Although all three of the synoptic Gospel report the event that has become known as the Primacy or Confession of Peter, it is only Matthew who adds the detail about where Peter makes his declaration of faith in Jesus as the Messiah. This one little detail adds a great deal to the story for me. Matthew writes that Jesus posed his question, "Who do people say that I am?" at Caesarea Philippi.
Caesarea Philippi was a Roman settlement or town located in the area known as Paneas, something of a grove or a park dedicated to the Roman god Pan. It was decorated with grottos and statues of this god as well as other members of the Roman pantheon. Both Matthew and Mark mention the area in their Gospels. Matthew specifically names it as the place where Peter makes his famous declaration.
Peter answers Jesus very pointedly. "You are the Christ, the son of the living God." (Matthew 16:16) Imagine being surrounded by all sorts of Roman images of gods and goddesses. Not only does Peter declare his faith in Jesus, he does so in a way that clearly identifies the Father of Jesus as the God of Israel. I find his assertion to be a particularly moving statement as does Jesus himself.
I do not believe that Jesus was testing his disciples; but if he had chosen to do so, Peter would have passed with flying colors. Expectations about the Messiah were abundant. Some thought that the Messiah would be a great king who would lead Israel back to the prominence it once had before the Babylonian exile. Others were looking for a new high priest, one who would lead Israel in true worship and would foreswear the allegiance with Rome which the high priest of Jesus’ time had sealed with Rome. Others thought he would be a great prophet, like Elijah of old. However, Jesus was a different kind of Messiah, one who would suffer and die for the sins of all men and women. When he asks the question of his disciples, he is trying to ascertain whether his message is getting across to the people. This Gospel tells us that at least Peter was generally in tune with Jesus.
Chapter sixteen records this event shortly after the crowds had asked Jesus for a sign. Though the Gospel doesn't go into great detail, some scholars believe that they are asking Jesus to prove he is the Messiah by revealing the place where the priests and Levites had hidden the Ark of the Covenant before Jerusalem was devastated by the armies of Assyria. The Babylonian captivity lasted so long that no one remembered the hiding place when the Israelites were released and allowed to return to Jerusalem. A tradition grew among the people that the Messiah would be the one who revealed the hiding place. Peter needed no such sign. His faith is an example for us all.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator
(The picture that accompanies this blog is the church which marks the spot of Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah.)