Christ Challenges the Disciples: Take the Gospel to the Gates of Hell

A cross with the Coliseum in the background

Do you sometimes think our culture is at the crossroads, tipping toward the gates of hell? If so, you're not the first or the only Christian to wonder if the church will make a difference in a pagan culture. If that describes you, keep reading.

The Gates of Hell

In the New Testament book of Matthew, Jesus is moving toward the end of his ministry, heading slowly toward Jerusalem, the Passover and His crucifixion. But he has a few more lessons to impart to His disciples. So, as usual, He does something that the disciples must have found quite astonishing. He brings them to a city known for evil, sexualized worship of pagan idols: Caesarea Philippi.“Caesarea Philippi,” That the World May Know Ministries, https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/caesarea-philippi (June 28, 2018). 

There, the Lord asks the disciples several key questions, "Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?"

Caesarea Philippi was built near a rock cliff, with water gushing out of the mouth of a cave at its base. Greeks and Romans believed that Hades was under the earth, and that a number of rivers flowed to and from it. So those who lived in Caesarea Philippi believed that an underground spring coming from a mysterious cave had to be from Hades – a gateway to and from the underworld. Because of this, the site was called "The Gates of Hell."

Above the cave and spring, worshipers carved niches into the cliff and placed idols into each one. The site was dedicated to the god Pan, half-goat and half-man, a god of fertility, sexuality and nature. Temples and courtyards built to worship other gods stood nearby, and people came to make sacrifices and engage in debauched sexual activity.

For the Jews, this setting was blasphemous and horrifying, yet this is where Jesus takes His disciples and where His exchange with them takes place:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Matthew 16:13-18 (ESV)

On This Rock I Will Build My Church

Jesus' questions and Peter's response are familiar to many of us, as is Jesus' play on words: Peter's name means rock, and Jesus will build His church on this rock – Peter and his confession of faith in Christ.

But perhaps there is more to the story. Maybe like many of us, you've never thought about when in Jesus' ministry this discussion takes place and where it occurs.

Ray Vander Laan, founder of That the World May Know Ministries, teaches the significance of both the timing and the location in a video study, "The Early Church: Five Lessons on Becoming a Light in the Darkness." He explains that Jesus is using the site as a vivid object lesson to make several key points. Most importantly, Jesus affirms Peter's response about who He is: The Messiah, the Son of the Living God. "Not these false gods, worshiped here at Caesarea Philippi, but Jesus is the one true God," Vander Laan says.

Jesus agrees with Peter and then says, "On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

Vander Laan notes that "a gate is defensive, if the gates of Hades won't stand, it is the community of God that is bringing the message to the gates." Vander Laan pictures Jesus pointing to the "Gates of Hell" and the idolatry and sexual brokenness and telling the disciples,

"Look at this. This represents everything disgusting and broken and wrong with the world we live in. And what I want you to do is to bring the message of the love of God and I want you to show them that this is wrong and I want you to replace it with what is meaningful and significant. Build my community on this rock. Replace it."Ray Vander Laan, “Everything to Lose, Nothing to Gain,” The Early Church: Becoming Light in the Darkness, (© 2008 Focus on the Family and Ray Vander Laan), published by Zondervan. 

Our Challenge Today

That's what Jesus did. He built His church. And He built it on the pagan culture that surrounded the early Christians. Beginning with a small band of disciples, the church has grown to an estimated 2.2 billion people today. At the same time, hardly any one worships Pan anymore. We live in a different world because of Jesus and the church.

So how did they do it? And how do we continue to build the church today? Some Christians, bombarded by news and media, feel discouraged about the broken state of our culture. Sometimes it seems like the gates of hell are prevailing. How do we move against those gates?

Here are three things to keep in mind:

  • The church has been here before: It's nothing new for the church to be surrounded by pagan activity – Jesus sent out the disciples with good news to that pagan world.
  • The church has prevailed: Throughout our Christian history, from the early church transforming the Greco-Roman world, to a wide variety of places and times throughout history, the church has brought life and transformation to a broken and hurting world.
  • The church will prevail: The church, built upon the foundation of Christ, the work of the Apostles, and with the power of the Holy Spirit, is transforming individuals and our world today. It will until Christ returns.

In this series, we'll look at how Jesus built His church throughout history using average Christians – and how He's still doing it today. We'll look at three important truths that Christianity brings to the world:

  • The dignity and sanctity of human life
  • The importance of advocating for children
  • God's good design for marriage

From the beginning of the church, Christians lived out these truths and values, people were attracted to their lives, and the church grew and spread. This cultural change took place in the midst of difficult opposition and great trials, but Christian values and ideas affected and transformed the surrounding pagan culture. The same can – and does – continue today.

In each article in this series, we'll look at biblical and historical examples of Christianity bringing transformation and life – prevailing against sin, death and darkness. Along the way, we'll get some practical ideas about how we – as the church that Jesus is still building – can be encouraged and can prevail with God's grace, power and truth.