A few years ago one of my former students, who had been in college a few years at the time, asked me, “Did Jesus always know that He was the Messiah?” Apparently he, and some of his friends, had been arguing over this question (and he wasn’t even a Bible major!). Below you will find my response to this question.
Dear [Student’s Name],
This is actually a really tough question to answer because the Gospels do not give us insight into the mental awareness of Jesus, except when he himself reveals it to the crowd listening.
So, we need to begin at the end of the Gospel of Matthew and move backward in time from the death of Jesus. The reason for this is that it is somewhat obvious that after his death he knew that he was indeed the Messiah. What we are trying to find out is when He became aware of this fact. (One thing to remember is that “Christ” is the Greek word used for the Hebrew word “Messiah”–they both mean the same thing).
The first stop is in Matthew 26:63-64 when Jesus stands before the Sanhedrin before his crucifixion.
But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
By Jesus’ response to the question he clearly, at this point, knew that he was Messiah. He agreed with the Priests statement. It is unlikely that he would dare to face death if he was not aware of His purpose.
Prior to this, Matthew 24:3-5, Jesus had been teaching his disciples about the end times and they ask him, “Tell us when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
They ask him what HIS SIGN will be and he responds, “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many.
They come in HIS NAME claiming that they are THE MESSIAH. It would appear that Jesus saw himself as the messiah if he is warning that others will come trying to pretend to be Him as the Messiah.
In Matthew 20:18-19 Jesus talks about his purpose on earth.
“We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
Matthew 17:1-13 describes the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain with Peter, James and John.
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.
This indicates that he was something more than just a preacher from Galilee! Certainly with this encounter comes understanding of mission and purpose.
In Matthew 16:13-17 there is an interesting interchange between Jesus and his disciples about this very issue. While some of the evidence so far has been more conjecture, this passage seems to be very direct.
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.
Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus pats him on the back for being in-tune with God the Father.
The next stop in the journy to answer this question is the two times when the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign from heaven to prove who he claimed to be. His responses are recorded in Matthew 16:4 and Matthew 12:39–the sign of Jonah. His death (the purpose for his life) and resurrection is the sign he will give them. There is no way that he could have known about this at this stage unless he knew his life’s purpose.
He knew that he was the Son of God during His temptation in the desert. This is found in Matthew 4:3, 5. Satan says twice “If you are the Son of God.” Satan seemed to know the identity of Jesus and revealed it to Him.
At Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3:13-17 God himself voices from heaven that Jesus is his son.
There is one more passage, Matthew 2:11, where Jesus could have been aware that He was not a typical human. When He is a child–not an infant as most Christmas stories would have us believe–the Magi arrive and present him with some very special gifts that would have, at the very least, hinted at his coming kingship.
This does not include the fact that both of Jesus’ parents were visited by angels and were told that he was God’s Son with the purpose to take away the sin of the world. Certainly they would have told him about his peculiar and amazing entrance into the world. It also does not include all of the miracles that he himself performed, things which no one else has ever done.
We could also add in Luke 2. In verse 21-40 we see Jesus at the temple at eight days old being blessed by Simeon and Anna as the promised Messiah! In the same chapter Jesus is seemingly lost at age twelve when he travels home with his family from the Temple. They find him at the temple, what he calls “His Father’s house.”
In John 4:25-26 Jesus, speaking to the woman at the well, directly claims that he is in fact the Messiah! This happens when he is older, but is one of our clearest claims.
While all of that is convincing that Jesus knew from an early age who he was there is one more passage to consider. John 1:1, 14–I feel this is one of the strongest passages that reveals that Jesus always knew what his purpose would be. The passages say, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
It is my belief that Jesus is God. The plan for His incarnation was decided from the beginning, and known by Jesus–as He is God. Thus, Jesus knew from the beginning of human history what He would do and who He would be. He knew before he came to earth that He would be Messiah.
So the short answer is “Yes,” Jesus always knew that he was Messiah.