“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.” (Matthew 16:13–20)
Right on the North-Western edge of Ancient Israel looms Mount Hermon. An enormous rocky bulk, often capped off with snow, the mountain stands nine thousand feet high. Much of the rain and snow its slopes collected, combined with its large water springs, come together to form the headwaters of the river Jordan.
At the time of Christ, just to the South-West of the foot of this mount, lay Caesarea Philippi. But that wasn’t always its name. In earlier centuries, the area was on the edge of a vast territory occupied by a dynasty begun by Alexander the Great. It was well known because of a natural wonder, described for us here by Josephus, writing in the first century AD:
At this spot a mountain rears its summit to an immense height aloft; at the base of the cliff is an opening into an overgrown cavern; within this, plunging down to an immeasurable depth, is a yawning chasm, enclosing a volume of still water, the bottom of which no sounding line has been found long enough to reach. Outside and from beneath the cavern well up the springs from which, as some think, the Jordan takes its rise
Such was the fascination of this site, it became a place of worship dedicated to the Greek god Pan. Part goat and part human, this was the god of flocks and the wild places. This cave was surrounded by statues of Pan, placed in the niches which still survive, and in time these were joined by statues of Zeus, Hermes and Nemesis.
The focus, though, was the cave with its water and springs. Here offerings to the god were thrown into the deep and dark waters. Here death would swallow up every living thing which was thrown in. Here, in the Ancient Greek mind, was a threshold to Hades.
Things changed, though, when the Romans took charge and gave this region to King Herod. A loyal puppet king, he loyally built a white marble temple and dedicated to Caesar Augustus. Here the Imperial Cult was to be maintained. Herod’s son loyally enlarged the temple, and loyally renamed the area Caesarea. That son was Philip, and so the area became known as Caesarea Philippi.
As Jesus came to this area with his disciples, we can see that he was deep in pagan country. This was an area which had developed from the worship of Baal, to the worship of Pan to the exaltation of the Roman emperor. The very place itself was a monument to Roman religious and political identity.
And it is here that Jesus asks his disciples what people make of him. Where does he sit amongst all this?
The answers give us another gallery of religious figures. Perhaps, as Herod believed (Matthew 14:1-12), Jesus was John the Baptist restored to life. Maybe, Jesus was a returned Elijah (as was foretold in Malachi 4:5-6). Maybe he was Jeremiah who, according to Jewish tradition, had hidden the Ark of the Covenant when the Babylonians came plundering into Jerusalem, and was waiting to restore them at the beginning of the Messianic age.
Ok. But, wondered Jesus, who do you say that I am?
We might pause here for a moment. When we realise that Christianity proclaims that we are saved by our faith in Christ, we can see that this is crucial question. Or, rather, the answer to the question is crucial. Peter has given a range of answers from a range of people, but in the end what other people believe isn’t really relevant. What is crucial is what Peter - what you - believe.
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”, replies the disciple. Against all this pagan background, Peter gives a very Jewish answer. Here is the Christ - or the Messiah - who is the fulfilment of so much Old Testament prophecy and hope. There is more, though. Peter goes on to describe Jesus as the “Son of the living God”.
Now, at the temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus which stood not too far from where Jesus spoke, this now dead Emperor was hailed as a god. He had taken his place alongside Pan and the other gods which received worship from the Romans. His son, Tiberius, was sometimes called “son of god”. The Jews, of course, shunned all this as so much idolatrous nonsense so for Peter to acknowledge Jesus as “son of the living God” is something deeply significant. His insight is not simply that Jesus is the longed for Messiah, but that he is in some manner linked to God. Is God.
True, it is only later after the resurrection and ascension that Peter fully understands the words which he utters, but the fact that he says it at all demonstrates his faith. The rock on which the church is built.
With this faith, the church is indestructible. Perhaps with an eye to the cave with its deathly waters Jesus comments that the gates of hell will not prevail against such a church. Perhaps with an eye to the gleaming temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus, which proclaimed that a man can become a god, he says that the keys of heaven are in possession of the church. Perhaps in a site which showed that humans will misunderstand and worship anything he tells his disciples not to tell anyone that he is Christ. For now, at least.
And so back to that question. Who do you think Christ is? Many answers come echoing back from the wider society, but in the end it is your answer which counts.
Who is he?