As Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees was intensifying and as he was preparing his apostles to understand his crucifixion, he asked them: Who do you say I am? The context further reveals that he was trying to discern whether or not, after his departure, his apostles would feed his people the Word of God or become like the Pharisees who distort the Scriptures. What will they say about Christ if they are interrogated? What will they say about him when they are asked about him after his death? Will his death change their understanding of and obedience to him?
This question is the most important, the most urgent, the most life-changing question that can be asked. It is a question even more important and fundamental than the question: Who am I? For as Gaudium et Spes says:
“only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”22
Answering Christ’s question is both daunting and dangerous. It is daunting because it involves the discovery of the One who created us and gives us all things. The answer to the question gives us far more than just the identity of a particular human being. It reveals the source and purpose, the character and composure, of everything, most especially ourselves. The answer demands our conversion.
But for this reason answering this question is fraught with danger. There looms the temptation to resist conversion and to domesticate Christ. There is the danger of reducing Christ to a proponent or exemplar of a vision we find more plausible or pleasurable. It is a temptation to turn Christ into our ideal self, justifying our hopes and dreams and lending them ultimate authority.
To answer Christ’s question well requires repentance and faith. It requires turning away from our selfish, prideful, sinful quest to assert ourselves over God and a humble dependence upon God’s providence and mercy.
Answering this question cannot be an individual quest, then. It cannot be something we embark upon by and for ourselves. Christ poses this question in the context of trying to establish the authenticity of his apostles’ authority over that of the Pharisees. If we want to answer Christ’s question well, we must submit ourselves to the authoritative teaching he established. We must listen to his apostles. The confession of St. Peter is the response that Christ commended and said would be the basis of his Church.
St. Peter responds to Jesus’ question:
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”Matthew 16:16
Whatever we say about Jesus, we must say this at least. St. Peter gives us two titles for Jesus: “Christ” and “Son of the living God.” Together, they bring the identity of Jesus into perfect focus and give us the best lens by which to perceive who he is. Let’s take a look at them in more detail.
It used to be common for people to hear the name “Jesus Christ” and think “Christ” was Jesus’ last name. Today, people are increasingly aware that “Christ” is a title, not a family name. Christ is the Greek word for the Old Testament concept of the “Messiah.” It simply means “anointed one.” St. Peter’s confession, then, points us to the Old Testament for a proper understanding of the identity of Jesus. If we want to know Jesus, we need to familiarize ourselves with the salvation of the Jewish people and make their story our own.
The Old Testament is vast and complicated, but it can be nicely organized into major periods. A great resource for this is The Bible Timeline by Jeff Cavins as well as The Great Adventure Catholic Study Bible. What we see when we look at the different periods of the Old Testament is that the Jewish hope for salvation focused on anointed figures who would bring God’s deliverance and mercy.
As the Old Testament draws closer to a conclusion, these figures become patterns or types of a future “messiah” who would fulfill in a more profound way the work of his predecessors. The Old Testament looks forward to a “Christ” who would bring the Word of God like Moses and the other great prophets of Israel (Deuteronomy 18:1-17). It announces a coming king even greater than David who would rule the Kingdom of God forever (2 Samuel 7:8-16). It hints at a future high priest who would commune with God in the Temple in an unprecedented way and offer the perfect sacrifice to his name.
When we see that the term “Christ” brings together the offices of prophet, priest, and king, we can make sense of some of the other titles the Gospels give to Jesus which focus these three aspects in interesting ways.
The Lamb of God
John the Evangelist favors the title “lamb of God” for Jesus. This title brings up the priestly dimension of salvation, and especially involves the lamb sacrificed and consumed by the Israelites in the great feast of Passover that remembered their deliverance from death and exodus from slavery in Egypt. To say that Jesus is the “Lamb of God” is to say that he is the sacrifice who makes possible our deliverance from slavery to sin and protects us from spiritual death.
The Word of God
The Gospel of John also refers to Jesus as the “Word of God.” This title conjures the prophetic work of Jesus. It connects Christ to those great prophets to whom “the Word of the Lord” came.
Yet, in John’s Gospel, this prophetic dimension is given greater depth, as Jesus is identified not just as one of the prophets to whom the Word of God came, but the Word of God himself who came into the world. John’s Gospel begins by connecting the Word of God in the beginning that created all things (John 1:1-4) with the One who “became flesh” and “dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This Word of God, says John, is Jesus Christ (John 1:16). He has the “words of eternal life” (John 6:68) because he himself is the life of the world (John 1:4; see also John 5:26).
The Son of David
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is frequently referred to as the “Son of David.” This title is a reference to 2 Samuel 7 where the prophet Nathan tells David that he will have a son who will rule on his throne forever. Jesus, then, is the definitive king of God’s Kingdom. He rules over his people with justice, truth, and mercy.
The Son of Man
From the testimony of the Gospels, it appears that Jesus’ preferred way of referring to himself was as “the Son of man.” It was once customary to see this title as a poetic way of emphasizing Jesus’ humanity. And it is true that in the Old Testament “son of man” can be used to simply refer to a “human being.”
However, this title has a more specific meaning that Jesus is clearly assuming. In the Book of Daniel, there is a vision of “one like a son of man” entering into the throne room of the Father and being given “dominion and glory and kingdom” (see Daniel 7:9-14).
This title seems to focus the prophecy in 2 Samuel 7. If 2 Samuel 7 promises a son of David who will rule on David’s throne forever, Daniel 7 emphasizes that this ruler must be a heavenly figure.
The Son of the Living God
The title “Son of man” is a nice segue to the other title St. Peter gives us in his confession: “son of the living God.” Throughout the Old Testament, the promised salvation of God often depend upon the sending of a special son, often in a miraculous way. We can see this as early as the third chapter of Genesis, where God promises that a son of Eve will crush the head of the serpent who deceived her (Genesis 3:15). We see it also in the story of Abraham, who is promised a son through whom God will bless the whole world (Genesis 15:1-6). We’ve already mentioned the promise given to David in 2 Samuel 7 for a son who will reign on David’s throne forever. Of course, this anticipation of a miraculous son is fulfilled in the Holy Family and the birth of Jesus Christ.
In the Old Testament, the title “son of God” could be used to refer to individuals like prophets or kings but also to the nation of Israel as a whole. However, one of the great mysteries of the New Testament is that this title, like “the Word of God,” is given eternal depth.
As the early Church wrestled with this apostolic way of identifying Jesus, they recognized that Jesus is not merely the “son of God” in the Old Testament sense of being a human person adopted by God for the divine purpose of bringing salvation. Rather, he is the Son of God in the sense of being the eternal offspring of the Father, the second person of the Trinity, who, though divine, became human to bring the definitive form of divine salvation.
This title, along with other descriptions of Jesus, led to the articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity—that God is eternally three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in the Nicene Creed propounded in 325. Those Church Fathers who were significant for explaining the Creed—most especially St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory Nazianzus, and St. Basil of Caesarea—reflected on the meaning of John 3:16 which says that God sent his “only begotten Son into the world.” Some took the fact that Jesus was identified as “begotten” (or “born”) to mean that he was especially created by God to mediate between himself and his creation. In this understanding, Jesus was not divine or eternal himself, but given supreme power and god-like-ness.
In response, these Church Fathers said there was a difference between something being “made” and something being “begotten” (or “born”). This is why the Nicene Creed says that Jesus is “begotten, not made.” They explained the difference this way: Humans can make tools, like hammers, but they beget children. Things that are made do not share the nature of their creator, but things that are begotten do. If I make a hammer, it is not a human being. But if I beget a daughter, she is a human being.
Accordingly, if Jesus is “begotten” of God the Father, then he must have the same nature as God. This is why the Creed gives us that funny word “consubstantial.” It indicates that Jesus shares the same substance, or nature, as the Father. He is “true God from true God,” to continue to use the language of the Creed.
St. Peter’s confession, then, reveals that Jesus is not merely a human “messiah” or “Christ” through whom God works, but more significantly the very eternal, divine Son of the Father. His life is not just exemplary, but divine. His very life reveals the eternal life of God. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John says:
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”John 14:9
His life is a historical depiction of the eternal life of the Trinity. We glimpse something of what the Father’s eternal begetting of the Son is like in Jesus’ incarnation and birth in the manger. We see how the Son eternally offers himself to the Father in the Crucifixion.
This is why Jesus gives eternal life. His life is the eternal life of God. A relationship to Christ means participating in his eternal relationship to the Father. It means becoming a child of God. This is the ultimate meaning of grace.
For more understanding of who Jesus Christ is, see the excellent series by Ascension, Jesus: The Way, the Truth, and the Life.
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Dr. James R. A. Merrick is Director of Emmaus Academic and Clergy Support at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and Lecturer in the theology department at Franciscan University of Steubenville. In addition to Ascension Press, he writes for the National Catholic Register, Angelus News, and Exodus 90. Follow Dr. Merrick on Twitter: @JamesRAMerrick.