“A Question of Identity”

(Luke 9:18-24 – Pentecost 5 – July 10, 2022)

Luke 9:18-24 – 18And it happened, as He was alone praying, that His disciples joined Him, and He asked them, saying, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19So they answered and said, “John the Baptist, but some say Elijah; and others say that one of the old prophets has risen again.” 20He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered and said, “The Christ of God.” 21And He strictly warned and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.” 23Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. 24For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.”

Dear fellow Redeemed in Christ Jesus,

There were many questions asked of Jesus as He walked on this earth. There were judgment questions asked by enemies, designed to trap Him in His words: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 12:10; 22:17) There were skeptical questions like that of Pilate: “What is truth?” (John 18:38) There were childlike questions asked by those who did not understand, like that of Nicodemus: “How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4) All these questions were raised because people came into contact with Jesus. Their contact with Him created an identity crisis – a crisis they felt a need to answer in one way or another.

Like those people of the past, we often have “A Question of Identity” in Jesus’ presence. Sometimes we may respond to a crisis by asking questions in judgment: “Why did God have to let this happen to me?” At times we may ask questions like Pilate to try to soothe our guilt: “Doesn’t everyone do it?” Other times, our questions may be of a childlike character, revealing our fear and lack of understanding: “How is God going to work all things for good in this case?”

In many times of crisis, we find ourselves asking questions of Jesus. We want to know about His identity with us and our identity with Him. In the face of so many questions, is there one question that can put all our questions into perspective? In our text Jesus leads us to that question and its answer.

1) Jesus’ identity question

First He asks His disciples: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They report what they have heard: “John the Baptist, but some say Elijah; and others say that one of the old prophets has risen again.” Now Jesus asks His disciples the pointed question of identity: “But who do you say that I am?” (vs. 18-20).

It was no wonder that some hoped Jesus was Elijah. Elijah was considered the messenger of God’s Messianic reign. He would go before the Lord, ushering in the kingdom of God among His people. Jesus identified John the Baptist as the one who went before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the people for His coming (Malachi 4:5; Luke 1:17; Matthew 11:14). But when some saw Jesus performing signs and wonders like Elijah, miraculously providing food for the hungry and raising the dead, they became excited. They envisioned that kind of power bringing victory over Israel’s enemies, bringing a new kingdom of peace and prosperity.

There are times when we too would have Jesus be such a prophet. Then the kingdom of God would become established on earth, and things would be ideal at last. We would have Jesus be a miracle worker. Then all our problems and pains would miraculously disappear. There would be no more questions, no more crises of identity, because there would be no more problems.

It was no wonder that people thought Jesus was the reincarnation of one of the old prophets. His ability to stand up under the pressure of the leaders of His day reminded them of prophets like Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah who preached God’s Word firmly, telling kings and princes to their faces how they had trespassed God’s will, telling them what they needed to do. Jesus’ call to repentance reminded them of Elijah calling fire from heaven on evil men in his day; or lately, of John the Baptist’s fiery preaching at the Jordan River. Such men of God had exposed the sin and hypocrisy hiding in people’s hearts, bringing them to their knees in repentance before God.

There are times when we would have Jesus be such a prophet, one to set our society straight. We would have Him shake His finger at our political leaders, and say with power and authority those things sinners around us need to hear. Are there times when we think of Jesus as such a Lawgiver, whose main message is to tell us how to live in this world; as if by our law-abiding efforts we can rise above sin and live worthy of His kingdom?

When Jesus asks: “But who do you say that I am?” it is a critical moment. Will He be to us simply an earthly leader, holding promise of a better life in this world? Will He be to us simply a preacher of the Law, teaching us how to live better lives in the here and now? Such ideas may be acceptable to the world, but they fall short of the true Savior we need, who came to redeem us from sin, death, and eternal condemnation; the Savior who came to redeem us out of this fallen world, and out of the depths of hell, to live with Him forever in His heavenly Kingdom.

In answer to Jesus’ identity question, Peter replies that He is “The Christ of God” (vs. 20). Though he is right, Jesus commands the disciples to be silent about this truth for a time (vs. 21). Too often, our reply to the question of who Jesus is comes too easily. We take for granted that He is the Christ, but we need to ponder what this confession means for us and our life.

2) Do we accept His true identity?

As we answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” it leads us to stop and ask ourselves if we accept His true identity. After all, to confess Jesus to be the Christ means that we accept His identity as the Son of God, who came into this world and took to Himself our flesh and blood, so that He could go to the cross and die for us and take away all our sins and win our forgiveness; and so that He could also rise again and give us eternal life in His Kingdom. Here Jesus tells His disciples: “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day” (vs. 22).

It was not easy for the disciples to hear Jesus speak about His coming suffering and death, even though He promised He would rise from the dead. They had hoped following Jesus would be easy. They had hoped the Messiah’s life would come with victory, not suffering and death. Jesus’ words made them uncomfortable, for they knew, as Jesus had taught them: “A disciple is not above his teacher” (Matthew 10:24). As it would be for Jesus, so it would be for them.

Maybe it is not so hard for us to accept the identity of a Christ who will die. We are used to thinking of Jesus being betrayed by a friend, beaten and tortured by soldiers, and nailed to the cross. His crucifixion is a reality of history, just as much as His resurrection.

But what may not be so easy is to accept our own part in Christ’s crucifixion. At the cross, we see an ugly picture of our sin and the evil it has caused. Just as the disciples fled to safety, forsaking Jesus in the hour of trial, so in times of trouble we have forsaken Jesus and fled to easier paths, following the temptations of our sinful flesh, seeking to fit in with the world. In times of trouble, when faced with those “Why?” questions, we have directed our bitterness and anger toward others, and even toward God. It is all part of our own sin that sent Jesus to the cross.

It is not easy for our flesh to accept a Christ who will die, because then we have to confess our desperate condition as sinners in need of such a Savior. When God’s Law is preached to us, we cannot obey it perfectly as we ought. Even by our best efforts, we cannot fix the damage we have done to others and ourselves. We cannot give ourselves a right relationship with God and a new identity as His children.

That is why Jesus’ identity question leads us to focus, not on ourselves, but on Him as our perfect Savior. To confess Him as the Christ is to admit that we do not have all the answers in life. But in His cross and resurrection Jesus provides the answer to our most critical question: How can we be saved from the wages of sin, that we may live forever as the children of God?

In His cross, we see the Son of God and Son of Man suffering in our place, so we will never be punished for our sin. We see Him dying the death we deserved, so we will never perish in eternal death. At the cross God was counting our sins to Christ, so He could count the righteousness of His Son to us. Then, as Jesus foretold, He was raised the third day. By the cross and empty tomb of Jesus, we know His true identity as the Son of God, who came into our flesh so He could die for our sins and rise again to give us eternal life.

3) Do we accept our new identity?

And now in Christ, God gives us a new identity. The Holy Spirit has brought us by faith to confess Jesus as the Christ, as our Savior. In our Epistle Lesson, the apostle Paul said: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). So through Baptism and faith, God gives us a new identity in His Son as His children. Through Baptism and faith, Jesus washed our sins away and clothed us in His righteousness. Through Baptism and faith, God gives us a new life in Christ.

What does this life look like? Jesus says: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (vs. 23-24). Jesus’ words lead us to ask ourselves if we accept our new identity in Him.

As believers, God calls us as His perfect children in Christ. Yet we still wrestle with the temptations of our sinful flesh, Satan, and the world. So as part of our identity Jesus speaks of denying ourselves and taking up our cross and following Him daily. Self-denial is foreign to our sinful nature; it would lead us to follow its desires and lusts, to act selfishly and harmfully. The world knows nothing of self-denial; it would lead us to do whatever feels good, to follow whatever truth pleases our ears, and to seek the praise of men rather than the praise of God. Satan tempts us to try to save our life by forsaking the narrow and difficult path of following Jesus, giving in to the sinful flesh, and joining the broad path of the world.

But as those whose identity is in Christ, we also have the Holy Spirit in us; and He leads us to crucify our flesh in daily repentance. In the power of our baptism, we drown the Old Man; we die with Christ to sin. And we rise with Christ, in His cleansing forgiveness; we rise according to the New Man, to walk in the new life He gives (Romans 6:3-11). By faith, we say with Paul in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

As we embrace the cross of Christ, confessing Him as our Savior, we will take up our own cross. The cross refers to all suffering and hardship endured for the sake of Christ and His truth. Satan hates all who are baptized into Christ, bearing the sign of His cross. The world scorns us for holding to the truth of Christ. But while dying to our sinful nature, and Satan, and the world, we rejoice that we are living in Christ, not only in time but for all eternity.

Life is filled with crosses and challenges. We have many questions, as children often do. We do not always know why things happen the way they do. But when questions fill our minds and we feel scared and insecure, we can remember our identity as God’s beloved children in Christ. We hear His question of identity: “Who do you say I am?” and with a reply formed in our hearts by His Word, we answer confidently: “The Christ of God. You are the one loves me and gave Your life for me. You are the one who forgave me and created me for eternal life. You are the one who is in control every day for my good. You are the one who will be with me faithfully, until You bring me home to heaven!” That question and answer puts all our questions in life into wonderful perspective.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.