The lesson is taught at Caesarea Philippi, a city that was notorious for its evil.
The Jordan River begins with three springs at the foot of Mt. Hermon in the city.
In 2 BC, Herod Philip became tetrarch of this area and built Caesarea Philippi. But even earlier, the tribe of Dan relocated in the area from their original inheritance, the Philistines being too tough to root out. So they moved to this area and built the city of Dan. This is where Jeroboam built the golden calf. The “high place” where the calf was located is still there.
Dan was a religious center because of all the water coming out of the ground, as they worshipped fertility gods and the springs symbolized fertility. The Greeks had stopped infant sacrifice, but the locals continued to practice fertility rites, worshipping Pan, a Greek fertility god. At the time, a spring flowed from a cave, where Pan was worshipped through orgies and bestiality with goats. The source of the spring was known to the Greeks as the “gates of Hades,” that is, they believed the streams flowed from underground, the location of Hades.
The pagan idea was the gods would spend winter underground, that is, in Hades, and return in the spring to return fertility to the land and the animals. Fertility rites were practiced to encourage the gods to come out and begin spring.
To the south some 20+ miles, Jesus had ministered near the Sea of Galilee. Before going to Jerusalem, Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, a place famous for its paganism — and place so evil that the rabbis taught that the Messiah would overthrow its power.
(Mat 16:13-19) When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Notice Peter’s reference to the “Living God,” evidently in contrast to the pagan idols that were there.
RVL argues that “this rock” refers to the very rock where the idols sat and fertility practices took place. In effect, Jesus said, my church will come and overtake this paganism.
Jesus said the “gates of hell” would not stand against his church. But gates are defensive structures. Therefore, the image is that the gates of hades would not defeat conquest by the church. We are to be on the offense. We are called to go into the very heart of hell.
Our attitude is often to be defensive, to build gates, rather than to challenge and knock down gates.
Thus, Vander Laan, argues, Christian churches and schools should be training grounds for challenging and defeating Satan. (At the time these lessons were taught, RVL was a teacher in a Christian high school.)
Now, Jesus spent 3 years training his disciples in a controlled setting, and then he sent them out into the world — equipped with the Spirit. Christian schools need to be staging areas for how to go out into the world and confront evil, not defensive structures to protect us from the world.
Jesus spoke of “Hades,” not hell (the KJV is mistaken). In the New Testament, the writers borrow “Hades” from Greek mythology to refer to what the Old Testament calls “Sheol.” “Sheol” refers to the grave or, metaphorically, where the dead exist. In Greek thought, Hades is whether the dead exist. The Greeks considered the righteous dead to be in the Fields of Elysium or Elysian Fields, a paradise that is in Hades. The unrighteous dead dwell in Tartarus, a part of Hades where the dead suffer torment. Therefore, “Hades” is neither a good place nor a bad place, just the place where the dead are.
Hence, the most literal intepretation of the “Gates of Hades” would be the gates of the grave, that is, Christ’s church will rescue souls from the grave. And if we properly understand our eschatology (the study of last things), this makes sense. The promise of Rev 21-22 is that we’ll exist in the New Earth with God in a re-formed earth without night or death. The saved will never die again — we’ll be rescued from the grave, receiving a bodily resurrection. We considered this in detail in the Surprised by Hope series.
And while this is a very appealing interpretation, it doesn’t deal with the fact that Jesus chose to make this announcement at Caesarea Philippi, a place containing a grotto known as the “gates of Hades.” As Vander Laan points out, the pagans saw the springs as welling up from deep within the earth and thus from Hades. They saw the cave from which the spring flowed as literally a gateway into the underworld.
If Jesus meant by “gates of Hades” this very place where he stood, well, he meant that his church would offensively challenge the very heart of paganism and conquer it. And as a matter of fact, it happened. There aren’t many Pan worshipers left. Notwithstanding the Da Vinci Code, fertility rites are largely forgotten. Bestiality is considered perversion, not worship, even today.
In either case, “gates of Hades” plainly refers to the mission of the church to be on the offense, to confront and defeat the false claims of paganism and to even defeat death. Plainly, Jesus is not calling us to hunker down and defend.
This clip from Return of the King gives a good picture of breaching the defenses of an enemy hidden behind a gate. Of course, in the movie, the good guys were the ones defending, but you get the picture.
Now, Vander Laan draws the outline of a conclusion regarding private Christian schools and colleges. He warns against our separationist tendencies, and urges that our schools become staging areas from which we launch assaults against an evil culture, rather than defensive positions in which we hide from the culture.
I’m reading a book by Kary Oberbrunner, The Fine Line: Re-envisioning the Gap between Christ and Culture. The author notes the tendency of churches (and their schools) to become either conformist, becoming just like the surrounding culture, or separationist, seeking to hide from the culture. He urges his readers to become transformationist, that is, to engage culture and capture it for Jesus.
However, Oberbrunner does not see culture as the enemy. Rather, Satan is the enemy, and he sometimes uses culture as a tool. But culture is not, in and of itself, wicked. There is nothing inherently wrong with movies, music, art, TV, politics, science, or whatever cultural expression there may be. The key is to neither flee from culture nor to defeat culture. The key is to transform culture.
Now, in the context of a private school or college, how do we do that? The usual answer is to show only G-rated movies and to block pornography on the internet. But these are not at all transformational strategies. Consider these questions —
* Why aren’t Christian universities noted for being on the cutting edge of science — when science is the study of the handiwork of God?
* Why aren’t Christian universities noted for excellence in music and art?
* Why aren’t Christian high school noted for making the communities in which they exist better places?
* If the public schools were safe, well-disciplined, and provided an excellent education, would we need Christian schools? In other words, are our Christian schools simply a way of getting what everyone wants — a good education? And how does that make us any different from the world?
* What measures do we use to judge how good Christian schools are? How are these measures different from worldly measures? ACT scores? Admissions to medical school? Why aren’t we asking how many students participate in church plants? Become missionaries? Become fulltime ministers? Work to relieve the suffering of the poor?
I certainly agree with Vander Laan that there’s a time when we need to separate ourselves for preparation. Paul spent three years in Arabia getting ready to be a missionary. The 12 spent three years with Jesus. But the value of their preparation is not tested by their degrees or honors. The value is measured by lives changed and souls saved. Why do we not think of our own institutions in this way?
Finally — it’s easy to pick on our schools, and it’s a conversation we need to be having. But the same arguments and questions also go for our Sunday schools. How do we judge the success of our children’s, teen, and campus ministries? By attendance? By excitement? Or by discipleship? And just what would discipleship look like if we were to achieve it?