Not long after Jesus fed the 5,000 followers, the Bible records that this rabbi wanted to be alone with His disciples. He took them north of the Sea of Galilee to the town of Caesarea Philippi, 25 miles away from any Jewish settlement, nestled at the base of Mount Hermon. The city had become the religious center for the worship of many Greek gods, including the god Pan. When Rome had conquered the territory, Herod Philip rebuilt the city and named it after himself.
In the cliff towering over the city, people built shrines and temples to the gods and goddesses. To the pagan mind, the cave and cliff at Caesarea Philippi created a gateway to the underworld where, according the Greek mythology, many of the gods lived during the winter. The people committed wicked acts to worship the false gods, particularly at the end of winter trying to lure them into coming out and beginning spring.
The disciples must have been more than shocked as Jesus brought them to an area that devout Jewish believers would have avoided at any cost. Caesarea Philippi was an evil city literally knocking on the doors of Hades. Jesus hushed their murmurs by asking the simple question, “Who do people say that I am?”
We have begun a journey to identify the essentials of the Christian faith. What are the beliefs that we cannot negotiate? What teachings can afford not even a sliver of compromise? Today’s belief speaks to the very heart of Christianity, what we believe about Jesus, the rabbi from Galilee.
Who do people today say that Jesus is? There are a few who don’t believe a Jesus ever really existed in history. The Washington Post ran an article before Christmas 2014 by Raphael Lataster, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Sydney, titled, “Did Historical Jesus Really Exist?” Lataster is the author of the book, "There Was No Jesus, There Is No God." The American Atheists website commits several pages to the topic “Did Jesus Exist?”
The other extreme was represented not too long ago by the magazine National Geographic. The publication ran a story in August 2017, “Meet Five Men Who All Think They’re the Messiah,” by Jonas Bendiksen. The author writes, “I’ve always thought that a fundamental part of the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — involves the coming of a messiah. Those faiths disagree about identity and timing, but I think they agree on the basic premise. So if one accepts that, why couldn’t it be one of these guys?”
As Jesus asked the question, the disciples began to mumble their answers. “Some say you are John the Baptist” one replied. John held a very powerful presence in the Jewish mind of Jesus’ day. He had been teaching people to repent and be baptized and people were flocking to hear him and accept his disciplines. It was common thought a person like John would usher in the ministry of the Messiah. John the Baptist had recently been beheaded by one of the reigning Herods. Jesus, you may be John come back to life. You are a godly man, not the Messiah himself, but likely one who will pave the way for Him.
Others thought that Jesus was Elijah or Jeremiah. The two represented the prophets of Judaism. Elijah was known for his stance against the prophets of the false god Baal. The Old Testament records that his life ended by being whisked to heaven in a fiery chariot. There was always the thought of eternity in the Jewish mind about Elijah. Jeremiah stirred memories of his concern over God’s kingdom and the Jewish nation. Jesus you are one of the prophets — powerful and commanding, but not the Messiah.
In a setting that shouted all that the world’s religions had to offer, amidst a context of discussion about what the Jewish people thought of His ministry, Jesus quietly turns to the disciples and asks, “But who do you think that I am?”
Have you ever been in a classroom where the teacher asked a question, and you just sat silently, not wanting to answer? Perhaps you didn’t know exactly what the teacher was reaching for, and you didn’t want to give the wrong answer. Maybe you are a little on the shy side, and even if you knew the answer, you didn’t want to put the spotlight on yourself. Of course, you may have sat silent because you simply had no clue about what the right answer might be.
Twelve disciples remained motionless, making no sound, barely swallowing a breath. The silence seemed like an eternity, though only a minute or two actually passed. Someone has to speak. Someone has to answer.
Of course, it had to be Peter. The one who leapt out of the boat willing to walk on the waters of the Sea of Galilee was willing to leap into the silence. The one who said he would never deny was willing to enter the debate. “You are the Messiah.” Peter used the Greek word Christ in his answer. Had Peter said those words alone, it would have been enough.
But Peter was never an “enough” kind of guy. “Jesus, you aren’t just a man. We have had prophets. We have had rabbis. We have been looking for a Messiah. But you are more – you are the Son of God.”
Jesus nodded and answered, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (see Matthew 16:16-18). Gates were built to defend cities in the ancient world. By saying that the gates of Hades would not stand, Jesus was suggesting that the church needed to be on the offense, attacking those gates. It was a powerful object lesson at the underworld gates of Caesarea Philippi. You answered the question well, Peter.
Jesus’ question echoes through the centuries until today. “But who do YOU say that I am?”
— Tom May is a freelance writer who has held paid and volunteer ministry positions at several churches in the tri-state area. Reach him at email@example.com.