Monday, December 11, 2006
I've Been to the Gates of Hell (Holy Land #5 of 14)
How many times have I read, heard, or even preached on Matthew 16 when Jesus asks His disciples the question, “Who do men say that I am?” Their answers were the common Jewish thoughts of the day. Some say you are Elijah. Some say John the Baptist. Others say you are a prophet. Then Jesus asked the all-important question, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon wasted no time in answering, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Literally, he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of God, the living One!" Jesus then commended Peter stating that flesh and blood did not reveal that to him but rather God did. He then changed Simon’s name to Peter and said that upon this rock He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.
I always thought I understood that passage but after visiting Caesarea Philippi where these events took place, I realized how much comprehension of this passage I was missing. I knew the theological significance to this but once I saw the history of this location, my whole perspective changed. Caesarea Philippi was an unbelievable sight of pagan worship and idolatry. It was believed to be the place where the gods came to play and have their orgies. Temples were built to Pan (who was believed to be half-man and half goat) and Zeus and statues of many other multiple gods were all erected and worshiped. How significant that Jesus would take his disciples here to ask this all important question. Now Peter’s answer takes on even more meaning…“You are the Christ, the Son of God, the living One!”
Then there was Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession as He said, “On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Knowing the history here brings this statement to life. There was there a large and deep water source that was very powerful in its force. People would be thrown into this water as a sacrifice to the gods. Some lived but most died. This entrance to this area was called the “gates of hell” because it was so deep that it was believed to have been the entrance to hell. This is why Jesus used this term. When we stand on the fact that Jesus is the Messiah…the living God, no force of paganism can ever stand against us. I could have spent all day here meditating on this truth but with so much to see this tour keeps us moving.
This was the center of idolatry in that day. When Jesus asked his question, “Who do men say that I am,” He asked it of His disciples as they looked around at the ornate temples and multitudes of people who were making sacrifices and kneeling before these idols that could not hear, see or speak. Jesus wanted to know if His disciples truly understood that He was more than a reincarnated Elijah or Moses. He was more than a prophet. Who was He? He was the Christ…the chosen one…the Messiah. And against the backdrop of such dead worship, He wanted them to see and realize once and for all that He was in fact the Son of God. He, in contrast to all the dead idols around Him, was the living God!
Suddenly this story that I had heard since my childhood flannel graph days came to life. It now had new meaning. My Bible College professor was right. You will never really understand the Bible theologically unless you first understand it historically!