and Muslims. For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet – an important prophet as he presents a revelation of God, but he himself is not divine.
The division about Jesus is ironic, given that Jesus himself called us to be united. The reason for these divisions and conflicts is that Christians have often approached the question as a piece of maths or science – which can only have one right answer, nailed down with great detail and precision.
In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we already find three answers to the question of who Jesus is.
- Jesus himself uses the term, ‘Son of Man’. This term is used 80 times in the gospels, and in each case it is Jesus who uses it for himself. What does that mean, Jesus as the son of man? At first sight, one might think that it simply refers to Jesus’ human nature. But that misses the point that when Jesus was alive, his humanity was not in question. The people around him may have wondered what kind of human person he was (John the Baptist, or a reincarnation of a prophet such as Elija or Jeremiah?), but not whether he was truly human. The title ‘Son of Man’ has a much more specific meaning. In the Hebrew language it reads like, ‘son of Adam’ – Adam as the first human being, created as God intended humankind to be; bearing God’s image, not distorted by sin but living in harmony with creation and with God. We know what happened to Adam and Eve in paradise: they failed to live up to God’s intention and design.
In the Jewish tradition there is the expectation that God will restore humankind by sending a new Adam. For instance, in the book of Daniel we read a prophesy about the Son of Adam who is given authority, glory and power by God, and his kingdom will never be destroyed (Daniel 7, 13-14). By using the title ‘Son of man’, or ‘son of Adam’, Jesus applies that prophesy to himself. In him we encounter the true son of Adam, God’s new creation, restoring humankind. Jesus is not just human as anyone else, not even a prophet, but he is the human par excellence – human as God intended us to be in the beginning. And his kingdom of true humanity will have no end.
- In response to Jesus’ question, the disciple Peter declares: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Let’s first think about that title, Son of God. One might say that this refers to the divine nature of Jesus – but wait, that may be too fast. ‘Son of God’ is not the same as the title ‘God the Son’ that the early church developed after Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew wrote his gospel for a mostly Jewish audience. The title ‘God the Son’ would have been a blasphemy for Jews, but the title ‘Son of God’ was very familiar to them. Throughout the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament), the term is used. For example in relation to King David, who in Psalm 72 prays: ‘Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice.’ Here, and in other Psalms (e.g. 82 and 89), the title ‘son of God’ is used to refer to a king who will rule with justice and righteousness.
The history of the kings of Israel in the Old Testament is one long story of failures: time and again, rulers end up seeking their own interest and departing from God’s ways. Yet the Psalms keep the hope alive that one day, there will be a king after God’s heart, who seeks the interest of his people, and who rules in line with God’s commandments of justice and peace. That king will be exalted as God’s son, says Psalm 89, and God’s covenant with him will never end. The Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as that long-awaited king. In its opening sentence, it refers to Jesus as the son of David, and it emphasises that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the town of King David. Thus, the title ‘son of God’ – at least in the Gospel of Matthew – means that Jesus is the royal son, who brings God’s kingdom of justice and peace.
- The third title, also part of Peter’s answer to Jesus question, is ‘Messiah’ (or in Greek, ‘Christ’). The word literally means ‘anointed’. It refers to the ritual of consecrating someone with oil in preparation for a special ministry or position – for instance, as king or as prophet. Throughout the Hebrew Bible we find the strong expectation that God will send someone who will truly live up to their anointment, who will not disappoint (as many prophets and kings in the Bible do) but who will stay true to their divine calling and mission. In the Hebrew Bible, the belief in the Messiah is particularly strong in texts written while the people of Israel were in exile. The Messiah would bring them back to the promised land, as a new Moses; he would restore the Jewish nation, as a new King David; he would bring freedom, justice, and peace. The belief in the Messiah was also strong among Jews at the time of Jesus: they hoped that he would liberate them from the Roman oppressors. Most likely that was the reason why many Jews did not recognise Jesus as the Messiah – he did not free them from the Romans. Instead, he was killed by them. But the early Christians believed that he was – for them, Jesus’ execution by the Romans was exactly the result of his righteousness, his relentless commitment to God’s justice.
So what made Jesus the Messiah, the son of God? In the gospels, we read plenty of stories about what made Jesus special: his charisma and wisdom; his ability to heal people; his courage to speak truth to power; his mysticism through which his life was radically centred in God. But these things did not necessarily make him the Son of God. John the Baptist, for instance, did similar things. The difference is in the experience of Easter. Whatever exactly happened at Easter (Heston will be preaching about that next week), it radically changed the way in which Jesus’ followers thought about him. The empty tomb was evidence that he was not just a prophet, but indeed the Son of Man – the first of a new creation – and the Son of God – the Davidic king who would rule over a kingdom of justice and peace. The resurrection of Jesus was the affirmation that he, indeed, was the anointed one, the Messiah. As we read in the Book of Romans (1: 4), Christ Jesus ‘through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.’
This idea, that Jesus was appointed (or exalted) as Son of God reflects ideas in the Old Testament about the new king of David (e.g. see Psalm 2:7: “I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’”). It has been incorporated in the New Testament in various versions. According to Romans, the exaltation took place through the resurrection. The Gospel of Mark, which is the oldest of the four gospels, suggests that it happened at Jesus’ baptism, when a voice was heard from heaven saying, ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1:11). Matthew and Luke in their gospels shifted the moment to Jesus’ conception – the story of the virgin birth. Matthew repeats it later, in the story about the baptism of Jesus (3:17) and in the story about the transfiguration (17:5: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him”). Luke comes with the story about the ascension – a literal exaltation – of the risen Christ to heaven.
In different ways, these texts capture the belief that Jesus, as a true Son of Adam, has been affirmed and elevated by God as the Son of God. The fourth and latest gospel, of John, goes a decisive step further: it declares that Jesus had been with God, and was God, from the beginning of time.
Reading II: John 1: 1-5, 9-14, 16-18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
The Gospel of John has a so-called high Christology: it reflects the belief in Jesus as an embodiment (incarnation) of God-self. He was not adopted, at some moment in or after his life, to become the Son of God, but he was God from the beginning. He was God in human form. More than the other three gospels, John is more influenced by Greek than Jewish thought. His beautiful poem about the Word that was in the beginning plays with Greek philosophical ideas about the logos (‘the Word’) and applies them to Jesus. Later in the early church, this opening of John’s gospel was developed into the doctrine of the Trinity: Jesus Christ as God the Son, one with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit (Graeme will preach about this in a few weeks time).
To conclude, in the New Testament itself, we find different takes on the question of who Jesus is. There’s a reason why the Bible includes four gospels – each written at a different time, in a different context, aiming at a different audience, and with its own emphasis. The Bible does not capture the truth about Jesus in doctrines and creeds, but in stories and parables, in symbolic and poetic language. Instead of homogenising this diversity into one Orthodox Truth with a capital T, why not acknowledge these various interpretations, contemplate their meanings, and be enriched by them?
The most important is that you yourself find an answer to the question who Jesus is for you – based on your own experience and understanding of him.
At some moments, I tend more towards a low Christology: the idea that Jesus was a human person like you and me, but anointed with a divine spirit like the way in which the first Adam had received God’s breath. This view keeps Jesus close, I can recognise myself in him, I can model myself after his humanity. He is my Brother.
As other moments, I tend towards a high Christology: the idea that Jesus is God who revealed himself through us in human form. When I struggle and fail in life, I know that God in Jesus has saved me. He is my Lord.
Either way, Jesus presents us with a mystery – somehow, in him we see the face of God. We cannot capture that in scientific formulas. We only know that Jesus’ followers, then and now, have encountered in him the heart of God: full of love and compassion. In his life and his resurrection, we have seen God’s vision for humankind revealed: a kingdom of justice and peace. Trough him, there is hope for us all: the hope to be born again, to become sons and daughters of Adam, as God intended us to be; to become sons and daughters after God’s heart.