We began in the last post to think about the excursion Jesus made with his disciples to the Roman city of Caesarea Philippi where he asked them about who people thought he was. Peter’s answer was “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It was then that Jesus made the promise that upon “this rock” he would build his church and the “gates of Hades” would not prevail against it.
It is not insignificant, I think, that Jesus made this comment about the gates of Hades at this particular time and at this particular place. Very near this city there was a grotto – a cavern – situated at the foot of a cliff out of which flowed a veritable river of water. In fact, it is one of four principal sources of the Jordan River. This cavern, situated at the foot of Mt. Hermon, was known as the “gates of Hades” because people believed it was a portal into the unseen realm, the mysterious place of the dead which held tremendous powers of evil.
Atop this precipice was the city of Caesarea Philippi, located so as to have a commanding view of the countryside and the approaches to the city. Being a Roman city, there was probably a unit of the Roman army garrisoned there. Situated as it was on this rock with a view that would have enabled them to see and prepare for any invading enemy and with the protection of Roman military might, the residents probably thought the city was invincible. Today it is an unoccupied, rubble-strewn ruin in the contested area between Syria and Israel known as the Golan Heights.
Just outside this cavern the pagans at some point erected a temple to the Greek god, Pan, the god of wildness. It is from Pan that we get the word “panic.” Set into niches carved into the face of the cliff in which this cavern was located were stone images of Pan and his lesser attendant deities. The grotesque representation of Pan was of a creature, half goat and half man. Pan was a fertility god, like so many of the gods of the idolaters, whose worship was characterized by morally abandoned orgies including bestiality with – you guessed it – goats!
So the acknowledgment of Jesus’ deity was made against the striking background of this horribly perverted concept of both man and God. This would have been a visual illustration of the truth Paul speaks in Romans 1 about how man, in abandoning the worship of God turned to the worship of created things. He says that men “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23).
In contrast to the worship of carved stone images, Peter had confessed the bedrock truth of the deity and Sonship of Christ – that is, as we looked at in the last post – the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed King over all of God’s creation. This was the truth the apostles would be preaching later. Jesus was going to build his people on the solid bedrock truth of his identity rather than carved representations of him out of pieces of rock. “…on this rock I will build my church…” This would give them a secure foundation on which to build their lives unlike the pursuit of lust practiced by the idolaters at the shrine of Pan.
Jesus said that the “gates of hell shall not prevail” against the church he was going to build. Satan, who is the god of this world and surely the originator of all idolatrous religion, could not stop the building of the church. In fact, the crucifixion of Jesus, which was instigated by the authorities of another false religion to silence and rid them of Jesus and the trouble he had created for them in opposing their error, only served to accomplish his purposes. His death, burial and resurrection became the very message that would establish the church and change the world. This message of forgiveness through the grace of God as seen in the sacrifice of the Son still reverberates around the world, preserving it from ruin and changing individuals, families, communities and nations. By the power of God it will continue to be preached in every nation under heaven until the end of time and then be celebrated in eternity!
There is another element of Jesus’ remarks made on this occasion that especially relates to the theme we are dealing with in this series of articles. Jesus told the apostles …
Matthew 16:19 “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
There has been endless speculation about this statement. To whom were the keys given? To Peter? Or to all the apostles? What were the keys? The terms of admission into the kingdom? Who was to be excluded?
Remember that throughout his preaching and ministry Jesus had been talking about the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God. The kingdom was “near.” The kingdom was “like.” The effect of Peter’s confession was that Jesus was the king whom God had promised throughout the Old Testament and for whom the Jews had long been looking. If he were the king, then he had all authority in the kingdom. In fact, after his resurrection he claimed that authority when he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
In this verse (Matthew 16:19), he simply says that there was a time coming when he would give to the apostles the keys of the kingdom. This means that they would have authority in the kingdom. To do what? To “bind” and “loose.” Notice what Jesus said …
This was not an announcement of the right of the apostles to make laws and bind them on the kingdom citizens. In other words, the authority did not reside in them. They were given a responsibility within the kingdom to make known the will of the King. The language literally says: “whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven” and “whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” What this amounts to is that the apostles were the kingdom messengers. They had no authority other than that given them by the King and that was to make his will to mankind known.
By taking his disciples to this location near Caesarea Philippi he was giving them a foretaste of what they were going to be up against when they began their role as his emissaries. After his departure and especially after the gospel began to spread throughout the Roman world Jesus’ disciples would come up against the power of both the Roman government and the deceptive and syncretizing power of pagan religion. Both would present serious threats to those who would subject themselves to the rule of King Jesus.
His apostles, charged with the responsibility of heralding the coming of a new king, served as his official ambassadors or emissaries. They were representatives of the rightful government of the Creator. Their responsibility was to call the whole world to reconciliation with him.
2 Corinthians 5:20 (EXB) “So we have been sent to speak [are ambassadors] for Christ. It is as if God is calling to [urging; exhorting; encouraging] you through us. We speak for Christ when we beg [implore; urge] you to be at peace with [reconciled to] God.”
The Orthodox Jewish Bible says, “…we are emissaries of shalom…” (or peace).
Since the world powers did not recognize that they were not on friendly terms with the rightful ruler of the universe and since they perceived the kingdom of God to be a threat to their reign of ignorance, violence and superstition these emissaries of peace would find their lives often in danger. Why was this so? It was – and is – so because no government, no society, no political power can remain in power through violence and deception, denying people the freedom to think and to live their lives in response to God’s demand for purity and peace.
Is the world as a whole much better today? I know that we in America still cling to the delusion that this is a “Christian” nation. In fact, however, this has never been a Christian nation. Admittedly there was a time when Biblical principles served as a kind of framework for our government, but that time is coming to an end and we are slipping back into the same kind of world that existed when Jesus walked the earth. Not only are the foundational concepts crumbling, but too much of what today passes for Christianity has come to be little more than the old sensual paganism dressed in semi-Christian garb. The consequence of this is that those who truly respect the Lordship of Jesus are confronted with many of the same kinds of difficulties the apostles and early Christians faced. But then, maybe this is more the “normal” condition of the world and we have been living in a kind of false peace where the world has given a little and the church has given a lot – all in the name of peace and prosperity!
If we think the world and our politic are going to change for us we are living in a fool’s paradise. The day likely is coming when if there is any changing done it will have to be like it was done in the early centuries of the church –by the blood and sacrifices of martyrs who loved the kingdom of God more than anything else in this world.