Location! Location! Location!
He leads the disciples on a journey 25 miles out of the way. For an entire day they walk north from Galilee, away from Jerusalem encountering increasingly shady neighborhoods.
Location: Non-Jewish territory
The nervous but trusting disciples follow thinking, “We don’t belong here. We shouldn’t be here.”
Location. Caesarea Philippi – the city of the gods
Their discomfort probably increases as they pass multiple shrines where bread offerings remain as well as worshipers at the temple of Zeus and the grand imperial temple to Caesar. The crowds thicken near the temple of Pan, the half goat, half man god of the wilderness, forests, and flocks.
Location: Pan land
Never before had they been surrounded by this degree of evil, always instructed to avoid pagan worship sites for fear the sin would rub off and defile them by association. Or worse, seduce them to participate.
Cave some believed was the entrance to Hades, Caesarea Philippi
Jesus likely positions his followers within view of a yawning cave at the base of a rock cliff, its sheer face pockmarked with enclaves displaying Pan sculptures. Water gushes from the mouth of the deep, mysterious cave rumored to be the entrance to Hades.
Jesus selects this out-of-the-way location for one purpose: to ask a defining question.
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, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Matthew 16:13-16 NRSV
The pagan saturated location enhances Jesus’ object lesson.
Who do you say that I am?
The disciples must clearly understand his identity over and above any ordinary prophet. And these pagan gods carved from stone are nonsense compared to Jesus Messiah.
But Jesus’ lesson isn’t complete.
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.
Matthew 16:17-18 NRSV
Enclaves used to display sculptures of Pan, Caesarea Philippi
Peter, or Petros meaning stone or rock, and his confession of faith are the rock foundation for Jesus’ church. However, in the Bible the word church never denotes a physical building, but always a gathering of people. Looking at this pagan rock shrine, what does Jesus mean by naming Peter the true rock of His church? Peter later writes:
Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.
1 Peter 2:5 NRSV
All who recognize Jesus as the Messiah are living stones forming His church.
What about the gates of Hades purported to be in the depths of this cave?
They cannot hold back the force of Jesus’ church. They will fall. Evil will fall. Nothing will stand against the movement Jesus initiates with his death and resurrection.
From this evil saturated region, Jesus begins the journey toward Jerusalem and the cross. Though the disciples recognize His identity, they don’t yet understand that He’s not the Messiah they expect. So, He speaks clearly about the suffering He must face in conquering evil.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
Matthew 16:21 NRSV
The season of Lent, our journey to the cross, begins on Ash Wednesday, February 14th.
As Jesus’ church, let’s:
- Reflect on your understanding of Jesus’ identity. Who do you say that Jesus is? What does that mean for your life? Consider discussing your thoughts with others to deepen your conviction.
- Stand firm in faith amid adversity. Peter confessed his faith despite evil surroundings. Identify people, places, or activities that feel uncomfortable due to wrongdoing like dishonesty, gossip, or pornography. How could you stand on your faith foundation to resist and reject sinful behavior?
R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007).
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