In the District of Caesarea Philippi
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ … He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
Situated 40 kilometers north of the Sea of Galilee and at the base of Mt. Hermon, Caesarea Philippi is the location of one of the largest springs feeding the Jordan River. This abundant water supply made the area very fertile. The fresh water pools, fertile environment, thousand foot elevation & scenic vistas made it one of the most pleasant resorts in Palestine. A city was built here by Herod the Great’s son Philip and in Jesus’ day the city had numerous temples; these temples were representative of the religious diversity of the Roman Empire. The temple dedicated to the Roman Emperor Augustus had a prominent place, hence the name Caesarea built by Philip.
Jesus has come to this region with his disciples. It wasn’t exactly a holiday but clearly a break from the pressures of their ministry tour of Galilee. There was no synagogue in this pagan city and Jesus’ preaching had been, in these initial days, to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5-6) So in bringing his disciples into this region he was taking a break from this preaching and ministry work to the Jewish people. It was a time for some pointed conversation with his disciples.
1. In many respects we too live in this district of Caesarea Philippi, so to speak; especially with respect to religious diversity. The many deities in our world that are the personification of systems of value are all around us. The city of Toronto whose skyline was once dominated by church spires is now dominated by the towers of financial institutions. Recall that Jesus said, “you can’t serve God and wealth.” The religious edifices of our day look different from those of ancient Caesarea Philippi but they are still temples erected to a system of value nonetheless. Consider the temples we erect for entertainment—theatres, and sports venue and theme parks. Last May a news article described the work of Chris Miller, a PhD student at the University of Waterloo; his research, presented at a recent Social Science conference, was about comic atheists who are part of a broader movement to “destabilize and eliminate religion from the public sphere.” These systems of value are all around us ever seeking to influence and make new adherents. I recently received an invitation from our United Church presbytery to attend an indigenous appreciation session to learn about recovering something known as “medicine wheel” teaching.
So as we journey with Jesus and his disciples this day to Caesarea Philippi in the midst of the manifestation of these competing ideologies and value systems the question Jesus poses takes on current significance. “But who do you say that I am?” Will we answer through the lens of the ideologies of our day? Do I read Jesus as the promoter of some ideal I treasure like inclusivism or multi-culturalism? Is Jesus simply one of a multiple of choices for me to mix and match with other ideals? What do people say, is Jesus’ first question? And then the more personal and pointed—“ But who do you say that I am?”
Jesus poses his question in the midst of a pluralistic world full of deities and ideologies and expects an answer to his question. He knows that there many ideas about the nature of things with respect to him—who do people say that the Son of man is? Yet he implies in his question that there is an answer consistent with the truth of his identity. We don’t get to say whatever we want or make it up as we go. The pluralism of our world isn’t an excuse we can use for not giving an answer. The fact that there are many beliefs about God, and even God’s existence, doesn’t seem to deter Jesus in pressing his question upon us.
2. I note as well that Jesus’ question is so very personal. There is no place for armchair speculation here. The question isn’t as though we are in a philosophy class answering some speculative question about the nature of existence. The question isn’t “who do you say Jesus is?” We aren’t answering in some sort of detached way as if there really is some truly disinterested posture to be taken that is actually objective. It simply isn’t this way with God, according to the scripture.
In asking this question Jesus is in your face, so to speak. The question is personal between two people meaning each of the disciples is being called upon to answer Jesus. It was easy enough to talk about the things they heard people saying about Jesus but now it turns so very personal. “But who do you say that I am?” The one asking you the question is looking you in the eye. You don’t get to look away. It is personal. This is the way the scriptures reveal to be God’s way with us. The chief characteristic of God, according to the Bible, is that God speaks. Of all the creatures God created the human is the one with whom God speaks; the human is the one who receives God’s personal address. We have been created response-able.
Jesus’ question to his disciples heard in the region of Caesarea Philippi resonates throughout history. In his ever present reality Jesus asks it again and again, “But who you say that I am?” The question leaps of the page of scripture and touches our hearts because by the presence of God’s Spirit we hear the Saviour’s voice now.
3. Not only is Jesus’ question personal but is as particular as it is personal. It is the particular person Jesus of Nazareth asking this question of these particular disciples. Someone, a very particular one, is putting this question to us. Jesus is asking. If I ask, what do you think about Jesus, this is like Jesus’ first question—“ Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples reiterated answers consistent with the Jewish mindset of that day—“John the Baptist, Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Not unlike how people respond with today’s mindset; a good teacher, a champion of great ideals for living, a person Christians believe in. But Jesus does not let the disciples or us think this sufficient. Jesus is quite certain of his own identity and these articulations fall short of the mark. It is more particular than these answers suggest.
In 2017 the research company Gallup did a poll asking “Can religion solve today’s problems.” People today are more likely to say the religion is the problem rather than being a problem solver. Like Jesus’ question “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” the question “can religion solve today’s problems?” can be answered in a disinterested way without any personal involvement. But once Jesus asks “But who do you say that I am?” the question become personal and particular to you. Gallup would likely get a very different answer if thy asked “does your faith help you solve today’s problems?”
4. Jesus’ question is personal and particular and it is also pointed in that it presses its demand on us. Let me come at the pointedness of our Lord’s question by asking another question. Who gets to ask the questions? God or us? Who gets to examine who? In the Genesis story of the fall in the disobedience and unbelief of Adam and Eve it is God who comes and asks about what they have done. (Genesis 3:9-10) In the Book of Job after all of Job’s probing of the why such evil has befallen him, the answer comes as God questions Job. (Job 38:41) God says to Job, “Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me.” (Job 40:7) I notice in our gospel story Jesus asks the questions—it is not the other way around.
In our gospel story not only does God ask the question, God also makes known the answer. Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 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. Knowledge of God comes by revelation; we humans won’t figure it out by talking among ourselves.
In the gospels we learn that God is not his creation; therefore knowledge of God is the work of God himself. No human can begin from their contingent being as a creature and infer the eternal being of God. Such knowledge comes from God as God makes himself known to us. God’s questions are pointed in that a particular answer is to be given.
Martin Luther insists that the Bible addresses us as “our adversary.” He means that we humans are at odds with God. In our sinfulness there is a rift between us and God that has to be bridged. Theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer put the point this way, “If it is I who say where God will be, I will always find there a God who is some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me … But if it is God who says where He will be, then that will truly be a place which at first is not agreeable to me … That place is the cross of Christ … This does not correspond to our nature at all.” (Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word, p.44-45)
This is not to say that God disdains us and our questions. It is to say that we don’t find God by probing our minds; rather it comes by God’s incursion into our lives. The gospel story is that God has come among us in Jesus and asks his questions of us directly. This is what is happening at Caesarea Philippi.
Not only does God ask the questions God shows us what questions to ask. The question “Who is God?” is never answered in Scripture directly. Scripture answers this question indirectly by posing two other questions. “What does God do on our behalf? What does God effect within us?” The answers to these two questions add up to the question “Who is God?” “What does God do?” refers us to God’s activity on our behalf, what he does “for us”. “What does God effect?” refers us to God’s activity “in us”. What does God do for us? He incarnates Himself in Jesus of Nazareth. He redeems His creation in the death of Jesus, restoring its access to Him. He raises Jesus from the dead, vindicating Jesus and declaring him to be sovereign over all, Lord and Messiah. What does God do in us? He visits us with His Spirit and seals within us all that He has done outside us. He steals over our spiritual inertia and quickens faith. He forgives the sin in us that He had already absorbed for us on the cross. He brings us to submit to the sovereign One whose sovereignty He had declared by raising him from the dead.
Rev. Fleming Rutledge, a great preacher and writer, published an article titled, Why Being 'Spiritual' is Never Enough. It is an apt application of the disciples’ correct answer to Jesus’ question, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Rutledge wrote:
“We hear a good deal today about “the triumph of the human spirit.” Books and movies about disasters are frequently marketed as triumphs of the human spirit, even though they often portray examples of human depravity. This emphasis on the human spirit first impressed itself upon me when, 32 years ago, our family was undergoing a crisis. I received a long, compassionate letter from a friend on the West Coast. Although the letter was wonderful, one line bothered me. My friend wrote, “Your spirituality will get you through this.”
When I read it, I recoiled. Whatever “spirituality” meant, I was keenly aware that I didn’t have any of it. In and of myself, I had nothing adequate for what was facing us at the time. I had only the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples … ‘But who do you say that I am?’