But Who Do You Say That I am?, Pt. 1

Matthew 16:13-19 says, “13When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? 14And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. 15He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? 16And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. 17And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. 18And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

In Old Testament times, the northeastern area of Israel became a center for Baal worship. In the nearby city of Dan, Israelite king Jeroboam built the high place that angered God and eventually led the Israelites to worship false gods. Eventually, worship of the baals was replaced with worship of Greek fertility gods. Caesarea Philippi, which stood in a lush area near the foot of Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights region of Israel, became the religious center for worship of the Greek god, Pan. The Greeks named the city Panias in his honor (link). Close to the foot of Mount Hermon (about 1150 feet, or 350 meters, above sea level), it is an area of lush grasslands and trees, with plenty of water as one of the sources of the Jordan River. Here, a massive spring flows out of the rock – its abundant supply of water made the area attractive for farming and religious purposes (link). The area was established by Ptolemaic Greeks as a hellenistic city, where the worship of the god Pan was centered. By the early first century, Caesarea Philippi (named in 2 AD by Herod Philip in honor of Caesar Augustus) was reviled by orthodox rabbis, and it was taught that no good Jew would ever visit there (link). Years later, when Romans conquered the territory, Herod Philip rebuilt the city and named it after himself. But Caesarea Philippi continued to focus on worship of Greek gods. In the cliff that stood above the city, local people built shrines and temples to Pan (link).

Caesarea Philippi’s location was especially unique because it stood at the base of a cliff where spring water flowed. At one time, the water ran directly from the mouth of a cave set in the bottom of the cliff. The pagans of Jesus’ day commonly believed that their fertility gods lived in the underworld during the winter and returned to earth each spring. They saw water as a symbol of the underworld and thought that their gods traveled to and from that world through caves. To the pagan mind, then, the cave and spring water at Caesarea Philippi created a gate to the underworld. They believed that their city was literally at the gates of the underworld—the gates of hell. In order to entice the return of their god, Pan, each year, the people of Caesarea Philippi engaged in horrible deeds, including prostitution and sexual interaction between humans and goats (link).

This city butts up against a large cliff, referred to as the ‘Rock of the Gods’, in reference to the many shrines built against it. Shrines to Caesar, Pan and another god (possibly the fertility goddess Nemesis) were all built up against this cliff. In the center of the Rock of the Gods is a huge cave, from which a stream flowed (after 19th century earthquakes, the stream began flowing out from the rock beneath the mouth of the cave). This cave was called the “Gates of Hades”, because it was believed that Baal would enter and leave the underworld through places where water came out of it. In the open-air Pan Shrine, next to the cave mouth, there was a large niche, in which a statue of Pan (a half-goat, half-human creature) stood, with a large erect phallus, worshipped for its fertility properties. Surrounding him in the wall were many smaller niches, in which were statues of his attending nymphs. On the shrine in front of these niches, worshippers of Pan would congregate and partake in bizarre sexual perversion (link).

Pan was a fertility Greek god of fertility, music, hunting, and fear in Greek mythology. The name “pan” actually means “all”. Pan was generally represented as a vigorous and lustful figure having the horns, legs, and ears of a goat; in later art the human parts of his form were much more emphasized. He haunted the high hills, and his chief concern was with flocks and herds, not with agriculture; hence he can make humans, like cattle, stampede in “panic” terror. Like a shepherd, he was a piper and he rested at noon. It is from this where we get the cartoon character, Peter Pan. We also get the word “pantheism” from this root word “pan”, along with “theism”, which means “the study of god”, because it is the belief that the world is parts of God (Encyclopedia Britannica). For example, Hinduism is pantheistic in nature because from humans to animals, to nature, and even to the universe, such as the sun and moon, are all pieces to the puzzle of this big God, which is why they worship over 3 million gods. However, there is only one God who created the heavens and the earth, and there is no other name whereby men must be saved than that name, which is Jesus Christ!

The grotto, which is a picturesque cave, was the central point of Pan worship and was considered “abode of the shepherd god”. Ritual sacrifices were thrown into this natural abyss which reached down to the underground waters fueling these upper springs of the Jordan. If the victim disappeared in the water, this was a sign that the god had accepted the offering. If blood appeared in nearby springs, it was believed that the sacrifice had been rejected (link). Caesarea Philippi was probably destroyed by an earthquake in 363 A.D. Since 1967 there has been considerable excavation in and around the city — the shrine of Pan has been cleared, along with the Herodian palace (link).

So, when Jesus said these popular words to His disciples, He did so at this place! After Jesus asked His disciples who men say that He as the Son of man was, they begin to state that some say that He was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. Then He questioned, “But who do you say that I am?” It is more than what others perceive who Jesus to be. Someone’s lack of understanding concerning the identity and character of Jesus Christ or misconception that Jesus is merely just a prophet, such as what the Muslims believe, or just an example of someone who had good morals does not accomplish much in a person’s life. He was more than a prophet or a good teacher, but He was, is, and forever will be the only begotten Son of God! He was more than a martyr who died for a cause in which He believed, but He was born in poverty to become the ultimate sacrifice for mankind so that man, who was separated from God in original sin, can be restored to God in a healthy and holy relationship with Him! It was at this moment when Peter rose up and said, “And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). In the midst of all of the perversion that was going on and these “dead” gods, Peter announced who Jesus was, and we must do the same! And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:17-18). Flesh and blood does not grasp the revelation of Jesus Christ, but only a spiritual encounter and experience with God will. It is more than just being acquainted with God, but it is knowing Him!