There is one foundational question each of us must face. By “foundational,” I don’t mean it is the only question we must answer. What I mean is that this question is so important that if you get this one wrong, you are going to get most everything else that really matters wrong. The foundational question is the famous query Jesus posed to the disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29).
It may be surprising to some that Jesus even asked this question. The foundational question for Jesus is not “Who are your parents?” or “Are you open-minded?” or “What will you do for Me?” The foundational question concerns what you believe. Jesus is interested in faith. He begins with doctrine.
Not too long ago, while walking across a bridge near our church, I spotted some graffiti underneath the overpass: “I don’t need religion. I have a conscience.” I can only guess what this spray painter was trying to say, but my guess is he (or she) assumes religion is just a trick for getting people to line up and behave. Religion for him is nothing but a moral code for doing good. And who needs a religious code with all its ritual and institutional trappings if he has a conscience? But the graffiti sloganeer has grossly misunderstood Christianity. The foundational question for Jesus is not “Will you do what I want you to do?” but “Who do you say that I am?” Everything flows from a right understanding of Jesus — not just what He taught or what He did, but who He is.
Initially, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). In other words, “What are you guys hearing about Me? What’s the word on the street?” They gave three responses. “Some are convinced You’re John the Baptist. Others figure You’re Elijah. And then there are those who aren’t sure, but think You are one of the prophets.” That’s pretty impressive company. The crowds recognized Jesus to be a man who taught the way of God, a leader who called people back to God. They knew He did miracles like Elijah, spoke with authority like the prophets, and had a following like John. Not too shabby. To call Jesus “one of the prophets” after four hundred silent years following Malachi is quite a statement.
And yet, the crowds were dead wrong. Jesus is not one of; He is the One. Jesus is not a pointer like John, Elijah, or one of the prophets. He is the point. It sounds very lofty to call Jesus a prophet, a popular teacher, a wonder worker, a good man, a brilliant example, or part of a long line of enlightened figures. But all of these descriptions miss the point. In all of them, you are saying Jesus is one of (see v. 28). And if you say Jesus is only one of and not the One, you haven’t understood Him. You don’t see who He really is. He is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16).
You may think you’re saying very complimentary things about Jesus when you call Him one of the prophets, a great man, or an enlightened teacher, but you’re not actually complimenting Him at all. It’s like saying the sun is one of many lights we use to illuminate the house, that Michael Jordan used to throw the ball around for the Bulls, or that Barack Obama owns a home in Chicago. Those statements are all true. But they are also all false because they don’t say enough. The sun is the star in our solar system. Michael Jordan is the best basketball player ever. Barack Obama is the President of the United States. If you don’t say those things, you’re not saying what really matters. By not saying what is most important and most unique, you’re actually saying something very misleading.
When it comes to identifying Jesus, partial truths that miss the biggest truth end up telling a lie. True, Jesus is a prophet (Mark 6:4; Deut. 18:18). But He is not like John the Baptist. He is not another Elijah. He is not merely one of the prophets. He is the One to which all the other prophets were pointing. So to call Him a prophet and nothing but a prophet is to misunderstand at the profoundest level who this man is. If you were to describe your wife as “a beautiful woman among many beautiful women in the world,” as “an individual I deeply respect,” or as “the last, in a long line of women I have loved,” would your wife be pleased? Obviously not. You’ve damned her with faint praise. You’ve insulted her by demeaning her uniqueness and describing her in terms far below what she deserves.
So, away with all this nonsense that Jesus is like Mohammed, the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, Ghandi, or your saintly grandmother. He is not like anyone else. And, so, we will not pretend to be impressed when others call Jesus a good man, an enlightened figure, or one of the prophets. He is not one of, He is the One.