Behind Golgotha 2: Which Messiah?
Passage: Matthew 16:13–16:19
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Growing up I never understood why people didn’t believe in Jesus. Especially in his day. I mean we hear about how much Israel wanted and was waiting for their Messiah. They were waiting and waiting, prophesying and prophesying. And here comes a guy saying he IS the Messiah. Saying he IS the one. And he performs signs and wonders to show that yes indeed its true.
And yet we get this story in Matthew about Jesus saying who do people think I am. And the disciples give a bunch of different answers. Like how is it possible there was disagreement about who Jesus was? Isn’t it painfully clear that if he said the things he said and did the things he did that there’s only one possible answer to that question?
Well what if I told you that Jesus wasn’t the only person in his day to say he was the Messiah? What if I told you that Jesus wasn’t the only person to drum up a following as the hoped for and prophesied savior? In fact, what if I told you Jesus wasn’t even the most famous would be Messiah? That’s what we are here to talk about today.
And the setting of Jesus’ question to the disciples, Caesarea Philippi, couldn’t be more important.
Caesarea Philippi is located north of the Sea of Galilee in the Golan Heights in modern day Syria. It housed a natural spring and after the conquests of Alexander the Great it was turned into a city-shrine to the Greek god Pan. It’s location made it a prominent location in the ancient world as it was a natural rest point for people heading from the Greco-Roman world into the Middle or Far East. Twenty years before Christ’s birth this city and the surrounding area were annexed into the land governed by King Herod on behalf of the Romans. King Herod built a massive white marble temple here. When Herod died his land was split between his three sons with Caesarea Philippi going to Phillip II. Phillip made this city the administrative capital of his holdings.
So all of this is interesting stuff but doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Jesus and the messiahs of the first century. Except it does.
In the ancient world rulers would undertake massive building projects. But they wouldn’t spend their own money on these building projects any more than pro sports owners won’t spend their own money to build stadia. No, just like pro sports owners, rulers in the ancient world would levy a tax on their citizens in order to pay for their building projects. They dubbed these public works but they were more or less vanity projects for the ruler, a way to literally build a legacy.
But these taxes could have a devastating impact on the local peasant workers in a town, city, region, or village. Phillip II owed a certain amount to his Roman benefactors. That’s the whole point of Empire, right, you conquer a lot of lands to use their natural resources to fund the imperial machines. Rome wasn’t about to take less money from Phillip so that he could build up his administrative center. Same goes for Herod and his white marble temple. So whenever a ruler underwent a massive building project it wasn’t like the people who otherwise wouldn’t have been taxed were now taxed. No, it meant that people who were already taxed in order to pay Rome would be taxed more to pay Rome and for the white marble.
Many farmers, many peasants, many of the working poor were at subsistence level. They were able to make enough that it provided for their family. But that’s about it. Perhaps they could provide for their family and pay their normal taxes. But when new taxes came in it stressed the folks who were just trying to get by. And in the ancient world if you didn’t pay your taxes the tax collector would come back with a couple thugs.
So the options were to have your property seized by governmental authority or to go into debt. Take out loans in order to pay your taxes and provide for your family. But debt in the ancient world was even more insidious than it is now and how many people in our world are held back by massive debt? So if the local ruler announces a building campaign its possible that you, as a local farmer, would have to go into debt to pay the new taxes. And then you have to pay the interest, which oftentimes was massive. And you work and you work to pay it off, but you have to provide for your family and pay your debt and pay your taxes and unless a miracle occurred families found themselves unable to pay their debt back. So the creditor would foreclose on the family and seize the land. And then potentially force the family to work for them to continue living in their own home and working their own land. In the ancient world more often than not debt led to indentured servitude.
And so there’s this cycle that occurred in the ancient economy of a local ruler calling for a public work building project, levying new taxes to pay for the project, which meant peasants took out loans to pay the new taxes which led to their indentured servitude.
Who does this system benefit? The wealthy elites. The local feudal lords whose support a ruler needed so that the local ruler wouldn’t find himself challenged. So if you’re King Herod or Phillip II and you want to consolidate your power and authority you need to keep your nobles happy. And what keeps them happy? Building projects that end up with the nobles owning more and more land through debt and foreclosure.
And here’s the thing: this didn’t just happen in this one particular city, this happened all over Roman controlled Israel.
After Herod died one of his other sons, Herod Antipas, gained control of the land around the Galilee as well as a province on the western bank of the Jordan River a little further south. It was a bit of a slight to Herod Antipas as his two areas did not touch and were mostly rural areas without large cities or administrative centers. But Herod Antipas had learned a great deal from his father and he underwent a number of building campaigns in the Galilee area. He rebuilt the ruined city of Sepphoris and turned it into an administrative center. He spared no expense in rebuilding this city. He made massive capital improvements to the city of Tiberius.
Once again these building projects had massive economic impact on the surrounding village communities. Villages like Cana and Japha and Nain and Nazareth. If some of these places sound familiar its because its this very region where Jesus grew up and began his public ministry. Villagers in these areas were subject to Antipas’ massive taxation. It’s said that Antipas collected two hundred talents a year in taxes, or 9 tons of gold.
So all across the lands and regions of Israel-Palestine the working poor were being crushed by a collision system between Roman installed rulers and wealthy elites. When we read Jesus’ teachings, how he came out against the practices of the Pharisees and Saducees, there is often an economic element to what is going on in the story. It’s not the only element, but it is present. And I bring this up for two reasons: 1) when we understand the economics of the first century we see that Jesus is speaking to real people and addressing their real concerns, the Gospel is a lived in thing; and 2) it tells us there was some social upheaval that was happening at the time.
And indeed there were other leaders of other movements who stepped into this time of deep hurt, pain, and desire for change. It’s why Jesus can go to Caesarea Philippi and say who do these people think I am. And can receive different answers. There were some who saw him as an outsider type prophet. There were some who saw him in line with the prophets of history. But its more than that. Is Jesus coming as a religious reformer trying to reform the Temple and the synagogue? Is Jesus coming as a political reformer to call out the local rulers on the ways they are abusing their position and using their power to crush those whom they were sent to protect? Is Jesus coming to prophesy about Israel’s impending freedom and independence and sent to see that vision become a reality? Who is Jesus and what is his mission?
What goes unsaid in the Gospel but what is present in the history is that during the first centuries there were others claiming to be prophets and messiahs who embodied those different questions.
After King Herod died there was a massive uprising in Jerusalem. It was put down by the Romans but the impact was to inspire messianic uprisings in the surrounding countryside. In Perea, on the eastern bank of the Jordan, a former slave named Simon rose up, declared himself king of the Jews and began raiding palaces and plantations belonging to Herod’s family. In Judea, a shepherd named Athronges declared himself the new David and with a band of followers began attacking the Romans and raided other property of Herod’s family. Additionally in Galilee a man named Judah, who was the son of a Galilean bandit chief, attacked the administrative capital of Sepphoris.
All of these revolts were soundly defeated by the Romans and their leaders were executed.
Perhaps the best known failed messiah was Simon Bar Kokhba who led a revolution in 132 AD. Seventy years prior there had been a Jewish revolt that led to the destruction of the Temple in 70ish AD. For the next couple generations tensions continued to run high between the Israelites and the Romans. In 132 Simon bar Kokhba led a revolt starting in central Judea and extending out into the countryside. His was the most successful military uprising and he was able to gain control of a significant portion of land in and around the ruined city of Jerusalem. In fact he was able to set up an independent Israelite state. As such his followers proclaimed that he was the Messiah, the person sent to free Israel from their Roman overlords. He established the independent Israelite nation, he was the prince who was promised.
Though he had success initially in driving out the Romans from Judea, eventually the Romans came back. They came back with a huge army this time. Emperor Hadrian sent a massive force into Judea and Bar Kokhba and his supporters were crushed. Bar Kokhba was killed, some say by a snake bite, some say by natural causes during a siege, some say he was killed by the Temple authorities. But either way he was killed and his revolt ended. And the Romans took massive steps to see that another revolt wouldn’t happen.
We could go on and on about the different messianic movements that were happening during the time of Jesus but we’d be here all day.
Now the question: does knowing Jesus wasn’t the only person to either claim to be or to be called Messiah weaken or lessen our understanding of Jesus as Messiah? Or put another way: does other people calling other people the Messiah change in any way Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of the living God? For me the answer is no. Instead it clarifies what it means for Jesus to be Messiah, enhances it really. And it enhances it precisely in the way that Jesus was different from many of the other “messiahs” we’ve talked about.
Many of the messianic figures of the first centuries had at their basic a logic that said we must defeat the Romans in order to save ourselves. Their salvation came through the sword. Their salvation came in wrenching power away from the powerful and in wielding that power. They wanted to defeat someone, namely the Romans and local puppet governors the Romans appointed.
Jesus’ way to victory, Jesus’ way to salvation was through something else entirely. Jesus made enemies, something we will talk about next week. Jesus wasn’t passive. Jesus didn’t turn a blind eye to the sings and exploits of his day. However the way he embodied his being the Messiah was not through seeking out power. It wasn’t through violence. It wasn’t through conquest. I wasn’t through coercion. It wasn’t through seeking one group’s victory and another’s defeat.
Instead Jesus was the Messiah through giving of himself. When he came to Jerusalem he came not to conquer. He came to die. When his disciples attempted to fight the Romans who came to arrest Jesus, Jesus told them to put their swords away. He was not going to come and forcibly take power. He wasn’t interested in forcibly ensuring his own security at the expense of others. He wasn’t going to base his Kingdom on tyranny.
Instead Jesus’ Messiahship was based on self-giving and faith. Jesus gave of himself, Jesus gave up himself because he had faith that God would be his vindication. He had faith that God was doing something in this world and had faith that God would see that through. And if Jesus trusted in what God was doing in the world, Jesus had nothing to fear from giving of himself and giving up himself. Jesus didn’t have to drive out the Romans. That wasn’t God’s priority. Jesus didn’t have to raid the palaces of Herod. That wasn’t God’s priority. Jesus needed to witness to the things that were God’s priority. And in giving of himself, in giving up himself, Jesus witnessed to God’s priorities.
And here we are nearly 2,000 years later and all of us have heard of Jesus. We come here claiming Jesus was and is the Messiah. You’ve never heard of the former slave Simon or the shepherd Athronges. Many of you haven’t heard of Bar Kokhba I’d bet. But we all know the name Jesus.
We constantly face the choice between violence and coercion and control or self-giving and submission and faith. History is littered with forgotten names who chose the former. Jesus chose the latter. As Christians, as followers of Jesus we are called to witness to the way of our Messiah. This week, this month, this season, how can you witness to the way of our Messiah? Let us pray.