Matthew 16:13–20 (NRSV)
Peter’s Declaration about Jesus
(Mk 8:27–30; Lk 9:18–20)
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
The past couple of weeks we have walked with Jesus into some of the outlying areas of the region. Tyre and Sidon are both on the Mediterranean coast, both of which are in modern Lebanon. Today he walks to the city named Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi is located on the southern slope of Mount Hermon, which is currently near the border of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel in the area we know as Golan Heights. I mention this because it shows us that the tensions we hear about in the region today, the wars in Syria and the various troubles Israel has with neighbors are actually very close. Jesus could walk to these areas, and covered many during his earthly ministry. This is one reason we should have concern for these areas and the people of these regions, although they may not have the same faith as us, their ancestors were connected to those saints of old who have become our spiritual heritage.
This city of Caesarea Philippi has a unique history of its own. Many scholars believe that Mt. Hermon, which is very near this city, is the mountain that Jesus was on during the Transfiguration, since the last place mentioned before this event was approximately seven miles here. Caesarea Philippi was a city dedicated to Caesar by Herod the Great, and a temple was dedicated for emperor worship. Later after the death of Herod, his son Philip was given charge over the area known as Batanaea of which Caesarea was part of, and Philip renamed the city to include his own name. The reason given was to designate it from the other Caesarea which was located on the coast, but I think he just wanted his own city.
If you were to look up Herod the Great’s family you might be confused when you look at the names, mainly because Scripture tells us that Herod Antipas married his brother’s wife and his brother was named Philip. That Philip is most commonly known as Herod II. Herod II, lived in Rome as a private citizen and after his brother married his wife we do not hear anything about him, except he was the father of Samone, who danced for Antipas and requested the head of John the Baptist. While Herod the second was off in Rome, and his brothers and aunt inherited the divided Kingdom of his father. Antipas received Galilee, and Philip received the North-Eastern area Batanaea including Trachonitis (which is mentioned by Josephus), Herod Archelaus received Judah and Samaria, and Samone I received Jamnia.
When Samone died she left her inheritance to Caesar, and Archelaus’ land became unruly and was taken from him to form the province of Judea ruled by a roman governor. Which left only Herod Antipas and Philip as the only survivors of the Herodian Dynasty. A confusing family to say the least, if you didn’t catch it there were two Philips and to make it all worse the Philip of Philippi married his niece Samone, the daughter of Herod II (Philip) which make the whole thing just a bit nauseating.
This is where Jesus is at. The city bearing the name of Caesar and Philip. But this city prior to being named Caesarea Philippi was called Paneas. The reason for this was because when the Alexander the Great came to Judea and claimed it for his followers settled here and found that there was a very interesting cave. They determined that this cave must have been the dwelling place of one of the gods called Pan. Pan was the pagan god of the mountainous wilds, shepherds, flocks, and rustic music. He was also the companion of the Nymphs. Worshipers of this deity did not build temples for him, instead they worshiped him in nature, usually in mountain caves. The area surrounding Mt. Hermon inspired those Greek settlers to remember pan. This mountainous terrain, filled with caves, springs, and good grazing lands filled their hearts with rustic songs and now you know where country music comes from.
Pan, is not exactly the most moral of Greek mythical deities. His depictions usually have him as part man and goat to represent the passions of this deity. And those passions caused him to fall in love with two nymphs, Echo and Pitys. These relationships angered the gods and Echo was punished by never having her own voice, only able to repeat what others say, and Pitys was turned into a pine tree. Again, the reason Pan hangs out in caves is because caves echo.
There is a cave at the base of Mt Hermon that contains a spring. This is Pan’s cave, and is one of the sources of the Jordan river. But before the Greeks came to Paneas, there was another group of people that lived there and this cave was holy site. It was the gateway to the underworld especially because this cave spewed water from it. They would fear what was just outside the light lurking in the darkness, so they would offer sacrifices and participate in religious rites in the mouth of the cave. Even Jewish teachings had legends surrounding this cave. It was the place where the fallen angels were sent.
I tell you all of this because all this history is wrapped up in understanding what Jesus is speaking about when during this journey. Jesus asks the disciples, “who do people say that the son of man is?” They respond by saying some say John the Baptist, but others say Elijah, and still others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
Some say John the Baptist. This city is the administrative capital for Herod Philip, the son of Herod the Great, the husband/uncle of Samone, the dancer who demanded John’s head.
Some say Elijah. Elijah is often seen as the greatest prophet of Jewish history because he did not taste death but was carried away in a fiery chariot. Elijah called fire down from heaven to prove to the northern kingdom that God was God not Ba’al, and it was from this region where Elijah performed one of his greatest miracles with the widow who never ran out of flour or oil for bread. Ba’al was the god that was worshiped by the pre-Hellenistic inhabitants of this region, it was Ba’al who they were trying to keep in that cave.
Who do they say that I am? Jesus is standing there with the history of Israel stretching out before him. The Jordan river beginning at their feet, the very water that John once used to symbolically wash away the sins of the confessors. The very water that separated the desert wonderers from the land of promise. The land their greatest prophet walked, and the land filled with pagan worship. Right there in that city is a cave considered to be the gateway to hell, and a temple dedicated to Caesar who was considered to be a god.
Who do they say I am? Everything about the world is represented in this one location. We have the worship of a nation, the worship of demons, the embrace of lustful passions and immoral activity. The son of a king that sought to kill the son of David. The location to which the fallen angles was banished. Who do they say I am? All around the disciples were the testimonies of the world the very best that they had to offer, and standing there with them is Jesus their teacher. Who do they say I am?
If we were to ask this question today what answers would you expect to hear? Probably the first thing that pops into your mind is something negative, but all that negativity is not what people think of Jesus it is what they think of the Church. If you were to ask people who they think Jesus is, they would say something like a great teacher or philosopher. Many would even say that they wished they could be like Jesus because he lived a lifestyle of love and compassion. But everything that they say about Jesus leaves one thing out, they see him as just a teacher, just a prophet, just a miracle worker or magician.
Jesus asks the disciples another question, “but who do you say that I am?” Imagine hearing that question while standing there in that place. You can see the temple built to worship the Emperor, and you can hear the water spilling out of the cave. The Emperor represents the greatest military presence in the entire known world. Life depends on the Empire. The economy rises and falls with the empire. Everything they really know is interpreted through this empire which has occupied their land for their entire lives, and that of their ancestors for centuries. There are people within their own religion that proclaim that the Roman occupation is a gift from God because they bring wealth. But there are others that feel that God is cursing the land because of the foreign influences and idolatry accepted within the nation’s boundaries.
You hear again the rushing water, the water that will eventually become that great river of symbolic meaning. You hear the teachings of the baptizer and you look at the idols that are placed around the cave’s entry. Idols that represent the vilest images of lust. You see people attempting to appease a false god, one who is so twisted if he wakes up angry his screams will drive people into a panic, but if he wakes in a pleasant mood then they will enjoy the wildness that nature can offer with a good deal of rustic music. You hear the water, you see the idols, you remember the stories of angels being cast out of heaven and sent to this place. And you hear Jesus ask, “who do you say I am?”
Pan is the god of chaos, of the wilds. Caesar is the god of the empire or the nations. And Jesus is asking who am I? Amid chaos, in the center of nationalistic fervor who is Jesus? Peter answers, “you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Do you grasp the significance of this statement?
Caesar was the god of the world. And the current emperor was called the son of god. Rome was the religion of the empire, everything revolved around that, sure they could worship any other god they wanted but they all had to honor Caesar their god of men. Peter is looking at Jesus and saying you are greater than Rome, you are the Son of the Living God. You are the Messiah, the one of which the prophets spoke, the one who was promised by God to restore all things to bring the world back into perfection from the chaos that was brought in by the sin of Adam. Peter looked at the world around him; the chaos, the idolatry, the emperor worship, the lustful revelry and he looked at Jesus and said you are the one that can redeem all this.
Peter and the others looked at the world before them, the hopelessness and despair, and what did they see? They saw Jesus. They saw that there was hope through everything. They did not have to sell their souls to Rome, and they did not have to live in fear of the darkness. They saw hope. And Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
So again, who do they, the people of our world, say Jesus is? I mentioned before that when we ask that question most of us would automatically assume that the world would respond negatively to that question. Why do you think that is? Many within the walls of churches feel as if the world is in greater chaos than ever before and that the darkness is closing in around them, why do you think that is? Jesus said that the gates of Hades or hell will not prevail against it. Has the church stopped looking at Jesus and started looking at the temple of Caesar or the cave of Pan? Have we forgotten where our hope comes from? Who do you say Jesus is? Is he the promised messiah proclaimed by the prophets to redeem the cursed chaotic world, or is he just a good teacher among many? Is he the son of the Living God, the God who hovered over the waters of the preformed universe, who spoke and set the universe in motion while creating all the things seen and unseen on earth and in heaven? Or is he just one more philosophy like many adhered to by the nations of the world? Who do you say that He is? Is he greater than Caesar or Pan? Is he your hope and redemption?
The keys of the kingdom are found in the answer to that one simple question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” Our response to that question both in word and action changes everything. Our response can bind things or loosen things. It can inspire or condemn. It can give hope or leave others in despair. Who do you say Jesus is? As we enter this time of open worship and communion as Friends, let us consider that question. And I pray that we will live fully in our answer.