Summary: In a world that is trying to define Jesus so many different ways, it is important that we answer the questions about Jesus the right way.

“Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?”

Matthew 16:13-16

January 10, 2010


Think back to your first memories of hearing about Jesus. What do you remember thinking of Jesus? How did He “come across” to you?

In his book American Jesus, Steven Prothero details how Jesus has become a popular American cultural icon. From a book review: Thomas Jefferson famously took a razor to the New Testament to create a Jesus he could call his own; abolitionists and Klansmen, Mormons and hippies, all cast the carpenter from Nazareth in their own image. Liberated from Calvinism and the creeds, Jesus emerged from the shadow of official theology into the spotlight of popular culture. Today, He is even resurrected on the Broadway stage and in a Holy Land theme park.

Jesus is popular these days—at least people’s sometimes misinformed perception of Him. He is regularly thanked by those scoring touchdowns, acknowledged by those accepting awards, and invoked by politicians seeking office. Jesus even has a radio call-in talk show in Los Angeles; a man named Neil Saavedra fields calls on Sunday mornings in the guise of answering questions as he thinks Jesus would answer.

Popular singers sing about Him, from Carrie Underwood to Green Day, U2 to Kanye West; the Byrds and the Doobie Brothers sang that “Jesus is just all right with me”—though one wonders what they meant by “all right”. Popular movies reference Him; in the film Talladega Nights, comedian Will Ferrell insists on praying to “little 8 lb., 6 oz. baby Jesus in golden fleece diapers” because, he says, he likes the Christmas Jesus best. Here’s a brief review of just a few instances of Jesus in contemporary culture. Celebrities from Brad Pitt to Ashton Kutcher to Madonna to Ben Affleck have been seen sporting t-shirts that say, “Jesus is my homeboy”, and there are even wrestling foundations that bill themselves “Christian”, with wrestlers with names like Zion and Satan. Sometimes, people project onto Jesus what they want to see. One well-meaning former NFL player, a Christian, envisions Jesus as an NFL lineman:

“I guarantee you Christ would be the toughest guy to ever play this game…If he were alive today (sic!), I would picture a six-foot-six-inch, 260 lb. defensive tackle who would always make the big plays and would be hard to keep out of the backfield for offensive linemen like myself.” Kinda “Jesus, All-Pro”, I guess.

It’s just things like this that make it vital that we get the right answers when we ask the Big Questions about Jesus.

The Big Idea:

If we don’t get Jesus right,

we don’t get anything right!

Today’s message is an introduction to the study that we’ll engage in over the course of the next several months. Back when my home pastor would do this, he’d make it clear: “I’m not preaching today”—and I feel like saying the same thing: today, we’re setting the table; the series begins in earnest next Sunday—but today is necessary to set the table.

The passage we read earlier takes place on the heels, in Matthew’s account, of two particular things. The first is a confrontation with the religious leaders who, true to Jewish form, asked Jesus to give them a sign to demonstrate that was indeed the Messiah. Ironically, signs and wonders were a hallmark of His ministry; none of the religious busybodies demanding a sign from Jesus were able to perform the miracles He had—but still, they expressed their desire for more. Jesus upbraids them for their inability to see what was right in front of them, that the kind of miracle-marked ministry that He had carried on was itself a sign of the times. But even there, Jesus indicates that there will be a sign—the sign of Jonah. As recorded in Matthew 12, Jesus explains for the religious leaders—and for us—that sign: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The verification of Christ’s life would take place after His death; He would be raised to life again from the dead. Ironically, Jesus points out in that same passage that the people of Nineveh, “that wicked city”, would rise up in judgment against those religious leaders in Jesus’ presence because these supposedly religious folks didn’t get it, while the wicked Ninevites repented at Jonah’s preaching! And so the first element of context is these hard-hearted, strong-willed, dull-of-hearing religious leaders rejecting Jesus’ because He didn’t measure up to what they expected, because He was unwilling to ape some trick or perform some other sign just to garner their approval.

The second element of context is Jesus rebuking His followers for their lack of understanding at a reference He made to what He called “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”. Their false doctrine had the effect of permeating everything they said, as leaven permeates, and rendered tainted even the things they got right—and there were some things they got right, of course. Jesus is teaching His followers that right teaching matters, and that if they give credence to false teaching, they will suffer greatly for it.

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