Years ago the band U2 recorded “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Could Jesus’ first disciples have said that? To know what you are looking for, you have to know what you need. When you know what you need, you need to know where to look for it in order to identify it. Was he the one they were looking for? Was he the Messiah, the one who was to come? If it seems obvious to us today, we need to put ourselves in the sandals of the first-century Jews.
Christians read the Old Testament now in the light of Jesus’ words and deeds, especially the complex of events encompassing his death, resurrection and ascension. Christians read the Old Testament today inspired by the Holy Spirit, who would come, the Gospel of John says, and guide them into all truth. Clearly Peter, James, John, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna, among many others, would not have followed Jesus if they were not attracted by his teaching and person, but was he the Messiah? They would have read the Torah and Prophets and wondered about passages like Zec 12:10, where we read that God “will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” At the time of Jesus’ mission along the dusty streets of Galilee, Samaria and Judea, who among Jesus’ disciples could have predicted that this would refer to Jesus? How could they know “the one whom they have pierced” referred to the Messiah? And did they know Jesus was the Messiah?
It was only toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, when, Luke tells us, he had “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51), that he begins to unravel a bit further the mystery that is his life, a destiny hidden in his teachings and the Scriptures. After feeding the crowds by the miraculous multiplication of fish and loaves, Jesus is alone praying, with only his closest disciples nearby. He asks them a question: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They all have answers ready, offering that the crowds have proclaimed him John the Baptist, Elijah and even “one of the ancient prophets.” Jesus then asks them the harder question, the personal question, “But who do you say that I am?”
Again, an answer is ready, and unsurprisingly it is Peter who responds, “The Christ of God.” Jesus’ response to this answer has always been puzzling to readers, for Jesus “rebuked them” (plural in Luke, which indicates that all the apostles shared this view, not just Peter) “and directed them not to tell this to anyone.” The puzzle is this: Why would the Messiah, who has called people to follow him, whose goal is to establish the kingdom of God, which by definition requires that there be subjects of the king, not want it known that he is the king? In the scholarly world, this mystery has come to be known as “the messianic secret.” Scholars wonder whether this was a literary construction of the Gospel authors, either as an explanation of why Jesus’ messianic claims were not acknowledged or as a retrojection of later Christian messianic claims. I offer Jesus’ answer instead:
“The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” How does this scenario answer the question, “But who do you say I am”? It does so by reorienting the answer from an identification rife with expectations of messianic glory and triumph to those of the messiah Jesus was and would be, namely, a messiah who would suffer and die on behalf of humanity and who would ask each follower to “deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Jesus is asking his apostles not just to identify the Messiah, but in identifying the Messiah to accept the destiny of “the one whom they have pierced,” as God’s plan for Jesus, the one they were looking for.