Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 16:13-17 ESV
Why did Jesus go outside his home territory to ask his disciples the vital question about his identity? “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (v.13); then “Who do you say that I am?” (v.15)
Caesarea Philippi is about 40 kms northeast of the sea of Galilee and today is called Banias. It was known as the birthplace of the god Pan, a great fertility symbol in ancient paganism. It is also the source of the river Jordan which then flowed into the sea of Galilee; this was significant for the Jews as the life-giving water for the land of Israel. There were many pagan temples there, but the place was dominated by a new marble temple to the emperor, hence the name of the place, Caesarea Philippi. In this multi-cultural context Jesus wanted to know if his disciples really understood him. And Peter did: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v.16).
When we were in a missionary training class in 1979 the Church Growth movement was very popular, and we learned about Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner’s theories that the most successful evangelism was in homogeneous units. In other words, we are most likely to grow the church if we work in a context where all the people have the same cultural background. I’m sure this is sociologically true, but it is also biblically misguided.
Today with modern means of transport and communication, we live in global village and live out our faith among others of many different faiths and none. That of course is both enriching and challenging. Popular culture here in the UK insists that all religions (including paganism) must not only be respected but that they are all of equal value. So, the exclusive claims of Jesus are offensive and divisive.
‘Western’ culture is flooding the world through modern media which teaches that every attitude is acceptable. Is it OK to assume that the macumba and witchcraft of some indigenous tribes is OK for them? Or that the Buddhist meditation is just the equivalent of Christian prayer? Or that when Muslims pray to Allah, it’s the same as praying to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Or that we should get used to people on TV programmes taking the name of the Lord in vain? Our answer to all these questions must be a firm but compassionate ‘no’.
John Stott in Christ the Controversialist (p.17) wrote: ‘We need to distinguish between the tolerant mind and the tolerant spirit. Tolerant in spirit a Christian should always be, loving, understanding, forgiving and forbearing others, making allowances for them, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, for true love ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1 Cor 13:7). But how can we be tolerant in mind of what God has plainly revealed to be either evil or erroneous?’ Later (p.19) he wrote: ‘The apostolic command is clear. We are to ‘maintain the truth in love’ (Eph 4:15), being neither truthless in our love, nor loveless in our truth, but holding the two in balance.’
We are called to stand for biblical truth with the love and compassion for all that Jesus showed, but also with a humble clarity about the exclusive nature of our message.
Bishop Henry Scriven
General Secretary of EFAC (Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion)