First Glance: Matthew 16:13-28

Temple of Pan in Banias Park. Photo by Olga Shaffer
Temple of Pan in Banias Park. Photo by Olga Shaffer

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

Imagine with me for a moment that you are one of Jesus’ disciples. You spent your life growing up in one of the most religious areas of the country, and have spent the last 3 years in intense study under a rabbi (teacher). The very idea of paganism makes you cringe. And here you are, walking toward one of the most evil pagan cities you know of: Caesarea Philippi. We are not in Kansas anymore, we’ve entered the seventh circle of hell: Caesarea Philippi, home of a large temple to the fertility god Pan. As you come over the hill overlooking the city you see the temples dedicated to these foreign gods — places where unspeakable acts and rites are done each and every day. It makes you sick just thinking about it. You see the cave thought to be the gate to the underworld (known as the “gates of Hades”), where people believed the gods to go each winter. You were taught from a very young age to avoid any contact with such a place. You feel unclean being there. You might wonder if you, in fact, are unclean by just being there. And it is here that Jesus asks the question, “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:16)

In the midst of pagan culture, Simon Peter declares Jesus to the the Son of the living God. Unlike these false gods, he knows he worships the one true God. And he recognizes his rabbi as the promised Messiah. Jesus goes on to say,

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 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.”

What? Jesus is building his church here? How can that be?

It was no accident that Jesus and his disciples had this conversation in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus did not want his followers to hide from evil. He wanted them to storm the gates of Hades. He was challenging his disciples to build the church in the very places that were filled with the most corruption. The church was to move on the offensive — to show others how radically different and wonderful their God truly was.

The disciples left that place changed. From there they went to Jerusalem where Jesus would be killed and three days later rise again from the dead, proving to them that evil could be confronted. They went out from Jerusalem, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, proclaiming the good news. They entered the pagan world, confronting evil, and overcoming the gates of Hades. No matter how fierce the resistance, they did not hide their faith. They continuously showed others their God through love, grace, and truth. Evil did not prevail.

Where is your Caesarea Philippi?

How is God building his church there?

Where is he calling you to proclaim him as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God?

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