Who did people think Jesus was? He asked the disciples this question, be before we get to that, let’s back up a step.
Who did people think John the Baptist was? They had theories, or at least speculations, and they came to him and asked him. “As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ.” (Luke 3:15) They thought the coming of Messiah was very near. They were excited—maybe this was him!
Listen to the interchange between John and some of the religious scholars:
First and foremost, they wanted to know if John was Messiah. But what were those other two theories? The Elijah theory comes from Malachi—the last words of the last prophet before the centuries-long silence between the testaments. He records God saying:
They didn’t really expect the literal Elijah (although they didn’t rule it out); they expected an Elijah-like figure. (And John seemed like he might fill the bill—there are similarities, but that’s another subject.) But no, John denied being Elijah. The final theory they asked about was whether John was The Prophet. By this they meant “the prophet like Moses” promised by God in Deuteronomy 18:15-18. They thought this would be a separate person, but actually The Prophet would be Messiah himself.
John dispelled the theories and speculations. In exasperation, the Jewish leaders asked, “Well then who are you?” He answered that he was the voice foretold by Isaiah, preparing the way for Messiah. (Isaiah 40:3-5)
So when Jesus came along preaching, they also wondered about him. And they once again had their theories and speculations. Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying about him. (Mark 8:27-29, Luke 9:18-20, Matthew 16:13-16) They reported on the three theories that were in circulation: John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets of old. They’re still looking for Elijah. An old-time prophet makes some sense. (Matthew records they specifically mention Jeremiah.) Thinking he’s John the Baptist is a little odd, though. John was dead, executed by Herod.
So it’s interesting when we learn Herod’s own reaction when he hears about Jesus:
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” (Mark 6:14-16, also Matthew 14:1-2)
Herod’s advisors report the same three theories the disciples mentioned. But with a bit more information: they’re thinking it might be John, raised from the dead.
Isn’t this kind of a leap? How many people are actually thinking about someone rising from the dead at this point? Later on, it’s going to be hard to convince most that Jesus really did rise, and that this is proof he’s Messiah! Jesus in person, risen, shocks even the disciples! They were not expecting it.
Luke’s record differs somewhat from Matthew and Mark. There we read:
I’m not entirely sure what to make of the difference, but I have a speculation. It sounds like the “John the Baptist” theory being circulated is specifically a “John has been raised” theory. It appears to me that Herod is waffling, wondering. Maybe at first he buys the “John raised” idea because he feels guilty about murdering John at the request of a party girl. But in the end he says, “Nah. John’s dead. But who is this other guy?” And, I suspect, “Do I need to be worried about this guy?”
The same question is before us to this day, of course. Who do people say Jesus is? There are lots of speculations. Jesus asks, “But who do you say I am?” Peter is there with the right answer, and with the courage to immediately say it. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”