If we are to be disciples, shouldn’t we begin by asking just who we will follow? Or more pointedly, who is our Master? At whose feet will we sit and learn? At whose command will we get up and follow, leaving behind our old life? Who will be the object of our love and loyalty, the one we will trust and obey — even to death?
For the world, questions like these are simply offensive. “I’m my own master,” they’ll say. “I surrender my freedom to no one.” That would be an honest answer.
But most Christians would respond differently, quickly supplying a name: Jesus. In just the past year we have heard dramatic examples of those pressed to give an answer at the edge of the sword or the barrel of a gun. In our own country, and abroad, we have seen courageous witnesses claim “Jesus” and die.
Would you? Could you? It’s a special Master who shapes disciples like this. Are we so formed to be witnesses such as these? Or do our actions, despite words, show us to be more like the world — living as our own masters and coveting our own freedom?
We are not all called to martyrdom, but if we are disciples of Jesus, we are all called to follow Him and die. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it like this:
The cross is laid on every Christian. . . . It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death — we give over our lives to death. . . . When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.1
Bonhoeffer’s challenge is based on the words of Jesus in Mark:
And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it (Mark 8:34, 35, KJV).
Jesus’ call to “follow me” is a powerful command with a provocative condition: “Deny yourself and take up your cross.” But note the “Whosoever will” at the beginning. It indicates that Jesus’ call and condition for discipleship aren’t forced. Following Jesus is a decision to be made, a cost to be weighed.
Who is Jesus?
This brings us back to our earlier questions: Who is this Master? Who is this Jesus? I suspect how we answer will determine what kind of disciples we will be. It is no accident that just before Jesus explains the cost of discipleship in Mark 8:34, 35, He first asks His disciples two questions:
“Who do men say that I am?”
“But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:27-30).
Whatever else “men” may say, the question for us is “But who do you say . . . ?” It must be true that the answers of mere men cannot produce the kind of disciples Jesus expects to make. Sadly, it is also often true that Christians who would answer as Peter did go on, not as disciples indeed, but more as those with lesser answers.
It’s not enough to have the right answer; we must be captivated and animated by its reality in our whole being. So again, who do you say Jesus is, and what does that mean?
The four Gospels are dedicated to answering these questions and showing how the answer changes everything. Let’s briefly survey what each Gospel says about who Jesus is.
In Mark, Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question is “You are the Christ” (8:29). The very first verse of this Gospel introduces us to this Jesus Christ, and in quoting Isaiah 40:3, verse 3 cries concerning Him, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The chief priests at the cross derisively state Mark’s last reference to the Christ: “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe” (15:32).
In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter’s answer is expanded: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16). Matthew also introduces us to Jesus Christ in his opening sentence and goes on later in the chapter to identify this Christ as “Immanuel . . . God with us” (1:1, 23). In his closing reference to Christ, just before His crucifixion, Pilate asks the multitude what to do with “Jesus who is called Christ.” They reply, “Let Him be crucified!” (27:22).
In Luke, Peter affirms that Jesus is “The Christ of God” (9:20). Luke first refers to Jesus as Christ at His birth when the angel of the Lord announces to the shepherds that Jesus is “Christ the Lord” (2:11). His final mention of Christ is on the post-resurrection lips of Jesus: “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day” (24:46).
In John’s Gospel, Peter answers in a different setting, and like Matthew: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (6:69). The first reference of Christ in John discloses that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17). John’s last reference to Christ reveals He is Lord and God and that this Gospel was “written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31).
From beginning to end, the four Gospels reveal that Jesus is Christ, that this Christ is Lord and Son of God, that Christ embodies the grace and truth that define the very nature of God (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 57:3, 10), and that Christ, mysteriously, is God. All the Gospels climax with the insistence that this Christ is inseparable from the cross and resurrection life beyond.
What’s in a name?
Jesus’ titles are now domesticated by familiarity, but their original weight, known to Peter and the Gospel writers, helps us answer Jesus’ question more meaningfully.
Christ is of Hebrew background: Messiah, translated “the anointed one.” Messiah is the long anticipated heir of David and King of Israel (Psalm 2:2; 89:20). Jesus Christ means “King Jesus.” He’s the promised potentate; His kingdom rule is over all. Disciples serve the king.
The title Lord carries the same royal connotations as Christ. In the Roman context of New Testament times, Caesar was Lord, priding himself as being the most sovereign savior of the world. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar was an imposter. If Jesus is Lord, then His call to follow is command.
The title Lord gets even more interesting because in its Hebrew background, Lord is used to translate the personal name of God: Yahweh. The Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 is a classic example: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” “Christ is Lord” carries the profound claim that Jesus embodies the nature and glory of God
(1 Corinthians 8:6; Philippians 2:5-11).
Besides the explicit Gospel citations noted above that link Jesus with God, many Old Testament quotations, like Isaiah 40:3 in Mark 1:3, provocatively equate Lord Jesus with Lord God. Doing so grounds the life of discipleship in the worship of our Maker.
Who is Jesus? The Gospel witness is profound. Note that the very word gospel ratifies this by evoking Isaiah’s promised “good tidings” that Yahweh God is coming to reign, and to this Savior and Lord every knee will bow and tongue confess and in His name find justification (40:9; 52:7; 45:20-25). In the Lord Jesus Christ these gospel promises have come to pass (Luke 2:11; Philippians 2:5-11; Romans 5:14-21).
Caught between the Roman and Jewish context, it’s no wonder Christ the Lord ended on a cross. But that same weight of meaning also explains why He’s the resurrection and the life and calls us with authority to discipleship that is patterned after Him.
“But who do you say that I am?” We find that the Gospel answer is loaded. We find in Jesus Christ the Lord — this mysterious union of human son of David and divine Son of God (Luke 1:32; Romans 1:3, 4) — a call to discipleship that refuses to be taken lightly. It bids us to both imitation, as one would a big brother, and worship, as one would the Almighty (Hebrews 1:1-14; 2:9-12).
Son of God is the title attached to Christ that may best capture both His messianic and divine natures. It has that same royal association as Christ and Lord, as in Psalm 2, and much more (John 1:18; 10:36; 19:7). Psalm 72 helps us see how the promise of a faithful human heir of David and the faithful God of Israel unite uniquely in Jesus Christ our Lord:
Give the king Your judgments, O God, and Your righteousness to the king’s Son (v. 1).
Of this King and Son and God the psalmist continues to speak:
His name shall endure forever;
His name shall continue as long as the sun.
And men shall be blessed in Him;
All nations shall call Him blessed.
Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel,
Who only does wondrous things!
And blessed be His glorious name forever!
And let the whole earth be filled with His glory.
Amen and Amen (vv. 17-19).
Is there any doubt that this “glorious name” is Jesus — the name Paul says is “the name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:9)? Is there any doubt that this name lays a claim on our love and loyalty, to learn and follow, to find resurrection after a cross?
“But who do you say that I am?” The answer rings in our ears. We know it; we know the Master’s name. In that name authentic discipleship finds itself and goes the distance. There is nothing left but to follow. As Acts says of Paul and Barnabas, they “risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26).
Called by the Master, let us do likewise.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (Simon & Schuster, 1995), 89.