The crystal water rippling through the springs of the Banias Nature Reserve creates an idyllic background for visitors walking through Caesarea Philippi in northern Israel. This is the site of a great moment in Jesus’ ministry when the apostle Peter proclaimed Jesus to be “the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16).
Jesus responded by blessing him and saying, “You are Peter [Greek, petros], and on this rock [Greek, petra] I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (v. 18).
Caesarea Philippi was a pagan city devoted to the worship of false gods, especially the Greek god Pan. That’s why Peter’s acknowledgment of Jesus’ deity here was particularly powerful.
When Peter first met the Lord, Jesus looked at him and said, “‘You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas’ (which is translated, A Stone)” (Jn. 1:42). Cephas is Aramaic. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus used a Greek play on words, saying, “You are petros,” then immediately added, “and on this petra I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18).
Jesus honored Peter with a name evoking the strong, steadfast qualities of a rock, even though Peter had been too fearful to walk on water with Him (14:22–33). Because petros and petra are not identical, many scholars believe Jesus was not talking about building His church on Peter. Rather, He was talking about building it on Himself. And this announcement at this location held particular significance.
At the top of this site lies a pool of water within a hollowed-out part of the rock next to what looks like a doorway. In Jesus’ day, this doorway was called “the gates of hell.” The pagan residents believed it was a gateway to the underworld, and they came to worship fertility gods they thought lived there in winter. It was here, at “the gates of hell,” that Jesus declared He would build His church and promised that Satan’s kingdom would not prevail against Him.
Jesus made His declaration in perhaps the most spiritually dark place in Israel at the time. Today, He continues to bring light to the darkest places and redeem those who come to Him by grace through faith. Before we are saved, our hearts are dim and far from Him. But Jesus came as “the light of the world,” promising that whoever “follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
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