Leaving the crowds behind, the leader takes his group to a place far away from the ears and eyes of the curious, the excited, and the skeptical. Stopping, he turns to face his trusted friends.
Here it’s safe. It’s private. It’s the right place to have a serious and necessary conversation. And he poses a question.
“Who do people say that I am?”
It’s a set-up for a follow-up question, yet the answer will reveal the effect of the last several years. Years of speaking, of miracles, of touching hearts, minds, and bodies. What were the people saying about Jesus?
The answers offered are varied—almost humorous.
“John the Baptist!”
“Jeremiah or one of the prophets!”
These are mostly logical speculations. Each answer has something fundamentally similar. Each of these individuals called the Jewish people back to faithfulness to God. But each answer also suggests something about those who offered that opinion.
John the Baptist. This appears to be the uninformed response of the uninterested. While Jesus and John the Baptist had similarities, it’s impossible for the two to be the same man. They both preached at the same time. They had even stood together in the river while John baptized Jesus. Suggesting Jesus is John seems to indicate that the responder knew someone was doing something, but didn’t necessarily care to sort it all out.
Elijah. A more informed response. The people who thought this were likely those knew Elijah’s significance in Israelite history. Elijah was expected to return to minister to the people of Israel before “the day of the Lord,” which included the coming of the Messiah. These people are religiously interested and informed; they were looking for something from God. They were wrong, but they were headed in the right direction.
Jeremiah or one of the prophets. This may be the response of the traditionalists and culturalists. Israel had a long history of prophets speaking to them. Almost since her beginning as a nation, prophets had been a part of Israelite experience. It’s possible that those who referred to Jesus as such were simply suggesting that he’s just another in a long line of prophets: this is the status quo for us as a people and hence, not really all that unusual.
Two significant puzzle pieces linger in the background of the disciples’ response to Jesus’s question. The first piece of the puzzle is that the disciples knew what the people were saying about Jesus. They were not simply an isolated and insulated group, oblivious to the culture and the people around them. Jesus’s disciples continued to interact with and understand the people to whom Jesus was reaching out. One day soon they would be sent to continue Jesus’s message.
Second, despite the common ground of each answer to the others, their differences illustrate that people—even people in Jesus’s own time who heard and saw him—had varying opinions about who he was.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this is still the case. Varying opinions about Jesus exist around the world, some radically different, others similar yet undeniably distinct.
Jesus asked his disciples how the winds of opinion about him were blowing through the towns and villages. His response doesn’t seem to be surprise or disappointment; he almost seems to have expected the public’s mosaic of his identity. What he does say in response is to ask his followers another question, but we’ll ask that one later.
Jesus created more than a little stir, and people reacted in different ways. Many people had questions about who he was and what he was doing.