Question: "Why did Jesus ask the disciples, "Who do you say that I am?""
Answer: Jesus asked a lot of questions. Query was one of His favorite teaching tools. One of the questions Jesus put to the disciples was “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20). This question drew out a response that is instructive to all of us.
The context of Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” is important: “Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’
“They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.’
“‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’
“Peter answered, ‘God’s Messiah’” (Luke 9:18–20). Parallel accounts are found in Matthew 16 and Mark 8.
Matthew relates that Peter did more than just identify Jesus as the Christ; he also proclaimed Jesus’ divine nature: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
Jesus’ question “Who do you say I am?” was not a sign of ignorance; He knew all things, including what was on the disciples’ minds. The question was also not motivated by some type of self-conceit or vanity; Jesus did not preen, and He had no desire to fish for compliments. Rather, His question was aimed at provoking the disciples to consider their level of faith. The immediate results of His question make it clear why He asked them what He did.
Jesus began the conversation by asking a related question: “Who do the crowds say I am?” (Luke 9:18). In response, the disciples related the various things they had heard: the opinions included several personages come back to life, pointing to the fact that the crowds viewed Jesus as someone special. But the crowds’ guesses were all wrong. So Jesus directs the question to the disciples themselves: “Who do you say that I am?” In other words, are you following the crowd? Are you sticking with the conventional wisdom about Me? Or do you have another, more insightful answer? What do you really think?
Peter then speaks up. In answer to the question, Peter affirms his belief that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah and, more than that, the Son of God. By this time, the disciples had seen many miracles, including the raising of a widow’s son in Nain, the calming of a storm, the casting out of many demons from a man in the Gerasenes, and the feeding of 5,000. The disciples knew that Jesus was more than a prophet; He was absolutely unique; He was, in fact, God in the flesh.
In response to Peter’s declaration, Jesus expresses the blessedness of his faith: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). God, in His grace, had opened the disciples’ eyes to see Jesus for who He truly was.
So Jesus asks the question “Who do you say that I am?” and He receives the correct (divinely inspired) response from Peter. This marks a turning point in Jesus’ teaching ministry with His disciples. Starting then, the Lord gives His disciples additional information, as shocking as it was for them to hear: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21).
Jesus had refrained from telling His disciples about His death and resurrection until they had reached an important milestone: namely, that their faith had grown to the extent that they could express their conviction that Jesus was the Son of God. How the disciples handled the additional information of Jesus’ death would depend on who they believed Jesus to be. Knowing that He is the Son of God, they should be able to trust Him—even to the point of accepting His death (and resurrection) without being shaken.
Unfortunately, the disciples had a hard time processing what Jesus was now telling them, as evidenced in Peter’s response (Matthew 16:22–23). Even having faith in Jesus as the divine Son of God, the disciples were thrown into confusion at the prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection (see Mark 9:32).
Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” is a good example of one of His teaching methods. Asking a question demands engagement, promotes thinking, and draws out a considered response. Jesus’ question and subsequent teaching also illustrate the progressive nature of God’s revelation and our need for growing in faith. Throughout history, God has revealed His message gradually, starting in Genesis and continuing through the close of the canon. He did not reveal any more than mankind needed or was capable of receiving at any given time. Also, Jesus’ delay in introducing the subject of His death and resurrection suggests that the disciples’ faith needed to mature to the point that they could hear and understand. All of us are called to grow in our faith. There is always more to know of Christ. “Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1).