13 When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”
14 So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Matthew 16:13-19 (NKJV)
Caesarea Philippi was built by the successor of Herod the Great known as Philip the tetrarch who made it the capital of his territory. The city was located in the Upper Galilee, near Mount Hermon in a region known as the Bashan which is a high plateau area in the northeastern corner of modern day Israel. The Bashan measures thirty-seven miles east to west, and fifty-six miles north to south. It is bounded on the west by the Rift Valley with Mount Hermon to the north and Mount Bashan to the east. The Bashan stretches south until it merges with Gilead. The landscape of the Bashan is very fertile and rich, with a sporadic amount of extinct volcano`s running down its center which have enriched the soil. During the winter months it can receive a heavy amount of rain 44-52 inches which has been a direct aid in the flourishing of vineyards and fruit groves. In the Old Testament, Bashan is mentioned sixty times but later during the first century we find the region called Gaulantis as it is a province of Rome with the Decapolis to the south.
During ancient times, and particularly the first century, places of nature attracted the pagans to set up places of worship. At Caesarea Philippi extensive excavations have been done which have revealed a heavy influence and worship of the goat god, Pan. This would also explain the alternate name of the location which is known as Panias. Here, springs and waterfalls can be found where pagans also erected altars to worship nymph spirits and river spirits they believed existed in the water. Dwarfed by the shadow of Mount Hermon, which rises 9232 feet to the north with its snow covered peaks for more than six months of the year, the cultic sites of the city were built against the grotto’s of the high cliffs as temples were erected to Zeus and Augustus. The heavy presence of the large amount of water has to do directly with its proximity to Mount Hermon which receives over sixty inches of rainfall annually. Due to this amount of rain, the moisture seeps into the hard limestone foundations of the mountain and reappear in places like Dan or Caesarea Philippi as powerful springs and falls.
The geographical location influenced the event in which Jesus led his disciples up near the cliffs and temples. Since the city was built and stationed along a major route, connected to Damascus in the east and Dan to the west, this would have made the journey accessible and easy. Thus, Jesus brings his followers there to ask them a question. The Gospel of Matthew accounts Jesus asking his followers who people say He is. Peter is the one who responds pointing out in a direct way the divinity of Jesus and his anointing as Messiah. What Jesus says next is very interesting in direct relation to where they are standing. In the midst of His response Jesus states, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” He does this, with no doubt, while He and his disciples face the largest of the grotto’s which are in the cliff side. Covering the grotto is a temple to Pan where it is also believed to be the gate to the literal Hades. The pagans believed this to be a portal to the underworld and would sacrifice animals in the water and if the blood resurfaced after the animals had been carried away it meant a good omen. Jesus is at that very location, announcing that Peter will build the church of Christ on that rock, being it will be a liberating truth and redemption that these cultic sites and practices could never prevail or rule against, and Jesus declares that the power and chains of Hades will be broken. The geography of the place was a direct part of the event because in the midst of a pagan center, Jesus proclaimed His sovereignty over the wickedness of the place, and stated clearly the foolishness of worshiping anything or anyone else but God.