Is the Church entering a new epoch where the Church must confess Jesus Christ in what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor called “the secular age?”
One of the most extraordinary passages in the synoptic Gospels is the confession of Jesus’ identity by the Apostle Peter. This famous event in church history occurs in Matthew 16:13-20, Mark 8:27-30, and in Luke 9:18-22. There are a myriad of remarkable spiritual dynamics at work in the passage, each of them with far-reaching theological and practical implications for the Church and, consequently, for your life and mine. We should consider, for instance, Jesus’ unequivocal self-identification as the living fulfillment of the prophet Daniel’s messianic “Son of Man” (Daniel 7:13). We must come face-to-face with not only Jesus’ probing question about what others say about His identity but also the piercing follow-up: ““But who do you say that I am” (Matthew 16:15 ESV)? The relationship of that eternally-vital question and the role of the Church as the instrument of God’s fulfillment of His kingdom plans in the world remains crucial to an understanding of our purpose as Christians and as the local church. Yet, there is another dynamic at work that also has extraordinary implications for the church today.
When Jesus asked the question about His identity, He did so at the District of Caesarea Philippi. The city is located at the foot of Mount Herman where, at the time, the waters of the Jordan River found their source. It was so named by Philip the second, sometimes called Philip to track, the son of Herod the Great who had ordered the murder of “the innocents” in Bethlehem in his search for the infant whom the Magi called “the King.” Naming the town for both Caesar Augustus and himself, Caesarea Philippi is distinguished from the Caesarea which lies on the Mediterranean coastline.
What is most poignant about the passage in the district of Caesarea Philippi’s is that he used to be called Panias, named after the god Pan (today, it is called Banias, a variation of the City of Pan). Josephus and other extra-Biblical authorities described the area with its monuments to the pagan gods and a great cave where according to folk legends foreboding spirits lived inside. It is here in this rustic pantheon that Jesus brings His disciples before the dock, the bar of truth to make their affirmation of faith. What is so striking about this is that you and I, today, must make our own declaration of faith in the presence of similar radical unbelief. It is important for us to see that Jesus did not avoid this area but I used it as a spiritual retreat for His disciples. He and Peter, James, and John the would climb that same mountain, and Mount Herman would become the “Mount of Transfiguration.” Jesus’ divinity was affirmed not only by Peter in front of that ancient site of pagan worship, but He was confirmed in heavenly splendor by Moses and Elijah on that rock. “On this Rock …” Peter, yes, but also that rock that hosted infamous unbelief. Is there not yet a Biblical message here for churches in the 21st-century about churches like yours and mine existing in the secular age? Rather than running from this postmodern, post-Christian world of unbelief you and I are called to confess the Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of unbelief and, yes, even to establish new churches, and revitalize older ones. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
Shall we shrink from the challenge of our own day? Or shall we each take up our cross and bear witness to the resurrected and reigning Christ in our communities? The witness of the Church in the world to Jesus Christ as the Lord of Lords and King of Kings remains the most powerful instrument for good, transforming dark and rocky terrain into the very sanctuary of the living God. And isn’t this, also, what happened to you and me when Jesus came into our lives?
“Who do you say that I am?” It is a question to be answered in days of revival as well as in days like ours. And we, His Church, bear the awesome privilege of asking that question today.
Dr. Michael A. Milton (PhD, University of Wales) is the Distinguished Professor of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine Theological Seminary where he also serves as the Director of Chaplain Ministries. The retired fourth presidency and chancellor of the RTS System, Dr. Milton founded and shepherded 3 churches (KS, GA, and NC), and was the senior minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. Mike Milton is a US Army Chaplain (Colonel) retired, and remains President of the D. James Kennedy Institute of Reformed Leadership. Dr. Milton’s life verse is from Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.” Or, as Mike puts it in the title of his autobiography, “What God Starts God Completes.”