Speaking Of Life 1011 | The Gates of Hell
When I was a 20-year-old college student I got the privilege to tour Israel, and I have the opportunity to return this January with a group of my co-workers. I had envisioned Israel as a dry, arid desert, and much of it is. To my delight I was fascinated to explore an area known as Banias, where there is an impressive waterfall and the headwaters of the Jordan River. This area is identified in the Bible as Caesarea Philippi.
In Matthew 16, one of the most famous exchanges in the Gospels takes place:
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 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. 18 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. 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.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
One of the over-looked details of this conversation is the setting. Caesarea Philippi was the location of a temple to the Greek god Pan, and a site of all kinds of pagan temple worship. There was a spring there that ran from the mouth of a deep cave, that can still be seen today. The Greeks had a strong association of their gods with water, and believed this was where the gods returned every winter to the underworld and then back out in the spring. Because of this association, this location was often called the “gates of the underworld” or the “gates of hades,” as Jesus refers to it in verse 18.
This was a place of worship of Pan and possibly other gods of fertility, so it was not only a religious site, but a place of partying, drunkenness and sexual immorality. In Jesus’ day, the orthodox rabbis reviled the place, saying that no law-abiding Israelite would be caught dead there. It was on par with Las Vegas, or South Beach: Wwhat happened in Caesarea Philippi, stayed…well, you know the rest.
And it is here where Jesus chose to have Peter say some of the most important theology he ever uttered. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Why would Jesus choose THIS PLACE, reeking of moral decay and guilt, to talk about the foundation of his church?
Here was a place, cluttered with idols and people making bad decisions, where the human heart was ACHING for God. This was the flashpoint where the populace showed their ache for connection to something divine, something BEYOND the world we could see and touch. It was indeed the “gates of hell,” and so was the place that needed grace the most. Jesus, however, walked right into the place, where the need was MOST painful.
Where are those places today? Perhaps the streets of Las Vegas, where money, pleasure and leisure seem to be offered without consequence? Perhaps on Wall Street, where greed and power and riches are at your fingertips? Perhaps the red-light district of so many cities, where pleasure is offered as escape from the grayness of daily life?
Where are the Caesarea Philippi of our world today? And where are they in ourselves? Where, within us, is the gates of hell where the Lordship of Christ needs to be declared?
I’m Greg Williams, speaking of life.