Who Is Jesus?
In the episode “A Good Man Goes to War,” the British sci-fi hero Doctor Who prepares to fight. His pregnant best friend Amy Pond has been abducted by his enemies, so the Doctor summons all his friends to help. They come. Except for one. The mysterious River Song (who like the Doctor travels in time and space) does not show up. At first the Doctor thinks he’s rescued Amy and her daughter. But then the infant in Amy’s arms disintegrates. It was only a flesh-avatar of the real baby, who has been kidnapped. Then, as they grieve their terrible mistake, River appears.
River: Well then, soldier, how goes the day?
Doctor: Where have you been? Every time you’ve asked, I have been there. Where were you today?
River: I couldn’t have prevented this.
Doctor: You could have tried.
The Doctor looks in River’s eyes and asks, “Who are you?” River sees the crib, where Amy’s baby had been sleeping: “Oh, look, your cot! Haven’t seen that in a very long while.” But the Doctor grabs her wrist, “No, no, you tell me. Tell me who you are.” Moving his hand to the crib, she says, “I am telling you.” At last the Doctor understands who River is: she is the future of the baby they’ve just lost.1
The question of Jesus’s identity is as vital to the plot of the Gospels as River’s identity is to the plot of this episode. The answer is even more incredible. Jesus is the Son of God made flesh: the true Creator of the universe in human form. At times the Gospels make the claim explicitly. But often when someone demands that Jesus tell them who he is, he answers like the enigmatic River Song: “I am telling you.”
In the classic, comic film The Princess Bride, Buttercup has been rescued by a masked man who claims he is the Dread Pirate Roberts. Buttercup grew up with a servant boy called Westley, who expressed his love for her in three repeated words: “As you wish.” Roberts tells Buttercup that he killed her Westley. “I can’t afford to make exceptions,” he explains. “Once word leaks out that a pirate has gone soft, people begin to disobey you, and then it’s nothing but work, work, work, all the time.” So Buttercup pushes him down a ravine, saying, “You can die too, for all I care!” But as the man tumbles down the slope he calls out, “As . . . you . . . wish!” Buttercup cries, “Oh my sweet Westley, what have I done?” and throws herself after him.2
In Mark 2:1–2, Jesus is preaching to a packed house. Four friends drag a paralyzed man up onto the roof, cut a hole, and lower him into the room. Seeing their faith, Jesus says to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). Imagine his confusion. This man had come for healing, not forgiveness. But the religious leaders known as scribes were horrified: “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). The scribes aren’t wrong: the only person with the right to say these words is God himself. Jesus’s words, “your sins are forgiven,” claim an identity as surely as Westley’s “As you wish.”
Then Jesus asks the scribes, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?” (Mark 2:9) In one sense, the answer is obvious. Forgiveness won’t show physically, so Jesus could save face by claiming it had happened. But rather than choosing A or B, Jesus does both: “‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic—‘I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home’” (Mark 2:10–11).
Immediately, the man got up, picked up his bed, and walked. For Jesus, healing someone’s body was easy. As we read on, we find that forgiving sins is hard: it cost Jesus his life. But in this early scene, Jesus proves he has the right to do what only God himself can do.
He is telling us.
Who Is This?
Last week, I went to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings. I’m a sucker for fast-paced action films, and this one was fantastic. In one of its most brilliant scenes, a guy named Shaun and his best friend Katy are taking the bus to work. (They’re valet parkers.) But then a random thug approaches Shaun and demands in Chinese that he hand over his cool, green necklace. Shaun refuses. Other thugs encircle him. Katy interjects, “You have the wrong guy! Does he look like he can fight?” But then they attack, and Shaun fights back. As the first thug flies through the air, Katy’s jaw drops. She watches in awe as Shaun fights off the others too. When an even bigger guy with a sword-forearm stands up, the people on the bus think Shaun has met his match. But Shaun beats this guy too. Katy is left with a question: Who on earth is he? “I know you don’t like to talk about your life,” she says, “but a guy with a freaking machete for an arm just chopped our bus in half!”3
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell the story of a similarly disruptive moment for Jesus’s friends. Jesus and his disciples are on a boat. It’s evening. Tired from a day of teaching, Jesus falls asleep. But then a massive storm comes up. Waves are breaking into the boat and filling it. Several of Jesus’s disciples were fishermen, and even they are terrified. But Jesus just sleeps on. They wake him up with, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). What did they expect Jesus to do? Perhaps he’d be an extra pair of hands for bailing out? Or maybe he’d pray to God for the storm to start dying down? But Jesus, fresh from sleep, speaks to the wind and the sea: “Peace!” he says, “Be still!” (Mark 4:39). The wind stops, and there is a great calm. Then Jesus asks, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). We might expect the disciples to be relieved. “Phew! The storm is over. Jesus saved the day!” But they’re not. Mark tells us they’re “filled with great fear” and say to one another, “Who then is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41).
In Genesis God spoke the oceans into being. In Exodus he drove the Red Sea back with a strong east wind and made a path so that his people could walk through on dry ground. Here, Jesus speaks to the wind and the sea, and they obey. This is no gradual calming of a storm. The brakes are crammed on suddenly, and his disciples are jolted from one fear to another. Like Katy, discovering that her friend Shaun is actually Shang-Chi, the son of the world’s most powerful man, they’re starting to see who Jesus is—and they are terrified.
Once again, he is telling us.
Jesus proves he has the right to do what only God himself can do.
I Am . . .
Katy and Shaun are on a plane when she asks him who he is. Shaun explains that his name’s not really Shaun, but Shang-Chi. After mispronouncing it a few times, Katy asks sarcastically, “You changed your name from Shang to Shaun? I wonder how your father found you!” It’s not the greatest undercover alias. Shang-Chi was truly trying to conceal who he is—albeit incompetently. But when Jesus echoes the name of Israel’s one true God, he’s aiming for the opposite. He’s taking the name of Israel’s one true God and making it his own.
When Moses met with God speaking from a miraculously burning bush, God had called himself “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). In John’s Gospel, Jesus plays with these words like a master composer exploring a motif:
- “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:35, 48; cf. John 6:41, 51)
- “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12)
- “I am the door of the sheep.” (John 10:7; cf. John 10:9)
- “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25)
- “I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:11, 14)
- “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
- “I am the true vine.” (John 15:1; cf. John 15:5)
Time and again, Jesus summons words and metaphors from Hebrew Scripture to present himself both as the true Israel and as Israel’s one true God. We see two instances of this played out in one explosive conversation.
God’s first words in the Bible are “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). Standing in the temple, Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). The boldness of this claim is breathtaking. Many religious leaders have claimed to be enlightened. But Jesus claims he is the light. What’s more, we see the theme of light defeating darkness in the mouths of Israel’s prophets. “The people who walked in darkness,” Isaiah announced,
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone. (Isa. 9:2)
Isaiah ties these words to Galilee, where Jesus lived (Isa. 9:1). Matthew points to their fulfilment when Jesus moved there (Matt. 4:12–16), and adds an allusion to Psalm 23:4:
For those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned. (Matt. 4:16)
Jesus is light and life breaking into darkness and death. Isaiah’s prophecy goes on to speak of a God-given, everlasting King being born. His words must have rung in every Jewish ear when Jesus claimed to be the light of the world.
The Pharisees are not impressed. But Jesus doubles down. He tells them that they will die in their sins if they don’t believe in him, but that if they live in his word, they will know the truth and the truth will set them free (John 8:24, 31–32). His hearers claim they’re not enslaved to anyone. But Jesus argues that they’re enslaved to sin, and he alone can set them free (John 8:31–38). Eventually, they ask, “Are you greater than our father Abraham who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” (John 8:53). Jesus replies, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Now they know Jesus is crazy. “You are not yet fifty years old,” they object, “and have you seen Abraham?” (John 8:57). Then Jesus delivers his final blow: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). The Jewish leaders knew precisely what he meant. His claim to be the great “I am” was blasphemy. “They picked up stones to throw at him” (John 8:59).
What does it mean for us that the Creator God became a man in Jesus Christ? It means that you and I are fully and completely known. It means we’re known more fully than a mother knows her baby, than an artist knows his paintings, than a novelist knows her imaginary world. It means the one who made us lived and died, hungered and thirsted, sweat and bled for love of us. It means the one who made the stars has wept for us. It means the one who stretched out space stretched out his arms and died for us. River doesn’t tell the Doctor she is Amy’s baby. She shows him. She turns defeat to victory by showing up and showing who she is. If Jesus is the everlasting Son of God, it means defeat is turned to victory for anyone who follows him. It means the God who made the universe has come at last for you and me. It means the world turned upside down—for us.
- Doctor Who, series 6, episode 7, “A Good Man Goes to War,” written by Stephen Moffat, aired June 4, 2011, on BBC One.
- The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner (Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox, 1987).
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Studios, 2021).
This article is adapted from Confronting Jesus: 9 Encounters with the Hero of the Gospels by Rebecca McLaughlin.