The journey to Caesarea Philippi

Peter-do-you-love-meThis coming Sunday, the 24th Sunday, is taken from Mark 8:27-35. The account fits into a series of narratives that are part of the context of Mark’s narrative. One thing is clear: Jesus’ running debate with the Pharisees and the scribes from Jerusalem continues unabated – even continuing from before last Sunday’s gospel. Here is an outline of some recent Markan pericopes (stories).

  • The Feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:34-44)
  • Jesus walks on the water (Mark 6:45-52)
  • The Healings at Gennesaret (Mark 6:53-56)
  • Conflict over the Tradition of the Elders (Mark 7:1-23) – 22nd Sunday
  • The Encounter with the Syrophoenician Woman (Mark 7:24-30)
  • Healing of the Deaf Man (Mark 7:31-37) – 23rd Sunday
  • Feeding of the 4,000 (Mark 8:1-10)
  • The Demand for a Sign (Mark 8:11-13)
  • Warning against the leaven of the Pharisees (Mark 8:14-21)
  • The Blind Man of Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26)
  • Peter’s Confession (Mark 8:27-35) – 24th Sunday

The recent conflict with the Pharisees and Jerusalem scribes was preceded by the story of Jesus walking on the water and the healing of the crowds. What follows the conflict encounter is the healing of the child of the Syrophoenician woman, the cure of the deaf-mute, and the second feeding of the crowds. This second feeding results in another request from the Pharisees for a sign. Clearly, this group of religious leaders is unable to break out of the mode that the Messiah’s arrival is a future event. With the evidence of miracles before them they continue to ask “what can you do next – show us a sign” Jesus’ response is unequivocal: “Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” (Mk 8:12)

Jesus seems to have concluded that there is simply a persisting blindness among the Pharisees that reflects a hardened heart for which no sign will be convincing. This is why Jesus warns his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees – that interior disposition that leads them away from the Kingdom of God already present among them (Mark 8:14-21). At the same time, Jesus hints that the disciples too may suffer from a degree of blindness – as they do not seem to grasp the fullness of the meaning of the miraculous feedings.

But even as Jesus warns them he continues his ministry of healing – in this instance, healing blindness. But note that the healing seems to occur in stages: blindness gives way to a less opaque seeing and eventually to clarity of sight. So too, if the apostles will remain with and in Jesus, they too will gradually come to fully “see” and understand the larger mission of the Holy One of God. (Mark 8:22-26) Mark’s gospel is the only one that records this particular miracle. This miracle story suggests three groups of people: (1) the uncured blind, (2) those who have received a touch from Jesus and see partially, and (3) those who have received the second touch and can see clearly.

All this leads to Caesarea Philippi and one of the pivotal moments in the gospel of Mark. The description of the coming periscope is oddly stated in the Greek, “into the villages of Caesarea Philippi.” Previously Mark had described it as a region (5:1, 17; 7:24, 31; 8:10). In any case, the region was twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee. The area was built up by Herod Philip to serve as the capital of his tetrarchy. It is perhaps noteworthy that the region is two days’ journey away. It’s northern location likely served to separate Jesus and his disciples from the crowds that attended his every move earlier in the ministry.

As Lane [289] notes: “The capital was located at the source of the Jordan River on the slopes of Mount Hermon in a region famed for its beauty and fertility. When the area was first given to Herod the Great by Augustus he built a temple in honor of the emperor near a grotto consecrated to the Greek god Pan. In 3 B.C. Philip rebuilt the neighboring village of Paneas as his residence and named the new city in honor of Caesar. The area was thus dominated by strong Roman associations, and it may be theologically significant that Jesus’ dignity was first recognized in a region devoted to the affirmation that Caesar is lord.”

According to Harper’s Bible Dictionary, this city was known in antiquity as a shrine of the Greek and Roman nature god, Pan. It notes that sites of worship were likely outside in nature taking over places that had been dedicated to various Semitic deities and was possibly the location of Baal-gad or Baal-hermon of the OT (Josh 11:17 ff; Judg. 3:3; 1 Chr. 5:23). So it is perhaps intriguing that the questioning about and of Jesus takes place not in the synagogue (or a church), but out in the world, precisely in a place dedicated to a pagan god, with a name honoring the human Caesar (who was often presented as divine). As Stoffregen points out: “Where does our real confession take place? Certainly our confessions and statements about our faith in church are real — but, I think that it goes to a different level when we proclaim our faith in Jesus in the midst of [the world].”

That is the immediate context, but the scholar Pheme Perkins [621] draws out attention to a larger context:

“The first half of the Gospel has hinted at the coming death of Jesus (1:14; 3:6; 6:14–29), although the christological emphases in that section of the narrative fell on the power and authority of Jesus. However, discordant elements were introduced in the hostility of the Pharisees and scribes, the misunderstanding of the disciples, and the limits on Jesus’ healing power in the face of unbelief (6:6). In the first section of the narrative, Jesus apparently does not wish to be known as a miracle worker, but his commands to remain silent were regularly disobeyed (1:44–45; 5:19–20; 7:36–37). The portrayal of the disciples, however, raises questions about the suitability of a faith based on witnessing miracles. Although Peter and the others appear to have reached the correct insight that Jesus is Messiah, that confession will be misunderstood if suffering is not the central truth about Jesus’ identity. The second half of the Gospel, therefore, completes the initial confession that Jesus is Messiah and Son of God (1:1; 8:29; 9:7) with the threefold repetition of the passion predictions (8:31–32a; 9:30–31; 10:32–34)…. Since the disciples participate in the ministry of Jesus, they must also learn to share the suffering of the Son of Man. Each of the passion predictions is followed by an expression of disbelief, misunderstanding, or fear and then instruction on the necessity of suffering (8:34–38; 9:33–37; 10:35–45).”

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