We live in a society which is addicted to polling.
Whether it is to find which advertising slogan sells the most product or what political message resonates best with the electorate, a whole industry has sprung up seeking to elicit the popular sentiment on any number of topics and hopefully give an opportunity for correction or a commercial advantage from the results.
My granddaughter and I are currently exploring the Central Limit Theorem in statistics — she for the first time, me after many decades — which asserts a “law of large numbers” that distributions of data will become more “normalized” as the number of samples goes up. In general this gives a better sense of the strength of the characteristic being measured and how strong the correlation might be to the general population.
We use a similar methodology in our legal system, implicitly assuming that a jury of twelve of our peers will arrive at a better, hopefully more truthful, conclusion than any individual could.
In our political system, “majority rules” is adopted to keep the system from devolving into chaos. Of course, taken to extreme, this can lead to a “might is right” mentality which inevitably leads to the enrichment of the privileged and oppression of the marginalized.
It is therefore intriguing and instructive to discover Jesus conducting his own opinion poll.
'When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.' Matthew 16:13-17 NIV
Some commentators take this passage out of context and claim that Jesus was conflicted or uncertain about his divinity or mission and need assurance that he was being recognized for who he really was and needed to conduct an opinion poll of the disciples to reassure himself. I’ll come back to a possible motivation for Jesus’ question in a moment, but first let’s be certain that Jesus knew exactly what he was about.
There is a fascinating encounter recorded in John’s Gospel between Jesus and a woman of Samaria at a town called Sychar. I encourage you to read it again for yourself in John 4:1-42. It is in this encounter that we hear, in Jesus’ own words, his understanding of who he was:
'The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”' John 4:25-26 NIV [emphasis mine].
There is absolutely no equivocation or hesitation or self-doubt in that statement, is there?
So, let us return to Jesus polling his disciples and their answers.
The group gives the current polling results, John the Baptist (intriguing since he was the only contemporary in the group, but already dead by this time), or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or some prophet, you can imagine general vague hand-waving. But apparently Jesus is not interested in the group-think and makes it personal, “but what about you?” Note why Jesus is happy with Peter’s answer. Peter wasn’t parroting the crowds or public sentiment (“flesh and blood”) but gave the answer revealed by God Himself.
It wasn’t the most popular answer, it wasn’t the consensus answer, it wasn’t the most politically correct answer and it most assuredly was not the safest answer. But it was the truth!
Peter was not relying on human devised measurements to arrive at his conclusion, but instead stood by a conviction revealed by God Himself. Jesus commends him for it and in doing so presents a lesson for we who are his disciples in this present age. We should base our beliefs on the revealed word of god in the person of Jesus Christ rather than the practices, policies, doctrines, personalities or popular appeal of preachers or religious institutions. Jesus doesn’t ask, “what does your church believe?”, or “what does your family believe?”, or “what does your generation believe?”, but rather, “what do you believe?”.
To paraphrase a popular protest slogan, “No Jesus - No truth. Know Jesus - Know Truth!” [see John 14:6], and crowds are frequently, if sincerely, wrong — “We all, like sheep, have gone astray…” Isaiah 53:6 NIV.
So let’s be sure we are basing our individual truth on our relationship with the one who is the very definition of truth, rather than polling our peers for their opinion.
Blessings on you and yours, Jim Black