Matthew 16:13-16


Matt. 16:13-16

When Jesus had come into the districts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” They said, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “And you–who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Anointed One, the Son of the living God.”

Here we have the story of another withdrawal which Jesus made. The end was coming very near and Jesus needed all the time alone with his disciples that he could gain. He had so much to say to them and so much to teach them, although there were many things which then they could not bear and could not understand.

To that end he withdrew to the districts of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi lies about twenty-five miles north-east of the Sea of Galilee. It was outside the domain of Herod Antipas, who was the ruler of Galilee, and within the area of Philip the Tetrarch. The population was mainly non-Jewish, and there Jesus would have peace to teach the Twelve.

Confronting Jesus at this time was one clamant and demanding problem. His time was short; his days in the flesh were numbered. The problem was–was there anyone who understood him? Was there anyone who had recognized him for who and what he was? Were there any who, when he was gone from the flesh, would carry on his work, and labour for his kingdom? Obviously that was a crucial problem, for it involved the very survival of the Christian faith. If there were none who had grasped the truth, or even glimpsed it, then all his work was undone; if there were some few who realized the truth, his work was safe. So Jesus was determined to put all to the test and ask his followers who they believed him to be.

It is of the most dramatic interest to see where Jesus chose to ask this question. There can have been few districts with more religious associations than Caesarea Philippi.

(i) The area was scattered with temples of the ancient Syrian Baal worship. Thomson in The Land and the Book enumerates no fewer than fourteen such temples in the near neighbourhood. Here was an area where the breath of ancient religion was in the very atmosphere. Here was a place beneath the shadow of the ancient gods.

(ii) Not only the Syrian gods had their worship here. Hard by Caesarea Philippi there rose a great hill, in which was a deep cavern; and that cavern was said to be the birthplace of the great god Pan, the god of nature. So much was Caesarea Philippi identified with that god that its original name was Panias, and to this day the place is known as Banias. The legends of the gods of Greece gathered around Caesarea Philippi.

(iii) Further, that cave was said to be the place where the sources of the Jordan sprang to life. Josephus writes: “This is a very fine cave in a mountain, under which there is a great cavity in the earth; and the cavern is abrupt, and prodigiously deep, and full of still water. Over it hangs a vast mountain, and under the cavern arise the springs of the River Jordan.” The very idea that this was the place where the River Jordan took its rise would make it redolent of all the memories of Jewish history. The ancient faith of Judaism would be in the air for anyone who was a devout and pious Jew.

(iv) But there was something more. In Caesarea Philippi there was a great temple of white marble built to the godhead of Caesar. It had been built by Herod the Great. Josephus says: “Herod adorned the place, which was already a very remarkable one, still further by the erection of this temple, which he dedicated to Caesar.” In another place Josephus describes the cave and the temple: “And when Caesar had further bestowed on Herod another country, he built there also a temple of white marble, hard by the fountains of Jordan. The place is called Panium, where there is the top of a mountain which is raised to an immense height, and at its side, beneath, or at its bottom, a dark cave opens itself; within which there is a horrible precipice that descends abruptly to a vast depth.
It contains a mighty quantity of water, which is immovable; and when anyone lets down anything to measure the depth of the earth beneath the water, no length of cord is sufficient to reach it.” Later it was Philip, Herod’s son, who further beautified and enriched the temple, changed the name of Panias to Caesarea–Caesar’s town–and added his own name–Philippi, which means of Philip–to distinguish it from the Caesarea on the coasts of the Mediterranean. Still later, Herod Agrippa was to call the place Neroneas in honour of the Emperor Nero. No one could look at Caesarea Philippi, even from the distance, without seeing that pile of glistening marble, and thinking of the might and of the divinity of Rome.

Here indeed is a dramatic picture. Here is a homeless, penniless Galilaean carpenter, with twelve very ordinary men around him. At the moment the orthodox are actually plotting and planning to destroy him as a dangerous heretic. He stands in an area littered with the temples of the Syrian gods; in a place where the ancient Greek gods looked down; in a place where the history of Israel crowded in upon the minds of men; where the white marble splendour of the home of Caesar–worship dominated the landscape and compelled the eye. And there–of all places–this amazing carpenter stands and asks men who they believe him to bc, and expects the answer, The Son of God. It is as if Jesus deliberately set himself against the background of the world’s religions in all their history and their spendour, and demanded to be compared with them and to have the verdict given in his favour. There are few scenes where Jesus’ consciousness of his own divinity shines out with a more dazzling light.


Matt. 16:13-16 (continued)

So then at Caesarea Philippi Jesus determined to demand a verdict from his disciples. He must know before he set out from Jerusalem and the Cross if anyone had even dimly grasped who and what he was. He did not ask the question directly; he led up to it. He began by asking what people were saying about him, and who they took him to be.

Some said that he was John the Baptist. Herod Antipas was not the only man who felt that John the Baptist was so great a figure that it might well be that he had come back from the dead.

Others said that he was Elijah. In doing so, they were saying two things about Jesus. They were saying that he was as great as the greatest of the prophets, for Elijah had always been looked on as the summit and the prince of the prophetic line. They were also saying that Jesus was the forerunner of the Messiah. As Malachi had it, the promise of God was: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal.4:5). To this day the Jews expect the return of Elijah before the coming of the Messiah, and to this day they leave a chair vacant for Elijah when they celebrate the Passover, for when Elijah comes, the Messiah will not be far away. So the people looked on Jesus as the herald of the Messiah and the forerunner of the direct intervention of God.

Some said that Jesus was Jeremiah. Jeremiah had a curious place in the expectations of the people of Israel. It was believed that, before the people went into exile, Jeremiah had taken the ark and the altar of incense out of the Temple, and hidden them away in a lonely cave on Mount Nebo; and that, before the coming of the Messiah, he would return and produce them, and the glory of God would come to the people again (2Macc.2:1-12). In 2Esdr.2:18 the promise of God is: “For thy help I will send my servants Isaiah and Jeremiah.”

There is a strange legend of the days of the Maccabaean wars. Before the battle with Nicanor, in which the Jewish commander was the great Judas Maccabaeus, Onias, the good man who had been high priest, had a vision. He prayed for victory in the battle. “This done, in like manner there appeared a man with grey hairs, and exceeding glorious, who was of a wonderful and excellent majesty. Then Onias answered saying: `This is a lover of the brethren, who prayeth much for the people, and for the holy city, to wit, Jeremiah, the prophet of God.’ Whereupon Jeremiah, holding forth his right hand, gave to Judas a sword of gold, and, in giving it to him, spake thus: `Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with which thou shalt wound the adversaries of my people Israel'” (2Macc.15:1-14). Jeremiah also was to be the forerunner of the coming of the Messiah, and his country’s help in time of trouble.

When the people identified Jesus with Elijah and with Jeremiah they were, according to their lights, paying him a great compliment and setting him in a high place, for Jeremiah and Elijah were none other than the expected forerunners of the Anointed One of God. When they arrived, the Kingdom would be very near indeed.

When Jesus had heard the verdicts of the crowd, he asked the all-important question: “And you–who do you say I am?” At that question there may well have been a moment’s silence, while into the minds of the disciples came thoughts which they were almost afraid to express in words; and then Peter made his great discovery and his great confession; and Jesus knew that his work was safe because there was at least someone who understood.

It is interesting to note that each of the three gospels has its own version of the saying of Peter. Matthew has:

You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Mark is briefest of all (Mk.8:29):

You are the Christ.

Luke is clearest of all (Lk.9:20):

You are the Christ of God.

Jesus knew now that there was at least someone who had recognized him for the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, the Son of the living God. The word Messiah and the word Christ are the same; the one is the Hebrew and the other is the Greek for The Anointed One. Kings were ordained to office by anointing, as they still are. The Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One is God’s King over men.

Within this passage there are two great truths.

(i) Essentially Peter’s discovery was that human categories, even the highest, are inadequate to describe Jesus Christ. When the people described Jesus as. Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets they thought they were setting Jesus in the highest category they could find. It was the belief of the Jews that for four hundred years the voice of prophecy had been silent; and they were saying that in Jesus men heard again the direct and authentic voice of God. These were great tributes; but they were not great enough; for there are no human categories which are adequate to describe Jesus Christ.

Once Napoleon gave his verdict on Jesus. “I know men,” he said, “and Jesus Christ is more than a man.” Doubtless Peter could not have given a theological account and a philosophic expression of what he meant when he said that Jesus was the Son of the living God; the one thing of which Peter was quite certain was that no merely human description was adequate to describe him.

(ii) This passage teaches that our discovery of Jesus Christ must be a personal discovery. Jesus’ question is: “You–what do you think of me?” When Pilate asked him if he was the king of the Jews, his answer was: “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” (Jn.18:33-34).

Our knowledge of Jesus must never be at second hand. A man might know every verdict ever passed on Jesus; he might know every Christology that the mind of man had ever thought out; he might be able to give a competent summary of the teaching about Jesus of every great thinker and theologian–and still not be a Christian. Christianity never consists in knowing about Jesus; it always consists in knowing Jesus. Jesus Christ demands a personal verdict. He did not ask only Peter, he asks every man: “You–what do you think of me?”

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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