Summary: What does upon this rock mean?
Upon This Rock
Rev. Mark A. Barber
Most of us have heard this text preached before and/or studied it in Sunday school. Usually the lesson zeroes in on Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. Additionally, there is usually some discussion on whether Peter was given the prominence in the church above that of the other apostles or whether the rock just refers to Jesus’ confession. These things are and should be discussed. But there is much more in this passage than to proof text the papacy or even upon the confession itself. To do this, we must understand this passage within its context and see all that is taught. When we have done this, we will begin to see how rich this passage is. Let us now examine the passage.
Jesus had just finished warning the disciples against the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two groups were united in their opposition to Jesus, even though their views about Judaism were at loggerheads with each other. It is at this point that Jesus departs for the region of Caesarea Philippi.
To the modern reader in America, it would be easy to overlook the importance of this transition. Some would see this as a means to get away from the persecution of the Pharisees and Saduccees. But would it not be odd to go to the same place where Herod Phillip had his palace, a man whom Jesus called “a fox”? Is this not where John the Baptist had run into trouble and been arrested and beheaded. Would going to Caesarea Philippi then be an attempt to escape the frying pan by jumping into the fire?
Others would see this as a means of Jesus withdrawing from the crowds to give important teaching to His disciples. The parallel account in Luke seems to indicate this, although it does not mention the place where Jesus took them. Indeed it is true that Jesus did have something very important for His disciples to learn, more than appears to us at first.
To cross over to Caesarea Philippi was to cross into Gentile territory. The importance of this statement cannot be overstated. It represented a territory whose culture would seem utterly hostile to the Palestinian Jews who made up Jesus’ disciples. There was already enough Gentile intrusion and influence in the land of Palestine itself, even in the holy city of Jerusalem. Jesus had also taken the disciples into Gentile territory before. He had taken them to Decapolis, the ten Gentile villages east of the Sea of Galilee and to the land of the Gadarenes where the demoniac had been delivered from a legion of demons in the cemetery there. The feeding of the 4,000 took place in Gentile territory. And Jesus healed a Gentile woman’s daughter while on a mission to the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon.
But the region of Caesarea Philippi was very, very pagan. In the ancient times, it was a center of Baal worship. From a cave every year, it was believed that Baal and his female consort Asherah emerged as from the dead. Their sexual union, ritualized by temple prostitutes, restored fertility to the dead earth. In the worship of these gods, the firstborn children were sacrificed in hopes of having many more children. The ancient Israelites had become ensnared in the worship of Baal which caused Yahweh to send them out of the land into captivity. The remnant of the Jews who returned from the Babylonian captivity had learned their lesson, or so they thought. They corrupted the title Baal-Zebul which means “exalted lord” to Baal Zebub which means “lord of the flies” in mock contempt. This is the same Baalzebub which the Jewish leaders had accused Jesus of using to exorcise demons. So this would come as quite a shock that Jesus would lead them there.
Even more shocking is that when the Greeks conquered Palestine, they carved a temple into the cliff where this cave was located from which both Baal and the east branch of the Jordan River emerged and dedicated it to their god, Pan, who was half goat and half man. The word “Pan” in Greek means “everything”. Worship of this “everything” god included scantily dressed goat dancers whose private parts were covered only with removable veils. The horrors of this place would even be worse than the shocking dream of Peter in the book of Acts in which he was asked to slay and eat all sorts of unclean animals. No self-respecting Jew would ever be caught dead there.
I feel the disciples would have been a bit on edge when Jesus asks them the first question: “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” The word “men” is generic. Jesus did not say “Who do the Jews think the Son of Man is? But the disciples the thought within the borders of their own culture and answered accordingly. They gave various answers of what they had heard from other Jews, some thought John the Baptist or Elijah, some others Jeremiah or one of the prophets, all Israelites.