This text must be seen in its large context. Chapters 14 -17 present us with the growing acceptance of Jesus even though his very own reject him. (13:54-58) This acceptance of Jesus is often a process and not merely a momentary revelation. The text of today highlights one such narrative.
It took the apostles too, a long time to accept who Jesus really was (14:33). Even today’s narrative which might seem like a culminative faith expression, is only one more stepping stone towards their complete understanding of Jesus
For the moment let us get back to where Jesus is. The narration tells us that Jesus and the apostles are in Caesarea Philippi which was located outside the region of Galilee, twenty-five to thirty kilo meters north of the Sea of Galilee. It was situated on a trade route that connected Tyre in the West to Damascus in the North West. This made this place an important city for trade and commerce.
But Caesarea Philippi was also a religious centre. The highlight of the city was a cave from which sprung one of the sources of the rive Jordan. This cave was considered by the Greeks as the birthplace of the god Pan and a sanctuary to other gods. It is in this city that Herod the Great had built a temple to Caesar August. This temple in white marble stood on top of a hill and dominated the skyline.
It was Philip the tetrarch, son of Herod the Great who had inherited this city and made it his administrative headquarters. In his attempt to please the Roman rulers he added his name to Caesars renaming the city Caesarea Philippi.
Into this city strolls an itinerant preacher, Jesus, with a band of twelve. Now surrounded by established religions, political power and the centre of economics Jesus ask two questions. “Who do people say I am” and then, “who do you say I am?” Was Jesus having some identity crisis? Absolutely not on the contrary he wants to make sure we are not having one.
What if the Lord asked us, ‘why do you follow me?’ or ‘why are you here in Church?’ would we have a clear response. Are we sure who we are even though we bear the name Christ in the faith we profess?
For the Gospel of Mark this question that Jesus raised was the hinge of his Gospel, from this moment on Jesus would walk to Jerusalem to accept the cross. But for now in Matthew’s Gospel while the people thought that Jesus was a prophet in the line of prophets, it is Peter who declares Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. For the first time Jesus does not critique or qualify Peter’s answer. On this occasion he is commended. But since flesh and blood had not revealed this answer to him, did Peter fully understand what he had professed? I guess not
Let your eyes gloss over briefly over the next two paragraphs of the text to follow and you will wonder if Jesus who had declared Peter to be the rock has made a terrible choice for the one to hold the keys of heaven. Verse 23 has Peter reprimanded as ‘satan’.
So, what’s going on? Peter declared Jesus to be the Messiah but the word Mashiah (Hebrew) for Messiah in English was a concept that did not have a clear or single understanding in first century Judaism. Translated as ‘anointed one’ by God for a special purpose, it could be applicable to just about any one, from king to prophet or warrior.
Peter’s certainly proclaimed Jesus as Messiah but it is clear that there was a conflict in the understanding of the kind of Messiah that Jesus was to be verses the one Peter had imagined in his head and this is manifested in his rejection of Jesus’ desire to suffer and die.
This explains why Jesus forbade his apostles from proclaiming his Messiahship (verse 20) to anyone. Peter certainly got the answer right but the implications all wrong and a period of discernment was still necessary.