In this article, I recall a trip to Caesarea Philippi during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While there, I experienced the sense of being at the start of things, a feeling that I can’t fully explain.
Near the northern end of the Dead Sea Rift, at the foot of Mount Hermon in the north of the Galilee is the spring of the Banyas, an important source of clean water for the Jordan River. The ancient Greeks who settled there named the place Paneas in honour of Pan, the god of nature, the wild and shepherds. It was there that Herod the Great built a temple to the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. His son Philip inherited the northeast part of his father’s kingdom and named the area Caesaria. In the Bible, it became known as Caesarea Philippi.
It was here near the start of what is known widely as the Great Rift Valley, at the source of the River Jordan close to revered pagan temples that Jesus asked his disciples: ‘Who do you say I am?’ (Matthew 16:15). As our pilgrim group wandered through the ruins of once mighty temples and the living trees that shade the springs of the Jordan river, I wondered at the significance of the location.
I thought about water as the source of life, which reminded me of a line from John’s gospel: ‘but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life’ (John 4:14). As Christians, we are baptised with water, a sacred sign of purification and cleansing. How often in my life had I dipped my fingers into holy water to bless myself? I cannot even begin to count but it would easily measure in the thousands.
It seemed to me then that the pagan temple stones scattered around the area spoke to me of Jesus’ fearlessness in the face of a powerful earthly authority. Could it be that courage, especially in the face of false authority and opposition, is at the centre of what it means for believers to follow Jesus Christ? While I mulled over this question, I thought of some lines from psalm 22 written by King David:
The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.
Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose;
Near restful waters he leads me, to revive my drooping spirit.
He guides me along the right path; he is true to his name.
If I should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear.
You are there with your crook and your staff; with these you give me comfort.
You have prepared a banquet for me in the sight of my foes.
My head you have anointed with oil; my cup is overflowing.
Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life.
In the Lord’s own house shall I dwell for ever and ever.
As I transcribe the complete prayer now, I cannot help but wonder again about King David who began life as a simple shepherd and who, with God’s help, had the courage to defeat Goliath. This melodic psalm, a fitting prayer for those who need courage, expresses a loving and joyful trust in God, our true King.
As I wandered around Caesarea Philippi, I was delighted to spot a hyrax, a ‘race with no defences, yet they make their home in the rocks’ (Proverbs 21:26). Hyraxes are superficially similar to rodents but somewhat surprisingly are more closely related to elephants. The last time I’d seen this little creature was when I’d lived in Kenya twenty years earlier.
This small unassuming animal, who makes its home in the rocks, drew my thoughts southward along the Great Rift Valley famously known as the ‘cradle of mankind’. It is a critical location where our species developed and specialised physically, socially and cognitively in our deep past. As I took a photograph of the hyrax, I realised that I was once again standing in the Great Rift Valley, an upper point along the cradle of humankind itself, at a place that spoke powerfully to me of our spiritual evolution.
I again thought of King David, the King who prayed for his people in a time of prophets and shepherds and who brought the Ark of the Covenant, known as the dwelling place of God, to Jerusalem. I thought too of the manger in Bethlehem, the sacred birthplace of Jesus, the most famous cradle in the world.
Water as a sign of purification, courage in the face of false authority and the Great Rift Valley as a symbol of the transformation of humankind, a progression that led inexorably, with God’s grace, towards spiritual wisdom. These three epic ideas permeated my thoughts in Caesarea Philippi, the location that Jesus chose to ask his disciples: ‘Who do you say I am?’ (Matthew 16:15).
Simon Peter had the purity of heart, the courage and the divinely inspired wisdom to speak up: ‘You are the Christ’ he said ‘the Son of the living God’ (Matthew 16:16). It was Peter’s profession of faith in that significant place, which signalled his pre-eminence. It was there that Jesus responded: ‘Thou art Peter and upon this rock, I will build my Church’ (Matthew 16:18).
In my heart even today, the location and context of these pronouncements gives them a sacredness far beyond my imaginings. We can all learn much from the truths that God lays out before us. I pray for purity, for courage and for spiritual wisdom not only for myself but for us all. Though often defenceless, we too can make our home in the rock that our faith in God is built upon.