Once a month, you’re going to hear from our authors, from our team, or from a guest on how we study the Bible, what resources we use, and what questions we ask.
Early in Jesus’s ministry, He began attracting a following. People were drawn to the Rabbi traversing the Galilean countryside and healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, and feeding thousands with a meager lunch packed for a child. One day near the villages of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27).
The question about Jesus’s identity is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago—Who do people say Jesus is?
Imagine walking out onto the streets of London, Dubai, Delhi, or Bangkok and asking that question now. In these modern multi-cultural mega-cities, you’d get a range of responses from people with varied religious convictions. Here are a few perspectives on Jesus and His identity that you’d most likely encounter.
“Jesus was a prophet.” Muslims respect Isa (Jesus) as a prophet that God sent to reveal His word. But they believe God’s final and definitive revelation was given to the prophet Mohammad in the Quran. The Quran testifies to the virgin birth of Jesus and to Jesus’s ministry of teaching and healing, but not to Jesus’s atoning death on the cross or to His bodily resurrection. Muslims do not believe Jesus died on the cross but rather that His followers took Him down from the cross before He died. From a Muslim perspective, Christ is one of many prophets and is a wise teacher but not God who took on human flesh and walked among us.
“Jesus was a holy man.” While there is no unified Hindu view of Jesus, Jesus fits the criteria of a Sadhu, a holy man. Jesus’s teaching rings with wisdom and highlights love for God and neighbor as does the teaching of many enlightened wise men venerated by Hindus. Mahatma Gandhi, one well-known Hindu leader who fought for Indian independence, was inspired by Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. In Hinduism, the supreme divinity includes Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, who personify creation, preservation, and destruction. Alongside this trinity, Hindus accept a pantheon of gods and goddesses and various incarnations of God through the ages. Hindus may see Jesus as divine but not as uniquely divine. They may be drawn to Jesus as a guru who experienced oneness with God, but they wouldn’t worship Him as the one true God.
“Jesus was an enlightened guru.” In Buddhism, light is a symbol of wisdom and knowledge, the apex of a life devoted to the spiritual path. And some Buddhists have seen in Jesus the enlightened spirit of one who has achieved true wisdom. Although there is no unified Buddhist understanding of Jesus, the Dalai Lama devoted a book called The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus to explore the resonance of Jesus’s teaching with a Buddhist understanding of faith, salvation, and the aspiration to attain the full perfection of the divine nature. While Jesus’s teachings and spiritual practice may be admired by Buddhists, Jesus Himself isn’t seen as the only Source of salvation.
“Jesus was a good moral teacher.” When asked about Jesus, people who don’t consider themselves religious often give Him credit for being a good moral teacher. Many who ascribe to secularism, a philosophical view that denies supernatural reality and the existence of God, may acknowledge that Jesus’s teaching contains good nuggets of moral truth, but they discredit the accounts of His miracles or His claims to be the Son of God. Secularists believe in what they can see, touch, rationalize, and prove with scientific evidence. And because they’ve never observed someone walking on the sea and they know the force of gravity is stronger than the surface tension of water, they’d immediately discredit the possibility that Jesus did, in fact, walk across the waves to a boat filled with His frightened disciples. So, a secularist would say that Jesus could teach, but He couldn’t heal. He could expound on being neighborly but not cast out demons. He could comfort a grieving sister, but He couldn’t call her brother out of the grave. Jesus could die on a cross, but He couldn’t be victorious over death by rising again from the dead. Jesus was then, according to the secularist, just a man who lived and died and said some intriguing (but mostly not true) things.
Who do you say that I am?
In the first century when Jesus asked His disciples who people thought He was, they answered John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets (see Mark 8). Roughly two thousand years later, the range of answers has expanded. But the pressing question, the one that should focus our minds and that demands a response from each of us is, “Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus left us with clear teaching about His identity. The gospel of John contains more “I am” statements than any other gospel. Just listen to a handful of them:
- “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever” (John 6:51, emphasis added).
- “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12, emphasis added).
- “I am the gate. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9, emphasis added).
- “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live” (John 11:25, emphasis added).
- “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, emphasis added).
If we’re going to talk about Jesus’s identity, we first must wrestle with His own claims about Himself. His claim to be the Son of God was unambiguous. If Jesus isn’t who He said He is, why would we take any of His teachings seriously?
C. S. Lewis famously wrote in Mere Christianity that Jesus was either a lunatic, a fiend, or He was (and is) who He said He was—the Son of God.1 So, the question lingers: Who do you say that He is? As for me, I take Jesus at His word. I believe He’s the shepherd, the gate, the living water, and the resurrection and the life.
Tina Boesch has lived in seven countries on three continents. She earned a MA in theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. These days she serves as Manager of the Lifeway Women Bible Study Publishing Team. She’s the author of Given: The Forgotten Meaning and Practice of Blessing and has designed stained glass windows for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and North Greenville University. You can find more of her writing and design at tinaboesch.com.
1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1952), 52–53.