Vision casting on the frontier of darkness
Gospel Reading: Matthew 16:13-20
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“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
Our Gospel reading, Matthew 16:13-20, brings us to the revelation that underlies and supports the whole of the Christian life: Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. It does something else. It declares the mission of the Son of God in the world: he will build his Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. May God grace us as we consider the revelation and the vision that was cast.
The Revelation in a Dark Place
The revelation struck like lighting, and it struck in a very dark place. The revelation was that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The dark place was Caesarea Philippi, a Gentile city near Galilee that was filled with pagan symbols and practices. Beyond Caesarea Philippi lay the rest of the Gentile world. It was in this border region of the fallen world that the revelation of Christ came clearly into focus and Christ’s mission to the world was proclaimed.
Nothing happened by accident. Lightning that flashes in a bright daytime sky is scarcely noticed. Lightning that strikes in a dark night is. Jesus brought the disciples to the darkened region of Caesarea Philippi so that the flash of revelation would be all the more clearly seen, and the casting of his mission vision and all the more easily remembered.
Caesarea Philippi: History
Caesarea Philippi carried forward up all that was wicked in ancient Canaan, and practiced much of the evil of the known world of that day.
The ancient Canaanites had worshiped the Baals and the Ashera, which essentially meant the worship of power and the worship of sexual carnality. In Roman times, the activities of the ancients continued under different nomenclature. But it was the same old sin.
Caesarea Philippi was located at the southwestern base of Mt. Hermon. A half-generation before Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus brought the city under Roman rule and gave it and the surrounding region to Herod the Great. In gratitude, Herod built a white marble temple on a slope of Mt. Hermon and dedicated it to the worship of Caesar, who many believed was an incarnate god.
Three centuries before, after Greeks settled the region following its conquest by Alexander the Great, the Greeks introduced the worship of Pan. There was a grotto at the base of Mt. Hermon, from which a stream poured. Pan’s followers thought he wintered in the belly of the mountain, and came out in the spring to foster fertility. His “worship” was licentious, and included bestiality. The grotto served as a shrine for other pagan deities as well. It was known as the Gates of Hell.
So dominant was the sexual immorality of Caesarea Philippi, it was basically known as a red light district.
The city had long been called Panea (after the Greek god Pan.) But around the time of Christ, Philip the tetrarch, who followed Herod the Great, changed its name to Caesarea Philippi in honor of Caesar and himself.
So the primary symbols of the Caesarea Philippi were the nearby temple for Caesar on a slope of Mt. Hermon, and the Gates of Hell at the base of it. One called for the worship of political power and might. The other inspired depravity. Both were “religious.” It was these things that made the city a microcosmic representation of the whole Roman world, and most of what lay beyond that.
The framework for the revelation
Understanding the symbols and culture of Caesarea Philippi provides us with a framework that helps us to understand the implications of our Lord’s vision casting on that long ago day.
We don’t know precisely when the Father revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. We do know that Peter confessed the revelation in the region around Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus elicited it from him. Jesus confirmed the revelation by making use of the two primary symbols of the region, the white marble temple for the worship of Caesar and the Gates of Hell grotto for the worship of Pan (and other deities.)
The rock of revelation
Roman Catholics believe Peter himself to be the “rock” of revelation upon which Jesus promised to build his church. Protestants believe the rock to be the revelation of who and what Jesus truly was and is. I take the Protestant position. Setting the Catholic/Protestant argument aside, I want to demonstrate how Jesus made use of the temple that Herod built for the worship of Caesar, and turned it into an illustration of his missional intention.
Caesar’s temple was built on the rock that was Mt. Hermon. Using that “rock” and the temple it supported as well-known symbols, Jesus turned a phrase and declared that he would build his Church—his people—on the rock of his own revelation. His use of the word rock had imperial implications, and effectively reduced the Roman Caesar, and his worship, to insignificance. True worship would take place among those who were built on The Rock, Jesus the Messiah, the true Son of God. Caesar was a counterfeit god and sovereign; Jesus was the real thing.
Jesus’ declaration took a wrecking ball to Baal and Caesar worship, and the political faith that sought salvation from the state.
The Gates of Hell
In the same breath, Jesus declared that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against his building of his Church. These words took aim on the ancient pagan immorality that had woven itself into the soul and practice of Gentile civilization. His point was as profound as it was simple: sexual depravity, whether religious or agnostic, would not prevent him from building his Church.
Men as gods and sexual depravity
So in Caesarea Philippi, and very most likely within sight of Caesar’s temple and the Gates of Hell, Jesus, against all of paganism, declared his mission to build his Church in the world. Neither political power nor human depravity would prevent him from doing so.
What the disciples learned
At the end of the day, the disciples got the point. Jesus’ mission was to take on the Gentile world, and he would send them in to it as his co-laborers. Political power and sexual depravity would be deeply entrenched in that world, but it would not prevail against the apostolic enterprise. Jesus guaranteed that.
The vision was cast. The apostles, and all those who followed them, would take on the world of darkness, defeat it, and build a new and better order in its place.
What it Means to Us Today
At the border of the pagan world, Jesus cast his vision to build his Church in the world. The building began in earnest after the Day of Pentecost, enjoyed early success (though not without great resistance), and in less than three hundred years came to dominance in the Roman Empire. There have been ebbs and flows in Church history since then, but the overall trend in Christ’s Church-building mission has been one of growth. Despots and depraved men have fought his mission, but in the long run have not prevailed. Today growth is exploding in Africa, China, South America, and other parts of the world. Jesus will not be disappointed.
A daunting task
But we kid ourselves if we think Christ’s mission is not a daunting task. It is. Despotic governments, promoting themselves as saviors, set themselves against Christ, his Church, and his gospel. Sexual depravity is pervasive the world over, and resists Christian standards and morals. So in our day we fight the same old devil and the same old sin that have plagued mankind for millennia: the worship of the godless state and human depravity.
But we have the same Lord
But we have the same Lord. He is the Son of God. He is the Messiah. And his purposes will not be frustrated. He continues to build his Church. He continues to work his works under the noses and over the heads of despots. We read reports of numerous conversions in Africa, Communist China, and even across the Islamic world. And Latin America is exploding with Christian growth too.
Jesus is Lord. Caesar is no match for him. Neither are the gates of hell.
Our Gospel reading clarifies our mission and reminds us of who and what the enemy is. Today, as was the case nearly two thousand years ago, godless states and human depravity, especially sexual depravity, darken the world in which we live. Finally, our Gospel reading assures us long-term mission success. So don’t be discouraged, Christian. The mission continues. Be a part of it. †