Lord may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight for You are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
In this passage of the Gospel of Matthew we see the ministry of our Lord Jesus is now entering its climactic phase and Jesus is about to reveal the plan to His Disciples. Jesus together with his disciples has covered the territory of the Israelites ministering to the sick and the oppressed and preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. But why at this point of His ministry has Our Lord come to this particular place and why now? To get some idea of what may be the answer to these questions we need to look at the history of this area.
Ceasarea Phillipi was a Roman city built on the South Western base of Mount Hermon, next to a spring and a grotto dedicated to the Greek gods Zeus and Pan. I’m told that if you go there today you will see a small pool of water and on one side is a large area of natural rock, like a pavement, where a number of people can stand, and on the other is a large cavemouth. The city of Ceasarea Phillipi was built upon the ruins of two Canaanite cities, Ashteroth and Edrai. Ashteroth was almost certainly named after a mother goddess whose cult worship was known to be depraved in the extreme; with common practices being child sacrifice of an extremely cruel and sadistic nature and temple prostitutes male and female as part of the attraction.
These two cities, Ashteroth and Edrai, were known to the Canaanites as the gates of hell. Now this is a late bronze-age society. They don’t have adverts in magazines. They don’t have televisions or cinemas; so they have no need of sound bites or catchy slogans or hyperbole. If they called these cities the gates of hell then we can be fairly certain that they had a good reason; and they were indeed well named for those poor unfortunates, mostly children, who found themselves being placed into a metal box and pushed into a furnace or being butchered alive as human sacrifices. Also in Deuteronomy chapters 2 and 3 this area is noted as the last refuge of the Rephaim who are described in the dead sea scrolls as the bastard spirit children of the Nephilim who were themselves the children of the fallen angels who lay with human women as we can read in Ezekiel 32:27. The summit of Mount Hermon was reputed to be the place where evil spirits and demons would descend to earth to torment mankind. I also believe this was the mountaintop where the transfiguration took place but that’s another sermon for another week. So this is a place, an area, steeped in evil. The fortress of the enemy; the very epicenter of evil. And this is where our Lord has chosen to begin the end-game, the final phase of his earthly ministry and the planting of His church.
Our Lord Jesus knows it is time to reveal His chosen path to the disciples, but he needs to concentrate the minds of His disciples; to capture their full attention; so he asks them this question, who do people say I am? This forces His disciples to consider the answer seriously, and they answer as best they can but Peter is the one who comes up with the right answer. To which Jesus replies, and I paraphrase, yes you’re correct but don’t get big-headed because it was the Holy Spirit which inspired your answer. Jesus then goes on to say you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church. Now the Catholic Church will tell us this means Peter the person is the rock, and we should all be Catholic. Us Protestants will say no no; first Corinthians 10:4 clearly states the Rock is Christ Himself and we should all be Protestant. Neither of these ring true for me and I rather tend to think Jesus was also not given to soundbites or hyperbole. It is my belief that Jesus was actually talking about the rock they were standing on across the pool from the mouth of the cave, the gates of hell. Most Bibles will say that the gates of hell shall not prevail. This gives us the impression that the Church, the Body of Christ, is under attack from the forces of evil. We are the victims in this narrative. But the proper translation of this passage is that the gates of hell will not be able to withstand it. The Church, the Body of Christ, is doing the attacking. Jesus is poking the enemy in the eye on his own doorstep.
So this passage is, I believe, describing the build-up for D-Day for the church; the gathering of forces for the main assault. The attack is to be made upon the very strongest ramparts of the enemy. The fortress wall of evil will be breached by the once for all perfect sacrifice of Christ, which will see the establishment of His Church on the Earth. An establishment that completely transformed the experience of humanity; an establishment that halted our slide into depravity and oblivion; an establishment that gave us a chance to begin the long climb back to the side of God where we belong. Before the sacrifice of Christ and the planting of His church, mankind had struggled from stone-age to iron-age in something like 130,000 years. Since the establishment of the Church, the Body of Christ, upon the earth 2000 years ago mankind has walked on the moon; conquered diseases; and, allegedly, reason is pre-eminent over superstition and fear almost everywhere. From sacrificing our children to nurturing our children as our God nurtures us. Now the battle is far from over but it is a lot further from being lost. The forces of evil are still engaged in fighting for their survival but the forces of Christ are advancing remorselessly. It’s not us who are hiding in the shadows and whispering in people’s ears. It’s our enemy. But don’t ever forget; we cannot hope to fight the good fight on our own. Ephesians 6:11. Stay strong in your faith in God and not in yourself. Stay within Christ, which is the body of Christ, which is your church and don’t wander too far from the straight and narrow path. One in three people in this world profess to being Christian and despite what the doom and gloom merchants will tell you that number is growing around the world.
So when we confess that Christ is the Saviour of the world can it be that we are talking not only about the sacrifice of Christ but also about the body of Christ, the Church of Christ? If our salvation is only about the sacrifice of Christ then someone is going to have his work cut out explaining that to me. The sacrifice of Christ was the big attack, which threw down the gates of hell and breached the walls of the enemy. Our Lord broke open the ramparts of the enemy, He threw down the gates, and, as His servants, it is our task to complete the mission by the teaching and spreading of the Gospel from which all good fruit does grow. It’s not complicated. God would not do that to us. God would not weigh us down with a faith you need two Phd’s and a bible commentary to even begin to understand. Every time I watch some scholar trying to explain something about our faith in ever more complicated and convoluted language I get an urge to jump up on the stage and gently lead him to a quiet spot where I can lay him down with a damp bible over his forehead. Einstein said “if you can’t explain your theory to an eight year old then you don’t understand it yourself.
The Body of Christ is the Church and Christ is the savior of the world through his sacrifice and His Church, which is us. We are the Body of Christ and the Body of Christ, despite what the BBC tells us, is alive and well and sweeping away the forces of the enemy step by painful step. But let us never become complacent. The rat bites deepest from the corner and although we know we will win the war, this doesn’t mean we cannot lose a battle. So be vigilant, be sober, for our enemy prowls around like a hungry lion seeking to devour who he can. Read the bible, because this is our holy source of wisdom and we will need all the wisdom we can gather to carry our share of the load most effectively. Pray regularly and often, because we cannot go very far on our own and praying is the same as collecting more ammunition for the fight. But remember we can only carry enough ammunition for one struggle at a time; so we have to keep going back for more ammunition. It does not matter how we each carry on the struggle as long as everybody is putting their shoulder to the wheel as best they can; though we are many we are one body because we all share in one bread. Each of us has an allotted place and task. None of these tasks is too difficult for us. Do not worry, do not fear, for the Lord has placed or is placing each of us where we can do the greatest good and where we will be happiest. Matthew 11:28-30.