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How Jesus Used His Location to Teach

Caesarea Philippi Pan and cave

Caesarea Philippi cave and Pan Niches

One of the more arresting aspects of traveling to Israel, particularly the Galilee area, is how nuances of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels come to life in wholly unexpected ways.

I had such a moment at Caesarea Philippi. It all began with the familiar passage in Mark 8:27-29:

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah (or Christ)”.

So there we were, entering what is now a major site for Christian pilgrims, north of Capernaum where Jesus lived much of his three-year ministry. What led Jesus to come here and ask this particular question? Our bus had just driven the distance, passing the Golan Heights near Syria as we drove the fifteen miles to the entrance. It wasn’t a simple walk but an all day undertaking, knowing 15 miles was considered a day’s walk in the 1st century. What was it about this place that prompted the Master to ask this question? (The more time spent in Israel, the more these kind of questions directly from the Biblical text come to thought and seem logical to ask!)

The only other reference in the New Testament to Caesarea Philippi is the same story in Matthew, but a different version.   With Mark being the first Gospel written, it’s instructive to see if anything gets added to the stories by the time Matthew writes his account some twenty years later. In this case, a vital part was added that answered my question of ‘why this place’.

In Matthew 16:13-19 , the location of Jesus’ question is more specific. Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 

Matthew adds to Peter’s brief response (as told in Mark):

…”and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Imagine the astonishment of discovering that this very place had an enormous cavern that ancients once considered ‘the gates of Hades’. Here human sacrifices occurred in early Canaanite days, when Baal cult worshippers were active and threw their victims down what appeared a bottomless hole. Later when the Greeks took over this area, a temple to the nature god, Pan, was erected, including small niches we saw next to the spring that flowed to a river below.

Clearly, this place had been the site of pagan worship for centuries. Jesus wouldn’t have come on to the actual site, being so associated with pagan worship. But he could easily have been on the hill overlooking it, the one in the near distance, with the object lesson clear to the disciples that any thought of hell – pagan or otherwise – could not challenge the new Kingdom of God that he explained was among them right now.

What struck me was that although Judaism had established monotheism, Jesus pressed his disciples to figure out his identity, not God’s. In that moment I realized monotheism alone wasn’t enough. Mankind needed Christ, the savior and liberator who would, as Malachi prophesied “rise, with healing in its wings” (Mal. 4:2).  It was this liberating, spiritual presence that so infused Jesus’ healing ministry that the Master knew his disciples had to understand. Otherwise they would think his healing work was based on personal ability, rather than available for everyone to experience for all time. This healing Christ Jesus so embodied, proved the sovereignty of his Father’s kingdom, the Kingdom of God. This unquenchable power would always triumph over every pagan and political outlier – be it Baal or Rome itself.

Standing in that place, I asked myself if I too truly understood why Jesus’ identity as Christ is so integral to his teachings. I began to glimpse all the ways of modern paganism that Christly love and truth continue to conquer – whether fear of terrorism, disease, poverty or any other calamity. We indeed have a savior. And a trip to Caesarea Philippi helped me glimpse that a little more.


Why the Parables are Integral to Matthew’s Gospel

Parable of Sower

Hortus Delicaiarum, 1180, Latin for “Garden of Delights” illustrating the Sower and the Seed parable.  In medieval manuscript from Alsace, France–the first encyclopedia written by a woman (for young novices at the convent). Source: Wikipedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) share similarities with each other, including their versions of Jesus’ parables. (The Gospel of John doesn’t contain parables.)

When I discovered that Jesus’ parables constitute over one-third of the Master’s teachings in these three books, it was time to treat them as more than loved stories whose characters have seeped into our collective vocabulary (i.e. ‘the good Samaritan’; ‘the prodigal son’, etc.). Someone wrote that ‘familiarity breeds complacency’. How many times have we read or heard, ‘a sower went out to sow’ and partially mused, ‘I already know what that means’? That’s probably a wake-up call, as it was for me this past year, to get serious and dig in more.

Among the many discoveries associated with this new study of the parables, is the conviction—once again—that powerful insights await the student who reads these Gospels continuously, chapter by chapter, in addition to pouring over favorite verses.

For example, Matthew’s parables are clustered primarily in chapter 13. Why? Did Matthew do that intentionally? If so, what point is he trying to help the reader see? What precedes this chapter to lay the groundwork for them? Is there an overall theme Matthew puts forward in which I could better understand the seven parables clustered here? (Asking these kinds of questions is my favorite tool in Bible study.) The answers require a bit of historical background.

Matthew is thought to have written his story of Christ Jesus almost half a century after the Master’s ministry (probably around the mid-80’s CE). By that time, the Antioch, Syria church where Matthew was a key member, was facing the demands of helping pagan Gentiles both convert to, and learn, Jesus’ teachings. They also had to integrate the Jewish members of their congregation, people who had long been awaiting the Messiah and felt Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the one. Matthew’s Gospel was an answer to help both the new converts understand Christ Jesus’ teachings as well as build a church of disparate individuals into the one ‘body of Christ’, as Paul called it (I Cor. 12:27).

Approaching his Gospel logically, Matthew first tells the birth story in light of Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s Messianic prophesies. Then he shares the Messiah’s words (chapters 5 – 7, Sermon on the Mount). Next are the Messiah’s works, Chapters 8 – 9, those healings that demonstrate the earlier words. Next, Matthew reveals the mounting resistance to his words and works (Chapters 10-12).

By the time chapter 13 arrives filled with parables, Matthew is laying out for those early workers and us today, Jesus’ parables– often with surprising twists and turns–as a way to illustrate what followership or discipleship looks like.

For example, what is required to go to ‘the other side’ of the lake (Sea of Galilee) with a few disciples while the crowds watch on the shore (see Matt. 8:18)? Is that merely a verse describing changing geography?   Or is Matthew teeing up what’s coming if you’re ready and willing to make a life-changing commitment to the Master’s teachings? Will you encounter storms, such as those disciples did who got on the boat (see Matt. 8:23-27)? Or will you observe from a safe distance, perhaps on a symbolic shore of non-commitment? You get to decide what Matthew is trying to tell us

I invite you to reread Chapter 13, not just for its rich seven parables, but with these portions of chapter 8 in mind. Please share what you discover on your own journey in discipleship.

(More on the parables in future blogs.)


Why The Sower and the Seed Parable Deserves Close Attention

Rembrandt Christ Appearing

Christ Appearing to the Apostles (Rembrandt Etching, 1656, partial view)

As you study Jesus’ parables’, it becomes obvious quickly how important the Sower and the Seed story is, one of the few to appear in all three synoptic Gospels. (John’s Gospel doesn’t contain any parables.)

But even more noticeable is that the Sower and the Seed story leads the rest, in Matthew (Matt. 13:3-17), Mark (Mark 4:1-9) and Luke (Luke 8:4-8) where the majority of them cluster. There should be bells and whistles dinging somewhere for us right now, prompting questions. Why is this parable so significant that it leads the rest?   What are the three Gospel writers trying to tell us by such placement?

First, we know the parable tells of four states of soil, or thought, that have various challenges for the seed to truly take root and grow. Only in the fourth are the conditions of soil and cultivation right for a harvest. Jesus tells the parable to a crowd but then goes through an explanation of what it means or how to interpret it.

By looking at what is before and after the parable, Mark’s text sheds further light. Recall that Mark often likes to bracket his material with relevant teachings both before and after a story. For the Sower and Seed parable, this ‘sandwich’ affect offers new insights.

Mark 3:31-35 sets up the story:

 31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your  mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

This seems a bit harsh — Jesus referring to his family as being outside, literally and figuratively. After the parable appears as the middle portion (Mark 4:1-9), there follows a final section of material which returns to the theme of outsiders (Mark 4:10-12):

 11 And he said to them (the disciples), “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.”

First the outsiders are his family and later, the crowds (as distinct from his disciples). Is the placement of the parable, both in this ‘sandwich’ position as well first in the line up of other parables, telling us that spiritual receptivity is the first qualification of those who truly follow Jesus?  And that such receptivity qualifies them to be his true followers, or insiders?  What a blow to all those theories about social hierarchy, positioning, power, etc.!

If we want to be a true follower, an insider (in Mark’s language), then spiritual receptivity is our only measure. The parable explains how all the problems arise when the seed, or Word of God, doesn’t have the proper soil, care and cultivation–when individuals don’t truly follow the Master in word and deed. But when those conditions do exist, the seed is planted, grows and produces a bountiful harvest.

Likewise, those outsiders are similar to the first three of conditions that choke the seed or prevent productivity and high yield, lives rich in giving and receiving blessings. By not yielding to ‘the will of God’–the way Jesus defines his family in the above passage–our ‘soil’ won’t be sufficient to produce a harvest.

Jesus confirms the need for spiritually receptive, hungry hearts when he quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 in the explanation of the parables’ meaning, reminding us that Israel didn’t listen to her prophets:

they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”
(Mark 4:12)

Now we see why this parable must be first in the line up, informing us it is how we receive the message of the Kingdom, an idea first introduced in Isa. 6, that counts.   By quoting the Hebrew prophet that preceded him,  is Jesus wondering if events are going to be different 600 years later in his day?

The warning that launches here, of hardness of heart and deafness to the message, is repeated again and again throughout the Gospels. Since their intent is to bring about good discipleship – let us be sure our soil is ready for that incomparable seed!


(For more on the parables, you might enjoy this earlier blog if you missed it.)


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