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 (English Standard Version)
In the Middle East, “tels” dot the landscape as monuments to some of the ancient history of the land. In Hebrew, “tel” is a word used to describe an archaeological site of a large mound of earth which houses the remains of an abandoned ancient settlement which was used for living, ruling or worship. Most tels resemble mesas in the American southwest, and look like upside down flat bottomed cones.
In the ancient times, the tels were given the names of the main tribes that settled an area. Atop Tel Dan, named after one of the sons of Israel, sits the ruins of one of the “high places” built by natives of the land. These “high places” were temples to pagan gods built on mountains for all the people of the land to be able to see and where people would go and worship those gods. This particular tel housed the temple to the pagan god Pan. In Greek mythology, Pan was the god of the shepherds, woodlands and streams, and Banias, the stream that flows through Tel Dan, was considered part of Pan’s realm.
In ancient Israel, this palace with its caves and caverns was considered the Gates of Hell or Hades.
On the side of the mountain, visitors can recognize the shapes of windows, long since made part of the mountain. Along the top of the tel, soldiers watch over the border which runs just north of the tel, one of many reminders that political and religious tensions still exist in this area of the world.
It may have been in this area of Caesarea Philippi where Jesus and his disciples were walking when Jesus questioned the disciples about who people said that he was. Here at the Gates of Hell (or Hades), Peter declared Jesus to be the Son of God, and Jesus revealed that Peter would be a Rock, a foundational stone in the living Church which was even then being formed in the hearts and faith of the disciples. Even here at the Gates of Hell, the Church was prevailing.
Today, the Church still lives and grows and stands up to all that the Gates of Hell can throw at it. Christians are still persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ, declaring their faith in him even to the point of death. People still reach out in love to help others around the world with food, clothing, fresh water, and education. Christians still live and grow in their faith, standing on God’s Word as the firm foundation of faith.
Peter revealed his heart in his declaration of Jesus as the Son of God, and later revealed his love for the Lord in how he lived and died for his faith. How are you declaring your faith in Christ by what you say and how you live?
Rev. Jan McCoy is the Associate Pastor of Covington First United Methodist Church in downtown Covington. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at covingtonfirst.org.