Who are you? If someone were to ask me such a question, how would I respond? Where would I begin? Name? Gender? Race or Ethnicity? Nationality? Marital Status? Age? Profession? Social or Economic Status? Religious Affiliation?
While I can be “identified” by such labels and descriptors, none of them get to the essence of who I “am.” More than just “identification”, there are four important ways to think of “identity.” Jesus dealt with two of them (and hinted at a third) in a discussion with His disciples:
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Matthew 16: 13-18 (NIV)
“Who do people say (I am)?”–Those who label us are usually those who are most removed from us– “people” who don’t know our personality, our life story–people who can only identify us by faint impressions and simple observations. Unfortunately, our world has become a place where we can feel trapped in this sort of surface identity. Others see that I am young or old, short or tall, Christian, Muslim, Black or Asian, American or Brazilian, Hispanic, female, blind, etc. Or they judge me to be rich or poor, native or foreigner, educated, clean, socially adept…or someone who thinks or speaks like them..or not. Others can shape our social identity, but we must resist the trap of letting them define it.
Through the ages, people have tried to define Jesus– to identify, label, and dismiss Him, just as the people of His own time did. Some have seen in Him a “great teacher”, a “prophet”, a madman; some even question the reality of His physical existence. Jesus was aware of this when He asked for feedback from His disciples. But He wanted more.
“Who do YOU say that I am?”– Those who are close to us can give us a more accurate reflection of who we really are. They know more of the complex nature of our personalities, our backgrounds, the events and experiences that shape our thoughts and emotions. Close friends will often give us a “reality check”, as well–drowning out the voices of other people who may give us a false sense of our worth and identity, and reminding us of where we’ve come from and where we are headed. Our friends and family can remind us that we are maturing (or not), that we have value far beyond our labels. When Jesus asked His disciples to answer the first question, they gave vague answers– “some say…others say”–the second question required a more personal, deeper answer.
Why did Jesus ask the question in the first place? Was He having an identity crisis? Did He not know who He was? Of course not. But He knew what it was like to be misunderstood, mislabeled, mis-identified. And He knew that sometimes, we need to stop and ask the question; we need to reevaluate where our identity comes from and not let others decide for us.
God created us as individuals with unique identities–no two alike, and each one infinitely precious. We, by our thoughts, feelings, actions, experiences and beliefs, become who we are. We can change our identity– not necessarily those parts that people tend to label; we can’t become taller or younger, for instance–but we CAN change our outlook, attitude, beliefs, and choices. Others can give us their observations, advice, encouragement or criticism, but we choose which voices to listen to, and which roads to follow in our life’s journey.
None of the other disciples had a ready answer for Jesus on this occasion, but Peter jumped in with an announcement, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” This was more than the question demanded. Peter could have said “I think you are the Messiah,” or even “You are my master, my teacher, and my friend.” But Peter cut to the chase–“You ARE the Messiah..” To which, Jesus replied that “this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in Heaven…” Ultimately, our identity will be declared and confirmed by our Creator. Our identities, unique as they are, were created for purposes– we live and move and have our being within the scope of God’s creation, and within His plan for all of humankind.
Father, who do YOU say that I am? Help me to become the person you created me to be, to fulfill the purposes you have for me, and to honor your Son, who came to reconcile us to Yourself. Amen!
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