I read this for a book review project in seminary and figured I’d share my thoughts on it for those interested…
If you prefer – here’s the link to download the PDF: Response to Who Do You Say That I Am
Five quotations that made me stop and think:
- “It is no accident that all the major titles used of Jesus in the Synoptics (Son of man, Son of God, Christ, Lord) refer to relationships that Jesus was believed to have had. One can only be a son in relationship to another or others; one can only be an anointed one in relationship to an anointer; and finally, one can only be a lord in relationship to some subjects.”
It struck me that God’s revelation to us in Christ and throughout the Bible has always been relational. That Jesus’ titles reflected this tells me that Jesus was not in isolated transcendence, but rather he was God with us, in relationship with us and intimately interested and integrated with us on a strikingly familiar level. It reminded me that he came to make something known about God, humankind and their interrelationship. The relational aspect of his titles which he chose for himself or accepted from others reminded me of how he relates to us on a personal level, to scriptures and prophesies on a messianic level and over the church and humanity as a whole on a universal level. It showed me how God’s purpose from the beginning was to have relationship with His beloved creation and how Christ was the salvation of God to restore that broken relationship.
2.“Jesus’ mission of teaching and healing is dictated by compassion (love): his mighty acts are answers to prayers for pity. The Matthean Jesus lives as he teaches. He is therefore also a model—the model—for his believers. The typical invitation is: “Follow me!””
Jesus’ actions were dictated by his heart, which loves God wholly and uses all his resources to reflect that love by how he relates and ministers to those around him in need. It shows me that he was a teacher who not just talked the talk, but also walked the walk. He calls for piety which originates from the heart and therefore will overflow to everything that a person is and does. I see that Jesus is one who leads by example, and as such, is one not just to be merely heard but also followed and mimicked—after all isn’t this why the early believers were given the name “Christians”?
- “Jesus’ death can therefore serve as a paradigm in the Gospel’s two-level drama for the martyrdom of his followers, who also glorify God through their deaths. As in the case of Jesus’ death, their deaths will bear fruit also.”
This stood out especially for me today as I had watched some videos on the persecution of the church in the East—with Christians being slaughtered for their faith by the hundreds and thousands in Islamic and Asian nations—it is hard sometimes to see what the purpose is in it all. However, these stories of brave martyrs from everywhere from Saudi Arabia to North Korea are shinning testimonies to the glory of God. That, in dying for the sake of Christ, it shows him as infinitely more valuable than even that most valuable thing which a person ‘possesses’—their very own life. (Phil 1:21, 3:8) It shows that even in the most dire of situations, our lives put into the hands of Christ can serve a greater purpose than they would ever be able to apart from him.
- “…the solution discloses the plight. The Christ event is a given that exposes dimensions of the human condition that otherwise would be overlooked or suppressed.”
I am reminded here that as I gaze back in time upon the Cross, upon the solution God offered up for my sins, the beaten, stripped and bloody body of the Christ crucified—that I am the one for whose sin he hung. In seeing the horror of agony of the Cross, I see the depravity and wretchedness of my sin and the immensity of my debt paid. The solution does disclose the plight, that my human condition before grace was one of utter despair, but while I was yet still a sinner—Christ died for me (Romans 5:8). I also saw how the narrative of the New Testament Gospels was not a constructed script to construct a dogma or religious idea, but rather that the grammar of Christological discourse was organically developed as they recorded their gospels about the identity and significance of Christ to their communities.
- “…another Old Testament tradition is even more important, namely, the theophany. Throughout the Old Testament, God takes on human form and appears. God does not become human for the first time in Jesus.”
This was something I knew before, but never actually sat down and thought about properly prior to reading this. It reminded me that God in the New Testament is the same as in the Old Testament. God has always been concerned with relating to humankind on a personal, knowledgeable way. God’s appearance in human form showed me His vulnerability, instead of remaining only as the God on the top of trembling mountaintops in the midst of fire, smoke and thunder Who was to be greatly feared—the incarnation in Jesus was the ultimate perfected example of God come near, with us and dwelling among us so as to make himself relatable to His creation. He shares in our experience to redeem and recover our humanity’s purpose. The very fact that God is burdened with the sins of the people made me realize with stark clarity what it meant for God to forgive “for my own sake”, and was something else I never really thought of.
“You have not bought me sweet cane with money, or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities. I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
(Isaiah 43:24-25 ESV)
How the book has deepened my understanding of the historical context within which Jesus’ earliest followers first encountered him:
Something which stood out to me early on in the book is the category of ancient Greco-Roman biography which the gospels fall into. One of the features which these works have is that, they “assumed that a person’s character does not develop over time at all. To the contrary, time was thought simply to reveal the character a person already had.” This helped me to put into context the narratives of the gospels and to understand that they don’t really provide much data to analyze theories of Jesus’ development in his personality, but rather quite appropriately would have fitted into the concept of simply portraying the man who was, “Jesus the same, yesterday, today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
This idea of a person’s identity being determined by gender, generation, and geography helped show me the ancient mindset of corporate identity rather than individual identity being primary. In this setting where, whose child you were was the more important question than who you are and your personal uniqueness, it makes it stand out all the more that Jesus was still able to raise eyebrows and messianic questions despite his pedigree. This showed me how extraordinary Jesus’ words, deeds and relationships must have been to overcome these assumed identifying markers of his culture and time to be recognized as the Messiah. Even though he lived in the culture of his time, and obviously could relate to them in their context, he did not just go with the flow of culture and thus stood out as someone noteworthy. He rejected basic assumptions about the roles which are appropriate in Jewish society for men and women, and in doing so distinguished himself. By choosing to create his own community he made implicit and indirect claims about himself.
Also, understanding that Jesus was coming into a context where the Old Testament would have been the backdrop to which they would have interpreted his claims to be the Messiah, puts a lot of his deeds and miracles into their appropriate cultural context. For example, his comparisons to Moses and Elijah; the gospel writers used the prophetic imagery to enable their depiction of Jesus. Jesus’ miracles echoes those of Elijah and Elisha, which causes the crowd to recognize that “a great prophet has risen among us!” This information helped me to understand how Jesus’ claims to be the Messiah would have been interpreted by the people of his day who would have been familiar with the prophets of the Old Testament.
How this book has deepened my understanding of the diversity that exists within the New Testament:
Even from within the four Gospels, this book helped to show me the differences in the narratives and presentations of Jesus by the different writers of the Gospels. It showed me the diversity of backgrounds and intentions from which the four Gospels were written, and helped put into context some of the differences I had seen in their presentations of the same story of Jesus’ life.
I learned things such as how Matthew’s Gospel was not an elementary book, but was instead building upon the rich ideas and living knowledge which his readers would have already had. He was not showing how Jesus ‘became the Christ’. Rather, Peter’s confession that, “You are the Christ” is the core creed of Matthew’s Gospel and assumed so the motive of the writer is pedagogical. This was interesting to compare to Luke’s Gospel which was more of a Greco-Roman historical apologetic work to reassure believers. It presented Jesus as a prophetic figure. Looking at John’s Gospel—it introduces Jesus in a radically different way to the other Gospels as the Logos. This sheds light in how to make sense of the rest of the Gospel with this Logos Christology in mind.
Pauline Christology tells the story of the origins and destiny of all creation as intimately tied to the historical revelation of God in Jesus. He brings together the theological truths found in the Old Testament which could only be asserted as mythic or metaphorical expressions prior to Jesus’ arrival. However, in Jesus, through his life from birth to resurrection, these earlier declarations about God were made real and historical—he was exposing the Word becoming flesh.
How has this book challenged and deepened my understanding of Jesus:
This book helped to put some cultural context into my understanding of Jesus. It taught me about certain cultural assumptions of the time such as; a person’s character does not develop over time at all but instead, time simply reveals the character they always had. Also, it showed me how identity was defined in antiquity differed from how we would define identity today. Understanding some of the cultural contexts in which the New Testament was written definitely deepened my understanding of how Jesus was presented in the Gospels, Pauline letters and the rest of works. It also brought out to me how some of the things which we tend to read over casually, because of our modern contexts or familiarity with the story, would have stood out distinctively to someone in that time period as equivocal.
Finally, it showed me the cultural significance of names and titles ascribed to Jesus and how they related to the theological truths which the writers were trying to show. Furthermore, understanding that Jesus was a person who lived within a specific time period and cultural setting showed how he acted in accordance with the cultural dynamics of his time but also was not limited by them and would often step outside the cultural norms to challenge his followers. His choice of going against the mould of society—to seek out the outcasts and people who did not fit what roles would be appropriate in Jewish society—challenges me to think of how I am doing this in my own life. It was because Jesus chose a different sort of social network in which to flesh out his identity that his disciples and others were able to properly name and recognize him as the Christ. This by extension makes me ask if people would likewise ‘name’ us correctly as Christians by the way we love and relate to the least of these.
How has this book affected my thinking about what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century:
This book has confirmed for me what God had already been revealing to me in His Word about what it means to be a Christian today. That the Christian call has always been, sinner come and die to find that you might truly live. It confirms again to me the reality of suffering in the life of a Christian, how we are also connected to Christ in it and how he can bring meaning to every part of life. Indeed all who desire to live a godly life will suffer, however that suffering is not without reward and greater purpose—that in it we experience Christ himself. It reminded me that faithful pastoral practice is always a witness to Jesus, and we always point people directly to him and invite them to believe in him and his completed work.
Probably one of my favourite quotes in this book is, “Sometimes the clearest sign of God is God’s absence; the God-shaped void where assurance used to be.” This point was illuminating for me, and very helpful in how to address people who may either be searching or have lost their way. Even for myself, it is a good reminder that in my own life that, the felt void of God can actually be the thing which points me back to the reality of God and dire need for Him in every aspect of living. Also, the book reminded me of Paul’s insistence that the community of faith is open to us by our adoption as sons and daughters and not by any persuasion to a particular set of practices, theology or lifestyle which might seem more acceptable. We look to one supreme example of Christian living, however the expression of our Christian life happens within the contexts we are living and we operate within the cultural expressions of our setting but are not limited to that culture.
Lastly, the book also reminded me of the importance of preaching the narrative witness of Jesus Christ by including the Old Testament as preparation for the Gospel message. In order to be a faithful steward of the Word, the preacher must proclaim the entirety of the canonical story to put into proper context the articles of doctrine and theology which lead to true faith. The Bible is immensely interconnected. It is important to keep this in mind in order to expound a right and holistic view of Christology and to bring about proper understanding of who Jesus is and what he taught from multiple angles of view.
1. Powell, Mark Allen and David R. Bauer. Who Do You Say That I Am? Essays on Christology. 1st ed. Louisville, Kentucky. Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.
 Powell, Who Do You Say That I Am, pg 10
 Powell, Who Do You Say That I Am, pg 25
 Powell, Who Do You Say That I Am, pg 70
 Powell, Who Do You Say That I Am, pg 194
 Powell, Who Do You Say That I Am, pg 210
 Powell, Who Do You Say That I Am, pg 2
 Powell, Who Do You Say That I Am, pg 250