The Gates of Hell

Please read Matthew 16:1-20, Mark 8:11-30 & Luke 9:18-21

The weather was getting cooler and storms starting to brew as Israel’s rainy season began. Yeshua and His talmidim returned to Galilee from the Sukkot celebrations, and His increasing conflicts with the religious leaders in Jerusalem.

Then some P’rushim and Tz’dukim came to trap Yeshua by asking Him to show them a miraculous sign from Heaven.  
But His response was, “When it is evening, you say, ‘Fair weather ahead,’ because the sky is red;  and in the morning you say, ‘Storm today!’ because the sky is red and overcast. You know how to read the appearance of the sky, but you can’t read the signs of the times! A wicked and adulterous generation is asking for a sign? It will certainly not be given a sign — except the sign of Yonah!”
With that He left them and went off. Matthew 16:1-4 CJB

The Pharisees came and began to argue with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven to test Him.  And He sighed deeply in His spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”   
And He left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side. Mark 8:11-13 ESVUK

These  P’rushim and Tz’dukim (Pharisees and Sadducees) had likely been in Jerusalem for the required pilgrimage festival of Sukkot and heard Yeshua teaching in the temple and the crowd whispering “When the Messiah comes, will he perform more signs than this man?” (John 7:31-32). They had heard Yeshua shout on the last day of the festival: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:37-38). They knew their colleagues’ concerns about the people believing Yeshua to be messiah. They were determined to turn the people against Him. But His time was not yet, so He continued to respond with such wisdom that every attempt to trick Him was doomed to failure. Yet even this sign they failed to notice and only got frustrated by it.

These religious leaders were supposed to be directing the people to God, but instead they were trying to divert them away from the Son of God. Yeshua warned His talmidim against these revered community leaders.

 The talmidim, in crossing to the other side of the lake, had forgotten to bring any bread.  So when Yeshua said to them, “Watch out! Guard yourselves against the hametz (leaven) of the P’rushim and Tz’dukim,”  they thought He said it because they hadn’t brought bread.  But Yeshua, aware of this, said, “Such little trust you have! Why are you talking with each other about not having bread?  Don’t you understand yet? Don’t you remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you filled? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand and how many baskets you filled?  How can you possibly think I was talking to you about bread? Guard yourselves from the hametz of the P’rushim and Tz’dukim! (leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees!)”  
Then they understood — they were to guard themselves not from yeast for bread but from the teaching of the P’rushim and Tz’dukim. Matthew 16:5-12 CJB

Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.  And He cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 
And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread.  
And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?  Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?   When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” 
They said to Him, “Twelve.”  
“And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” 
And they said to him, “Seven.”  And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
Mark 8:14-21 ESVUK

It can play on our minds when we have failed in some way. Yeshua’s talmidim had forgotten to bring the needed supplies. They were focusing on their lack. So, when Yeshua started instructing them to be careful of adopting the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees, or way of life of Herod, all they could hear was a rebuke for their failure and concern about their consequent lack. They missed the importance of this moment.

Yeshua’s second year of teaching His talmidim was coming to an end and soon He would be incarnate with them no more. They needed to know to guard themselves from the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees or they would never fulfil what He was calling them to as His ekklesia (assembly of called out ones).

 And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to Him a blind man and begged Him to touch him.  And He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when He had spat on his eyes and laid His hands on him, He asked him, “Do you see anything?” 
 And he looked up and said, “I see men, but they look like trees, walking.”  
Then Jesus laid His hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 
And He sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”
Mark 8:22-26

Yeshua was not interested in performing for the pharisees, doing a sign to impress or try to prove something to them, but He had compassion on people in need and did many miraculous signs of healing to demonstrate the nature of His kingdom and meet those needs. The people of Bethsaida had seen Yeshua perform many miracles. They had been among the 5,000 fed with just five loaves and two fish. A group of them were eager to see another miracle – the healing of this blind man. Yeshua had compassion on the man and took him by the hand to lead him away from the crowd of spectators. Once he had allowed Yeshua to lead him to a safe place this man was ready to begin to receive his miracle. Interestingly, this healing was not instantaneous as so many others had been, but was performed in stages, with the blind man being asked what he could see as it progressed.

Yeshua and His talmidim continued north from Bethsaida, following the Jordan River to its source, the deep spring of Caesarea Philippi at the southwestern base of Mount Hermon.  In so doing, they left the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas for a region governed by Herod Philip.  Of greater significance was the history and current use of this location. Their next lesson was to take place in a region that most pious Jews at this time despised and avoided. It was an area associated with the most heinous of heathen practices and with the shame of Israel’s rebellion against God. A place notorious as “the Gates of Hell”.

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  
And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”  
And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” 
Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”  
And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
Mark 8:27-30 ESV

GEOGRAPHY OF CAESAREA PHILIPPI
On the southern slope of Mount Hermon, about 1150 feet above sea level, is a cliff more than 100 feet high. The area had a beautiful setting, it produced a lush oasis of life and overlooked the very fertile northern portion of the Jordan River Valley. In ancient times there was a deep, water filled, cavern in the limestone rock at the base of this cliff. Ferocious waters gushed from the massive spring in this limestone cave, and these provided the main source for the Jordan River. 1st century Jewish historian Josephus described it: “a dark cave opens itself; within which there is a horrible precipice, that descends abruptly to a vast depth: it contains a mighty quantity of water, which is immovable; and when anybody lets down anything to measure the depth of the earth beneath the water, no length of cord is sufficient to reach it. Now the fountains of Jordan rise at the roots of this cavity outwardly; and, as some think, this is the utmost origin of Jordan.” – Josephus, Wars of the Jews 1,21,3. It was this dangerous, seemingly bottomless dark water-filled cavern that the ancients called the “Gates of Hades” or “Gates of Hell”.

HISTORY OF THE CAESAREA PHILIPPI REGION
Before God gave this land to the Israelites it was part of the land of Canaan. The Canaanites were descended from Noah’s grandson Canaan (Genesis 9:18-19, Genesis 10:6, 15-20), Ham’s youngest son, who was cursed for his father’s disrespect of Noah when drunk (Genesis 9:20-27). The scriptures do not tell us why Canaan was cursed and not Ham or Ham’s other sons, so scholars have produced various theories to fill in the gaps. What we do know is that in describing how Israel came to be invading the Canaanites and taking over their land the curse on Canaan was considered significant and he is focused on before any of Noah’s older grandsons are mentioned in scripture.

Canaanite society was formed around city-states, each ruled by a warrior chieftain (malek), who held his position by virtue of being the fiercest warrior in the tribe. The Canaanite city-state in the area around the “Gates of Hell” was named Laish, Judges 18:7.

Many cultures adopt notable geographical features into the worship of their deities. Likewise, the Canaanites built a sanctuary to Baal around the entrance to the bottomless, water-filled cavern and it became central to their worship, which included child sacrifice (often of tiny babies).

According to Canaanite mythology, Baal was the son of El, the chief god, and Asherah, the goddess of the sea. Baal was considered the most powerful of all gods, eclipsing El, who was seen as rather weak and ineffective. In various battles Baal defeated Yamm, the god of the sea, and Mot, the god of death and the underworld.

Baal was portrayed as a man with the head and horns of a bull. Some idols had his right hand raised holding a lightning bolt, signifying both destruction and fertility, others had him seated on a throne. Baal worship included temple prostitution and human sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of babies through fire. Some believe that babies were sacrificed to Baal by throwing them into the watery depths of this bottomless cavern.

When God led Israel into the Promised Land (Canaan) in c.1406 BC, the southern coastal plain, between Ephraim and Judah, was allocated to the tribe of Dan (see Joshua 19:40-46). However, due to the superior weaponry of the neighbouring Philistines, who used iron chariots to defend their cities, the Danites were insecure in this territory (see Judges 1:19) so they sent five valiant men to spy out a favourable land. Having the blessing of a Levite priest employed by Micah in the hill country of Ephraim, they continued north and found the unconquered Canaanite city of Laish with a fertile plain in the northern most reaches of Manasseh’s territory, under the shadow of Mount Hermon and including the main source of the Jordan River.

In response to the positive report that the five spies brought back, 600 Danites armed with weapons of war (Judges 18:11) set out to conquer the Canaanite city of Leshem (or Laish), stopping along the way to kidnap Micah’s Levite priest and take his graven images and idols from the hill country of Ephraim, threatening Micah’s life if he should attempt to stop them. Accompanied by their new priest, and the stolen idols from Micah, the Danites marched on the unsuspecting city of Laish. They struck down all of the people, and burnt the city to the ground, then rebuilt it and renamed it Dan (see Joshua 19:47 & Judges 18:1-31). While some Danites (such as Samson’s parents) remained in their allotted land in the south (see Judges 13:2), many of the tribe moved north to the new city of Dan and their territory included the notorious Gates of Hell.

As Dan was the most northerly city conquered by the Israelites,  Israel was said to stretch “from Dan to Beersheba” (see Judges 20:1 & 2 Samuel 24:2). 

And the sons of Dan set up for themselves the graven image; and Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land. So they set up for themselves Micah’s graven image which he had made, all the time that the house of God was in Shiloh.” Judges 18:30-31.

This laid the foundation for the two golden calves that King Jeroboam 1 would set up in Bethel and Dan after the kingdom was divided in 931BC (1 Kings 12:25-33). The city of Dan became a cultic centre of idol worship, in direct violation of God’s commands to Moses.

This ‘high place’ in Dan was renewed by King Ahab in 874BC as a centre of Baal worship (see 1 Kings 16:30-33). Ahab and his father Omri adopted a policy of combining Canaanite and Israelite religions, and Dan was the centre of this worship. It was not hard for the Israelites to slide from worshipping a calf to worshipping a creature which was a man with the head and horns of a bull, and then to the detestable sexual and sacrificial practices of the Canaanite religion.

They did not destroy the peoples as the LORD had commanded them, but they mingled with the nations and adopted their customs. they worshipped their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons. They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was desecrated by their blood. They defiled themselves by what they did; by their deeds they prostituted themselves. (Psalm 106:34-39 NIV)

This detestable ‘high place’ was eventually destroyed when King Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria conquered Dan in 732BC (see 2 Kings 15:29).

When the ancient Greeks conquered this area in 333BC, they adopted the seemingly bottomless cavern into their mythology, casting it as the birthplace of their fertility god, Pan.

Pan’s hindquarters, legs, and horns are like that of a goat while his upper body was of a man.

This Greek god was associated with music and fertility so his worship included prostitution and sexual interaction between humans and goats to entice the return of Pan to bring them prosperity.

They renamed the cavern the “Grotto of Pan” or “cave of Pan”, and renamed the nearby city “Paneas” (Banias in Arabic).

Over the years idols and statues of many gods and goddesses were placed into small openings cut into the rock face of the cliff and at the base of this cliff, more than one hundred feet high, people built temples and shrines dedicated to various gods.

The deep cavern was thought to be the gate to the underworld, where fertility gods dwelt during the winter and then returned to the earth each spring. Inside the grotto (cave) and etched in the walls was a Greek sign that said, “gates of Hades.”

Among the temples to pagan gods was an arena where worshippers of Pan would dance, and engage in sexual practices, with goats .

Herod the Great was given the area of Paneas (later to be known as Caesarea Philippi) by Caesar Augustus in 20 BC. In honour of Augustus’ visit to the area, Herod the Great built a temple to Augustus, called an Augusteum, near Paneas. His son, Philip, renamed the city Caesarea Philippi in honour of Caesar and himself.

It was to this source of the Jordan River, this centre of pagan worship, this place of the beginning of the fall of Israel, this “gates of hell”, miles north of Galilee and without Jewish settlements in the region, that Yeshua took His talmidim to declare the ultimate victory of the ecclesia (church) that He would build.

((N.B.  Caesarea Philippi was at the foot of a cliff where spring water flowed directly from the cave’s mouth. This fast-moving stream, the beginning of the Jordan River, was created by seventy-two springs originating in the bowels of the mountain. The waters were so deep that ancients were unable to plumb the depths and therefore considered it bottomless. Over the centuries earthquakes have destroyed the cave, and modern engineering has diverted the waters, so we no longer see the bottomless cavern or furious torrents of water that Yeshua and His talmidim would have witnessed.))

When Yeshua came into the territory around Caesarea Philippi, He asked His talmidim, “Who are people saying the Son of Man is?” 
They said, “Well, some say Yochanan the Immerser
(John the Baptist), others Eliyahu (Elijah), still others Yirmeyahu (Jeremiah) or one of the prophets.” 
 “But you,” He said to them, “who do you say I am?” 
Shim‘on Kefa
(Simon Peter) answered, “You are the Mashiach (Messiah), the Son of the living God.”
“Shim‘on Bar-Yochanan
(Simon son of Jonah),” Yeshua said to him, “how blessed you are! For no human being revealed this to you, no, it was my Father in heaven.  I also tell you this: you are Kefa (Peter),” [which means ‘Rock,’] “and on this rock I will build My Community (ekklesia – people called out from the world and into the Kingdom of Heaven), and the gates of Sh’ol will not overcome it. ” Matthew 16: 13-18 CJB  

Simon identified Yeshua as Messiah, Son of the living God. Yeshua responded by identifying Simon in the Aramaic form of his name, Shim‘on Bar-Yochanan, to speak something deep into his life. שִׁמְעוֹן Shim‘on comes from the Hebrew word Shema which means “to hear, listen, understand and respond appropriately”. “The Shema”, which begins with the words “Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad”Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4), is considered the most important prayer in Judaism. 
Bar means “son of”.
Yochanan means “God is gracious”.  
Yeshua was in effect speaking into Peter’s life: “Hearing and responding son of God is gracious, how blessed you are for it was my Father in heaven who revealed this to you – by God’s grace you heard Him and responded to Him well.

Yeshua continued speaking into Simon’s life with a play on words that He intertwines with His reason for bringing them to this place of beginnings where they could see both the massive rockface and the hole in it that was infamous as the gates of hell, for His declaration about His community of called out ones (ekklesia). “I also say to you that you are Peter [Greek: Petros = masculine / bolder, single rock], and upon this rock [petra = feminine / foundational rock structure, cliff, mass of connected rock] I will build My church [Greek: ekklesia = assembly of called out ones]; and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

There is a lot of controversy among scholars and theologians about the intended meaning of the Greek words “Petros” and “petra” in this passage. Some argue that Simon Peter was the rock that Yeshua was going to build His church on and others, that it was the confession that Peter made of Yeshua being the Messiah and Son of the living God that was the rock. Obviously “Petra” would be inappropriate as a name for Simon because is it feminine (a girl’s name), but “Petros” could have been used for the rock upon which Yeshua built His church to have the same word used in both places, and it was not. Likewise, Yeshua could have made things obvious for us by saying “and upon you (Peter) I will build My churchorand upon your declaration of Me I will build My church“, but instead He said “upon this rock I will build“, after giving Simon a name that means “rock“.

Yeshua chose a play on words for a reason, but we don’t know exactly what play on words He was using because we don’t know what Hebrew or Aramaic words He used for this statement. Although the oldest copies of Matthew that we have are in Greek – with it’s use of “Petros” and “petra” – there is evidence from early church writers that this Gospel was originally written in a Semitic language (Hebrew or Aramaic), and we know that Greek was not the language that Yeshua used when when teaching the masses, discussing Torah with the Pharisees, conversing with fellow Jews or training His talmidim – so His original words to Simon Peter were not in Greek but in Hebrew or Aramaic. We have evidence of which Aramaic word was used for Peter – Cephas (sometimes spelt Kephas or Kefa, which means “huge, immovable rock“), as seen in the following N.T. scriptures where the Aramaic “Cephas” is used directly instead of being translated into the Greek “Petros” or English “Peter“:

And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A rock. (John 1:42).

What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” (1 Cor 1:12)

Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; (1 Cor 3:22).

Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas? (1 Cor 9:5).

And that He was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve (1 Cor 15:5).

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and tarried with him fifteen days. (Galatians 1:18)

And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. (Galatians 2:9).

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I resisted him to the face, because he stood condemned. (Galatians 2:11)

What we don’t have is the Hebrew or Aramaic words that Yeshua used which led to the use of the Greek “petra” for the rock on which Yeshua’s assembly of called out ones was to be built.

The ambiguity in Yeshua’s statement gives room for layers of meaning. Firstly, He was speaking identity and calling to the apostle Simon Peter. This name that He had given Simon would become the one by which he was known throughout the time of the book of Acts, Cephas (Peter). It was a name that spoke of strength and stability, ability to stand through the storms of life. It was a name that Simon would need to grow into because his character was not there yet, as would be seen in His denial of Christ.

Ephesians 2:19-20 speaks of God’s household being “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone“. Peter was to be part of this rock foundation but not the sole foundation. Yeshua was going to build His ekklesia on people, not on structures, principles, religious practices, ideas or doctrines, but on people, people like Simon Peter.

Secondly, Yeshua was speaking of His ekklesia being built on the massive foundational rock of Himself – on His nature as the Messiah and Son of God, and as such it will be unstoppably ever expanding until it fills the whole earth. In the very place of Israel’s shame and disgrace, the place of the beginning of their spiritual defeat which led to their decimation, in this stronghold of pagan worship and demonic activity, at the entrance to the gates of hell, Yeshua declared His ultimate victory. He was going to build His body of people called out from the world into the Kingdom of God, Daniel 2:34-35 & 44-45 was coming to pass and nothing could stop it.

While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth….”
44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. (Daniel 2:34-35 & 44-45 NIV)

There was a massive petra (foundational rock structure, cliff, mass of connected rock) that dominated the landscape in which Yeshua had declared “and on this rock (petra) I will build My church (ekklesia) and the gates of hades will not prevail against it.” Within that very petra were the gates of hades. Was Yeshua showing His talmidim a picture not of the gates of hades as this separate, evil, pagan thing that the church would advance towards in order to destroy and rescue pagans from, but of the evil which would try to threaten the church from within but still fail to hinder Messiah’s work? Could Yeshua have been saying that He knew bad things were going to be done by His called-out ones, even after He sent the Holy Spirit? Was He declaring that even the faults and weaknesses of those joined in this mass of connected rock (petra), even our fallen human nature, even the tares sown among the wheat, even all the wrongs that would later be done in His name, would not be able to destroy what He was building?
It is interesting that over the course of time earthquakes have filled in much of the gates of hades, but the massive petra cliff face still stands strong.
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24. Joosten, Strasbourg Jan. Aramaic or Hebrew behind the Greek Gospels? [Online] 06 2015. https://drmsh.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Joosten-Aramaic-or-Hebrew-behind_the_Gospels.pdf.
25. Fontecchio), Mark. Can You Clarify the Meaning of Matthew 16:19? Ask a Bible Teacher. [Online] [Cited: July 18th, 2022.] https://www.returntotheword.com/Can-You-Clarify-The-Meaning-Of-Matthew-1619-RttW.
26. Davis, Rabbi. Binding and Loosing. Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue. [Online] [Cited: July 19th, 2022.] https://www.rabdavis.org/binding-and-loosing/.
27. Huckey, Darren. Binding and Loosing Properly Understood. Emet HaTorah. [Online] [Cited: July 19th, 2022.] https://www.emethatorah.com/binding-and-loosing-properly-understood.
28. https://biblehub.com/greek/4073.htm
29. https://www.biblehub.com/greek/4074.htm

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…

* List some of the signs that the religious leaders had already seen which should have convinced them that Jesus was the messiah and Son of God.
* Is there a time in your life when you were so focused on what you had failed to do that you misunderstood what God was saying to you?
* What are your thoughts on this time when the miracle of total healing was not instant?
* Jesus redeemed this most notorious place in ancient Israel, even the darkest places can be transformed by the Son of God. Do you have places with a dark history in your country and what impact has the gospel had in those places?
* What does it mean to have the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven?
* Wat does it mean to bind and loose?

Author: Anita

"For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption." 1 Cor. 1:26-30 ESV These verses are the story of my life. A shy, introverted woman who didn't know how to relate to others and had a fear of anyone in authority - foolish, weak, low and despised. The most unlikely candidate for any position of leadership. But God delights to choose such, to take those who are not and make them something in Christ, to do the impossible through the unlikely. In 2006 Jesus sent me to the nations with His glorious gospel to set the captives free and prepare His bride for the wedding of the Lamb.

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