One morning in Israel fellow pilgrims and I left Tiberias for places north in the upper regions of Galilee. Our focus for the day was the area in the New Testament gospels known as the villages of Caesarea Phillipi. You might remember it as the setting for Jesus’ infamous question to Simon Peter: “Who do you say that I am?”
Our bus parked in a secluded gravel area. We trekked on foot in single file winding our way down to a beautiful stream from one of three springs that originates the Jordan River, which flows north to south through Israel. From the foot of Mt. Hermon to the Dead Sea this ribbon of life still shapes the course of history. Banias is the Arabic name (Greek name, Paneas) for this tranquil spot. A spectacular waterfall is the highlight. There was a rather isolated temple nearby built by Herod the Great at the base of a cave, but when Herod Philip chose Paneas as his administrative capital, a moderate-size city emerged along the stream.
After a bit of a walk we found refreshment in the hospitality of a local family. We enjoyed flat bread and hyssop, fruit juice and chocolate. After boarding the bus to head to the ruins of the Greek temple, you would never guess what happened. My youngest son, Barrett, who was touring the Middle East with a group of seminarians (totally unrelated to my trip), bounded up onto the bus. “Dad!” he exclaimed. I have never been more surprised or elated. We embraced, laughed and posed for pictures. To think in such a remote place, on the other side of the globe our paths should cross. It was, at least from my perspective, a “God-thing,” as we like to say.
That was the geographical and personal context for the day. The biblical context had us wrestling with the question posed to every would-be follower of His. “Who is Jesus? Who do you say that He is?” That is the question still, is it not?
Most often I prefer to answer doctrinally—with the head you might say. It is a matter of what we believe. Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Good answer. Such response appeals to my desire for something concrete on which to stand. I believe.
But this day the question would take on new meaning for me. Standing amidst the ruins of a temple erected to the Greek gods—where Jesus framed the question—I could not escape its weight. Who is this Jesus, really? In the midst of the gods that vie for my allegiance—my own family notwithstanding.
Like I said, I know the right answer. Peter, among other witnesses in scripture, gives us more than enough. But that’s not the question is it, at least not one simply of the head. Who do you say I am? It’s not nearly so concrete as some fill-in-the-blank response. It’s a question of relationship, a matter of the heart I suspect. After all, we come to Jesus by faith (not reason) or by following (not always knowing). It is really a matter of heart, of relationship. He is family.