No faithful Israelite would ever go to Caesarea Philippi. If a faithful Jew or Israelite went to Caesarea Philippi, they would have to undergo a period of purification or cleansing before they could rejoin their community.
At the time of Jesus’ ministry, Caesarea Philippi would have been equivalent to our Las Vegas today. It is located on Mount Hermon about 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It is known for the headwaters of the river Jordan, and for being one of the most pagan, most demonic places in Palestine. There was a deep, vertical cave there called the “Gate of Hell”. The cave is still there in the side of a massive cliff. A temple to the pagan god Pan covered the cave entrance. Today the spot is known as “Banias”, for Pan. Human sacrifices were often practiced there, including the killing of children and adults, by tossing them down into the deep cave. Caesarea Philippi was a dark, evil place.
Last summer, Sister Olga, Sister Yedid and I accompanied a group of seminarians on a pilgrimage in the Holy Land and we went to Caesarea Philippi. We learned that the scripture selection we have from Matthew doesn’t include the full context of what happened there.
The episode at Caesarea Philippi occurred at the end of Jesus’ ministry, after three years of working with his apostles. Immediately after this event, Jesus and the apostles headed south, directly to Jerusalem where he would suffer and be crucified. He prophesized his passion, death and resurrection in the following verses of Matthew’s text, there in Caesarea Philippi. Think of this episode as the “Final Exam” for the apostles.
So, where does Jesus take them for their final exam? He took them somewhere they had never been, someplace they would never go unless Jesus took them there, right into the Devil’s lair, Caesarea Philippi. It is a very imposing place, physically and spiritually, with the “Gate of Hell” and the massive, imposing cliff rock.
Imagine Jesus and the twelve apostles in front of that massive cliff face and that demonic temple to the pagan god, Pan, where so many human lives had been sacrificed. That is where the final exam took place.
Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and
he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
The apostles offer various things that people say. This is an important question, because in the near future they are going to have to tell all nations who Jesus is.
Then, Jesus makes the question, and the final exam even more personal,
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
At this point, Simon speaks up, as Jesus says, inspired by his heavenly Father,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
We have always known this response as “Peter’s Confession”, or his profession of faith in Jesus.
Then Jesus changes Simon’s name forever, to “Peter”, as we know him today, saying.
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
They are standing in front of this massive rock cliff, in front of the temple to Pan built over the “Gate of Hell”, the cave of human sacrifice, a demonic place. For the apostles, Jesus’ words had even more meaning because of the place and its significance. Nothing could ever prevail against the Church with Peter as its head. No superstition, no other religion, no other power, not even Hell.
Jesus explains the meaning of Peter’s leadership, saying,
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Note that these words had a powerful impact for any Israelite brought up with the prophecies of Isaiah. Isaiah prophesied some 500 years prior to Jesus’ birth regarding one of the few honorable kings of Israel, Eliakim, in that first reading:
I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder;
when he opens, no one shall shut
when he shuts, no one shall open.
I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot,
to be a place of honor for his family.”
Jesus is also a son of David, as is Eliakim, and so he can also confer the keys of the Kingdom, but also of the Kingdom of Heaven. With these keys Peter will be able to open and close the Kingdom. Peter will be like a “peg in a sure spot”, the peg that holds all the pieces together, a place of honor. Jesus uses ancient prophecy to teach them Peter’s role.
Peter didn’t quite get the message, as we see when Jesus begins to tell them that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer and die. This is when Jesus tells Peter,
“Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
They were standing by Satan’s temple, Pan’s temple and the Gate of Hell.
Now I want to share with you the rest of the graduation story. We know that Jesus ministry was over, and that he began his journey with the apostles south to Jerusalem and his Passion. But there was one more stop. I had never linked these two events in context before our pilgrimage.
Listen to Matthew in the next verses. Jesus says,
Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
In the subsequent verses,
After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
This was Mount Tabor. This was Jesus’ Transfiguration, the final step of the “Final Exam”. It is as if Jesus was saying, “There were no gods at Caesarea Philippi, but now I will show you God and eternal glory.
And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.
Peter commented, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”
… then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
And they continued on to Jerusalem. The “Final Exam” was over.