When Jesus asked his disciples the familiar question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” he was in “the district of Caesarea Philippi.” After they gave him an answer as to what they had heard people speculate as to who they thought he was, he asks them who they thought he was. Impetuous Peter was the one to answer; “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:13-16).
Was it only incidental that Jesus had brought his followers to Caesarea Philippi, or did he have some special reason for doing so? We may never know the reason, but if we know something about this place we may justly speculate that he had a reason for going there and for asking them the questions he asked them.
So what do we know about this place? The city was “[s]ituated 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee and at the base of Mt. Hermon, Caesarea Philippi is the location of one of the largest springs feeding the Jordan River.” (BiblePlaces.com). At the site of this spring there was a temple devoted to the worship of the Greek god of nature and of shepherds, Pan. The city was also known as Panias (modern Banias) after this half-goat-half-man “deity.” The cavern out of which the spring flowed was known as the “gates of Hades.” It was believed that this cavern was the entrance into the netherworld and therefore a very frightening place. The city of Caesarea Philippi was situated atop the rocky cliff over this spring.
This location had been used for centuries as a place of worship of false gods. Before the coming of Greek influence and then of the Romans, the gods worshiped there were the Baals – the fertility gods of the Canaanitish and other peoples of this region. The worship of these gods and of Pan was characterized by ritual sexual orgies of the basest sort.
Did Jesus bring his disciples to this place just to have the conversation that is recorded here? Was this site chosen as a colossal visual aid? Did Jesus use this setting to dramatize his words? We really don’t know because the Bible doesn’t tell us, but it certainly piques my curiosity. We know that he does engage in a bit of word-play in his response to Peter’s answer to his question about his identity.
“And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:17-18).
This which the Father in heaven had revealed to Peter was the truth Peter confessed – that Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus’ play on words is his reference to Peter whose name meant “a rock,” or a small stone. The word Jesus used for the rock on which he would build his church was another form of the word for rock – the word meaning a bedrock which would serve as a secure foundation of the church. If Jesus’ words were spoken with the city of Caesarea Philippi in view at the top of the cliff which had the “gates of Hades” in it, the inference would have been clear and powerful. They would never have supposed that Peter was the rock on which the church was to be built.
The truth of his identity was the bedrock foundation upon which the church was built. He is the Son of God. He had demonstrated that to these men time after time in doing the things no man could do. He healed the sick, opened the eyes of the blind, fed the hungry and performed various other miracles in their presence, proving himself to be who he said he was. Weak and wavering Peter could not serve as a secure under-girding for the assembly of called out people who would constitute the church. Only the truth of Jesus is sufficient for that.
Was Jesus standing before the yawning cavern that represented the entrance into the underworld when he announced to his disciples that the “gates of Hades” could not prevail against the establishment of his church? Were there worshipers of the grotesque figure of Pan present and did Jesus shout this as a challenge to the “powers of evil?” Here at the scene of so much corrupt worship it is tempting to imagine that he did! But we don’t know that.
One thing is certain… no power on earth nor from beneath the earth could keep him from building his church. The power of paganism, the intimidation of the Roman government nor the false religion of the Jews could prevent its origination. Neither death nor the grave nor Satan himself could prevent it. His church would be built and would continue to exist through the principle of a secure foundation. He is God and whatever he sets his mind to will be done. No man nor group of men nor all of mankind as a whole could stop its beginning nor its continuation.
As time went on Jesus’ challenge to evil continued and the resistance of that evil to himself and his message grew stronger and stronger. That opposition of evil eventually took the form of an unholy alliance between the two major sects of the Jews – otherwise bitter enemies – to destroy him. By extending that conspiracy to enlist the power of the Roman Empire, they finally nailed him to a cross. Evil seemed for the moment to have triumphed. Death claimed the one who said that he had power over death. Satan seemed to have gained the upper hand. But after three days he arose from the tomb, victorious over death, over sin and over Satan.
Then after he had shown himself alive to numerous witnesses, he ascended into heaven. Ten days later on the day of Pentecost, while his disciples were assembled in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit came upon them and they began to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus who was proven by his resurrection to be the Son of God. (Acts 2:36 Romans 1:4). As a result of the preaching of the resurrection and glorification of Jesus on that day three thousand people responded through their faith in him and were baptized. As the days went on the number of disciples continued to grow. All these who responded to the message of the risen Messiah were added by the Lord to the church.
When the same message is preached today, the result will be the same. People will believe it and obey it. They, like the people on Pentecost, will be saved from their sins and the Lord will add them to his church. They will not be scattered into diverse sects and denominations. They will simply be the church which Jesus built, and individually, Christians, followers of the risen Lord, the Savior, Jesus who is the Christ. They will bow only to King Jesus, not to any human authority or council of men. They will worship God and him only. They will, in their capacity as the living body of Christ on earth, go about doing good as he did while he was here on earth.
People are still being added by the Lord to his church. Every time a sinner responds in faith to the gospel message and is baptized into Christ, (Romans 6:3-4), they are placed among the number of the saved, the church. They don’t have to “join” anything. They are where the Lord is pleased to put them. They simply go to work among others who have likewise been added to the church. Why have anything more? Or different? Especially since we have no assurance whatsoever that anything besides the church is pleasing to him who built it?