The Gates of Hell is a literal place. Now don’t get all freaked out; we’re not talking pitchforks and fire here. This literal place called the Gates of Hell was named that by the ancient people of the Roman Empire in a city initially called Paneas. Paneas was renamed Caesarea Philippi when Herod gave his son this city (that’s a story for another day). This city had a dark and disturbing past because in the city was a cave, and that cave was named The Gates of Hell. It was here, in this cave, where people believed they found a gate to the underworld. It was here they worshipped the Pagan god Pan.
This worship of Pan, at this mysterious cave, was intense and grotesque. It involved ritual sexual experiences with goats and prostitutes. These practices evolved into the sacrifice of goats and even unwilling human participants. When you hear all that, it’s safe to assume this is the last place you would expect Jesus to visit. So, you can imagine the confusion and concern the disciples must have felt when Jesus took them there. We find this story in Matthew 16:13-18.
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, & the gates of Hell will not overcome it.
It’s essential to understand the context of a passage like this when studying the Bible because a lack of context leads to wild misinterpretation. I heard this very passage quoted this week in a way that made me cringe because the person who said it completely missed the context and meaning. And this matters because void of that context, we can be led away from the church’s mission and vision, instead of toward it, the mission and vision Jesus gave us.
You see, as Jesus stood near this cave, the physical picture of the gates of Hell, he taught his disciples. Caesarea Philippi represented the worst evils of humanity. Yet Jesus assured his disciples that the “gates of Hell” would not be able to stand against the light shining in the darkness through God’s people, called the church. Jesus reminded them that even the shadows cast by the most egregious violations of human decency would be no match for the light that would come from the followers of Jesus as they lived out the mercy, grace, love, and justice he taught.
One way we shine light in the darkness is through our partnerships with organizations like Purchased. You can find more details in our sermon from Sunday, September 13, which included a message from the director of Purchased on ways to get involved and help them.
We must always work to peel back layers and discover context as we read scripture. That’s such an important task because when we do, as we found here, we have a mission that can get lost in the noise of misunderstanding. When that noise is pulled away from this passage, we see we must always be people partnering with others, joining God where God is at work, who confront evil when we see it. We must never grow weary of shining light in the darkness, but find our source in the name of Jesus, who has rescued and redeemed us.