There is one foundational question each of us must face. By “foundational” I don’t mean it is the only question we must answer. What I mean is that this question is so important that if you get this one wrong you are going to get most everything else that really matters wrong. The foundational question is found in all three synoptic gospels. It is the famous query Jesus posed to the disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?”

It may be surprising to some that Jesus even asked this question. The foundation question for Jesus is not “who are your parents?” or “are you openminded?” or “what will you do for me?” The foundational question concerns what you believe. Jesus is interested in faith. He begins with doctrine.

Not too long ago while walking across a bridge near our church I spotted some graffiti underneath the overpass: “I don’t need religion. I have a conscience.” I can only guess what this spray painter was trying to say, but my guess is he (or she) assumes religion is just a trick for getting people to line up and behave. Religion for him is nothing but a moral code for doing good. And who needs a religious code with all its ritual and institutional trappings if you have a conscience? But the graffiti sloganeer has grossly misunderstood Christianity. The foundational question for Jesus is not “what do I want you to do?” but “who do you say that I am?” Everything flows from a right understanding of Jesus. Not just what he taught or what he did, but who he is.

Initially, Jesus asked the disciples “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). In other words, “What are you guys hearing about me? What’s the word on the street?” They give three responses. “Some are convinced you’re John the Baptist. Others figure you’re Elijah. And then there are those who aren’t sure, but think you are one of the prophets.” That’s pretty impressive company. The crowds recognize Jesus to be a man who teaches the way of God, a leader who calls people back to God. They know he does miracles like Elijah, speaks with authority like the prophets, and has a following like John. Not too shabby. To call Jesus “one of the prophets” after four hundred silent years following Malachi is quite a statement.

And yet the crowds are dead wrong. Jesus is not one of; he is the One. Jesus is not a pointer like John, Elijah, or one of the prophets. He is the point. It sounds very lofty to call Jesus a prophet, or a popular teacher, or a wonder worker, or a good man, or a brilliant example, or part of a long line of enlightened figures. But all of these descriptions miss the point. Because in all of them you are saying Jesus is one of (see v. 28). And if you say Jesus is only one of and not the One, you haven’t understood him. You don’t see who He really is. He is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16).

You may think you’re saying very complimentary things about Jesus when you call him one of the prophets, a great man, an enlightened teacher, but you’re not actually complimenting him at all. It’s like saying the sun is one of many lights we use to illuminate the house, or that Michael Jordan used to throw the ball around for the Bulls, or that Barack Obama owns a home in Chicago. Those statements are all true. But they are also all false because they don’t say enough. The sun is the star in our solar system. Michael Jordan is the best basketball player ever. Barack Obama is the President of the United States. If you don’t say those things you’re not saying what really matters. By not saying what is most important and most unique you’re actually saying something very misleading.

When it comes to identifying Jesus, partial truths that miss the biggest truth end up telling a lie. True, Jesus is a prophet (Mark 6:4; Deut. 18:18). But he is not like John the Baptist. He is not another Elijah. He is not merely one of the prophets. He is the one to which all the other prophets were pointing. So to call him a prophet and nothing but a prophet is to misunderstand at the profoundest level who this man is. If you were to describe your wife as “a beautiful woman among many beautiful women in the world,” or “an individual I deeply respect” or “the last, in a long line of women I have loved” would your wife be pleased? Obviously not. You’ve damned her with faint praise. You’ve insulted her by demeaning her uniqueness and describing her in terms so much below what she deserves.

So away with all this nonsense that Jesus is like Mohammed or like the Buddha or like the Dali Lama or like Ghandi or like your saintly grandmother. He is not like anyone else. And so we will not pretend to be impressed when others call Jesus a good man or an enlightened figure or one of the prophets. He is not one of, He is the One.

This article first appeared in the April 2011 issue of Tabletalk.