"Now Jesus and His disciples went out to the towns of Caesarea Philippi; and on the road He asked His disciples, saying to them, "Who do men say that I am?" And they answered, "John the Baptist; but some say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" And Peter answered and said to Him, "You are the Christ." (Mark 8:27-29).
The city of Caesarea Philippi was on the southwestern slope of Mount Hermon and the northernmost extent of Jesus' ministry. Here, about 25 miles north-east of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus could be alone with His disciples -- outside the domain of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, and within the area of Philip the Tetrarch. The population was not Jewish, so Jesus could teach the twelve in peace. Here, on a road outside of the city, Jesus asked one of the most profound questions that could ever be posed, "Who do men say that I am?" It is interesting to see where Jesus chose to ask this question, for there are few areas in all of the world with more religious associations than Caesarea Philippi.
Caesarea Philippi is one of the most pleasant sites in Israel -- it is on a terrace 1,150 feet high overlooking a fertile valley. It is also an area scattered with the temples of ancient Syrian Baal worship. Historians have listed at least fourteen such temples -- it was a place beneath the shadow of ancient gods.
There are several references to this area in the Old Testament. The northernmost conquest of Joshua is described as ranging from "the mountains of Israel and its lowlands, from Mount Halak and the ascent to Seir, even as far as Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon" (Joshua 11:17). In a description of the nations that were left to "test" Israel we read of "the Hivites who dwelt in Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal Hermon to the entrance of Hamath" (Judges 3:3). In 1 Chronicles 5:23 we read that "the children of the half-tribe of Manasseh dwelt in the land. Their numbers increased from Bashan to Baal Hermon, that is, to Senir, or Mount Hermon."
A cave near Caesarea Philippi is said to be the birthplace of the Greek god Pan, the god of nature, fields, forests, mountains, flocks and shepherds. "He is son of Hermes by one or another nymph; his mother was so scared by his appearance that she abandoned him at birth and Hermes introduced him to Olympus. His name is probably related to the same root as Latin pasco, and thus means 'shepherd.'" (Richard Stoneman, Greek Mythology, p. 136). The cult of Pan originated in Arcadia, a pastoral region in Greece. Greek travelers, finding the landscape was like their homeland, established this area of worship to Pan. During the Hellenistic period, a sanctuary was built to Pan. There are five niches hewn out of rock to the right of the cave -- at one time they probably held statues -- three of the niches bear inscriptions in Greek mentioning Pan, Echo and Galerius (one of Pan's priests).
The original name for Caesarea Philippi was Panias (also spelt Paneas, Paneion and Paneias). The modern name is Banias -- an Arabic corruption of Panias.
The Jordan river has four main sources, and the cave at Caesarea Philippi is its' easternmost source -- this alone would make the area full of emotion for the Jews. "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 water. Over it hangs a vast mountain, and under the cavern arise the springs of the River Jordan." (The Works Of Flavius Josephus).
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. "At Paneas Antiochius III defeated the Ptolemies of Egypt in 200 BCE, thus establishing Seleucid rule in Palestine and Syria In 20 BCE, Augustus gave Paneas to King Herod who erected there a temple of white marble to his patron (Josephus, Antiq. 15, 10.3/360); but the city was built only later by his son Herod Philip. During the First Jewish War (66-70 CE), Vespasian together with Titus and his army encamped there, and were entertained by King Agrippa II (Josephus, War, 3, 9.7/443-44). After the death of Agrippa II, Caesarea Philippi was attributed to the province of Syria, and later to Phoenicia." (Rousseau and Arav, Jesus And His World, p. 34).
In 2 B.C. Herod the Great's son, Philip, named it Caesarea in honor of Augustus, and, to differentiate it from Caesarea Maritima, it became known as Caesarea Philippi. Later, Herod Agrippa would call the place Neroneas in honor of the Emperor Nero. After the destruction of Jerusalem, "The victors gave no quarter, but slew all Jews upon whom they could lay their hands; 97,000 fugitives were caught and sold as slaves; many of them died as unwilling gladiators in the triumphal games that were celebrated at Berytus, Caesarea Philippi and Rome." (Will Durant, Caesar And Christ, p. 545).
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.
With Caesarea Philippi as a backdrop we have a dramatic picture of Jesus of Nazareth, a penniless Galilean carpenter, surrounded by twelve ordinary men. The Jewish leaders were already plotting and planning on destroying Him as a dangerous heretic.
Jesus was standing on a road in an area littered with the temples of the Syrian gods, a place where the Greek gods looked down, a place where the most important river in Judaism sprang to life, a place where the white marble splendor of the home of Caesar-worship dominated the landscape. And here, of all places, He stands and asks men who they believe Him to be. Peter boldly answers that He is "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). Someone suggested that it is as if Jesus deliberately set Himself against the background of the world's religions in all their splendor and glory and demanded to be compared with them.
The great confession at Caesarea Philippi was followed by the great hour on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-9). Tradition connects the Transfiguration with Mount Tabor, but this is highly unlikely -- it is too far away to fit into the story. Besides, during the time of Jesus Mount Tabor was populated and a Hasmonean fortress stood on its summit. The fortified mountain had to be conquered by the Romans in the great Jewish War in 67 A.D. It is more likely that the Transfiguration happened on Mount Hermon -- just 14 miles from Caesarea Philippi.
Mount Hermon is Israel's highest mountain. Its summit (9,232 feet above sea level) is actually in Syrian territory. Mount Hermon is 11,000 feet above the level of the Jordan valley -- so high it can sometimes be seen from the Dead Sea, at the other end of Palestine, more than 100 miles away.
Mount Hermon was generally considered in the local tradition as a holy mountain. The Hebrew word for "Hermon" can be translated as "the mountain set apart." Peter speaks of the Transfiguration and recalls how "we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain" (2 Peter 1:18).
Jesus had come to this mountain to pray (Luke 9:28-29). The Transfiguration must have happened at night, for Luke tells us that the disciples were weighted down with sleep (Luke 9:28-35). It was the next day when Jesus and His disciples came back down to the plain to find the father of the epileptic boy waiting (Luke 9:37). It was probably some time in the sunset, or in the late evening, when the Transfiguration took place.
Here on the mountain two great figures appear -- Moses and Elijah -- both of whom had experienced the power of God on a mountain top.
When Moses came down from Sinai, he "did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him" (Exodus 34:29). It was on Mount Sinai that Moses received the Law (Exodus 31:18). At his death, Moses, the top of Pisgah, could see Mount Hermon (Deut. 34:1-4).
Elijah met with God on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8-12), and met the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-40).
The topic of conversation at the Transfiguration was "of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31). The word which is translated "decease" is very significant -- it is exodos, which is exactly the same as the English word exodus -- a word which is always used in connection with the departure of the people of God from Egypt.
Both Moses and the prophet Elijah departed this world in an unusual manner. Moses was buried in a place known only to God (Deut. 34:5-12). Elijah was talking with Elisha, and "as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven" (2 Kings 2:11).
The gospel writers speak of the luminous cloud that overshadowed them. The cloud was a part of Israel's history -- all throughout their history it had stood for the shechinah, which was the glory of Almighty God! In Exodus we read of the "pillar of cloud" which was to lead people on their way (Exodus 13:21-22). It was in a cloud that the Lord descended to give Moses the tables of the Law (Exodus 34:5). When the Tabernacle was completed the narrative ends with these words: "Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" (Exodus 40:34). At the dedication of Solomon's Temple, "when the priests came out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord" (1 Kings 8:10-11). No Jew could have seen the shechinah without thinking of the glory of God resting upon His people.
From the glory on the mount of Transfiguration to the humiliation on the cross of Calvary, Jesus was and still is "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16).
Who do you say that Jesus, the Son of Man, is?