TWH: In a previous post, I discussed the first confession of Peter (John 6:69): “ . . . you are the Holy One of God.” Shortly thereafter, after the disciples had left Bethsaida and made their way to Caesarea Philippi, Peter makes another declaration concerning Jesus’ identity. It is important to understand the context though, remembering that the crowds of disciples—nearly all of them—that had been following Jesus made a drastic decision to turn away from him following a harsh teaching (recorded in John 6). When Jesus asks the twelve “Who do people say that I am?” one cannot help but remember the huge exodus of disciples in the near context. Those people had clearly made a decision that Jesus was not someone—not the Lamb, not the Christ, not the one they and all Israel had been expecting, not the Prophet some once thought he was and, as a result, the one they had intended to install as king (John 6:14–15). It raised an issue, one which Jesus directed to his disciples not many days after Peter’s first declaration: If they did not think Jesus was the one others had said he was, such as John the Baptist, and the one his many miracles had confirmed again and again, then who did they think he was? Well, Jesus chose a very fitting place to pose such a question. Of course, that was not the most important question Jesus would ask. What others think never is. Ultimately, and Jesus shows us this, what matters most is what we think.
Caesarea Philippi was a city at the mouth of the Jordan River just over twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It was situated in a rocky and borderline mountainous terrain, a fitting place for its inhabitants to associate with Pan. This one was a not-so-neat sort of god. He lacked the beauty of Venus, and he was hardly a Zeus. But he represented the people. He was a god for a people in the wilderness regions—hooves for feet, hairy lower limbs, and beard and horns that made him look half man and half goat. And a god like this would never be worshiped in stand-alone marble temples found elsewhere in the empire; his was grafted into the side of a mountain, and bore the rustic nature of the region and the people who sought his favor. Herod the Great had dedicated a temple to Augustus at the sanctuary, and his youngest son later named the city his capital of Trachonitis, hence its name. During the first century, this city became a destination for pilgrimages to offer homage to Pan, the Emperor, and other Roman gods. Carved into the natural rock wall were a series of niches that held statues for the many gods of the empire. Like we said, a fitting place and backdrop for Jesus to ask his disciples who they and others believed him to be.
Whether Jesus asked them in the presence of these idols or after they had passed through the city center and made their way out to the surrounding villages is not explicitly stated. Peter seems to indicate that it was after they had passed through: “And Jesus went out, along with his disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way, he questioned his disciples . . .” (Mark 8:27). After would make more sense since Luke indicates that Jesus had stopped at some point to pray (Luke 9:18); remember, Jesus was in the habit of praying in secluded places, not city centers. It is also worth pointing out here that Jesus was focused on going to the people, not those who governed the people. Jesus certainly did not avoid the leaders of the people or governing authorities. Occasionally he sought them out, and when they sought him, as did Nicodemus (John 4), they could easily find him. But he viewed his mission as one to the people. Often times, Christians will daydream about the possibilities of if such-and-such celebrity or leader could be converted, imagining the sort of impact they could potentially have as a result of their influence. Interestingly enough, we find no such approach to missions in either the life of Jesus or that of the apostles. At the same time, though, we see that Jesus did not neglect the places of significant influence in first-century Israel. Herod Philip’s decision to name this place his capital in effect secured it as a region Jesus would visit with his disciples at some point during his ministry. What drove these decisions was maximum impact. His first attempt (Mark 5) to reach Decapolis on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, which was unsuccessful, and the follow-up trip (Mark 7), which was successful, were fueled by Jesus’ desire to carry the message to large concentrations of people. We find the same in Paul’s mission, for example, which led him to places like Corinth and Athens, but not those like Colossae.