“Who do you say I am?” – Answers and Reflections

Matthew 16:13-20

The What?

“Caesarea Philippi” is mentioned twice in the Bible – in Matt. 16 and Mark 8. However, in both the Old and New Testament times, it was infamously known as the center for pagan worship. It was in this region that Jeroboam, the first Israelite king of the northern kingdom, led the Israelites into idolatry (1 Kings 12:25-33).
Caesarea Philippi, currently known as Banias, is located at the base of Mt Hermon in the Golan Heights, 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It was originally established by the Ptolemaic Greeks as the center of worship for the god Pan. It was named Panium or Paneas, from which the modern name Banias was derived. In 2 AD it was renamed to Caesarea Philippi by Herod Philip in honor of Caesar Augustus, incorporating “Caesar” and “Philip” in the name, and to also distinguish it from Caesarea on the Mediterranean.
The city was built against a large rocky cliff that was known as the “Rock of the Gods” because it contained multiple shrines that were hewn into the cliff, holding images of the gods Pan, Hermes and Echo. The cliff featured a very prominent cave that was known as the Cave of Pan. A stream used to flow out of the cave, feeding into the Jordan River. Today, the stream flows underground due to an earthquake that had shifted the rock formation. Josephus wrote that the cave contained a vastly deep precipice of unmeasurable depth that held a massive body of water. Because of this immeasurably deep abyss that held water and seemed to extend into the depths of the earth, it was believed to be the gateway to the underworld, and that Baal would use it to descend into the depths of the underworld, and the place of the dead (“Sheol” in the Old Testament, and “Hades” in the New Testament). Baal was also known as the Sun God, Zeus, the king of gods in Greek mythology. At the time of Jesus, the “Gates of Hades” could have literally referred to this perceived gateway to the realm of the dead and the underworld.
Worship at this pagan site involved animal sacrifices, and sometimes human sacrifices. If you visit this site today, you will find a sign at the entrance to the cave that reads:
“THE GROTTO OF THE GOD PAN: This cave is the nucleus beside which the sacred sanctuary was built. In this ‘abode of the shepherd god,’ pagan cult began as early as the 3rd century BC. The ritual sacrifices were cast into a natural abyss reaching the underground waters at the back of the cave. If the victims disappeared in the water this was a sign that the god had accepted the offering. If, however, signs of blood appeared in the nearby springs the sacrifice had been rejected.”
Other pagan worship at this site involved bizarre and vile sexual rites that the people of the day performed as offerings to the gods of fertility. The worshippers also believed that they would be rewarded with special revelations. Please see Caesarea Philippi for current pictures of the site and note the illustrations of how it might have looked like at the time of Jesus.
It is important to understand that Paneas would have been completely shunned and avoided altogether by the Jews who would have considered it as a vile, blasphemous and defiling place. No devout Jew would visit this place. Yet, both Matthew and Mark write that Jesus deliberately went out of the way (a day’s journey at the time) to bring His disciples to the very center of pagan worship and the believed gateway to the underworld in order to ask them “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
At this place of false revelations and center of demonic activity, Peter received a very significant revelation from the “Father in Heaven,” from the LIVING GOD (as compared to the dead gods and their focus on death). The LIVING God, the FATHER in HEAVEN (as opposed to the dead so-called “king of gods” who goes back and forth into Hades) was the ONE who blessed Peter with the revelation about Jesus being the Messiah, the Son of the Living God – the SON GOD (as opposed to the false sun god).
Jesus draws on the symbolism of that location, using intentional puns regarding the “rock” and further enlightening His disciples about who HE is, and grounding it all in HIM and HIS redemption. Let’s look at the “rock” in this passage.
Remember that they were most likely within sight of the cliff known as the “rock of the gods.” The Greek here uses a masculine and a feminine version of the word “rock.” “You are Peter [petros – masculine form and meaning “small stone”] and on this rock [petra – feminine form and meaning “foundation stone or boulder”] I will build my church.” The Roman Catholic Church believes that Jesus was literally talking about Peter being the foundation on whom He would build His church. Peter’s name means “rock” and this is seen by Catholics to refer to him as the church’s foundation. Further evidence is based on Eph. 2:20 – “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets…”
Looking at the full verse of Eph. 2:20f – “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the Chief cornerstone. In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” In Acts 4:11f, and 1 Cor. 3:11, Jesus is the foundation. “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Jesus is also the Head of the church (Eph. 5:23). So, Peter is not the foundation of the church; Jesus is. However, Peter and the apostles were indeed used by God to build up the church. In 1 Pet. 2:4f, Peter himself writes “As you come to Him, the Living Stone … you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…” In Christ, and based on Christ, the cornerstone (boulder stone), we become the living stones of the church.
So, what is a reasonable understanding of Jesus’ words “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it?” Jesus was more likely using a pun in view of their location to refer to the foundational truth pronounced by Peter. Peter, a little rock (petros), declared a profound cornerstone (petra) truth. Peter received a divine revelation about Jesus as THE redemptive (Messiah – Savior) Son of the Living God. THAT is the foundation of our faith. Jesus becoming flesh, and redeeming us unto our Heavenly Father. And the Gates of Hades (in view of their location), will not overcome or overturn it. The realm of the dead, along with all its dead gods (displayed at their location) will not conquer the living stones of the church. As Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 15:54f, “Death is swallowed up by a triumphant victory! So death, tell me, where is your victory? Tell me, death, where is your sting?” Jesus, as the chief cornerstone, through His own death and resurrection, destroyed death. This becomes clearer as we read further in this same chapter of Matthew 16. Immediately following Peter’s profession of Christ, Jesus prophesies His death and resurrection (see Matt. 16:21-23). The same Peter who had received that divine revelation is rebuked by Jesus for expressing Satan’s agenda – “You must never let this happen to You!” (v. 22).
Now we come to the often misunderstood words “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be (or shall have been) bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be (or shall have been) loosed in heaven” (v. 19). The Passion Translation (TPT) puts it this way, “I will give you the keys of heaven’s kingdom realm to forbid on earth that which is forbidden in heaven, and to release on earth that which is released in heaven.”
Some interpret the binding and loosing to refer to spiritual warfare and the overcoming of demonic forces. While it is absolutely true that believers have the authority in Christ to “bind” or exorcise evil spirits, that is not the meaning of this particular passage.
The words “bind” and “loose” would have been very meaningful to Jesus’s disciples. The rabbis of the day specialized in binding and loosing, which meant determining what was forbidden (bound) and what was permitted (loosed). For example, what did it mean to keep the Sabbath? What constituted work? See Matthew 12 as an example. It was the job of the rabbis to interpret and determine what the Law allowed (loosed) or what it forbade (bound). In the process, they added to the burden of the people. See Matthew 23:4.
The words of Jesus about the keys of the kingdom of heaven, binding and loosing must be read within the context of the revelation that was just expressed by Peter. Christ’s redemptive work has freed the believer from the legalistic chains of the Law and the fear of angering God. They do not need a rabbi to teach them righteousness, but will have the Holy Spirit who will teach them all truth (John 16:13). They will be so one in Christ that they will have that same authority through the Holy Spirit to make decisions (what is right and what is wrong) and will be able to establish that which was already established in heaven. To have that mind of Christ in them (Phil. 2:5) gives them the authority and freedom to make heavenly decisions that already have God’s approval and blessing because they would have emanated from Him.

The So What?

The location was significant to the context. At the time, it would have taken Jesus and His disciples a day to get there. To put it in today’s world, it would be like driving eight hours to have a conversation! Therefore, the “why” is important here.
From the disciples’ perspective:
  • While the Pharisees and Jewish leaders of the time would have avoided this place and told their people to do the same, Jesus was deliberate in taking His disciples there. For Matthew, the tax collector, this would have been profoundly meaningful. Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees soon after calling Matthew: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt. 9:11). Jesus responded: “It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12f). Tax collectors, like Matthew, were despised and considered to be among the worst sinners. Not only did Jesus accept Matthew, but He called him to be a disciple. And, now, Jesus has led him and the other disciples to the center of paganism, where sin abounds. His presence there was a lesson and reminder to the disciples that He came to show mercy and to save these sinners.
  • In the center of pagan sacrifice, Jesus taught His disciples that HE would be the ultimate sacrifice, and that He would suffer and die for mankind.
  • In the place of false revelations, Jesus demonstrated how God the Father can overrule all false gods and reveal the Savior of the world. Peter received the living foundational truth and revelation that would become the ROCK of our faith (as opposed to the “rock of the gods” that were false and dead).
  • In a place where pagan worshippers sought revelations and answers to their questions from false gods, Jesus taught His disciples that they would have authority in Him and through Him, and by the Holy Spirit would be able to discern the truth – that which was allowed and good, and that which was not. The Holy Spirit would empower them with this authority and reveal the mind of God to them. They would receive answers from the Living God. Remember our previous study from Rom. 12:1-2.
  • This would have been completely transformative to the way the disciples thought and understood God. Jesus was teaching mercy, love, redemption, healing, restoration and a walk of power and authority that is led by the Holy Spirit, based on His redemption.

The Now What?

Let’s stop and think of all the above. No sin is beyond Christ’s saving and forgiving grace. If you are in a dark place and cannot find your way, Jesus is that light that can pierce the darkest soul. He loves you where you are. And He can rescue you from guilt, sin, and the false gods in your own life. He can break all your chains and set you free. He can give you LIFE and life to the fullest (John 10:10). Hand Him your life and let Him make you a new creation. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
As followers of Christ, we are called to go to the afflicted, the sinners, the broken, and to become instruments for healing, deliverance and salvation. We must not behave like the Pharisees and avoid the sinners, cutting them off from our fellowship. Let us remember that we also need God’s grace and mercy, and are called to show the same to those around us. Jesus was criticized severely for being in the midst of sinners, but He was there to bring them healing, mercy and hope. Let us also reach out to those around us. Let us show them mercy, not judgment. Love, not hatred. Let us be brave to be that light in their darkness. We have the authority in Christ. We have the leading of the Holy Spirit. And we have His calling to go out and “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18-20).
What else is the Holy Spirit teaching you about this passage? Share it with those around you.