Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, a place of pagan worship and traditionally believed entrance to Hades. He asked them to share people’s feedback on him. After assessing that the public had only a vague understanding, Jesus checked the awareness level of the disciples. Simon Peter confessed his faith in Jesus as the son of the living God. Jesus blessed him, changed his name from Simon to Peter (rock), declared that Jesus will build his church on the firm foundation of Peter’s faith, and entrusted him with the keys of the kingdom of heaven. We must defer to the authority of the successors of Peter and the other apostles, who also received similar authority to lead us into the heavenly kingdom.
(Matthew 16:13) After that Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi. He asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (14) They said, “Some say you are John the Baptist, others, Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (15) Jesus asked them, “But you, who do you say I am?” (16) Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (17) Jesus replied, “You are a happy man, Simon son of Jonah, for it is not flesh or blood that has revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. (18) And now I tell you, You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church; and never will the powers of death overcome it. (19) I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and what you unbind on earth shall be unbound in heaven.”
(Mt 16:13) After that Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi. He asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
The region of Caesarea Philippi
Caesarea Philippi was an ancient town at the foot of Mount Hermon (Deut 3:8) on its southern slope, about 1150 feet above sea level and twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It is the northmost border of Palestine at the border of the present Lebanon and Syria and near the ancient city of Dan. A spring from a “bottomless pit,” that is the prime source of River Jordan, flows from a cave of the mountain here. People believed this cave was the entrance to Hades, the Greek underworld where god Pan lived. The area was fertile because of the spring water. In Greek mythology, the town was dedicated to god Pan and was known as Paneas (Banias in Arabic). Pan looked like a man with goat’s legs, a tail, and sometimes horns. The ancient Canaanites built a sanctuary for Baal here. After the death of King Solomon, when Israel was divided, King Jeroboam I, the first king of Northern Israel offered sacrifices to a golden calf in Dan that was only four miles west from Paneas and thus led the people into idolatry (1 Kgs 12:26-29). The Greeks and Romans also built sanctuaries at the mysterious cave of Pan. King Herod the Great had built a magnificent white marble temple in front of the cave honouring Emperor Augustus in gratitude for giving him power over Paneas in 20 BC.
Philip, a son of Herod the Great, was the tetrarch from 4 BC until his death in 34 AD. He rebuilt the town of Paneas as his capital city, naming it Caesarea in honour of the then Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar. The name Caesarea Philippi (of Philip) was used to distinguish it from his father’s Caesarea at the seaport in Samaria called Caesarea Maritima on the coast of the Mediterranean in the Sharon plain.
Why Jesus went to Caesarea Philippi?
Jesus took his disciples to the city of Paneas not to preach, but to be away from the crowd and his opponents. He wanted to take rest and to prepare before his last journey to Jerusalem for his self-sacrifice. Jesus chose this place of pagan worship to reveal his divinity to the disciples because of the widespread belief that Paneas was the entrance to Hades. At the Gates of Hades, Jesus proclaimed, addressing Peter: “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). Thus, Jesus expressed his sovereignty over evil and hell at the sinful town of pagan worship and the popularly believed gate of the netherworld.
Who do people say?
Jesus had almost completed his ministry in Galilee and was going to Jerusalem for his crucifixion. He wanted the disciples to evaluate the impact of his ministry among the people and on themselves. He was not expecting a perfect understanding from the public. However, he wanted to be sure that his disciples understood him properly.
The Son of Man
When Jesus asked the disciples on the public opinion of him, he implied the answer in the question. The Hebrew phrase “the Son of Man” means a human being (Ezek 2:1) with divine qualities like coming in the clouds of heaven (Dan 7:13). The ‘Son of Man’ title that Jesus used for himself and the Son of God that others used for him meant the same with priority either to his human or divine nature.
So, while asking for the views of the people on Jesus, he presented to the disciples who he was. He was the Son of man, the incarnate Word of God born as the son of a woman through divine intervention, i.e. without marital relations (Mt 1:18).
(14) They said, “Some say you are John the Baptist, others, Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets”
The Pharisees, who believed in life after death, taught on transmigration, though not reincarnation. They taught that the spirit of an ancient man of God will reemerge to continue his work at a great national crisis of Israel. Thus, many Jewish scholars had believed that the souls of Adam, Abraham, and other holy men had animated the glorious men of their nation at crucial junctures in its history. Many people who encountered Jesus believed that the spirit of one of such holy persons of Israel has returned to the earth in Jesus’ body. That, according to them, gave Jesus the power to perform miracles and to teach with exceptional vigour.
John the Baptist
The first comparison of some people, who were familiar with John the Baptist before his martyrdom, was Jesus’ similarity to John.
1. Some say John and Jesus had facial similarity because they were cousins and had only six months’ age difference.
2. Their message was similar because both preached repentance to prepare for the Kingdom of God.
3. Both baptized people at the River Jordan and both had disciples. Some disciples of John became disciples of Jesus.
4. Both criticised the leaders of the time and got opposition from them. Their lives were endangered.
Unlike Jesus, John did not perform any miracles and lived a Nazirite lifestyle. However, their resemblance was so close that Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who beheaded John said of Jesus to his servants, “This man is John the Baptist. John has risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him” (Mt 14:2). This also shows the widespread belief of the time that transmigration of holy souls could happen on the living to continue their mission.
Jesus resembled Elijah, who raised the son of a widow in Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:17-24). He performed more raisings from the dead than Elijah. Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:22-43), a widow’s son in the town of Nain (Lk 7:11-15), and Lazarus (Jn 11:1-44).
Elijah multiplied a jar of flour and a jug of oil belonging to the widow in Zarephath for a long time so the prophet, the widow, and her household had enough to eat until the drought was over (1 Kgs 17:7-16). Jesus multiplied loaves of bread twice to feed multitudes of people who came to listen to him. So, people considered Jesus as a miracle worker like Elijah.
Unlike Jesus, God took Elijah to heaven without facing death. Malachi had prophesied that Elijah would reappear as a forerunner of the Messiah. “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet before the day of the LORD comes, the great and terrible day” (Mal 3:23; 4:5). The Jews have been expecting Elijah’s reappearance, and that is still a part of the Passover ritual of the Jews. Though John the Baptist came according to this prophecy, some still believed that Jesus was the forerunner for the Messiah to come because Jesus resembled some actions of Elijah.
Jeremiah, one of four Major Prophets, along with Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, is a type of Jesus. The situation of Israel during the ministry of both Jeremiah and Jesus was similar, and so their preaching and actions also had a resemblance. The following are similarities between Jeremiah and Jesus:
1. Both were single, and the people of their hometowns rejected them.
2. Jeremiah and Jesus had to flee to Egypt because of the political persecution of the time.
3. False prophets and religious leaders were misguiding God’s chosen people. So, both Jeremiah and Jesus spoke against them and thus became their enemies who arrested and persecuted both for that reason.
4. Jeremiah was a weeping prophet. Jesus also wept at least three times: At the tomb of Lazarus (Jn 11:35), while prophesying the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (Lk 19:41) and at the Garden of Gethsemane (Heb 5:7).
Both wept over the City of Jerusalem and predicted the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. It happened for the first and the last temple as prophesied. During the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Solomon’s Temple in 586 (587) BC when Jeremiah was alive. The Romans under the leadership of Titus destroyed the second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD, 40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Though both Jeremiah and Jesus had similarities, there were also differences. The Jews believed that Jeremiah would come as a forerunner of Messiah (2 Esdras 2:18). Before the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple of Jerusalem, Jeremiah had removed the tent, the ark, and the altar of incense from the Temple, hid and sealed them in a chamber of the cave where God had appeared to Moses (2 Macc 2:4-5). When those who helped the prophet to transport the holy items tried to mark the path, Jeremiah scolded them, “This place is to remain hidden until God has compassion on his scattered people and gathers them together. Then the LORD will reveal these things again and his glory shall appear in the cloud as it appeared in the time of Moses and when Solomon asked God to come and consecrate his house” (2 Mac 2:7-8). So, some people who had seen Jesus believed that Jesus was this precursor of the Messiah.
One of the prophets
Though some people found the spirit of a specific prophet of the past in Jesus, some others considered Jesus as one among the prophets. Prophet was a spokesperson of God and all who had received messages from God to the humans were prophets. Many people considered Jesus as a prophet. When Jesus fed the five thousand, the people said: “This is really the prophet, he who is to come into the world” (Jn 6:14). The Samaritan woman said to Jesus: “Sir, I see you are a prophet” (Jn 4:19). When Jesus raised a widow’s son in Nain, “Great awe came over them all and they praised God saying, ‘A great prophet has appeared among us; God has visited his people’ ” (Lk 7:16). There were also other instances when people called Jesus a prophet (Jn 7:40; 9:17).
The responses of the public showed that Jesus was popular, and the people recognized him as a prominent prophet or a forerunner of the Messiah. Though some had called him Messiah or Son of David when he did marvellous miracles, they did not persist on that because of the slanderous propaganda of his adversaries, especially the Pharisees and Sadducees.
(15) Jesus asked them, “But you, who do you say I am?”
The misunderstanding of the people on himself did not disappoint Jesus. All their responses were partially correct. However, besides being a prophet, he was a priest and a king. He often referred to himself as Son of Man, just as he used that in his question to the disciples.
Jesus wanted to hear from his dear disciples how they understood him after a close association of over three years, hearing his teachings and watching all he did. Before completing his public ministry, he wanted the reassurance that they knew him and his mission well enough to continue his mission in this world.
Some disciples had wavered in their faith in Jesus and left his company. When he taught about himself as the bread of life “many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (Jn 6:66). Even the twelve, because they misunderstood Jesus and his mission, disputed about who would be the first in the Kingdom of God (Mt 20:20-28). Sometimes Jesus criticized his disciples for their lack of faith (Mt 16:8). Even after following Jesus for over three years, Judas later betrayed Jesus for money. He called Judas “devil” (Jn 6:70- 71). So, Jesus wanted an accurate answer from the apostles on how they understood him.
(16) Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”
Peter had inborn leadership qualities that he might have developed in his fishing profession. He was always bold to react without fear of right or wrong. He had professed his faith in Jesus earlier. When all the disciples of Jesus, except the twelve, left him forever, Jesus asked the apostles whether they also wanted to leave. Then Peter answered: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and now we know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:67-69). However, at Caesarea Philippi, Peter’s response was even better.
Peter proclaimed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. It came from the Hebrew word, Mashiach, meaning “the anointed one.” Prophets, priests, and kings were anointed with oil as a sign of their selection and consecration by God for His purpose. The Greek term for Messiah was Christos (Christ) whom God promised to save mankind from sin and Satan.
Peter also confessed Jesus as the “Son of God.” Though the Bible uses the title “son of God” for angels, the chosen people, the children of Israel, and their kings (CCC 441), it had a greater and unique meaning when applied for the Messiah. At the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus, the voice of the Father declared Jesus as his “beloved Son.” The Church believes that Jesus existed as the eternal Son of God. The Nicene Creed of 325 AD states: “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.” Colossians 1:15-18 and Hebrews 1:2 mention the creation of the world through the Son of God.
Peter professed Jesus as the son of the living God. It implied two meanings: Jesus is the son of God who is alive and master of all humans who are spiritually alive. Jesus was at Caesarea Philippi, at the cave that is the entrance to hell according to the pagan belief. There were temples and statues of pagan gods there. Those were lifeless idols. Peter said that, unlike god Pan and other gods of the underworld made of stones or clay, Jesus was the son of the living God.
(17) Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for it is not flesh or blood that has revealed this to you but my Father in heaven”
Peter’s answer in front of the other disciples pleased Jesus. He complimented Peter for the blessing of the private revelation received from the heavenly Father. “Flesh and blood” stand for human beings with their weakness. The Bible has this Semitic expression at several places. Saint Paul wrote to Galatians that God “was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult flesh and blood” (Gal 1:15b-16:). Like Paul, Peter also had God’s revelation.
“Blessed are you” is an expression Jesus repeatedly used in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus used the same words of benediction for Peter when he professed the divine truth. Jesus also called him, “Simon son of Jonah” meaning that as Peter was the son of Jonah, so Jesus was the son of God.
(18) And now I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church; and never will the powers of death overcome it
Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter. When God gives a new name to a person, it symbolises a new identity. Petra means rock. Since it is a feminine form, Jesus used Petros as a masculine version of rock for Peter. Isaiah 51:1-2 calls Abraham, the father of faith as the rock. As Abraham’s faith was the base of all believers of the Old Testament, the faith Peter professed in Jesus became the base of the New Testament believers. As the foster son of Joseph, a builder, Jesus used the example of rock as the solid foundation for building his church. When Jesus was speaking of Peter as the rock, they were standing on the rock base of Mount Hermon.
When Jesus and the disciples were discussing, they were at the gates of the netherworld. Jesus assured Peter and companions that the gates of the netherworld they were seeing could not conquer the church that Jesus would build.
This was the first time Jesus used the term church for the kingdom that he would establish. The other time he used church was in Matthew 18:17. The term church stands for “assembly” or “congregation” of the people of God (Deut 18:16). In the New Testament, the church is “the household of God” (1 Tim 3:15), and a temple (Eph 2:21).
(19) “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and what you unbind on earth shall be unbound in heaven”
Jesus gave Peter the power to bind or loose on earth, which will have its impact in heaven. That involved the authority to forgive or withhold sins and the authority to make disciplinary rules for the believers. Though Jesus gave all the apostles similar power later (Mt 18:18), here Peter received that power specifically.
Jesus gave the keys to the kingdom of heaven only to Peter. Key is the symbol of authority. In the ancient world, a walled city will have only one prominent gate with one lock and a key. To hand over the key meant handing over authority over the city. When Joseph interpreted the dream of Pharaoh in Egypt, he said to Joseph: “Since it is to you that God has made known all this, there can be no one as intelligent and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people will obey your orders. Only as far as the throne is concerned will I be greater than you” (Gen 41:39-40). Jesus also made a similar remark to Peter because God had made His revelation to him. Just like Pharaoh handed over his signet ring to Joseph saying, “See, I have put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt” (Gen 41:41), Jesus handed over the keys of the heavenly city to Peter. This also reminds us of Eliakim, who held the key to the House of David. “Upon his shoulder I will place the key of the House of David; what he opens, no one will shut; what he shuts, no one will open” (Isa 22:22).
1. Jesus is the most popular historic person in the world. A vast majority of people know him but it does not imply that all accept him as the only “son of the living God.” As Christians, our goal is to give a proper understanding of Jesus to all.
2. All Christians follow Jesus does not mean that they all accept the supreme authority of Peter and his successors. Different Christian denominations have a variety of teachings separate from that of the Catholic Church. The Pope is the successor of the Apostle Peter, to whom alone Jesus had handed over the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let us stay in the Catholic faith where Jesus is the head and cornerstone of the church. Peter is the main foundation of the church along with the other apostles (Eph 2:19-22).
3. Jesus expressed his authority over the pagan gods and the gates of hell at Caesarea Philippi. Let us also give up any pagan beliefs or practices and submit ourselves to the church that Jesus established and made us members.
4. Faith in God or Jesus is not enough. We must be members of the church that Jesus established on Simon Peter, the rock. Jesus Christ is the head of the church and he continues his redemptive service for us through his representatives who are leaders of the church.
5. Jesus proclaimed addressing Peter: “upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). The netherworld can attack the true church of Jesus built on the apostle Peter, but cannot destroy it totally. So, we shall not waver in faith when we notice that the church is under attack.
6. Jesus renamed Simon son of Jonah as Peter. Renaming stands for God’s selection for His mission. We were all named at the time of baptism. Let us give importance to our baptismal name and imitate the excellent qualities of our patron saint.