Names were never in short supply at Caesarea Philippi. Herod the Great called it Paneasar Panias after the god Pan. It became Banais when the area was under Arab control because Arabic has no “P”. When Philip the Tetrach made it his capitol, he called it Caesarea after Caesar and Philippi after himself! But King Agrippa II named it Neronias after the emperor Nero. Kings came and conquered, constructed, and consigned names to Banias (the name that has stuck the longest and what the area goes by today), but they merely represent segments in history. Of all those rulers who attempted to change its name, none really left a legacy which stuck. Yet this place, this site, is the place where Jesus makes a point to be concerned about names (Mt. 6:13-18).
Banias is peaceful now. The land remains undeveloped since it is a national park. The gentle pools of water which are situated not far from the impressive rock cliff that overlooked the hub of the city belie the chaos that once was part and parcel to the region. It is hard to picture the wall to wall temples and shrines which once dominated the base of the cliff and yet standing before it, I am able to imagine Jesus here questioning Peter and the disciples in the midst of that noise and confusion, “Who do people say that I am?” In essence Jesus is asking, “What names are they giving me?” After the disciples respond Jesus goes further. At a place where a myriad of gods could be worshipped and every sensual urge satisfied Jesus by-passes confronting the degrading aspects of paganism or refuting and discouraging the incorrect understanding of the crowds which followed Him and point blank asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
A second twist in this story also involves names. That Banias changed names so often and usually based on the whims of popularity, stands in contrast to the “renaming” of Peter. No longer Simon (his Hebrew name), Jesus calls him “Petra” meaning rock. As solid as a rock is, this name becomes firmly associated with Peter (and surprisingly it’s Greek too!). Names were very important in Peter’s culture and background. They signified something particular about the person, so this name was no accident. Of course much can be written about the theological and historical implications of this incident (and it has!), but what impressed me about this account is how Christ knew Peter so well. Peter may have needed more time to fully understand his confession concerning the person of Christ- “You are the Messiah”- but Jesus knew Peter so well he gave him a more appropriate name- even though Peter had some very un-solid moments in his future.
Peter’s purpose and personality in establishing God’s kingdom on earth are captured by this name better than his Hebrew one. Amazingly, this is how well the Lord knows me. Though he did literally rename me, He knows what makes me tick. And like Peter, I have a purpose and personality which He will use to build His church. You have a name. God has given it to you. He knows it because He made you. What does this mean? It means that God knows and loves you in the most intimate and deepest way possible. How great is that?! But do you know Him in the same way? I hope you do. However, I want to encourage you today, that no matter where you are, no matter what you’re going through- God knows your name and like Peter, He wants to use you to build His church.
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
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