This morning, a passage of Scripture came alive … illuminated by the experiences Kim and I had this past summer on our trip to the country of Israel. When I visited that location, it was probably the most profound moment I had on that trip. The Bible story that took place here came alive for me!

Let’s begin with Jesus’ question and the city He was in when He asked it …

Matthew 16:13 (CSB) “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?'”

Caesarea Philippi was a city about 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It is a very lush location with plenty of trees, shrubbery, and grass because of the natural spring in the area. In fact, the spring is one of the main sources of the Jordan River.

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The ruins of Caesarea Philippi (located in the Golan Heights) is marked in the center of the map.

How lush can it be in the desert that claims so much of the Israel? Well, here’s a picture I took this past summer.

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I took this picture while standing where Herod’s temple to the god of Pan was located. The massive cliff was behind me and the ruins from the community of Caesarea Philippi is in front of me, on the other side of the river and trees.

Here is a video I took while standing on the foundation of a pagan temple that once stood in this place. The city of Caesarea Philippi was located below this spot among the rich vegetation.

You will notice a cave and a cliff. Keep those visuals in the back of your mind. We’ll come back to them in just a moment.

There is one more fact I want to share before we proceed with the text from Matthew 16. I took the above video while standing in a spot where Herod the Great built a temple to the God of Pan. Herod was always trying to stay in favor with Rome, so he built a pagan place of worship here and dedicated it to Emperor Augustus.

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This plaque says: “Built in 19 BCE, during the reign of Herod the Great, in honor of the Roman Emperor Augustus. The coin at the top of this text shows the facade of the temple. In front of you is the western wall of the hall with semicircular and rectangular niches housing the statues of the deities. The back wall of the temple served as a passage to the Grotto of Pan – the holy of holies of this site. The passage was decorated with the carved stones displayed to your right.”

With that in mind, realize that Jesus was almost certainly near this temple when He asked His disciples the question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Now, let’s continue to read the story…

Matthew 16:14-15 (CSB) “They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But you,’ he asked them, ‘who do you say that I am?'”

Essentially, Jesus said, “Ok. It’s good that you know who other people say that I am. But, I want want to know who YOU say that I am.”

Use your imagination. See Jesus talking with his disciples in Caesarea Philippi. People are all around. Maybe they stood beside the flowing stream that was making it’s way to the Jordan River. The pagan temple was in clear view at its higher elevation as Jesus talked.

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The foundation rock upon which the temple to Pan was built. Caesarea Philippi was located down the slope to the left of this picture.

Now, listen as Peter answers Jesus’ question…

Matthew 16:16 (CSB) “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.'”

Wow! The Apostle Peter got it! He knew who Jesus was! Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of God!

This was an answer that had profound implications! It was the bedrock truth that the church was going to be built upon. In fact, this is exactly what Jesus said in response to Peter’s answer.

Matthew 16:17-18 (CSB) “Jesus responded, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.'”

Catholics believe that the church was built upon Peter but a clear reading of these verses reveals that the church is to be built on the statement that Peter made – “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God!”

Now, notice what Jesus says next. He says, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” This is the part of the story that came alive for me when I visited the ruins of Caesarea Philippi. Let me see if I can open these words up for you, too.

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Another view of the foundation stone upon which Herod built the temple to Pan. Notice the large cave on the left of the picture.

When Jesus said Peter’s name in the language in which they spoke, He said “Petros” which means “little pebble.” And when Jesus said the word “rock,” He said “petra” which means “foundation boulder.”

So, Jesus essentially said, “Peter, you are a little stone (“petros”), but upon this foundation boulder (“petra”) I will build my church.”

Jesus’ words brought attention to the profound words that came out of a feeble man’s mouth. The church was not going to be built on Peter but upon the profound statement that Peter made.

Now, imagine that you are standing in Caesarea Philippi. You are watching this conversation between Jesus and His Apostles. You notice that Jesus picks up a small pebble as he looks at Peter and says, “You are a small stone.”

But, then you see Jesus point to the temple of Pan that is built upon the massive rock as he says, “… but upon this foundation stone I will build my church.” Just as the pagan temple was built upon the foundation stone, Jesus would build His church on the foundation stone of Peter’s statement – that “Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.”

There was more to Jesus’ words though. He continued “… and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

The word “hades” in Greek simply speaks of the place of the dead. Jesus was saying that when Jesus-followers died, the church would continue. He was saying that with the coming persecution of Christians, the church would continue to thrive as it rested upon the statement that Peter made.

That brings us to the cave. Jesus might have been pointing at the cave when he said that “the gates of Hades will not prevail against” the church.

Why?

Because of what happened in that cave!

Read this plaque that was placed in front of the cave…

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Plaque in front of cave at Caesarea Philippi

Involved in the worship of the god, “Pan,” was a sacrificial offering. A goat, or even a human, was thrown into the cave. Up until a few years ago, water filled the cave as it made it’s way underground to the Jordan River.

The god was supposed to be appeased if the sacrifice submerged and never came back up. Death appeased the god.

So … here it comes … the cave came to be known as “the gates of death (Hades).”

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The Gates of Hades

It’s one thing to read Jesus’ words. Its quite another to be in the place where He said it and understand how He used the setting around Him to paint a powerful picture of a profound spiritual truth.

To wrap it all up as we conclude, let’s go back to that conversation between Jesus, Peter, and the other Apostles. After Peter said that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God …

Matthew 16:17-18 (CSB) “Jesus responded, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter (maybe Jesus picked up a little pebble from the ground to symbolize what Peter’s name meant), and on this rock (maybe He pointed to the foundation boulder that the temple was built upon) I will build my church (not a pagan temple but the Church of Almighty God), and the gates of Hades (maybe He pointed to the cave as He said this) will not overpower it.'”

And we know this to be true. The 2,000 year history of the church has been a bloody one. Thousands upon thousands (maybe even millions) of Christians have been killed and martyred for their faith. But the Church marches on!

What a privilege it was to visit the place where Jesus made such a profound promise!