What do people think Jesus is?

Mark 8.27-30, Matthew 16.13-20, Luke 9.18-21.

Provincial leaders in the Roman Empire liked to suck up to their emperors, which is why there were cities named Καισάρεια/Kesáreia, “Cæsarea,” dotting the empire. Ancient Israel had two. The usual city referred to in the New Testament as Cæsarea is also called Cæsarea Maritima; it’s on the Mediterranean coast of northern Israel. The other is in Philip Herod’s province, so it got called Cæsarea Philippi. Today it’s called Banias.

Banias is actually an Arabic distortion of its original name, Πανειάς/Paneiás. It was named for the pagan god Pan. Likely Pan was originally Baal-Gad, one of the many Baals in the middle east, and when Alexander and the Greeks attached Greek names to everything, they referred to this Baal as Pan. The Greeks depicted Pan as a goat-man with a flute, but Pan comes from πάντως/pántos, “everything”: It’s a nature god, and therefore the god of everything. It’s considered a minor god because it didn’t have a large following, but Pan-worshipers thought their god was a big, big deal. They built a big ol’ shrine to Pan there, and it’s still there for tourists to gawk at.

Overt paganism tends to creep out certain religious Christians, who stay far away from any “wicked” city which practices such things. Of course Jesus knows all about the covert paganism going on in our supposedly “righteous” cities, which is why Caesarea didn’t bug him any more than Kfar Nahum… or Jerusalem. People are messed up no matter where you go, and our “righteous” avoidance of the appearance of evil doesn’t make us any more holy, or score us more karma points with God, like we imagine it does. On the contrary: We can’t minister to the lost when we’re “too good for them,” and we’re not all that good when we refuse to obey God and love our neighbors, pagan or not. Jesus doesn’t discriminate in that way, so of course he took his students to such cities.

In a city named for Caesar, you’d naturally see monuments dedicated to Caesar-worship. Herod 1 had deliberately built a temple there for the purpose. (Yeah, he also rebuilt the LORD’s temple in Jerusalem, but don’t think for a minute he did it for anything other than political reasons.) Technically they weren’t worshiping him, but his genius (pronounced 'ɡɛ.ni.us, not as our English word 'dʒin.jəs), his guardian spirit. Our word genie comes from the Latin word… and the Greek word for it would be δαίμων/démon.

But over time, Romans stopped worshiping the guardian spirit and simply worshiped the Caesars directly. After each Caesar died, the Roman senate voted to declare them to be gods. They believed whenever you worshiped ancestors as gods, they actually became gods; the Olympians would actually have to include ’em in their pantheon. Some pagan Romans didn’t even wait for ’em to die, but worshiped the living emperor as a god. Same as the ancient Egyptians worshiped their pharaohs.

So that’s what people said the Caesars were… so naturally Jesus wanted to talk about what people said he was.

Mark 8.27 KWL
Jesus and his students went into the villages of Caesarea in Philip Herod’s province.
On the road he was questioning his students, telling them, “What do people say I am?”
Matthew 16.13 KWL
Jesus went into the Caesarea area in Philip Herod’s province,
and questioned his students, saying, “What do people say about the Son of Man?”
Luke 9.18 KWL
It happened while Jesus was praying alone, though with the students around him,
he asked them, saying, “What do the crowds say I am?”

As you know, plenty of pagans nowadays admit Jesus is a wise man and great moral teacher… and little more. Muslims, and some Jews, say he’s a prophet… and again, little more. People of other religions, plus nontheists and skeptics, say much the same as the pagans, although they’re more honest in their disregard: Wise or not, they have no interest at all in following him.

So what do we Christians think he is?

…One of the End Times figures!

Jesus’s students ran down a basic list for him:

Mark 8.28 KWL
The students told him, “They’re saying John the baptist.
And others, Elijah; and others, that you’re one of the prophets.”
Matthew 16.14 KWL
The students said, “Some say John the baptist, others Elijah.
Yet others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Luke 9.19 KWL
In reply the students said, “John the baptist.
Others say Elijah; others, one of the ancient prophets, resurrected.”

Here’s the weird bit. All these answers referred to dead prophets. Not a new prophet; not a living prophet. The Jews were fixated on Jesus being an old prophet, a prophet from the bible. Except John the baptist, who was a new prophet. Yet he died recently, so it seems their fixation was more on Jesus being a dead prophet than simply one of the bible’s prophets.

Why on earth did they imagine Jesus was a dead prophet, returned to life? They were following Pharisee interpretations of the End Times. Pharisees, much like Darbyists today, had a bad habit of fashioning timelines of the End based on loose, iffy interpretations of the bible. One of those iffy interpretations was to presume prophecies by and about the ancient prophets were really about the End. Another was to presume when the prophecy referred to the prophet specifically, take it literally and assume God’s literally sending back some of his favorite prophets to trigger the End.

As Jesus pointed out, he’s not literally sending dead prophets back to earth. John is Elijah in that John is like Elijah. But Pharisees were insistent it’d literally be Elijah, so that’s what they expected of John. And even though John was killed, a number of ’em apparently figured God raised up Jesus to take his place… so here we are. Jesus is the new John. Or the old John. Or Elijah. Or maybe one of the other prophets, which they weren’t officially expecting, but if God sent back Elijah, why not one of the other ancient prophets?

The hope was Elijah, or another Old Testament figure, would trigger the End. And Jesus had done some impressive miracles, so maybe he was this significant End Times prophet, and he’d lead up to Messiah stepping in and taking over the world like they wanted.

But Jesus wanted to know what they thought, so his best student, Simon Peter, stepped up.

Mark 8.29 KWL
Jesus was asking them, Now you: What do you say I am?”
In reply Simon Peter told him, “You’re Messiah.”
Matthew 16.15-16 KWL
15 Jesus told them, Now you: What do you say I am?”
16 In reply Simon Peter said, “You’re Messiah, the son of the living God.”
Luke 9.20 KWL
20 Jesus told them, Now you: What do you say I am?”
In reply Simon Peter said, “God’s Messiah.”

Correct answer. Only problem was the students weren’t entirely sure what Messiah meant. They knew it means anointed king, but they still had a lot of popular-culture ideas about what Messiah was gonna do: Overthrow the Romans, take over the world, rule with an iron scepter forever; stuff like that. Stuff Christians still want him to do.

Jesus’s response in Matthew.

Matthew provides a unique response Jesus makes to Simon Peter: He praises the boy for recognizing who Jesus is, and prophesies some things about the blessings that’ll fall upon Peter for his faith.

Matthew 16.17-19 KWL
17 In reply Jesus told him, “You’re awesome, Simon bar Jonah:
Not flesh and blood, but my Father in the heavens, reveals this to you.
18 I also tell you you’re Peter/a rock. I’ll build my church on this rock.
The afterlife’s gates won’t withstand it: 19 I’ll give you the keys of heaven’s kingdom.
Whatever you stop on earth, it’ll be stopped in the heavens.
Whatever you start on earth, it’ll be started in the heavens.”

This passage has created no end of controversy. ’Cause Roman Catholics insist it doesn’t just apply to Peter, but to all Peter’s successors as bishop of Rome. And Protestants insist it doesn’t just apply to Peter either, but to all Christians who likewise recognize Jesus as Messiah, same as Peter did. Neither group recognizes this may simply be exactly what it appears to be: Jesus’s specific, particular encouragement to Peter.

This is not to say Jesus doesn’t have similar blessings for Christians who share Peter’s faith… so in this sense the Protestants are right. And likewise that Jesus doesn’t have similar blessings for Christians in leadership… so in this sense the Catholics are right. But to claim Peter’s blessing is transferrable to anyone else? ’Tain’t in the text. Claiming otherwise is wishful thinking, whether you’re Catholic or Protestant.

Jesus’s blessings and authority granted to the rest of Christendom sorta resembles what he told Peter:

Matthew 18.18-20 KWL
18 “Amen, I promise you: Whenever you stop something on earth, it’ll be stopped in heaven.
Whenever you start something on earth, it’ll be started in heaven.
19 Amen again, I promise you: Whenever two of you agree upon something on earth—
on any act which you’ve asked about—my heavenly Father will make it happen,
20 for I’m in the middle of it whenever two or three have come together in my name.”
John 20.23 KWL
“If any of you forgives someone’s sins, they’re forgiven.
If any of you seizes something, it’s seized.”

As for holding the kingdom’s keys: They’re purely ceremonial, for they’re kinda irrelevant: The gates to New Jerusalem are never gonna be closed. Rv 21.25 Meanwhile Jesus has the more relevant keys to death and the afterlife, Rv 1.18 which he intends to use at the resurrection to render them irrelevant.

So yeah, our blessings as Christians largely overlap Peter’s blessing here. But let’s not dismiss Peter altogether. He did give the correct answer.

“Now tell no one.”

The Matthew version makes Jesus sound way more pleased that Peter deduced he’s Messiah. The Mark and Luke versions kinda make him sound pissed:

Mark 8.30 KWL
Jesus rebuked them, so they’d tell no one this about him.
Matthew 16.20 KWL
20 Then Jesus ordered the students so they might tell no one he’s Messiah.
Luke 9.21 KWL
21 Jesus rebuked them, ordering them to never say this.

Most Christians wanna rectify any apparent inconsistencies we think we’ve found in the bible, so they try to spin Mark and Luke as if Jesus isn’t really rebuking his students. Thing is, “rebuke” is what Mark and Luke’s word ἐπιτιμάω/epitimáo means: To strongly correct them. Do not publicly say Jesus is Messiah. It’ll get him killed.

Part of the problem is Christians assume rebuke only means to correct people when they’re sinning. No; it means to correct people when they’re doing wrong. It’s absolutely right to describe Jesus as Messiah. But don’t do it around certain Herodians and Romans—or Pharisees who’d be happy to turn Jesus in to such people as a traitor to Rome. Use your heads!

Nowadays people aren’t aware Messiah and Christ mean “king”—they think it means “savior,” which is actually what his given name Jesus means. Largely they act as if Christ is his last name; he’s the son of Joseph and Mary Christ of Nazareth. Thanks to the separation of church and state, they don’t recognize Jesus as any kind of political leader—and when they do, they’ve largely substituted their own politics for what he actually teaches. So any threat he might be to the established order, has largely been neutered. It hasn’t sunk in that when he returns, he’s gonna overthrow it. That if they’re in any positions of power, he’s gonna overthrow them.

Jesus is the king of a radical new kingdom that’s coming into the world. And in many parts of the world it’s still not safe to say so. So if you live in those parts of the world, or visit ’em regularly: Use your heads!

Christ Almighty!