Sermon series: Foundations of Our Faith
Jesus led the disciples to the mountains of Caesarea Philippi and the pagan temple of Pan where the "gates of Hades" spewed steam from the rocky cliffs. From this strategic location, Jesus declared the foundation of His church and described its formation as a battle, with the gates of Hades opposing the gospel's advance. Every person must declare an allegiance to Christ or the gates of Hades. Will you remain loyal to the "Son of the living God" or be seduced by the pleasures of the world?
At a critical point in His public ministry, the Lord Jesus led the disciples on an usual departure to the northern region of Caesarea Philippi. Like a modern day resort, this city offered beauty, relaxation, and hedonistic pleasure. Located 150 miles north of Jerusalem, Caesarea Philippi was as far removed theologically, morally, and socially from the strict Jewish culture of the disciples as it was in physical distance.
Each disciple must have felt like a fish out of water. They would have been shocked to learn that they going with Jesus to the "forbidden city." The closest comparison would be planning a deacons' retreat to Las Vegas. While Vegas offers some quality entertainment and conference facilities, "Sin City" earned its reputation through gambling and immorality.
Caesarea Philippi is located at the confluence of two rivers. Melting snow from Mount Hermon provides water plunging from rocky cliffs, giving the city a majestic presence. The area is surrounded by vegetation such as grape vines, mulberries, and fig trees. Visitors could spend days admiring the beautiful scenery.
But, Caesarea Philippi also had a dark side. It was a place of pagan worship and political power. The original name of the city was Paneas, in honor of Pan, the pagan god of shepherds and flocks. Herod the Great built a temple here for Caesar worship. After Herod's death in 4B.C., his son Phillip renamed the city Caesarea Philippi.
Like many pagan gods, Pan was famous for his sexual exploits. Numerous drawings and statues depict Pan as a half-man, half-goat having sexual relations with nymphs, maidens, men, and animals. Worshippers of fertility cults or agricultural gods engaged in sexual relations with temple prostitutes in a sordid attempt to stimulate divine power and blessing upon their crops or herds. Pan is still considered by some pagan groups such as Wiccans a symbol of male virility.
Many, if not all, the Old Testament false gods had disappeared by the time Jesus began his public ministry. Yet, paganism and polytheism continued to thrive through the Greek and Roman cultures during the first century. For example, the temple of Artemis played a key role in the apostle Paul's ministry in Ephesus. In Athens he used a shrine to the "unknown God" as an introduction to his powerful sermon about God's creation and judgment. But even with Greek and Roman influence, only one fertility cult is mentioned during the ministry of Jesus.
The lone "surviving" fertility god was Pan, whose temple was carved into the cliffs of Caesarea Philppi. An understanding of the physical scenery provides a greater appreciation of why the temple was called "the gates of Hades". Rivers flowing out of the temple caves and mist from waterfalls created an eerie presence. When Jesus declared that the gates of Hades could not prevail against His church, He and the disciples may have been looking at the pagan temple and listening to the roar of waterfalls. Imagine the impact of this moment as the King of kings stood in the presence of evil and proclaimed His superiority over the forces of darkness.
I. A place of interrogation
This story has more significance than only Peter's great confession. In fact, this was not the first great confession by one of the disciples. We often approach this story with the misunderstanding that Peter was the first to accurately understand and express the true identity of Christ. But, the more likely scenario was that Peter was the last one to grasp the significance of Christ's ministry.
The apostle John shares in his Gospel a brief but insightful account of the calling of Nathanael. When Jesus said that he had seen Nathanael under the fig tree, Nathanael declared, "You are the son of God; you are the King of Israel" (Jn. 1:49).
The story of the allegedly vegetative woman Terri Schaivo ended in tragedy in 2005 as her husband won his court case and allowed her to starve to death. Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see such major issues receive substantial news coverage. In an ABC News article by David Crary entitled "Schaivo Case Sparks National Discourse," he stated, "It was the most profound national discourse we have had about death, family, medical ethics - and the seriousness of purpose - that every family must face at one time or another."
One of the keys to applying this passage is allowing the Holy Spirit to search our hearts through questions. Most people drift through life without seriously considering major issues affecting our existence. Who am I? Why am I here? Who is God? What does God require of me? What influences my life more - society or the Savior? Everyone needs visit the Caesarea Philippi of their soul. It is the place in our spiritual landscape where we face some of the most pressing issues of life and faith.
II. Past failures and future threats
Among the scenic beauty of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus confronted the past failure of Israel and the future threats to His kingdom. Israel had failed in the area of idolatry more than any other sin.
Combining sexual immorality and worship seems bizarre to those of us who grew up in a Christian culture. We view the Old Testament from a systematic or comprehensive advantage that was unavailable to the children of Israel. We must remember that the unredeemed are blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4). Many embrace a belief system that sees human satisfaction as the elevation of one's soul to encounter a divine being.
When the Israelites entered the promised land, they discovered a land of agricultural challenges they had not experienced as herdsmen in the wilderness. The Canaanites attributed their fertile land and agricultural success to their gods. Many in Israel thought they should worship both deities in case the God who delivered them from Egypt was not the god of fertile crops.
Before jumping to an easy condemnation of Israel in her forsaking God, consider some contemporary examples. If you inherited a million dollars, would you seek the advice of a financial expert before seeking the Lord in prayer to determine what God may want you to do with the money? Where do you turn when you receive a bad report form the doctor? If your relationship with your spouse or children needs help, where do you seek advice? Would you listen to Dr. Phil, or search the Scriptures? I am not suggesting that you reject medical care or financial counseling. The Bible teaches that wisdom can be found in counselors. But we demonstrate the same sinful tendency as the Israelites by trusting other sources before turning to the Lord.
This visit to Caesarea Philippi reveals that we struggle with the same sins as our ancestors. They may have different names like internet porn, adult entertainment, materialism, greed, self-indulgence, self-help philosophy, or business success strategies, but the sensual enticement away from our holy God is as real today as it was then.
Jesus continued the interrogation with specific questions: Who is the Christ? What does society say about the Son of Man? What do you think about My ministry? Ultimately, all profitable evaluation considers divine issues, not just personal reflection. Many pagan religions promote private introspection, and self-help gurus encourage discovering your "true self." Jesus did not take the disciples to Caesarea Philippi for a mystic journey of self-awareness. He wanted them to embrace the truth about Himself and follow His call upon their lives.
III. Place of revelation
At the core of this incredible mountain experience is the revelation of the identity of Jesus and His ministry. Just as there were many opinions about Christ in the first century, there are numerous opinions in the 21st century. Even among those who profess to "believe in Jesus," we find that the Jesus of Scripture is often different from the Jesus the world promotes.
Former president of Moody Bible College, Dr. Joseph Stowell, describes this difference is his thought-provoking book The Trouble with Jesus.
"Let's face it. While not exclusive in His mercy, Jesus is exclusive in His claim that He is the only solution for our sin problem, and the only way to God, and that He is God! Jesus is the central issue that separates me from Hindus, Muslims, Jews, New Age adherents, and the advocates of any other religion" (Stowell, The Trouble with Jesus, p. 17).
After attending a prayer breakfast in Chicago after 9-11 in which a "Christian leader" called for a new paradigm of cooperation by treating all gods as equal, Stowell wrote, "The message was clear: the only-way Jesus didn't fit in the new religious climate of post 9-11 America" (Stowell p.17).
IV. Identity and destiny
I cannot emphasize enough how critical the issue of Christ's identity is to establishing mountain-moving faith. Jesus Christ is the Savior, the Sustainer of all things, and the Source of our purpose and power. Here at Caesarea Philippi, the issue of identity was firmly established in the minds of the disciples.
Genuine understanding of Christ is not just knowing historical facts but responding to divine revelation in faith. Jesus said that Peter did not learn the truth of His identity by flesh and blood but by the "Father in heaven." The holy Scriptures are God-breathed, and through hearing the Scriptures proclaimed or through personal study, the eyes of our hearts are opened to see the Savior. What others think, believe, or feel does not determine Christ's identity. The only accurate revelation of Christ is the spiritual enlightenment that flows from holy Scripture.
Following the revelation of His identity, Jesus provided additional illumination about the destiny of our calling. Christ promised to build His church, and we are invited to participate with Him in this powerful mission. While the instruction was addressed to Peter, we make the obvious application that all who follow Christ are called to build upon the foundation of who Christ is and what He gave His life to establish. The inability of the "gates of Hades" to prevail against Christ's church illustrates additional significance and the superiority of this incredible mission to which followers have been called.
Standing in the immediate proximity of the "gates of Hades" elevates the call to greater heights than the disciples had considered. They were no longer working to continue the Jewish tradition, but now they were expected to charge into enemy territory and rescue those who lived in darkness.
Christ-followers do not battle the Roman Empire, Republicans, Democrats, Secularism, Islam, or Communism. We are engaged in a cosmic battle for the souls of men, women, boys, and girls. Our task is not to gather in holy huddles rejoicing that we are not like those in darkness. We are called to shine the light by building churches in areas where souls are falling into the gates of hell.
V. Swine or souls
First-century Judaism struggled with the same challenge as contemporary Christianity. Believers lost sight of the evangelistic priority to reach souls, and became consumed by pleasing the saints. American churches rarely argue over the need to evangelize because it is a dead issue. Instead, they debate the color of carpet, the style of music, or the purchase of a church van. Throughout His ministry Jesus rebuked religious leaders who had become self-centered slaves protecting their rituals instead of pursuing the "sick who need a physician." Our destiny as Christ-followers is to invade enemy territory and storm the gates of hell with the transforming power of the gospel.
When I witness the loss of evangelistic focus in churches, I am reminded of the story in Mark 5 where Jesus heals a demon possessed man. After commanding the demons to leave a man who had experienced vicious tormenting for years, Jesus sends the demons into a herd of pigs. The demons cause the pigs to rush down a cliff into a lake where they drown. When the people of the town learn of the miracle and the death of the pigs, they plead for Jesus to leave their region. They could not celebrate that a soul had been delivered because they were more concerned about swine. We must constantly guard against the danger of allowing other issues to quench a passion for souls
VI. His church
This incredible revelation continues to build with intensity. Having clarified His identity and our destiny, Jesus declares His superiority of His church. Notice, the church is His church. We often speak of "our church" to identify where we attend corporate worship. But we must never forget the church belongs to the Lord Jesus, "who is the head of the church" (Col. 1:18). Because the Son of the Living God is building His church, nothing can stop it!
Months after this encounter took place, Jesus would crush the head of the serpent as prophesied in Genesis 3:16. The apostle Paul described the work of the cross as a military campaign against cosmic forces: "Having disarmed the powers and authorities, Christ made public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col. 2:15). The church will be successful because Christ is the reigning king who defeated His enemies!
VII. Run to the battle
Contemporary Christian recording artist Steve Camp wrote a song that captures the victorious challenge issued by Christ on the mountains of Caesarea Philippi. Read the following excerpt and run to the battle.
Some people want to live within the sound of chapel bells,
But I want to build a mission a yard from the gates of hell
And with everyone you meet, take them the gospel and share it well
Look around you as you hesitate, another soul just fell.
Let's run to the battle!
Do you have your armor on? We're in the middle of a raging war.
We've been training for so long, but have we learned to use His sword?
We may not be many, but we serve a mighty Lord.
And He's made us more than conquerors. So what are you waiting for?
Let's run to the battle!
(Steve Camp, c. 1981 Word Music)