Teaching religious education to secondary school students, I often ask them to use the 5 “W’s” when they think about a question. The five “W’s” are where, who, why, what and when.
Applying the 5 W’s to today’s reading what is there to be learned?
“Where” is straightforward, Verse 13 says, “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi.”
The place name had a meaning for the disciples that we can easily miss. At one time it had been called “Paneas”, named after the pagan god “Pan”, but had been renamed Caesarea in honour of the Roman emperor, who was regarded as a god by Roman people, Philippi being added by Philip, son of Herod the Great, who was Jewish ruler of the region. The place where Jesus and his disciples had arrived was a place whose name asked about who was regarded as divine.
The “where” of the reading asks questions about attitudes to the things worshipped by people in the present times. Caesarea Philippi had derived its original name from paganism and had been renamed in honour personality cults. Times have not changed so much, there is no shortage of either old paganism reappearing in the guise of “new age” spirituality, or personality cults manifest in our celebrity culture and in the tendency, even within church circles, to elevate leaders to a stature not warranted by the Bible. “Where?” asks about the religions of the present time.
“Who?” is a question Jesus himself twice asks the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
The disciples answer him, in Verse 14, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Then in Verse 15 Jesus turns the question to the disciples themselves, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter gives a direct response, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
The disciples have travelled far and seen much with Jesus and have had much time to think about the “who?” question.
Like the disciples, “who?” is a question people must answer for themselves, who do they say that Jesus is? Who do they say that Jesus is in their daily lives?
The question “why?” needs to be answered. Why does Jesus want the disciples to be clear about their decision? Because faith in him as the Messiah was going to bring challenge and danger. Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, and he must understand that Jesus could not have made the claims he was making without arousing opposition.
Why did the disciples have to decide? Because following Jesus was the way to life. Why must people now decide? Because the same choice is set before them.
The question “what?” is a question about what it means to be the Messiah. What does it mean to be the Christ, the anointed one? In Verse 17, Jesus says to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” The Messiah is the son of the Father in heaven, Jesus has been divinely revealed as God’s presence among them. The disciples needed to know what “Messiah” meant because they would one day have to answer the questions in a way that would demand their lives.
“What?” is a question asked of everyone who follows Jesus. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What difference will their belief make to them?
“When?”is the final question. When will the faith of the disciples be shown to be true?
Jesus say to Peter that there will be a day of judgement, people will be judged on how they have responded to the message the disciples have shared. In Verse 19, Jesus says, “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.” The word “when” asks the question about the moment when all that Jesus has said and done will become meaningful.
Living in times when many people regard life has having no meaning, when people believe that the present life in the present world are all there is, that word “when” is important. It says that this time matters, that this life matters, that people matter, and that no matter how things may seem, people are on a journey that is leading us to a destination. “When” is a statement of confidence that God is in charge of that journey.
Where, who, why, what and when: five W’s with which to think about that moment at Caesarea Philippi, five W’s with which to think about faith now.