Standing near the pagan temples of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, with perhaps the greatest clarity in his life, replied, “You are the Messiah; the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). The disciples were probably stirred by the contrast between Jesus, the true and living God, and the false hopes of the pagans who trusted in “dead” gods, whose worship consisted of sacrifices thrown out the back of the Temple of Augustus into the immeasurable water in the Cave of Pan. If the sacrifices disappeared they were accepted.
Jesus continued, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (see Matt. 16:13-20).
The Catholic tradition has taken Jesus’ pronouncement in Matthew 16:18 to mean that Jesus was declaring that the church was to be built on the authority of Peter and the other disciples. It is true that they led the early church, so this would be a possible interpretation.
The Protestant tradition has taken Jesus’ declaration here to say that His church was to be built upon the confession recognizing Him as the Messiah and the Son of the living God. This is a valid interpretation, as well, and is a practice supported by other scriptures.
With the help of Ray VanderLaan and other Hebrew contextual scholars, a third interpretation is suggested which may be even more powerful as the others, based on the context. It seems clear that Jesus’ words also had symbolic meaning. His church would be built on the “rock” of Caesarea Philippi—a rock literally filled with niches for pagan idols, where ungodly values dominated.
Why would Jesus choose this place, the morally filthiest place within walking distance of His earthly region of ministry?
It is possible that he took his disciples to the most degenerate place possible to say to them “THIS is where I want you to build my church. I want you to walk into the most repugnantly degenerate places, where God is not even known. I want you to go out to places that make Caesarea Philippi look tame, and THAT is where I want you to build my church.” That is exactly what they did. They went to places in Asia Minor and the ends of the earth, where “gods” were worshipped in unspeakably awful manners and where Christians would be persecuted in horrific manner, and they gave their lives doing EXACTLY what they were told to do by their Rabbi.
Gates were defensive structures in the ancient world. By saying that the gates of Hades would not overcome, Jesus suggested that those gates were going to be attacked.
Standing as they were at a literal “gate of Hades,” the disciples may have been overwhelmed by Jesus’ challenge. They had studied under their rabbi for a couple of years, and now He was commissioning them to a huge task: to attack evil—go on the assault—and to build the church on the very places that were most filled with moral corruption.
Jesus presented a clear challenge with his words at Caesarea Philippi. He didn’t want His followers hiding from evil: He wanted them to storm the gates of hell. He didn’t want His Church to be characterized by “We Don’t Do That,” but by “ATTACK!”