Jesus in a Land of Monsters: Spiritual Warfare, the Gates of Hell, and the Cosmic Gospel of Christ

When Jesus came to the region 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, Elijah; still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But you,” He asked them, “who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

And Jesus responded, “Simon son of Jonah, you are blessed because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.”

And He gave the disciples orders to tell no one that He was the Messiah.

(Matthew 16:13–20)

556 BC. An exile in Babylon, the prophet Daniel sees a vision. One after another, horrible monsters surge up from the sea, dripping with water, sinews and muscles straining. A winged lion with the mind of a man, snapping its wings and teeth. A hunchbacked bear with jaws full of bone, one shoulder protruding high over the other. A four-headed leopard with four swift wings, keen eyes fixed on prey.

And one monster too terrible for description — enormous and powerful, with ten horns: “frightening and dreadful, and incredibly strong, with large iron teeth. It devoured and crushed, and it trampled with its feet whatever was left” (Daniel 7:7).

Then, into their midst came an unexpected figure — “One like a Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven.”

He was given authority to rule,
and glory, and a kingdom;
so that those of every people,
nation, and language
should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that will not pass away,
and His kingdom is one
that will not be destroyed.
(Daniel 7:13a, 14)

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30 AD. Caesarea Philippi, a Roman city in the north of Israel.

Incense burns at its temples to Zeus, chief of the Olympian gods, and to Caesar Augustus, himself considered to be a god.

Between the temples is a deep, eerie cave, a grotto where worshipers have built a shrine to the goat-horned god Pan. The cave is said to be bottomless, an entrance to the realm of the dead. Sacrifices are thrown into its watery depths. If blood runs in the nearby springs later in the day, they say Pan has rejected the sacrifice.

Snowcapped Mount Hermon towers above the scene, 9,232 feet, littered with ancient shrines and temples — literally dozens of them, dating back to prehistoric times. From the top of this mountain, according to the Jewish book of 1 Enoch, a horde of fallen angels once descended into the world and led mankind into the violence and depravity of the pre-Flood world. Their teachings came to be associated with ancient Babylon and its mysteries, the practices of witchcraft and false religion.

Not far from here, too, in the city of Dan, the Israelite king Jeroboam erected a golden calf and called upon the Northern tribes to worship it.

Here, truly, are monsters: the gods of the nations, the beasts from the sea — the forces of empire and oppressor, of Babylon, Greece, and Rome; Baal and Pan; giants and fallen angels.

In the midst of this scene, one called the Son of Man comes up to the base of the mountain on foot. Matthew simply says: “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi …”

He gazes up at the heights of Hermon. Stands before the shrines and the cavern, then turns and asks his disciples a question.

“Who do you say that I am?”

The Hinge of Peter’s Confession

The story told in Matthew 16:13–20 lies at the center of the gospel of Matthew, signaling its importance. Peter’s confession is a hinge: it divides the gospel into two halves. In the first, Jesus is traveling and announcing the kingdom. In the second, he is going to Jerusalem to die.

Some of the most evocative and controversial phrases in the New Testament are found here: “You are the Christ, the Son of God”; binding and loosing, the keys of the kingdom, and Peter the rock; Jesus’s first use of the word “church” (ekklesia), and his declaration that he will build one.

Above all, given its position in the gospel of Matthew, one might say that it is here Jesus truly goes on the offensive.

In this respect, the story’s setting is pivotally important.

A Home of Monsters

For Jesus’s contemporaries, “the region of Caesarea Philippi” evoked millennia of history, prophecy, and apocalyptic mystery.

Caesarea Philippi was a Roman administrative city ruled over by Herod the Great’s son Philip the Tetrarch in the far north of Israel. It was located at an ancient site on the southern slope of Mount Hermon, the highest mountain in Israel. Hermon’s connection with the dark and demonic shrouded the mountain for millennia. In ancient Canaanite times, the place where the city was built was called Baal Hermon; it was dedicated to the god Baal, and dozens of shrines and temples dotted the slopes of the mountain.

At the base of the mountain, a deep, dark cave housed a seemingly bottomless pool of water. When the Greeks eventually settled the area, they believed the cave was an entrance to the underworld — Hades — and they built a shrine there to their god Pan, giving it the name Paneas. (The name “Pan,” incidentally, is the root of our “panic” — a reference to the fright he inspired in those who traversed his realms.) When Jesus spoke of “the gates of hell” in this scene (or “the forces of Hades” as the HCSB translates it), he was referring to the place where he and his disciples literally stood.

Centuries later when Rome arrived, Herod added a temple to Caesar at the shrine, and Philip rebuilt the city of Paneas and made it his capital. The new name he gave it, Caesarea Philippi, honored both himself and the Roman Caesar. (The site is called “Banias” today.)

If all of these pagan connotations weren’t enough, Caesarea Philippi was also four miles from the city of Dan, near the northern limit of Israel’s ancient boundaries. In the days when the Northern and Southern kingdoms split, Dan was the birthplace of institutionalized Israelite idolatry.

All of these connections and connotations are why Daniel’s vision, of a Son of Man arising in the midst of monsters, does not seem far off in Matthew 16. There was no more appropriate place than Caesarea Philippi for Jesus to challenge the old world order.

The New Testament and Spiritual Warfare

Within this backdrop, Jesus’s question bears great weight. He asked it in a place of ancient darkness. The disciples’ answer might shrink before that darkness, or it might rise into something more than itself — to become a prophecy, or perhaps a declaration of war.

In our materialistic modern era, it’s tempting to try to read the New Testament as though it only speaks of the world we can hear and see — the world of human politics, social structures, and economic struggles.

But just as the New Testament grows organically out of the Old and cannot be properly read without it, so the entire Bible assumes a backdrop of spiritual realities that we all too easily forget.

The Bible is about spiritual warfare: the struggle between sin and righteousness, profanity and holiness, demons and angels, the devil and God. In Daniel’s day, the prophet saw the empires of the world as monsters, beastly creatures empowered by dark spiritual forces. The one to overcome them, whose dominion and kingdom would never end, would be “like a Son of Man.”

It’s no accident that this was Jesus’s favorite title for himself. It contrasts his full humanity with the demonized, beastly nature of fallen man. The First Nations Version of the New Testament, a recent translation using Native American idioms, translates “Son of Man” as “True Human Being.” Jesus is not only the express image of God, “fully God,” as we confess; he is also the only full expression of humanity who has ever lived — he is the one unmarred, unbroken human: “fully man.” His kingdom is the kingdom of God, yes, but it is also the only true expression of humanity ever seen in the world.

In Daniel 7, the “Son of Man” and the people of God are so closely linked as to be indistinguishable from each other. Jesus and his kingdom are one. This is why, when Jesus declared himself, he also declared his church: he had come to build his church, and the gates of hell would not stand against it.

In Matthew 16, in Peter’s confession of Christ and in Christ’s renaming of Peter, we see the beginning of the end — not only of Jesus’s story as it’s told in the gospels, but of the old regime of Satan’s rule. The confrontation between Jesus and the monsters of old, especially of the old tyrants of Sin, Death, and Devil, would plunge us into what Hebrews calls “the last days” and change the course of history forever.

In the posts that follow this one, we’ll unpack Peter’s confession and Jesus’s promises in greater depth. But I am convinced we will not understand the importance of the conversation without understanding its setting — in geography, and in the much larger cosmic landscape pictured by that geography.

Entering the Last Days

We run the temptation, in our day, of reducing the message of the gospel to “just me and Jesus.”

The gospel indeed is about personal relationship with God, as made possible through Christ. But it’s also much bigger than that.

Matthew 16 in particular will not allow us to sit comfortably in a personal piety that goes no further than the limits of our own skulls. The gospel is about all of human history. It’s about the invisible enemies that surround us and how their kingdom was — and is being — unmade. It’s about the church and how we manifest the kingdom of God in the world, here, now.

Before the gates of hell, Jesus asked his disciples to declare their faith — who they believed and knew him to be.

“You are the Christ, the Son of God,” Peter answered.

With that confession, the gauntlet was thrown down. The monsters were put on notice. The kingdom of God had arrived.

Writing some years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Roman historian Plutarch told of a strange happening in the time of Tiberius Caesar, the emperor who reigned during Jesus’s ministry. A group of sailors, out at sea, heard a voice call on the wind, “The Great god Pan is dead!”

Indeed, Plutarch wrote that the ancient Greek oracles were going silent, that people had somehow lost access to the “gods” who once guided them. Something fundamental had changed in the universe.

The change was this Man — the one who stood in ancient Panias and declared himself to be the Son of God.

Because of Christ, we live in a new era, and we play a role in continually manifesting the kingdom that conquers, the church that hammers down the gates of death. As we follow the Son of Man, we learn what it means to be truly human. As we worship the Son of God, we learn what it is to be remade by his divine life.

We live in the last days, and the new creation has already broken into the old one. The challenge made in Caesarea Philippi echoes down to today. Now as then, it hinges on a single question: Who is this Jesus, and what does his coming mean?

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This is Part 240 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

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2 responses to “Jesus in a Land of Monsters: Spiritual Warfare, the Gates of Hell, and the Cosmic Gospel of Christ”

  1. Brenda Avatar
    Brenda

    Beautifully presented. WOW

    1. Rachel Avatar
      Rachel

      Thank you!

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