And so Jesus and the disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, and someone’s about to make a big confession.
This is the moment when, in the city of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples who people think he is. He gets a variety of answers, but then he turns the question round – “Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter replies “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”
This is a huge moment, and much of that significance comes from the city in which they were standing.
The name itself was challenge enough in itself. Caesarea was reference to Caesar Augustus, first emperor of the Roman Empire and patron of Herod the Great and, as he was declared a god upon his death, a man who would make fiercely monotheistic Jews twitchy. Perhaps even more importantly, he was known as divi filius – the Son of God. Peter using that title for Jesus isn’t just an expression of worship, it also involves some political tension.
That doesn’t get any better with the second half of the city’s name. ‘Philippi’ came from the name of its founder, Philip the Tetrarch, son of Herod the Great (THE King Herod, villain of the Nativity story). The Herods weren’t popular among their alleged kingdom, probably to be considered first against the wall when the expected military Messiah turned up, and maybe later, when Mark’s readers got to this point, they’d remember Philip and his wife – Salome, the girl who danced for Herod and instigated the execution of John the Baptist.
The city had other, older religious and political ramifications. It was a centre of worship for the Greek god Pan, god of nature (over which Jesus has been shown to have power), who was worshipped at the foot of a sheer cliff face – which, if this is where Jesus and the disciples were standing, may help explain the metaphor of Peter becoming the rock on which the church would be built.
(Pan was also the only Greek god who died, which I guess contrasts with Jesus dying and rising again, maybe?)
The area was also the site of a decisive battle which, a couple of hundred years earlier, saw Palestine getting taken over by the Seleucid Empire, which outlawed Judaism – during this period, a pig was sacrificed in the Temple before a statue of Zeus was erected – this lead to the Maccabean revolt and the festival of Hanukkah, which celebrates the rededication of the Temple after the Seleucids got kicked out. And the Seleucid king behind this, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was the first of his line to use divine names on coins – even his adopted name ‘Epiphanes’ declared him to be a visible god – he was associating himself with Jupiter, king of the Greek gods. Again, political echoes. Again, stories of blasphemy.
So Jesus and the disciples stand at the intersection of a bunch of different stories about a bunch of different gods. There are a lot of different routes people could take to worship through Caesarea Philippi – go back to the old ways of the Greeks, collaborate with the Romans, play political chess with the local powerbrokers. Or resist all this, take a stand and declare that God is God and that he’s incarnated in Jesus, and that Jesus is the expected Messiah. Peter does this – maybe he’s blurting it out without quite thinking things through, as he was prone to do, or maybe he was deadly serious, suddenly earning his status as leader of the disciples. Whatever, this is a huge step to take – he’s even taking a jump beyond his countrymen, who thought Jesus was a revival of John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the other prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus is something new – the Messiah, yes, but not the one they expected.
And that gives a context to Jesus’s question, because “Who do you say that I am?” isn’t necessarily a one off question. Peter and the others may have been worshipful and loyal here, but they’ve just started on a journey that leads to Jesus hanging on a cross and the disciples abandoning and betraying him in fear and confusion.
And so Jesus’s question isn’t just a one-off, it’s almost daily. It’s easy to go from rock solid faith to paralysing doubt; from loyalty to betrayal. The journey of faith isn’t an easy one, and the Bible doesn’t pretend otherwise.
“Who do you say that I am?”
It’s the million dollar question isn’t it?