Close your eyes and picture a church...
What images do you see?
To understand Jesus vision of the church we need to explore what Jesus taught his first disciples about his ekklesia (Church).
The first place Jesus ever uses the word ekklesia is in Matt 16...
Jesus has called these disciples to follow him. They are mostly young guys who were learning the family trade, because they did not make the cut to study under another Rabbi. So When this crazy Rabbi with a new yoke tells them to drop everything and follow him they do.
But remember how young they were, and the influence their culture had on them.
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?"
What was Caesarea Philippi?
Caesarea Philippi was a place outside of the religious culture the disciples were use to. It housed large shrines to pagan Gods, but more on that in a minute.
Caesarea Philippi's location was especially unique because it stood at the base of a cliff where spring water flowed out to feed the Jordan river. At one time, the water ran directly from the mouth of a cave set in the bottom of the cliff. Now the water no longer gushes from the cave, but only seeps from the bedrock below it.
The pagan people commonly believed that their fertility gods lived in the underworld during the winter and returned to earth each spring. IE the winter comes and plants die, animals migrate and or stop reproducing “the fertility Gods must have left us...”
They saw water as a symbol of the underworld (hades) because it mostly came up from springs or people dug wells down to it. And they thought that their gods traveled to and from that world through caves.
The Hebrew word for hades is SHEOL. Both the Hebrew word SHEOL and the Greek word HADES are often translated Hell in English.
Sheol" is a Hebrew word used for the abode of the dead. It is thought of as a place situated below the ground (e.g. Ezek. 31:15), a place of darkness, silence and forgetfulness (Job 10:21; Ps. 94:17, 88:12). Although the dead in sheol are apparently cut off from God (Ps. 88:3-5), he is not absent (Ps. 139:8), and is able to deliver souls from sheol (Ps. 16:10).
Worship of the god of fertility Pan was centered at the cave and the spring at the high rock bluff. Several niches carved into the rock are identified as being dedicated "to Pan and the nymphs."
* the image of Pan is where most contemporary art depicting the devil comes from *
To the pagan mind, then, the cave and spring water at Caesarea Philippi created a gate to the underworld. They believed that their city was literally at the gates of the underworld—the gates of hell. In order to entice the return of their god, Pan people would come to Caesarea Philippi and engaged in horrible deeds, including prostitution and sex between humans and goats.
So are locked in to what the disciples must have thought they were seeing?
When Jesus brought his disciples to the area, they must have been shocked. Caesarea Philippi was like a red-light district in their world and good young Jewish boys would have avoided any contact with the area and its people at any cost. They would have been more likely to eat burning coals than go there.
It was a city of people eagerly knocking on the doors of hell. A huge cliff with nitches carved out to hold idols.Feasts, festivals, and rituals to pagan Gods abounded.
It is located twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus did most of his ministry. Can you imagine the conversations that must have taken place among the disciples on the way up there.
Standing near the pagan temples of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you say that I am?”
They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"
Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
We like to think “Peter boldly replied, you are the Son of the living God.” but it is more likely that he said it so that the crowd would not hear...
Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.
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.
Jesus continued, You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church...
Christians have debated the meaning of those words for a long time. In your bible it may even contain a foot note saying that Peter means rock. Remember that this is a foot note added later by a well intentioned monk or scribe. The word Jesus used for Peter is Πέτρος (Petros) a proper masculine noun, and the word Jesus uses for the rock is πέτρα (petra) a feminine noun. It seems to be more a play on words than a doctrinal statement.
But in this context it IS pretty clear that Jesus words had symbolic meaning.
This understanding harmonizes perfectly with Jesus teaching style. He is always using real word pictures to reveal truth to the folks he is teaching.
"The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed...""Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees...""Take this bread..."
So Jesus is saying his church will be built on THIS rock?
of Caesarea Philippi?
A rock literally filled with niches for pagan idols, where ungodly values dominated?
Further more didn't Jesus know that gates were defensive structures built to keep invaders out!
By saying that the gates of hell would not overcome was Jesus suggesting that those gates were going to be stormed?
Its also interesting to note that this is the first time Jesus speaks of his establishing a church. Until this point the disciples must have believed that they would follow Jesus forever...
Jesus presented a clear challenge with his words at Caesarea Philippi:
He didn't want his followers hiding in a building. In fact there is clearly a lack of any kind of building structure in Jesus vision, the only structure are the gates and they belong to another army...
He has commissioned us to build an ekklesia (Church) that will storm the gates of hell, and rescue those held there.
Are you part of Jesus ekklesia?
What images do you see when you think of church?