Caesarea Philippi only gets one mention in Scripture, but it’s an important mention. It was a Roman city that held one significant place in the time that Jesus was alive on earth. That place was a grotto dedicated to the mythical Greek god Pan. The grotto is just a small cave-like opening that goes back a few yards into the face of the rock. In Jesus’ day, ancient tradition said that the grotto was the “Gate of Hades.” Worshippers of the false god Pan believed that the grotto was the entrance of the gods of Romany mythology into Hades, the realm of the underworld.
Jesus never entered Caesarea Philippi while He was on earth. But one day, He did come close to the city, and He had an extremely important and world-changing conversation with His disciples there. As they came into the region, Jesus asked His disciples a question, “Who do people say I am?” The disciples had lots of answers— ones that people really had been giving. People who had been hearing Jesus teach and seeing Him perform miracles were curious and confused about who He could be, and they had many theories. Maybe Elijah, or Jeremiah, or another resurrected prophet? Or even John the Baptist, back from the dead? The disciples gave all of these suggestions they’d heard to Jesus. And then Jesus asked them the real question He was getting at: “But who do you say I am?”
Peter spoke up and boldly answered: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
To us, perhaps, his answer doesn’t seem like such a big deal. We know and have believed that Jesus is the Son of God. But for the Peter and the rest of the disciples, this was BIG. They had been waiting their whole life for the Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel to come. And for the first time, they were putting together the pieces that Jesus was it. He was the Messiah, exactly who they and their fathers and grandfathers had been waiting for. But even more than that, Jesus was God Himself, living as a man! Peter’s statement expressed that Jesus was both the promised Messiah fulfilled and the Son of the living God, ruler of all. That was a monumental statement indeed.
And Jesus gives this famous and powerfully simple answer in light of what Peter said: “…on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (v. 18).
Jesus said that His church would be established on the strong foundation of truth that He is the Christ and the Son of God, the very truth that Peter had spoken, the truth that was as solid as a rock. But He also made another secondary statement about His church: “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” At first glance, this just seems like Jesus is making a reference to hell and the forces of evil that will war against His people but ultimately be defeated. But why use this phrase, “the gates of Hades,” which is found no where else in God’s Word? Why does Jesus say specifically that “the gates of Hades” will not overcome His church?
Because they were standing right outside them.
Jesus and His disciples were standing just a little ways away from the grotto of Pan, the place which hundreds of people over the centuries had believed to be the “gates of Hades” itself.
That’s what our professor explained to us as we stood right beside the grotto in Caesarea Philippi on Monday afternoon of our trip.
Standing there in the rain, looking into the grotto, I thought about the power of Jesus’ words. How does knowing about the grotto change my understanding of Jesus’ statement about His church, its foundation, and who it is that will never prevail against it?
In the moment that Jesus said what He said in Matthew 16, He was declaring that He is the truth and that His church is the only true way. Everyone who worshipped the gods and believed in the myth of the gates of Hades was just wrong. Everything that they believed in just simply wasn’t true. And in one simple phrase, Jesus obliterated their false faith and called them to real truth. He declared that His called out people would have a firm foundation on the fact that Jesus is the only Son of the only one and true God. And then He declared that no forces of evil, but especially not made-up forces which were just unproven, ancient folklore, would ever be able to overcome or defeat that church which He was about to establish and purchase with His own blood. Unlike the flimsy and questionable foundation of those who believed in the Gates of Hades, Jesus’ followers would have a strong and unquestionable foundation in the power of His love.
This can start to sound like some cerebral theological stuff, but it’s really pretty simple. Nothing can stop God’s church from winning the ultimate victory because God’s church is founded on the truth. And the truth is Jesus Christ.
When Jesus said, “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it,” I wonder if the disciples looked around at each other like, “Wow okay, yeah the gates of Hades,” and then it hit them and they got sort of wide-eyed like, “Oh you mean that gates of Hades.” I wonder if they got nervous about the residents of Caesarea Philippi hearing their conversation as they passed by on their way in and out of the city. I wonder if they felt the need to be hushed for fear of offending anyone. I wonder if they were shocked by Jesus’ implications.
Their culture was full of people who weren’t getting it, but they were getting it. I wonder how they went forward from here. If Jesus’ statement gave them confidence, or if they were afraid of how comprehensively life-changing His declaration was for them. Maybe a little bit of both. Jesus was turning their world upside down more and more every day.
He certainly turned Caesarea Philippi upside down. He reclaimed a place that was nothing more than a natural phenomenon—one for which He deserved the credit as co-Creator of the world—and proclaimed Himself as the true One to fear and worship and His coming Kingdom as the true place to turn for life.
At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus said, “My church wins. Because it’s My church.”
And it’s literally that simple.