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Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He began asking His disciples, saying, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father, who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter (*1a), and upon this rock (*1b) I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven' and whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ.
Notes in margin:
1a Greek “Petros”, a stone
1b Greek “Petra”, large rock, bed-rock.
New American Standard Bible, Foundation Press 1960.
For reasons I shall explain later, Matthew gives the fullest account of this event. It is a most extraordinary thing, that just a week or so before his final journey to Jerusalem, Jesus should take his disciples on a 2-day trek to the north, to one of the greatest pagan temple complexes in the ancient world.
At Caesarea Philippi there is a great cave at the foot of a cliff on the side of the mountain, within which was the spring which in those days was the source of the river Jordan. (The source moved down the valley following an earthquake sometime in the late 1880's.) Up in the north of Israel, far from Judaea, the Canaanites and successive generations of Greeks and Romans had constructed temples to their gods at this site. Today you can still see the remains of the temple of Baal.Cut into the face of the cliff there were several niches for images of the Greek god Pan, one or two of which survive today. Pan was the Greek equivalent of the Canaanite Baal, whose image was a bullock or calf. (The golden calf made by Aaron for the Children of Israel was a re-emergence of the Baal cult so condemned by Moses: Exodus 32.)
Werner Keller: The Bible As History p. 77, Lion, 1991
Photo: Herbert Faschin, St. Pölten
The cave was also known as “The Gates of Hell” or “Hades” the doorway to the underworld, where the gods and goddesses were supposed to withdraw in the autumn to spend the winter months. To encourage the gods and goddesses to come out in the Spring and provide general fertility, pagan rites were performed involving the sacrifice of children, temple prostitution, and other immoral acts. Cult practices which so appal us today were the norm in the ancient world. It was a sort of superstitious insurance system thought to improve chances of good crops, family health and general prosperity. In the modern world some unscriptural quasi-Christian cults peddle a similar idea by promising health and other material benefits, certain to result from being part of their group: those who fail to achieve these are often accused of not having sufficient faith, or having some unconfessed sin.
We don't know how many visited Caesarea Philippi, but it could have involved quite a high percentage of the extremely poor population of Israel at the time, who were totally dependent on agriculture. The place itself was referred to as “The Rock” and it is thought that the people who worshipped there were known as “The Rockies”(Ray van der Laan, “That the World May Know” Zondervan teaching Video, Series 2, Lesson 3).
Jesus' visit marks a major turning point for his disciples which affects the course of their lives – as subsequent history in Acts demonstrates. This is the point where Jesus reveals clearly and unambiguously his vocation as Messiah, the Promised One for Israel.
Peter makes the actual declaration and is praised by Jesus for doing so (Matthew 16:16-17). Translators working on the Authorised Version and most subsequent translations of the Western Greek text of this passage do not make the distinction the Greek language makes, where Jesus declares “You are Peter, a little rock – but on this great rock I will build my church”. In other words, Peter himself is not the “rock” referred to. What Jesus is implying here is that his Kingdom will be built in the pagan world, and that he has given up hope for the religious leaders and their congregations in Jerusalem. The statement that “the Gates of Hell will not prevail against it” refers to the assured ultimate victory of God's Kingdom over all the pagan religions of the Roman empire and beyond. Gates cannot attack! The vivid memory of this occasion as Jesus and his disciples stood before this dreadful pagan complex must have been the greatest inspiration to the Apostles, later on.
Peter is then told that his ministry will be one through which many of these lost people would have access to the Kingdom of God – the people of the land, including all the wide ethnic divergencies – Jews, Greeks and Romans, sand-dwellers (nomadic subsistence farmers) and people who thought of themselves as nominally “God's people”. Many of them sought fulfilment through the pagan religions as a means of satisfying “felt” needs which the Temple rites and priests were unable to satisfy – all could unite in the Kingdom of God. The pagan cults (“The Gates of Hell”) would no longer have power over them – they would be delivered from all that horrific practice.
I am greatly indebted to Prof. Ray van der Laan who produced an excellent video series of the cult centre at Caesarea Philippi which sets this all out so clearly. (This material is available via the Internet and can be ordered as a set from www.zondervan.com ISBN 0 310 67859 5. These tapes form an excellent basis for an adult Sunday school. Series 1:“In the shadow of Herod” and Series 2 :“That the world may know” of which this section on Caesarea Philippi is Lesson 3.)
By about AD 320 when the Christian church became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine, the cultural background to this passage would have been largely forgotten. In AD 70 Israel had been substantially depopulated and the old way of life destroyed. With trade going elsewhere, the religious centre at Caesarea Philippi may have fallen into disrepair. Certainly in Rome, 300 years later, few would have been aware of the local reference – and this ignorance led scholars at the time to misunderstand what Jesus was saying: they identified Peter as the rock on which the church would be built.
With Rome as the political power base for the empire, it was politically necessary that leadership over the empire religion should also be based there. To authenticate such a claim, Peter had to be recognised as the saint who belonged to Rome – and so begins the long process of defining him as the founder of the Church in Rome. Streeter always said there was never any contemporary evidence of his being there, and Luther rejected the possibility.That is not to say that Peter never visited the city – Mark is known to have spent years there in retirement: this is good evidence that Peter may have visited at some time – simply because Peter and Mark were always closely associated.
As the Gospel of Matthew appears to establish Peter's position as pre-eminent, the Roman Church would have felt that the Gospel of Matthew had to have first place when the canon (Glossary) of the New Testament came to be established. It became of great political importance within the Church. Even today Roman Catholics will maintain that it is the first and therefore the most authoritative and important of the Gospels. Modern scholarship has established pretty conclusively that Matthew cannot possibly have been the first Gospel to be written, although it is probably earlier than Luke (see Chapter One of this book).
More than once in church history, the misinterpretation of a Biblical text has allowed the political needs of church governance to take priority over truth.
Matthew 21:1-17, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, John 12:12-19
Mark 11:1-11 and 15-18
As they approached Jerusalem, near the towns of Bethphage and Bethany, they came to the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of his disciples on ahead with these instructions: “Go to the village there ahead of you. As soon as you get there, you will find a colt tied up that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. And if someone asks you why you are doing that, tell him that the Master needs it and will send it back at once.”
So they went and found a colt out in the street, tied to the door of a house. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders asked them, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They answered just as Jesus had told them and the bystanders let them go. They brought the colt to Jesus, threw their cloaks over the animal, and Jesus got on. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches in the fields and spread them on the road. The people who were in front and those who were behind began to shout, “Praise God! God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord! God bless the coming Kingdom of King David, our father! Praise God!” Jesus entered Jerusalem, went into the Temple, and looked around at everything. But since it was already late in the day, he went out to Bethany with the twelve disciples.
Verses 15-18: When they arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus went to the Temple and began to drive out all those who were buying and selling. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the stools of those who sold pigeons, and he would not let anyone carry anything through the Temple courtyards. He then taught the people: “It is written in the Scriptures that God said, 'My Temple will be called a house of prayer for the people of all nations' but you have turned it into a hideout for thieves!”
The chief priests and teachers of the Law heard of this, so they began looking for some way to kill Jesus. They were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
I think it is absolutely extraordinary that Jesus went up to Jerusalem in these circumstances. He knew perfectly well what he was heading into, and had explained as much to his disciples, although they were not ready to understand. He was well aware of the kind of unthinking hatred that a dead religion can generate in the hearts and minds of its leaders. Image and position had become of overwhelming importance to the religious authorities: they had become impervious to the deeper spiritual issues of righteousness, peace, and truth. The sort of hatred that rises up within these types can be quite frightening: I have witnessed it many times from priests in Central and Eastern Europe, totally overcome by religious fanaticism. They would have liked to tear me limb from limb as I was preaching the Gospel on the streets of many of their towns and villages. It has only been the presence of a large team, or my minder “Big Takis” that has protected me from physical harm. I have even seen a priest so overcome by hate that he rushed about shouting in one of my meetings, and fell headlong over a low wall (to the great amusement of the crowd). He subsequently ran off, still shouting and screaming at the top of his voice. Rage is a terrible thing which can completely destroy reason. The wife of a bishop recently told us that he had subjected her to 47 years of almost continuous abuse of one sort or another, throughout her married life.
The final picture we have of the religious authorities in Jerusalem is a group of them standing at the foot of the cross, taunting and mocking Jesus in his suffering. It is difficult to express our contempt for that sort of mentality. These were people who claimed to be representatives of God, who says there are seven things he hates above all else – among which are “Hands that kill innocent people, minds that think up wicked plans and hurry off to do evil.”(Proverbs 6:16-19). Many knew perfectly well that his conviction was based on false charges which had originated with them. It is the opinion of historians such as Dr. Tom Wright56and many other scholars of every theological conviction that the destruction of the Jewish nation was the inevitable outcome of their lies. So why did Jesus go up to Jerusalem knowing full well – as he clearly did – what the likely outcome would be?
The conventional view of the Jesus ministry is that he began as an extremely popular figure, attended by large crowds, but that as the spiritual (as opposed to the political) nature of his ministry became apparent, his popularity waned and his following decreased dramatically. This idea is based on John 6 where one particular crowd abandoned him. This often happens in open air evangelism – sometimes a crowd will just walk off. At other times the crowd gets bigger and bigger as the message proceeds. There are complex reasons for this of which scholars are generally unaware. Wright seems to take a view that Jesus' following remained fairly constant. My own conclusion is that Jesus' following had grown steadily throughout his ministry of some three years. By the time we come to the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his entourage was actually very large indeed. The priests could see their influence over the people diminishing rapidly, and were absolutely desperate.
Jesus approaches Jerusalem via Bethany where his presence will raise tremendous excitement in view of the raising of Lazarus, which had happened some time before. People would have come from miles around and would be with him as he entered Jerusalem. It was an occasion of festival and celebration.
WHY THE DONKEY?
All the Gospel accounts go into detail over the donkey, so it was evidently a very important part of the story. We must be aware that the presence of the occupying Roman forces had a considerable impact on local people; the Roman armies had power of requisition and could take anything they wanted from anybody. By law a soldier could require someone to carry his load for him for one mile. In fact Jesus told his followers to do this willingly, not grudgingly, and to demonstrate love and concern for the soldier by in fact carrying the pack an extra mile (Matthew 5:41). There are stories about armies on the move taking beasts of burden (donkeys, mules, oxen) for various purposes – you can imagine the great loss of one of these beasts to a local farmer. One story has a farmer coming home from the fields with a heavily loaded cart drawn by a donkey, and the donkey being unhitched and taken by a platoon of Roman soldiers, leaving the farmer and his cart by the side of the road57 Animals taken in this way were unlikely ever to be returned, and their loss was dreaded.
I believe Derrett was the first to discover that in villages surrounding Jerusalem it was not uncommon for villagers to share the cost of their least valuable animal and tie it up in the main square, so it could be taken without dramatic loss to one individual family.
However, donkeys were also left there for the use of Rabbis. These teachers of the Law going up to the Temple were actually rather superstitious. To meet the requirements of the Law, they must be “ritually pure” to be acceptable in the Temple: to achieve this they had to bathe and wear clean clothes – but their feet must not touch the ground, or their sandals would be regarded as defiled, as they might have come in contact with animal dung (even if they had not in fact done so). Also, they believed that passing under the shadow of a building as they entered the city would bring them under the influence of satan. If however they were riding an animal, the shadow would have no effect! Hence a Rabbi may requisition a donkey from a village on his way to the Temple, but must return it, fed, watered and in good condition, at the end of the day (fair wear and tear excepted)58 Having your animal borrowed by a Rabbi was obviously far preferable to having it requisitioned by a Roman soldier!
We should understand that sending his disciples to fetch the donkey from the village square in Bethany was a perfectly normal thing for Jesus to do. It would have signalled to his followers that he was about to ride up to teach officially in the Temple itself, rather than in the large area of the Temple courtyard to which Jews had access fairly easily. The sellers of lambs and doves for individual sacrifice would have their stalls in the Temple courtyard and here too were the money-changers, who would change ordinary currency into the Tyrian silver coins acceptable to the priests. It was an announcement that he and his followers would be confronting the Jewish authorities with his message of the Kingdom of God.
But still, as Mark10:37 tells us, the “Twelve” were in a state of high excitement expecting the Kingdom of God to burst through in some miraculous way. The crowds were calling “Praise God! God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord! God bless the coming Kingdom of King David, our father!” GNB. They were clearly looking for a political solution to their problems.
The triumphal entry into Jerusalem by Jesus and his followers was a huge event in the history of Israel. It was clearly recognised as such by all those present. Wright's opinion is that this was such a major event that it could not have lasted more than ten or fifteen minutes, because of the risk of an intervention by the Roman forces in the Fortress of Antonia next door. The soldiers would have been likely to fear that there was an insurrection in progress, and would have quickly descended in force to put a stop to it. One hesitates to disagree with a scholar of the stature of Tom Wright, but history has shown, from the Greek occupation 200 years earlier, that foreign troops entering the Temple area would be likely to set off a national revolt – so in fact the Romans would have been very reluctant to intervene in that situation.
Luke 21: 37-38 makes it clear that Jesus was teaching in the Temple for several days, and that large crowds of people came early every morning to hear him. Scholars seem to me to reject quite important, clear statements of evidence in the Gospel accounts in favour of some theory they may have about what the Romans, for instance, would or would not do. I think the only safe procedure today is for us to accept everything we find in the New Testament documents and account for all the evidence.
Towards the end of the week, the priestly authorities were becoming desperate at the rising popularity of a Teacher whose brilliance far exceeded anything they had to offer. John has them saying “The whole world is going after him” (John 12:19). Jesus knew that desperate measures would be taken against him. Normally when he came to Jerusalem he would stay with Mary, Martha and Lazarus.After the Last Supper, instead of returning to Bethany, he went instead to the Garden of Gethsemane. This is a small grove of trees halfway back to Bethany – I believe he chose to be arrested here rather than implicate Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
In the National Museum in Sofia in Bulgaria is a Roman inscription referring to Pontius Pilate as a local man. Sofia was a main administrative centre for the Roman empire in the East, and a staging post for troops, supplies, and administrative staff travelling between Rome and the East. Pontius Pilate was a Bulgarian, rather than an Italian. Unlike most of the high-born Italian Roman governors, he was much more flexible in the application of Roman law when political expediency demanded. Crucifixion was the worst form of execution known in the Roman world. Pilate pronounced he death sentence on Jesus moments after having publicly washed his hands, which was a formal declaration, Roman style, that Jesus was legally innocent. This was something that only someone like Pilate could do. In fact, Pilate and his administration had been the subject of numerous complaints to Caesar about maladministration, executions without trial, and various other abuses of power.59
The awful events that followed, so brilliantly portrayed in Mel Gibson's film “The Passion of the Christ” have shocked all those who saw them. I will not go into detail here. It beggars belief that humans could behave in that way. The priests, the Scribes, the Pharisees and the Elders stood around the cross, enjoying their moment of victory. Jesus himself was well aware that this was the likely outcome of this visit to Jerusalem. We ask ourselves “Why on earth did he go?”
There can only be one answer. Love. The love that requires even men as debased as these to be given a chance to repent, to change. Dr. Chuba Ao, the Christian leader of Nagaland, recounts how his people killed every missionary sent to their country in the 19th Century. (Nagaland is on the border of India and Burma.) As he tells this story beaming at us over his pulpit, this lovely round-faced little man says “We Nagas are civilised, you know – we were never cannibals. We were head-hunters!” He recounts how yet one more missionary, a Scot, walked alone into Nagaland preaching the Gospel, knowing full well there was a 99% chance he would die like all the others. The men of a whole village attacked him with their spears – but they all bounced off an invisible shield and fell to the ground just short of his feet. They were totally amazed. This led to the whole village, and eventually the whole nation, turning to Christ: 95% of them are believers to this day. Nagaland is now the main source of missionaries for Christian action in the far East.
K. P. Yohannan's wonderful book “Revolution in World Missions”60contains remarkable accounts of the huge sacrifices made by thousands of Asian Christians who work day and night to preach the Gospel to the lost, despite appalling and debilitating poverty. These are the people God is using.
Love requires that the lost be given a chance to become part of God's Kingdom. My prayer is that one day the Christian church may recover from its current shallow commitment to Christian mission both at home and abroad: that Christians will be inspired to give up everything to follow Jesus wherever he leads them. The challenge to each of us is – who will follow Jesus?
It is most important to stress that modern Judaism bears little relation to the corrupt regime that Jesus was faced with in Jerusalem. Judaism since AD 70 has been through times of great change, firstly as it came to terms with the end of the Temple and the sacrificial system, and then through processes such as the so-called “Council” of Jamnea around AD 200. This was a running debate in which the Rabbis are said to have made plans for the future of their religion. Further dramatic changes took place in the 12th and 13th Centuries in Europe. This produced a culture which is both spiritually challenging and strongly humanistic. The Jews I have met have been thought-provoking and delightful, and of course deeply sincere.
The terrible genocide suffered by the Jewish nation in the last century has had the unfortunate effect of producing in some Jews – very naturally – a paranoid defensive attitude which tends to lead them to a reliance on militaristic solutions. Years ago, these people lived in ghettos all over Europe. They lived lives of devotion to their God, engaged in both industry and commerce, never constituting a threat to anybody. Their sufferings both before and during the Second World War and attempts at their wide scale extermination by a criminal regime are probably the most horrific crimes of history. I myself have visited many of their ruined settlements in Central and Eastern Europe. They should enjoy our sympathy and respect.
56 Wright, Nicholas Thomas (1992): The New Testament And The People Of God. London: S.P.C.K. p.406
57 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1978): Studies in the New Testament. Volume 6. Brill. p.168 ff
58 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1978): Studies in the New Testament. Volume 6. Brill.
59 Wright, Nicholas Thomas (1996): Jesus And The Victory Of God. London: S.P.C.K. p. 544-545
60 Yohannan, K. P. (1986): Revolution in World Missions. Creation House