Who Do You Say I Am?
A Dilemma in 21st-Century Christology
By Joel T. Perttula
People raise many questions regarding the character and nature of Jesus Christ. By the 4th century A.D. church leaders began to question the relationship between Jesus and the Father. The dilemma was whether Jesus was of the same substance as the Father, and, if so, how could He also be man? Was His divine nature somehow compromised in the Incarnation? In A.D. 325, the Council of Nicea combated the Arian controversy and introduced an extra-biblical word, homoousian, which they believed correctly conveyed the heart of Scripture. As a result, the Nicene Creed read that Jesus was “the only begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”
We face a similar question: Who do we — the contemporary church — say Jesus is? We have answered this fundamental question in a variety of ways. In the minds of some, Jesus is their “ticket to heaven” or their “get-out-of-hell-free card.” These people acknowledge Jesus’ existence, but knowing Him has no real bearing on their lives. Others see Jesus as a “heavenly sugar daddy”; He gives people what they want just as long as they promise to be His companion. Others view Jesus as merely a good teacher and moral person who lived a few thousand years ago. Still others embrace Him as an acclaimed miracle worker, whose resurrection was not physical, but spiritual. They may agree that Jesus lives today, but only in the spiritual sense.
Although at first glance these may come across as dramatic generalizations, the truth is our Christology seems to be slipping away from its scriptural origins. If the substance of our relationship with Christ is owning a pink Cadillac and living in million-dollar mansions, then can we really claim to know who Christ is?
Even an elementary reading of Scripture would lead us to believe we have missed the point of who Jesus is and what it means to follow Him. In the Gospel of Luke is the discourse between Jesus and Peter. After asking the disciples who the crowds thought He was, Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” (Luke 9:20). Peter responded first, and his answer is short, yet revolutionary: “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:20). Whether Peter’s answer substantiates the formation of the papacy is beside the point. The point is that Peter had a revelation; he got it. He did not stumble on his answer by some magical formula or intellectual exercise, but by revelation of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit opened his eyes, and Peter was able to see Jesus for who He was: the Messiah, the Savior King, the Son of the Living God. Certainly the depth of this revelation grew throughout his life, but in that initial moment his worldview began a dramatic shift.
Like Peter, we need a Spirit-birthed revelation when it comes to the question of who is Jesus Christ. Namely because “You are the Christ of God” comes difficult to swallow for us who live in the center of consumer culture, where comfort, material wealth, individualism, and image are among our most important pursuits. It has become a norm to equate a relationship with Christ with a life of financial freedom and prosperity. Furthermore, we have been sold a gospel that links God’s best for us or the sign of God’s blessing with a big paycheck. The marketing strategy of today’s Christology has been handcuffed to a checking account with a large ending balance. Can we really say we know who Christ is when we have dissociated suffering and self-sacrifice from following Christ? Following Christ is by no means a call to masochism, but since when has taking up one’s cross (Luke 9:23) been a call to a life of comfort and luxury?
“You are the Christ of God” leaves no room for narcissism. It implies a total shift in our values, pursuits, and what we deem important in life. It demands we realize the supremacy of Christ in every area of our life. When we do, titles, positions, accolades, degrees, and our greatest achievements pale in comparison with the Light of the World. To respond like Peter means a radical shift takes place within our heart; we move from self to servant. This uprising in the human soul becomes the bedrock of our new identity. In that moment of revelation is complete abandonment to self, total surrender to the person of Jesus Christ, and the emergence of childlike faith in our Lord. It propels us to live a life of love and gives us the courage to follow Christ even if it includes poverty and discomfort.
Joel T. Perttula, associate pastor, Church of the Living Christ, Simi Valley, California