“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am (Matthew 16:15)?’”
A recent Pew survey found that 80% of Americans still believe in God. While this may sound like good news, digging a little deeper the devil is in the details. As Pew reports, the answer all depends on what Americans mean by “God” when they say they believe in God. (1) Of majority 23% believe in “some higher power/spiritual force.” In the final analysis only 56% in this country believe in the God of the Bible. But even differences in that number can be enormous according to the very Bible these respondents appeal to.
What we believe about who God is, is a matter of life or death…or eternal life or condemnation. In a preview of the eternal Judgment, in which Christ will be the Judge (2 Corinthians 5:10), Jesus demonstrated that calling Him Lord would not gain all men access into heaven (Matthew 7:21-23). Rather, only those who did the will of the Father in their lifetimes would avail.
In His dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus told her that, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22 NIV).” They were sure they were not only worshipping God but doing so more correctly than the Jews. Jesus told her flatly that they did not know God. Morris commented, “Though they worshipped the true God the Samaritans did so very imperfectly. When we consider that they rejected the writings of the prophets, the psalms, the historical books of the OT and much more we see that their knowledge of God was, of necessity, very limited.” (2)
The good news is that God wants us to know Him and He has given us His word. No Cliff’s Note’s skimming of the Bible will reveal all of His character and attributes. It is only through numerous encounters with Him in the Bible that we can come to know Him as He is, which was the problem for the Samaritans and many today. No single historical episode, no lone parable, no psalmist could capture Him in a single chapter. But each of these adds up to a composite to help us grasp who He is.
But more than that, so that we could gain a better understanding of who God is, the Word was made flesh (John 1:14) in the person of Jesus. And He fully declared to us who God is (John 1:18). As He told Philip, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father, so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father (John 14:9b)?’” John would write that “the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20).” Later, in His High Priestly prayer, Jesus said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent (John 17:3).” So there really is a lot riding on truly knowing God and Jesus.
Even in His lifetime there were many incorrect opinions concerning who Jesus was. Some surmised that He was the re-incarnated John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or another of the prophets (Matthew 16:13-14). But then Jesus asked them the great question we must all answer; “But who do you say that I am (v.15)?” The Lord said that all of eternity is resting on our answer (John 8:24).
So perhaps the question is not, “Do you believe in God but rather Who is the God you believe in?”
“Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments (1 John 2:3).”
- Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John – New International Commentary Series, Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971, p.269.