Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
Caesarea Philippi (not to be confused with the other Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast) is in the north-east part of Israel called the Golan Heights, in the foothills of Mount Hermon, near the site of the ancient city of Dan. Caesarea Philippi was built on a massive wall of rock, more than 100 feet high and about 500 feet wide. The inhabitants were mostly non-Jewish, and the area was scattered with temples of the ancient Syrian worship of Baal. Nearby was the reputed birthplace of the great god Pan, the god of nature. (It would be called Panias, after Pan, but today it is called Banias, because the letter ‘p’ is absent from Arabic.) The English word ‘panic’ comes from Pan, who was reputed to be expert at causing it. There was also in Caesarea Philippi a newer variety of paganism: a temple in white marble to the godhead of Caesar.
It was against this pagan background that Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say I am?” And then the much more difficult question, “Who do you say I am?” That was Peter’s moment. His profession of faith echoes down the centuries, all the more loudly for the pagan background of its first utterance, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Compared to the massive rock on which Caesarea Philippi was built, Peter, ‘the Rock’, was very fragile. One moment he was walking on air after Jesus praised his insight (but that was in another gospel account – Mt 16:17). And next moment he was dashed to the ground: “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter was like anything but a rock. But what’s a rock? It is a large stone. A disciple has no business being like a stone. I suspect that Peter’s nickname ‘Rock’ was a joke on Jesus’ part. I knew a man of vast bulk whose nickname was ‘Tiny’. Peter was shaky, anything but rock-like. It is easier to relate to such a person than to a rock. And Jesus had no problem with that: Peter remained his chief disciple.
Why did Jesus ask, "Who do people say I am? Who do you say I am?” Was he unsure of his own identity? It would appear that what he really wanted to know was why they were with him. People had projected false identities onto him from the beginning, attempting to squeeze him into the roles of village boy, king, a predictable kind of messiah.... He wanted to know if they were following him or just their own idea of him.
No doubt it is a question for us too. If we project anything whatsoever onto Jesus we don’t know him; he becomes a screen for our projections, and we see only ourselves. Our own self-made identities fit us because they are made to fit; our lies are never against us, always for us. Each individual, each group, each country, each religion, has its own lies; and these fit us like a glove. But we needn’t expect the truth to fit us. Our lies are comfortable, but we should expect the truth to be very uncomfortable. Perhaps that's why he spoke immediately about suffering and rejection.
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