We shall not find a statement in Scripture, however trivial it may at first sight appear, which is not there for a purpose, and has not a meaning. Thus our Lord's discourse with his disciples as they walked, when He asked them "Whom do men say that I am?" is prefaced with the remark that they had gone into the parts (i.e., the villages) of Caesarea Philippi. Why should St. Mark be careful to tell us that the momentous question was asked in that neighbourhood? There is much in the topographical setting, if we may so term it, of the question. I do not mean the natural scenery though it is among the most lovely and varied in all Syria. It was on one of the southern spurs of snow-capped Hermon, whose dome towers 10,000 feet above the plain. At the base of the mountain here bursts forth the great fountain of Jordan, one of the largest springs in the world- a river full-grown at birth. On a little knoll, close by that mighty fountain, once stood the temple of Dan, with the golden calf, the centre of the idolatrous worship of the northern tribes. Park-like glades, studded with noble oaks, spread on both sides of the wide valley which slopes down to the plain of Jordan. But it was not on this account that the place is mentioned. It was the northern limit of our Lord's journeyings, just on the frontier of the land of Israel. At Caesarea Philippi He was in one of the holy places of classical paganism. In a lovely glen, where magnificent streams burst from the foot of lofty cliffs, everywhere overhung with luxuriant foliage, the Greeks had consecrated a grotto to the worship of their rustic god Pan. Alongside of this a Gentile city had sprung up, named after the heathen divinity, Paneas- a name which it still retains, slightly changed to Banias. But Herod had built a sumptuous temple; and Philip the Tetrarch, who ruled at this time, had beautified and enlarged it, and changed its name to Caesarea Philippi, combining flattery to his suzerain with the endeavor to preserve his own memory. High up on the face of the enclosing cliffs, was many a sculpture and tablet deeply chiselled, remaining intact to this day, carved in honour of the deity of the place and his licentious rites.
These rock-hewn carvings must have caught the eye of the Lord and His disciples as they passed up towards the city, above which is the probable scene of the Transfiguration. And perhaps He had them in view, when, thinking of a far more imperishable rock, He said to Peter, "Upon this rock I will build My Church." For our rock is not as theirs. The Master and His disciples were here standing on the very borderline of Judaism and paganism. They looked south on the land of Naphtali, then studded with synagogues. Beneath them, where the waters of Paneas joined the Jordan, were the desolate ruins which recorded the former apostasy of the Israelitish kingdom. Behind them were the gorgeous buildings which illustrated the two most debasing extremes of the sensuous idolatry of the Greek and Roman world; substituting, on the one hand, for the worship of the Eternal Power and Godhead, the materialistic worship of nature in its lowest form, and on the other, prostituting the human conscience to the purposes of a tyrannical and brutal government. But around our Lord stood the germ of a living Church- that little band which represented the Israel from whom Christ came, an isolated and lonely race; alone, too, in their strong faith in a coming Deliverer, who should overthrow all that mighty fabric of idolatry- a faith which, to those who were aliens from their commonwealth, seemed the most crazy of dreams. In such a spot, and amidst such surroundings, does the Lord Jesus elicit definitely, and for the first time, the emphatic declaration, "Thou art the Christ." As though He had in His mind the hopes and wants of the various races of mankind which He alone could meet, on that frontier spot, He would break down the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile. Here He unveiled the power which should free men's consciences from the thrall of pagan superstition and sensuality. Here He foretold how the hopes of oppressed and downcast Israel should be fulfilled, while all alike should, in the answer to that great question, find light and peace and freedom.
from pages 41-44, Eastern Customs in Bible Lands