Caesarea Philippi and the Gates of Hell

This is the twelfth post in a series of reflections on my recent trip to Israel (to read them all, click here).

June 24 PM

On our day in the Golan Heights, we went north all the way until we reached a place called Banias, near the foot of Mount Hermon. Today it is part of the Hermon Stream Nature Reserve.

In Old Testament times, this area was the northernmost part of the region of Bashan. When the Israelites took over the area from the Canaanites, the tribe of Dan established a city there that they called Dan. When it was given to Herod Philip in New Testament times, he renamed it Caesarea Philippi.

In both the Old and New Testaments, it was a center of pagan worship. Mount Hermon itself had been called Baal Hermon after the Canaanite storm god Baal, who was said to live on the mountain (Judg 3:3) . Even after the Israelites took it over from the Canaanites, an Israelite king set up a worship center there with a golden calf (1 Kgs 12:25–33). There was a temple dedicated to Pan there in New Testament times, as well as a temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus. Pan was a symbol of fertility, and there was a statue of Pan with a huge removable penis that would be paraded around during festivals.

The Romans called this place the rock of the gods.

Jesus called it the gates of Hades.


In Matthew 16:13–23, Jesus took his disciples up to Caesarea Philippi. There he asked them who people were saying he was. After they listed a few options (John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah), he asked him who they thought he was. Peter, never one to hesitate, said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Jesus responded, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt 16:18).

What are the gates of Hades? There have been many different interpretations. After we took a look at the site and then found some shade, our guide, Tim, pointed us back to the grotto that had been associated with the worship of Pan. A stream used to come out of the grotto, but an earthquake has stopped it up. It was believed in ancient times that this grotto contained access to the underworld.

If the “gates of Hades” might well have referred to their physical location, then what about “this rock”? The two most common interpretations of “this rock” are Peter himself and Peter’s confession in verse 16. The first interpretation is embraced by Catholics, who regard Peter as the first pope, and also some Protestants, who regard this as a reference to Peter’s prominence in the early church. The second interpretation instead says that the confession “Jesus is the Christ” is the foundation of the church.

fullsizeoutput_2713Tim argued that the “this rock” Jesus spoke of was neither Peter himself nor his confession, but the place where they were standing at the time. This interpretation is also set forth in the Lexham Geographic Commentary (a resource from my employer that came out this year):

In light of the massive rock scarp against which Caesarea Philippi was built and into which were hewn images of dead gods and goddesses, Jesus may have been using petra  [“rock”] to refer to the worldviews represented in that rock face. They appeared to be insurmountable but, here, Jesus was declared to be the Living God. In other words, this encounter represented a stinging condemnation of all forms of pagan worship. This is even more dramatic in light of the layers of religious history that had accumulated here. …

For Jesus to own in Caesarea Philippi the titles “Son of the living God” as well as “Son of Man” would upend all of the pagan notions associated with the location. Further, Jesus soon commenced teaching them about a radically different death and resurrection from the myth that enshrouded the Baal narratives (Matt 16:21).

According to this interpretation, Jesus was standing with his disciples in a center of pagan worship and fascination with death—a focus of demonic activity. He was claiming that his church would be built on (or “against”) such places. Despite the pressure to conform to the ways of the world, Jesus is saying, his church would thrive. It is even viewed as the aggressor, coming against the gates of Hades to rescue people from its grip. Even places like Caesarea Philippi would not be able to prevail against his church.

As I write this post, I’m thinking about the results of the latest US election. How could I not? Over the last few days, I’ve listened to people’s reactions to the election of Donald Trump as president. Some have been triumphalistic, some have been cautiously optimistic, but most I’ve heard have been angry or despairing (maybe because I live in the bluest of blue states).

fullsizeoutput_2706I will not deligitimize other people’s responses, especially since I have the privilege of not feeling an existential threat based on what Trump or some of his supporters have said during his campaign. I don’t think there’s room for me to tell other people how to feel.

As a member of Christ’s church, though, I also don’t there is room for me to look to the results of elections as my source of either despair or joy. Yes, politics is important, and it is important to work to make government as just as it can be. But while important, politics are not ultimate. I cannot demonize people who might disagree with me politically; there are in fact real demons that I ought to be concerned with—demons that invite people to worship created things, and especially themselves, resulting in their destruction. As I look to the future, I need to ask, What is the gate I am facing? And am I attacking it for the kingdom of God—not doing so triumphalistically but following the self-sacrificial way of Christ—or retreating into comfort and passivity?


4 thoughts on “Caesarea Philippi and the Gates of Hell

  1. Hi Elliott, This was one of my favorite stopping places on our pilgrimage and probably the one that has stuck with me the most. Like you, I have drawn from it for my own prayer life, but also during our election and it’s results. I have hung onto Jesus telling us that the church would “prevail”; and like you, reminding myself , “even being viewed as the aggressor”. This has been a great comfort and I have not felt fearful at any time, nor do I now.

    Thank you for all your postings. I have enjoyed reading them, especially as they take me back to all the places, as well as the people I was there with, in a very significant way. I didn’t do any note taking or journalling so your’s have been appreciated very much.

    1. Thanks so much, Joy! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my posts. It takes time to think back, and to take the time to write, which is why they’ve slowed down quite a bit over the past months, but they’re still worth it. Caesarea Philippi was also one of my favorites, and one that has stuck with me as I think about what it means to follow Jesus.

  2. Caesarea Phillipi, with its temples to both Augustus and Pan, illustrates the comingling of politics and religion in the Roman empire. Americans are inclined to join these together as well, especially to try to co-opt God for our own political purposes. As you say, though, politics, while important, is not ultimate. In our present political situation, there may be a need to advocate for the well-being of some in our midst, especially minorities and foreigners. It’s important not to do this just as a matter of politics, though, and its even more important not to claim God’s sanction for our own political preferences. Instead, we stand on the rock who is Christ and seek to follow him.

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