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Caesarea Philippi... Gates of Hades?

Carol Brooks

 “He asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. [Matthew 16:13 – 20]

Differing Views
This passage has given rise to many different interpretations.

    Some have supposed that the word “rock” refers to Peter’s confession, and that Jesus meant to say, upon this rock, this truth that you have confessed, that I am the Messiah and upon confessions of this from all believers, I will build my church.

    Others have thought that Jesus referred to himself. Christ is called a rock, [Isaiah 28:16; 1 Peter 2:8] And it has been thought that he turned from Peter to himself, and said, “Upon this rock, this truth that I am the Messiah - upon myself as the Messiah, I will build my church.”

    Another interpretation is, that the word “rock” refers to Peter himself. In other words Jesus was telling Peter that He had shown himself to be firm and suitable for the work of laying the foundation of the church.

The third is perhaps the most the obvious meaning of the passage. Unfortunately the Church of Rome has gone overboard with their interpretation of this statement. All of the conclusions that they have come to are not supported by Scripture and, in fact, are easily refuted. However there is little doubt that a special place was given to Peter at this stage.

Peter and The Keys
In support of the third view is the fact that Jesus also told Peter that He would give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven. A key is an instrument for opening a door and he that is in possession of the key has the power of access. In the Bible, a key is used as an emblem of power and authority. See Rev 1:18; Rev 3:7. When the Saviour says, therefore, he will give to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, he means that he will make him the instrument of opening the door of faith to the world. The first to preach the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. This was done in Acts 2:14-36; 10 when Peter first presented the Gospel to the Jews on Pentecost [Acts 2] and also first opened the doors of the church to the Gentiles when God sent him to preach to Cornelius and his household.  In a manner of speaking Peter did hold the keys to the Kingdom.

The “power of the keys” was given, on this occasion, to Peter alone, solely for this reason; the power of “binding and loosing” on earth was given to the other apostles with him. See Matthew 18:18. The only pre-eminence, then, that Peter had was the honor of first opening the doors of the gospel to the world.

However there is one more little considered option… The Location.

Why Caesarea Philippi?
Caesarea Philippi is the source of one of the tributaries of the Jordan, the Banyas River. The Jordan River begins its life-giving journey at the foot of Mt. Hermon. Like its mightier cousins the Jordan’s has humble beginnings, originating from three springs, one of which used to flow from the mouth of a cave. An earthquake in 1837 caused the cave to collapse and the spring now flows from the base of the cliff.

The area is green and lush with plenty of fresh water and was the site of the city of Caesarea Philippi built about 2 B.C. by Herod Philip, son of Herod the Great and Tetrarch of the area. However in stark contrast to the pristine surroundings this area was notorious for it’s evil practices and atrociously immoral pagan rites. From ancient times the place was the site of worship of pagan nature gods, first Ba'al & then Pan. A grotto shrine dedicated to Pan & the nymph Echo led the site to be called Paneas in early Roman times [Banias in Arabic]. The fresh water pools, fertile environment, thousand foot elevation & scenic vistas made it one of the most pleasant resorts in Palestine. Their worship of their fertility gods was inspired by the abundance of water as they believed that life came from the gods and where the gods were had to be water. However their worship was accompanied by appalling decadence and dissipation, which included child sacrifice..

The region was first settled by the tribe of Dan who, finding the Philistines hard to deal with, made their way north and established the city of Dan, which later became the ‘High Place’ where king Jeroboam set up a golden calf.

By the time of Jesus the Greeks had put an end to the infant sacrifices and the Romans had brought the rest to a close. However the people of the area continued to worship the fertility gods of the Greeks, particularly the Greek god Pan, god of animals and forests (Banyas is derived from Panyas ). They had carved niches for their idols in the side of the cliff, several of which are clearly visible today.

A large part of Jesus’ ministry was 20 miles south of this area in the cities of Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida. Shortly before He made His final journey to Jerusalem to be crucified He brought the disciples to Caesarea Philippi, which is not somewhere you get to by accident. As a practicing Jew, Jesus knew that it was defiling to be in a pagan temple yet he appears to have taken his disciples specifically there. Why?

We read in Matthew 16:13 – 20 that it was at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus probed his disciples perception of him.....They traveled a long way to go to a pagan temple simply for Jesus to ask the disciples a question He could have asked them anywhere. It is apparent that Jesus wanted to anchor something in his disciples mind. The very geography of the place lends credence to the concept that Jesus was, in His reply, referring to the very rock they were standing in close proximity to.

    The Rock… where the gods are

    The Rock… representing the pagan culture

    The Rock… where the fertility practices and immorality were carried out.

Was Jesus saying that His church would replace the supremacy of satan? His church would replace the ‘rock of the enemy’.

His next words lend additional credibility to this thought. Jesus says the ‘the gates of hell will not prevail against the church’. In a sense what was practiced at this rock was originally Baal worship. Baal, lord of the underworld and god of the dead was said to have gone down to Hades every winter and return in the spring (which accounted for the seasons) and was referred to by Jesus as the devil. (Rabbinic tradition believed that when the Messiah came the gates of Caesarea Philippi would collapse). 

The traditional and long held view of Jesus’ words about ‘the gates of hell not prevailing against the church’ is that the church is like a fortress, which the enemy  pounds at ...to no avail.   However in Old Testament times the gate of the city was its main and foremost defense against the enemy. If the enemy prevailed against the gates the city was lost, and usually fell quickly.

So the image Jesus was painting was exactly the opposite of the conventional belief. He was saying that the church will usurp the power of Satan and his gates will not be able to defend him against the church. The church is the one that does the attacking, not the powers of hell. In His choosing of this location Jesus was initiating the disciples, preparing them for the work ahead and giving them a broad vision of the role of the church.

The mission of the church is not to be defensive and to hide from the world in churches and Christian schools etc. but to confront the power of the enemy. To challenge the adversary on his own ground.


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