IN UNDERSTANDING JESUS’ identity, it is not uncommon to approach the problem theoretically by asking whether he is God or man. Thus, we may begin with a certain idea of God and see if this could be applied to Jesus. Such an approach, however, is not without peril, because the idea of God is itself problematic, to begin with. In the Gospel of Luke, the people’s observations on his words and works led them to ask who he was. After the calming of the tempest, the disciples inquired, “What sort of man can this be?” (Luke 8:25). When Herod heard about what Jesus was doing, he said, “Who is this man?” While these questions were never answered, the people’s perception of him, on the basis of his speech and action, was diverse: he was John the Baptist raised from the dead, Elijah or one of the prophets of old risen (Luke 9:7-8.19). If anything, the effort to know Jesus from what he said and dead does not succeed, either. How, then, do we know his identity?
It would seem that the best way to approach the problem of Jesus’ identity is to have a personal encounter with him. If Peter was able to approximate the truth about Jesus’ identity, it is because he has been following him. He followed Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, and shared in that ministry. This explains why in much the same way that a wife’s knowledge about her husband is from removed from those of her acquaintances, so Peter’s perception was different from that of the crowd, “You are the Messiah of God” (Luke 9:20). In making this confession, Peter, of course, understood Jesus in the Jewish sense of an expected anointed agent in the kingly, Davidic tradition. Having witnessed Jesus’ ministry of preaching, healing and working miracles, he recognized him as the anointed to free Israel from the yoke of Rome and restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6).
Since Peter’s encounter with Jesus was limited only to the latter’s public ministry, it is understandable that he did not have a full knowledge of Jesus’ identity. Although he correctly applied to Jesus the title “Messiah,” yet his understanding of that title was still far from being entirely correct. Which is why, Jesus rebuked him as well as the other disciples (of whom Peter was the spokesman) and directed him not to tell anyone about his identity. As a corrective to that understanding, Jesus added, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, be killed and on the third day be raised up” (Luke 9:22). In other words, Jesus’ real identity is the Son-of-Man Messiah who, in obedience to God’s plan of salvation, must be repudiated and suffer many things. But all this was not yet fully disclosed to his disciples.
His identity was fully revealed when, after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples themselves followed him in his footsteps. In discipleship, his followers had a full encounter with the risen Lord. For this reason, his messianic identity was no longer concealed. Indeed, the disciples were already being asked to be witnesses to it: “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made him Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Logically enough, Jesus asked those who wished to really know him to disregard themselves and take up their crosses daily on account of the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:23). Only those who lose their life for the sake of Christ will really come to a true knowledge of Jesus’ real identity (Luke 9:24). A good example is Paul who did not preach anything save the crucified Messiah. Notice how his knowledge of Christ is intertwined with his sharing in the Jesus’ suffering: “I wish to know Christ and the power flowing from his resurrection; likewise to know how to share in the sufferings by being formed into the pattern of his death” (Phil 3:10). In the contemporary age, probably no one knows the Lord’s identity better than St Francis of Assisi; his stigmata and his poverty are witnesses to his encounters with the risen Lord.