In the Northern Galilee, at the foot of towering, snow-capped Mt. Hermon, are the ruins of Caesarea Philippi. This ancient city had an idyllic setting since it was located at the beautiful springs forming one of the sources of the Jordan River.
In the past, the city had many names. In Old Testament times it was called Ba’al Hermon (Jud. 3:3), likely because the god Ba’al was worshipped there. In Hellenistic times it was called Paneas because the god Pan and his worship had apparently replaced the ancient Ba’als. The niches for Pan’s images can still be seen in the rock façade at the site. Of course, Pan was the ancient god of fright, who was half man and half goat and is often pictured as playing the flute.
Later in New Testament times the name of the city was changed to Caesarea Philippi (Caesar’s City of Philip). In the New Testament era, Herod Phillip, one of the sons of Herod the Great, ruled the area of Gaulanitis on the east side of the Jordan River. He made ancient Paneas his capital city and renamed it after Caesar Augustus. To distinguish it from the Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast it was named Caesarea Philippi. Much later, in the seventh century AD the Arabs captured the city and it reverted to its old name. Because of their difficulty in pronouncing the “P” sound, the name of the city became simply Banias as it still is today.
JESUS AT CAESAREA PHILIPPI
The Synoptic Gospels in Matthew 16:13-23; Mark 8:27-33; and Luke 9:19-22 give an account of Jesus and his disciples visiting this beautiful area of the Galilee. We have no evidence in these passages that Jesus and his disciples actually visited the pagan shrine or even entered the city, but they certainly were in the area. Shortly thereafter we have the account of Jesus’ transfiguration. Some now feel that this event happened on nearby Mt. Hermon rather than on the traditional and smaller site of Mt.Tabor in the Jezreel Valley.
As we consider Caesarea Philippi we must remember that Jesus and his disciples were orthodox Jews. It was not their custom to spend time in pagan Gentile areas. For instance, pagan Tiberias was one of the two largest cities in the Galilee. Although it was very close to the area where Jesus focused his ministry, neither Jesus nor any of his disciples ever entered the city so far as we know.
We can imagine that Jesus and his followers were repulsed by the pagan worship taking place in Caesarea Philippi. However, it is interesting that Jesus did not go around smashing pagan altars or otherwise interfering with pagan worship. Jesus no doubt knew that his teaching would ultimately bring an end to pagan worship throughout the whole world. He seems to have rested content in that.
CONFRONTING THE GATES OF HELL
The whole area around Caesarea Philippi, with its natural beauty and picturesque setting, had long been a center for false religion. Just a very few kilometers from Caesarea, and also situated on the slopes of Hermon, is the ancient city of Dan. This city was also blessed by cooling springs of water bubbling up to make yet another source of the Jordan River.
Unfortunately, during the days of Jeroboam the Son of Nebat, Dan was made into a cultic shrine where one of the two golden calves was set up. Of course, it was but a short step from the worship of a bull to the worship of Ba’al. Ultimately the beautiful site of Dan helped bring about the fall of Israel, or the northern ten tribes. These tribes have now been in dispersion for 2700 years because of their idolatry. So we can see that Jesus brought his disciples to the very gates of false religion, to the gates of Hades.
WHO IS CHRIST?
With this background we can see how it was very appropriate for Jesus to ask his disciples the question, “Who do people say the Son of Man is” (Mt. 16:13)? That question still resonates in our postmodern world. The question of “who is Jesus” or “who is God” is likely the most important question we could ever ask ourselves or answer. As we see from the disciples’ answers, even a lot of Jesus’ followers were somewhat confused about his identity. Is Jesus a prophet? Is he just some good teacher or some good man? Jesus is intense and personal as he asks the question. No doubt he is still asking it the same way to each of us today: “Who do YOU [emphasis added] say that I am (Mt. 16:15)?”
Peter answered the question as it can only be answered: “You are the Christ [Messiah] the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16). This is the heart of it, the absolutely correct answer. But it is not an answer that man can come up with from his own fleshly thinking. We see from this passage that it is only God who can reveal this information to us and put it into our hearts. This is the answer that still appalls the world but delights the true saints. Even God’s chosen people, were not ready for this answer. Perhaps because of this, Jesus commanded that his disciples not speak about Peter’s confession at the
time (Mt. 16:20).
Still, Jesus was obviously delighted with the answer as he still must be today. He was so delighted that he commended Peter and then went on to make one of the great promises of the New Testament. The statement contains a play on words, since “Peter” meant “rock.” Jesus said: “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. 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.” (Matt. 16:18-19).
The church of Jesus is built upon this great confession. We see it in 1 John 4:15: “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.”
Even the hardened Roman centurion who helped crucify Jesus cried out in the end “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mk. 15:39). How strange it is that even the devils knew that Jesus was God’s Son, and they said so. In Mark 3:11 we read: “Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.’” The devils knew who he was but could not confess him as their Lord. How sad that today in modern Christianity so many, even among the clergy, are reluctant and sometimes even unwilling to make such a confession about their Lord.
HOW THE CHURCH IS BUILT
Jesus says that upon this rock of confession he will build his church and the gates of Hades or death will not overcome it. As we saw, Peter’s name had been changed to “rock” by the Master. Indeed, there is a sense in which he changes every believer’s name to “rock.” He, in fact, makes them like living stones for his Temple which is the church. In 1 Peter 2:5 we read about this: “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
Today the church of God continues to be built in this world. It is being built with living rocks who dare confess that Jesus is the Son of God. In Ephesians 2:19-22 we read: “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”
In the face of neo-paganism; in the face of the world’s doubts, the church of Jesus still stands and advances. The gates of hell will not overcome it.
– Jim Gerrish
Publication date, 2004.