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How to Learn What You Need to Know About God

Your whole life hinges on one question: How will you respond to God's revelation in Christ?

The story behind the sermon (by Kevin Miller)

This text from Matthew, "Who do you say I am?" is a prophetic text: it challenges; it confronts; it calls for personal decision and radical change. By temperament, I am more drawn to the merciful and consoling texts of Scripture, but I wanted to preach this text faithfully, which meant unsheathing the sharp, double-edged sword of Scripture (Hebrews 4:12). How could I do that?

I tried to do that in two ways:

  1. By sharpening distinctions. A prophetic text must remove the middle and the muddle. It must show in stark distinction the choice—in this case, to patronize Jesus with compliments that he's a great prophet, or to see by revelation that he is the Son of the living God. I also contrasted education and revelation, pride and humility, disobedience and obedience. I did not want to leave any gray space between the black and white.
  2. By calling for the question. Since Jesus asks a personal question of his listeners in this text, I wanted to follow suit. I ended up making the application two such questions (one more for nonbelievers and one for believers).

My senior pastor commented after this sermon, "It's amazing what a good lead can do. It makes everything else in the sermon easier." The lead for this sermon (drawing on Michael Hart's The 100, in which he ranks the most influential people in history and places Jesus third) engaged people with the question, "Who really is Jesus?" and challenged them to answer it. That made everything else after the lead easier.


In his fascinating book titled The 100, the astrophysicist Michael Hart asks a provocative question: Who are the 100 most influential people in history? Of all the human beings who have ever lived who has had the deepest impact on our lives today? Who is on the small list of historical game changers?

For example, Hart's list includes Sigmund Freud, the originator of psychoanalysis. You may not like Freud's theories, but he opened up this entire new field of human endeavor called psychology, and now we all use the words that he coined—words and phrases like ego and Oedipus complex and death wish.

Hart's list also includes Louis Pasteur. According to Hart, Pasteur ushered us into the realm of "modern medicine." He convinced the scientific community that these tiny, unseen things called "germs" caused a lot of diseases. Pasteur also figured out how to inoculate human beings so we don't get these terrible diseases. The fact that you're sitting here alive and well is in some measure owed to this French biologist and chemist from a hundred and fifty years ago.

But what really made the book interesting and popular was that Michael Hart had the chutzpah to rank the top one hundred world changers. He established the NCAA playoffs of human greatness. Of course I was interested in what he would do with Jesus Christ. And sure enough, Jesus did make it onto Hart's list. He said that Jesus was the inspiration for the most influential religion in history. Hart even wrote, "Jesus had an extraordinarily impressive personality." That's a nice compliment. Based on Jesus' impressive influence throughout history, Hart ranked Jesus as the 3rd most influential person in history—right behind the scientist Isaac Newton, who was also a devout follower of Christ.

In one sense, Hart is attempting to answer a question that every single person has to answer: What will you make of Jesus? You have to answer it. I have to answer it. Michael Hart has to answer it. How will you rank Jesus? Is he in the top 100? Is he in the top ten? Is he number one of your list? Or does Jesus belong to his own list—the list called Lord and Master and Savior of my life?

The way you answer that question will affect everything about your life. Depending on how you answer it, it will change the way you spend your money. It is going to mess with how you spend your time. All of a sudden it's going to rearrange your calendar and your checkbook. It's going to mess with the way you talk. It's going to change who you hang out with. It's going to adjust how you go through pain and suffering. It is a critical question, and we have to answer it—every single person.

The question: who is Jesus Christ?

Let's look at the first time the question was posed. In Matthew 16:13 we read that when Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" The Son of Man is an Old Testament phrase that Jesus has used of himself, and so he's saying: What are you hearing out there about what people think of me? And the disciples say: Well, you know, one answer that people give is that you're John the Baptist. Now that's a curious answer, because actually, if you remember, John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin was actually killed. So some people are reasoning like this: Jesus is doing amazing miracles. He's multiplying bread. He's walking on water. The only way he could do that, is if he was John the Baptist, who was a good person, who's come back from the dead, and so now he has these super human powers.

Or the disciples say that some people are saying that Jesus is Elijah. In the Old Testament prophet Malachi, who's the last prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures, there's a prophecy that before the great and terrible day comes an Elijah figure will appear. So some people are saying that might be you, Jesus. Others are saying, no, he really reminds us of the great Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. But whether it's John or Elijah or Jeremiah, the consensus, the conventional wisdom on you is that you are a great prophet. You are inspired. You are inspiring. You really have an extraordinarily impressive personality.

And then Jesus doesn't even really respond to that, and he turns and asks the pointed question, the personal question: "Who do you say I am?" Oh, now it's not academic. This is not some parlor game. This is not catching up on the Zeitgeist. This is a personal decision that you must face, I must face, and these early disciples had to face. This is personal. "Who do you say I am?" How are you going to answer that? Because you can't avoid that question.

Well, one way you can answer it is in the conventional way, the Michael Hart way, the John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah way. Another way to answer comes from Simon Peter in verse 15 when he more or less says, "This is a leap. You are the Messiah. You're the Anointed One. You're the One that we thought was going to come. No, you're the Son of the living God." Now that is a different answer. You're not just a prophet; you created the prophets. You're not just inspiring; you are inspiration itself. You are the game changer. You are in a completely different class. And what Peter realizes as he gets this divine revelation from God is that to compliment Jesus by saying You're a great prophet is actually an insult. It's like saying of Abraham Lincoln, You know, on balance you're a pretty good lawyer. No! The reason why Abraham Lincoln is chiseled into the face of Mount Rushmore is that he set free three-and-a-half million Americans from chattel slavery and he saved the Union. And if you don't get that, you don't get Lincoln at all. And Peter is saying, wham, all of a sudden I get it. You're beyond category.

Now I can't blame Michael Hart too much on this one, because of all the figures in his book, Jesus has the greatest range of possible views about him. Let me explain. With Isaac Newton there's a relatively narrow range of possible views you can take on Newton. The low view of Newton would say that he's the most influential scientist of early modern Europe. The high view of Newton, which Hart takes, would say that Newton is the most influential scientist of all time. Of course some people might prefer Einstein, but the range is really narrow. In all cases Newton belongs to the following category: scientist, mortal, relatively recent.

But with Jesus there's a range of options stretching from reasonably-interesting-moral-and-ethical-teacher to Son of God. All of a sudden, Jesus isn't just on the list; he created the list! He made those other ninety-nine people. He gave them their talents. He gave them everything they had to work with. When Newton discovered the motion of the planets, he was working with planets Jesus gave him. When he held up the prism and light came through it and it broke into the colors of the rainbow, he was amazed that light becomes the colors of the rainbow. Jesus already knew that. And you see all of a sudden the list crumbles into dust. It's meaningless, because Jesus is so far out beyond that list. And Peter gets it.

And notice the response from Jesus. In verse 17 he says, "You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven revealed this to you." In other words, You didn't learn this from any human being. You had a direct insight given you from God. I like the way The message Bible says this: "God bless you, Simon son of Jonah, you didn't get that answer out of books or from teachers. My Father in heaven, God himself, let you in on this secret of who I really am."

See. What happened here was not education. What happened here was revelation. God in his goodness and mercy opened up Peter's mind and heart to see something he had not seen before. Revelation opens you up so you see the true nature of something. You see the true destiny and purpose of something, and you couldn't have seen it before until the revelation is given you. And that's what happens for Peter.

Now, this is kind of a quieter sort of miracle. Think of the miracles of Jesus. In some of his miracles he's actually multiplying molecules of food, bread, barley loaves, more and more and more of them. You want more? I got more, Jesus says. He's changing the molecular structure of water so that you can actually walk on the surface as though it were frozen. But this passage shows us a quiet miracle. You don't see anything. It's going on inside Peter. It's just a silent revelation, but Jesus really takes notice of this. When everybody was giving Jesus compliments and saying, "Jesus, got to give you props. You're so inspired. You're such a great prophet. You remind me of Elijah, John the Baptist." Jesus doesn't even answer that. It doesn't even register with him. That answer means nothing. But when Peter comes out with an answer by revelation, Jesus takes notice. And then he says, "Peter, you are blessed. You have no idea how much blessing you have being in that position."

In the Bible blessing is not just a nice social convention. You sneeze. God bless you, and you go on. No. Blessing is life. Blessing is the favor of God. Blessing tangibly improves your life by God's power. And so if you can get anything, you want the blessing. People fight for the blessing. People scheme for the blessing. They do even immoral things trying to get the blessing, because the blessing is the determinator of your life. And so Jesus is telling Peter, You got it. You have the blessing, and I'm going to give you a tangible blessing right now. Since you by revelation have told me who I am, I by divine revelation am going to tell you, Peter, who you are. "Now I say to you that you, Simon, are actually Peter, which means rock, and upon this rock I'll build my church. And all the powers of hell will not conquer it." What a promise he's saying to Simon. He's saying, Do you realize, that you are going to be the foundation of everything I do in this world? It starts with you and it builds on you. What a promise.

Now if you're a Bible scholar you may know that this verse is among the most discussed verses of the New Testament. What does Jesus mean when he says "rock"? Does he mean Peter? Does he mean Peter's revelation of Jesus? Does he mean Peter's confession of Jesus? Maybe he means all of them, but he for sure includes Peter. And Jesus is telling Peter, Because you've seen this and confessed this, I'm going to build something on you that is so unshakeable death can't take it down. Hell won't touch it. The devil can't stop it.

Now if you've read the Bible you should say, Wow, that's quite a word, because the Simon Peter I read about in the Bible is not exactly rock-like. He's always goofing up. He's always going over the top saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing. Jesus always has to pull him aside and say, I wish you hadn't said that. He's not a rock. He's sand. But Jesus, by divine revelation sees into Peter and he sees his true destiny, his true nature and purpose by the power of God. And he says, No, you know who you really are? You're a rock. I can build on you. And he does.

And this raises a profound point. Peter doesn't know who he is until he first sees who Jesus is. Sometimes people are like Hey, I'm trying to figure out who I am in life. I'm going to go travel. Well, travel may be good, but first you have to get Jesus right. You get him right and he'll tell you who you are. It's all revelation. You need revelation.

The answer from education

So let's look at this, friends. We've got one question and two answers. There is one question that everyone has to answer, and Jesus is asking of you this morning "Who do you say I am?" I don't want to hear what your parents taught you about this. I want to know you. What do you think of me? And there's only two ways you can answer it.

The one way is by education, and you do what Michael Hart does by making an educated guess. You consider and rank, and you weigh the list of evidence and you come up with a list of influential people. And Jesus comes in third. And the beautiful thing about this answer, besides the fact that you seem smart and people really respect you for it, is that it makes no demands on you, because you're up here. You're in control. You're the educated one, and you're looking down here on Jesus evaluating whether there's sufficient evidence for you to believe in him. But it doesn't change your life a bit.

At Duke University one day a student came up to the chaplain there at the time, Will Willimon. And Willimon knew this student and knew that he was living that whole crazy secular college campus life. And the student said to him, "Dr. Willimon, you know I'm losing my faith." And Willimon said, "Well, tell me what kind of faith you're losing." And he said, "Well, I find it insufficient. I am unable any longer to believe in the virgin birth." And Willimon said to him, "You don't believe in virginity, period. You see, if you were willing to accept the moral demands of following Jesus Christ, you would find it very easy to accept the divine revelation about him. But you don't want to pay the price. And because you don't want to pay the price, you fall back and settle for the easy answer, the no commitment answer, the answer by education."

The answer from revelation

The other way you can answer it and the only way you can answer it is by revelation. That's totally different because by divine enlightenment you see something you didn't see before. You realize that the absolute worst thing you could do is patronize Jesus with some kind of insult that sounds like a compliment. You're not going to do that anymore. And instead of sitting up here and evaluating Jesus and thinking whether he has enough evidence to entice you, you fall down on your face before him and you worship him as the Son of the living God, who made you and who has total moral authority over you and who will place demands on your life. And that's a different answer.

I remember the first time I got a revelation about Jesus. I was in high school. I'd actually gone to Sunday school a little bit as a kid, and I had taken away from it three things: Jesus was nice, Jesus was dead, and Jesus wore sheep around his neck. I'm not sure why he did that. And so I didn't know much, and I was invited by a friend to this group. She said it will be a lot of fun. Come on after school, blah-blah. And it was a bait and switch. I got there and it was a religious group. And I thought about leaving, but I stayed for two reasons. One: The leader Greg had a beard, and I really wanted to be able to grow a beard. And the second thing was that he had a guitar, and in the seventies a guitar was not just an instrument; it was a symbol of social protest. So I thought that was cool. So I stayed. And Greg began explaining stuff. And something happened. I'm not really sure how it happened. I didn't even get any words in my head or anything, but suddenly I had this sense that Jesus is real, that he's alive today.

So I went back, and over succeeding weeks and months then the other shoe dropped: I realized that if Jesus is real and alive today then I need to follow him—and that's going to cost me something. I'm going to have to stop doing some stuff that I've been doing. And I'm going to probably lose some friends who are not coming with me on this journey.

Sure enough, following Jesus messes with your life. When you answer by revelation there's a price tag attached to it. For me, later that year a bunch of students who were studying Spanish in my high school went with our teacher to Spain on a cultural tour. On part of our tour we wanted to taste the culture of Spain so we went to a flamenco show one evening. And part of the admission price of the show was you could order one drink. The teacher was a couple of tables over with some of the other students, so our table ordered a rum and Coke. And I finished mine and that tasted really good, so then I helped everybody else finish theirs. I don't really remember much of the flamenco show after that. The next day, though, everybody was telling me, "Oh, that was so cool when you said and did that. You were acting so crazy!" But I didn't feel so good. I was lying on my bed in the hotel room stretched out diagonally, groaning. And right then I heard this clear voice inside my head. It was the only clear thing inside my head. And it said, "You don't need to do this." And it was so firm, but it was so kind. When you follow Jesus, when you get that revelation from him, there's a price attached. And people don't want to do that because they know if I answer that it's going to change my life.

Revelation requires humility

Now I have to ask you a couple of questions. Question number one: Are you hungry for revelation? Do you want the revelation from God? Are you thirsty for it? Do you long for it?

Ask yourself that because the revelation from God brings life. It brings blessing. In it you see who Jesus is, and you're captivated in wonder of him. And then you begin to understand who you are because he tells you. Let's be honest. A lot of us are not very hungry for revelation. Our whole culture has a problem with revelation. We don't have a category it. We're suspicious of it. We trust education. We like that because we understand it. It's structured. It works a certain way. It works for us.

But revelation? Ah, man, you might claim to see or know something that I can't claim to see or know, and I'm going to resent that. And I don't like it when you claim some interior or secret knowledge that I can't see. And also in religion, let's be honest, the revelation thing can get really weird in a hurry. I don't know if you've seen this, but I have where the leader of the group says, Hey, God told me this. Then all of a sudden that person has a whole lot more power or sells more books. And so people don't want that. I'm not hungry for revelation. But despite all the stupid things that people do around this, are you open for the true and living revelation from God? And here's what you're going to have to do if you are. You're going to have to humble yourself.

Some of you might remember the old movie Forrest Gump. One of the interesting things about that character of Forrest Gump is the guy's got an IQ of 75. How are you going to build a movie around that? Well, it worked because he actually ends up living a life that's more full, rich, and meaningful than all the super smart people that were around him, like Lieutenant Dan. According to the Bible, God has set it up so that you can't know him primarily by education. You know him first and foremost through revelation. He leveled the playing field so that nobody can boast before him. You can't say that access to God depends on your genetics, your IQ, your zip code, or a socio-economic level that allowed you to go to a really good high school which allowed you to get into a really good college. No. Jesus based our relationship with him on just one thing—humble belief. That's what Jesus means when he says, "O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding those things from those who think themselves wise and clever and for revealing them to the childlike. Yes, Father, it pleased you to do it this way." Or that's what Paul meant when he wrote in 1 Corinthians, "God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom."

See, what God wants is humility, humble belief. And if you've got that, which everyone can have, you can receive the revelation of Jesus. Now some of may be a Christian and you have some raging doubts in your head but you don't talk much about them. Maybe you haven't told anybody about them, because if they knew just how fierce and persistent and savage these doubts are they would look down on you. Or maybe you're afraid they just wouldn't understand at all. But you're wondering how to deal with it. So maybe you're trying to read apologetics books and bone up on the education as a way to answer that. You know what might answer it first and foremost? You humble yourself and say, I'm never going to totally figure everything out. I'm never going to be the smartest person who has an answer to everything. But you know what? Nobody else does either. And I have to humble myself, receive the revelation that Jesus is the Son of God and then I must follow where it leads. That's enough for me. Maybe what you need is not one more explanation. You need a revelation.

Are you hungry for revelation? You can have it. It starts with humility. It starts with humility when you read your Bible. When I open up my Bible in the morning at the breakfast table I start and the first thing I do is pray, God, would you enlighten me so I can read this and understand it. Because I know I can't understand it unless there's a revelation of the Spirit of God to me. So it all begins by humbling yourself and placing yourself in the stream of two thousand years of the church and saying, Those people over the last two thousand years are a lot smarter than I am and they're a lot holier than I am, and I don't want to come up with something that's totally radical and outside what they've said. I want to live in humility under and within that. There's plenty of room to move around inside that two-thousand-year tradition, the living tradition that's been given us. And then, further, I'm going to humble myself and place myself under godly local authority, and I'm not going to make this stuff up. I'm going to live in humility because that is the way God has designed revelation to work. Are you hungry for revelation? You can have it if you're humble.

Revelation requires obedience

Now let me close by asking the second and last question. Are you hungry for more revelation? Maybe you're there and you're going, Look, I've done all this. I get that Jesus is the Son of the living God. I based my life on that. But what frustrates me is that I need revelation from God and I feel like I'm not getting it and I don't know why. Well, there are a lot of possible causes but let me mention one.

With great revelation comes great responsibility. This is why Jesus came to some of the towns where he'd done most of his stuff and said, "Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida!" Do you realize how many miracles I did in you and you didn't change? You didn't repent. Are you kidding me? On judgment day you're going to have it so much worse than those pagan towns that never had my ministry in them, because you got revelation. You had enough revelation to work with, and you didn't do anything with it because revelation brings responsibility.

And so it's possible that Jesus wants to give you more revelation but out of his mercy he's not doing it because you haven't done anything with the revelation he already gave you, and he does not want to heap up more judgment for you. He already told you, I want you to go to that person and confess your sins and ask for forgiveness. And you say, Whoa, I can't do that. I'll table that motion. Why would he give you more revelation when you haven't even obeyed what he just told you? Maybe he told you, I want you to go radical with this gift. I want you to write a check that's crazy, and it doesn't make sense, but you just break the perfume bottle and you pour it out for me. And you say, Whoa, I can't do that. Why would he give you more revelation if you're not even doing something with what he's already given you?

If you're hungry for more revelation, it's there. The Bible says if you lack wisdom he'll give it to you. It says "How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him." He's waiting to give you revelation, but it's dependent upon you repenting and doing what he's already told you to do. But if you do it, you will be blessed. Blessed are you when you get the revelation from God. Blessed are you. Life is coming to you; it's a conferral of God's favor for you, because you got it from heaven. It didn't come any other way.

Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,

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Sermon Outline:


I. The question: Who is Jesus Christ?

II. The answer from education

III. The answer from revelation

IV. Revelation requires humility

V. Revelation requires obedience