Gates of Hell

City of Pagans

Caesarea Philippi, which stood in a lush area near the foot of Mount Hermon, was a city dominated by immoral activities and pagan worship.

Caesarea Philippi stood only twenty-five miles from the religious communities of Galilee. But the city's religious practices were vastly different from those of the nearby Jewish towns.

In Old Testament times, the northeastern area of Israel became a center for Baal worship. In the nearby city of Dan, Israelite king Jeroboam built the high place that angered God and eventually led the Israelites to worship false gods. Eventually, worship of the baals was replaced with worship of Greek fertility gods.

Caesarea Philippi, which stood in a lush area near the foot of Mount Hermon, became the religious center for worship of the Greek god, Pan. The Greeks named the city Panias in his honor.

Years later, when Romans conquered the territory, Herod Philip rebuilt the city and named it after himself. But Caesarea Philippi continued to focus on worship of Greek gods. In the cliff that stood above the city, local people built shrines and temples to Pan.

Interestingly, Jesus chose to deliver a sort of "graduation speech" to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi. In that pagan setting, he encouraged his disciples to build a church that would overcome the worst evils.

The Gates of Hell

To the pagan mind, the cave at Caesarea Philippi created a gate to the underworld, where fertility gods lived during the winter. They committed detestable acts to worship these false gods.

Caesarea Philippi's location was especially unique because it stood at the base of a cliff where spring water flowed. At one time, the water ran directly from the mouth of a cave set in the bottom of the cliff.

The pagans of Jesus' day commonly believed that their fertility gods lived in the underworld during the winter and returned to earth each spring. They saw water as a symbol of the underworld and thought that their gods traveled to and from that world through caves.

To the pagan mind, then, the cave and spring water at Caesarea Philippi created a gate to the underworld. They believed that their city was literally at the gates of the underworld—the gates of hell. In order to entice the return of their god, Pan, each year, the people of Caesarea Philippi engaged in horrible deeds, including prostitution and sexual interaction between humans and goats.

When Jesus brought his disciples to the area, they must have been shocked. Caesarea Philippi was like a red-light district in their world and devout Jews would have avoided any contact with the despicable acts committed there.

It was a city of people eagerly knocking on the doors of hell.

 

Jesus' Challenge

Jesus presented a clear challenge with his words at Caesarea Philippi: He didn't want his followers hiding from evil: He wanted them to storm the gates of hell.

Standing near the pagan temples of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples "Who do you say that I am?" Peter boldly replied, "You are the Son of the living God." The disciples were probably stirred by the contrast between Jesus, the true and living God, and the false hopes of the pagans who trusted in "dead" gods.

Jesus continued, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it" (see Matt. 16:13-20).

Though Christian traditions debate the theological meaning of those words, it seems clear that Jesus? words also had symbolic meaning. His church would be built on the "rock" of Caesarea Philippi—a rock literally filled with niches for pagan idols, where ungodly values dominated.

Gates were defensive structures in the ancient world. By saying that the gates of hell would not overcome, Jesus suggested that those gates were going to be attacked.

Standing as they were at a literal "Gate of Hades," the disciples may have been overwhelmed by Jesus' challenge. They had studied under their rabbi for several years, and now he was commissioning them to a huge task: to attack evil, and to build the church on the very places that were most filled with moral corruption.

Jesus presented a clear challenge with his words at Caesarea Philippi: He didn't want his followers hiding from evil: He wanted them to storm the gates of hell.

Not Ashamed

Jesus' followers cannot successfully confront evil when we are embarrassed about our faith.

After Jesus spoke to his disciples about storming the gates of hell, he also gave them another word of caution: "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory" (Luke 9:26).

Jesus knew that his followers would face ridicule and anger as they tried to confront evil. And his words came as a sharp challenge: no matter how fierce the resistance, his followers should never hide their faith in God.

Jesus taught with passion, even when bystanders may have thought him a fool. And at Caesarea Philippi, he challenged everyone within hearing: "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very soul?" (v. 25).

In a city filled with false idols, Jesus asked his followers to commit to the one true God. While false gods promised prosperity and happiness, they would ultimately fail to deliver. Jesus didn't promise an easy life, but he delivered on the promise of salvation;the only kind of prosperity that really matters.

Today, Christians must heed the words of our Rabbi, especially when we are tempted to hide our faith because of embarrassment or fear. Our world is filled with those who have "gained the world" but lost their souls. If we hide our faith, they may never find the salvation they need.
 

On the offense

As we listen to Jesus' challenge today, we as Christians should ask ourselves the important question: When it comes to the battle against evil, are we on defense or offense?

In a culture that embraces diversity, it is offensive to suggest that there are certain truths that apply to everyone. Pointing out sin isn't popular and many Christians are labeled as "intolerant" for refusing to accept certain behaviors and ideas.

Unfortunately, many people have embraced a distorted Christianity that tries to be "politically correct." They don't want to offend anyone, so they accept sin rather than confronting it. Ultimately, their words of "love" ring empty because they accept sins that ruin people's lives.

Other Christians just try to avoid sinful culture altogether. They have been taught to go on the defense—to hide in their churches, schools, and homes and to shut the door on the evil influences of culture.

But Jesus challenged his followers to be on the offense—to proclaim the truth without shame.

Our schools and churches should become staging areas rather than fortresses; places that equip God's people to confront a sinful world instead of hiding from it. Jesus knows that the pagan world will resist, but he challenges us to go there anyway, and to build his church in those very places that are most morally decayed.

As we listen to Jesus' challenge today, we as Christians should ask ourselves the important question: Are we on defense or offense?

Journey Onward