In the first century, there was one called the “Son of God.” This person had a VERY famous father, and held a position of great prominence. All around the Mediterranean, cities were named after this person and buildings were constructed as places to honor him. In his day, and in this region, he was the most famous person in the world. Who do you think this person was?
You might want to answer, “Jesus Christ” . . . but if you did, you would be wrong. The person described above was NOT Jesus Christ but Augustus Caesar. In His lifetime, Jesus would have only known regional fame, and in His lifetime no one built a building in His honor. However, Caesar Augustus . . . well, that is a different story.
Though Augustus was the nephew to Julius Caesar, Julius selected Augustus as his successor due to the strength in leadership he saw in Augustus. After the deification (post-humously) of Julius Caesar, Augustus began calling himself the “son of the divine” . . . or the “son of god.” Throughout the Roman Empire, shrines or temples were dedicated to the name of Caesar Augustus. There is a massive amount of historic irony that Caesar Augustus was the leader of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus Christ’s birth, and this irony created a beautiful backdrop for one of the New Testament’s most compelling stories.
One day, Jesus went with His disciples to a largely pagan city in the far northern reaches of Israel – Caesarea Philippi. This city (on the edges of the Golan Heights) housed one of the springs that formed the headwaters for the Jordan River . . . but abundant water was not the only thing in excess in this city. Caesarea Philippi also had an abundance of temples to false gods. Sitting on a hillside above the city was an interesting looking cave. Due to an earthquake that happened here years earlier, the locals had associated that cave with the Greek god Pan. Pagan worshippers had gathered around this cave for years and offered sacrifices to this goat/man god. King Herod had come along later and built a new Temple at this site dedicated to Caesar Augustus — the “son of god.” Next door to that was another temple built in honor of Zeus. All these temples were surrounded by grottos and courtyards referencing other gods. This “outlet mall” of pagan worship made this ancient city infamous . . . some had even called this collection of pagan shrines “the gates of hell.”
So, as Jesus entered Caesarea Philippi with His disciples, He asked them a question in Matthew 16:13, “Who do people say that [I am]?” Jesus had been growing in popularity for quite some time. He had developed a following by teaching with authority and performing many miracles. Some were dismissing Jesus, but others were wondering if He was indeed the Messiah. The disciples answered Him in 16:14, “Some say John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asked the disciples a more penetrating and personal question in 16:15, “But who do you say that I am?” At this point, Peter responds in 16:16, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” Jesus blessed Peter at this point and said in 16:17-18, “Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jonah! . . . You are Peter, and on this rock [the confession that Jesus was the Messiah] I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Did you catch that? Standing in the shadow of the pagan shrines . . . with the temple of Augustus in the background . . . Jesus asked Peter who do you say that I am? Peter’s response is that Jesus is the true Son of the Living God (not the adopted son of the dead Julius Caesar.) Jesus affirms Peter’s declaration and informs him that no collection of other “gods” or influences will ever hold a candle to who He was or what He was offering to the world.
We live in a world of options . . . a world that promotes diverse thinking and relative truth. We live in a world like Caesarea Philippi that wants to tell us there many different ways to God and all are equally valid. This worldview, however, is fatally flawed. There are not many ways to God . . . only one. Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Humanism, etc. all line up before us like a shopping mall of temples, providing different recipes and formulas by which we might appease the gods. However, there is one Way that offers a different approach. Jesus stands before us (with these other constructs in the background) and says, “Who do YOU say that I am?”
As I visited the remains of Caesarea Philippi, I was blown away at the contrast between the living Son of God and the lifeless temples at the gates of hell. Augustus died in 14 AD and is still dead. His temple in Caesarea was destroyed a few years later. Jesus Christ was resurrected about 20 years after Augustus’s death, and continues to reign in heaven to this day. Why dedicate our lives to the dead and dying when we can follow the resurrected and the Living? Jesus IS the Son of God, demonstrated by power and evidence . . . unlike Caesar who simply gave himself a divine nickname.
On the day of Jesus birth, Caesar Augustus looked powerful and Jesus looked vulnerable. Even during Jesus’s lifetime, Augustus had a temple, while Jesus was mocked and beaten. However, don’t let the size of the earthly temple fool you. Augustus stands at the gates of hell, while Jesus opens the highway to heaven.
The Living Son of God asks you a question, “Who do YOU say that I am?” How will you answer? Who will you follow?