Holy Land Dispatch - Day Five: "Gates of Hell"
Today our pilgrimage to the Holy Land will take us to the ruins of Caesarea Philippi.
Ancient Canaanites worshipped there thousands of years before Christ. These Canaanites engaged in barbaric forms of worship, including the sacrifice of infant children, which were thrown into the deep spring that pooled inside the massive cave at the back of the site.
This cave was often referred to as the "Gates of Hades." More on that in a bit.
By the time Jesus and his disciples made the trek north from the Galilee to Caesarea Philippi, it had been shaped by Greek and then Roman influences, and was the site of the debauched worship of a variety of gods, including the Greek god Pan. There was even a temple erected for the worship of Caesar Augustus.
In Matthew chapter 16, Jesus stands in front of the ancient temples with his disciples and asks them a question: "Who do people say that I am?"
The disciples responded by saying: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Then Jesus asks them, “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
And then Peter---impetuous, shoot-first, stepping-out-of-the-boat Peter, has a moment of clarity. He says to Jesus: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
To which Jesus replies: "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."
Jesus' declaration to Peter is filled with symbolic language that scholars have debated for centuries. Did Jesus mean that "rock" he was going to build his church upon was actually Peter, whose name literally means "Rocky?" It does seem likely.
But the most important part of his declaration is the part that speaks of the "Gates of Hades." Jesus was standing in front of a dramatic symbol of the decadence of Empire, the debauchery of excess and idolatry. It was definitely a gate to destruction--both physical and spiritual.
When you stand there at the ruins of Caesarea Philippi, you can't help but be struck by the fact that it is a ruin. There's not much left of it. But every single day of the year, pilgrims come there and read from Matthew chapter 16 and are reminded that the Church has persevered, and the gates of Hell are shattered and broken.
May this knowledge give you hope as you contemplate the destructive powers that be in the world around you. Hold on to the sure and certain faith that Jesus is Lord and the Church has a strong foundation.
And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.