The Simplicity Series #10

The Question that Rattles the Gates of Hell

“But who do you say that I am?” Mat 16:15
The Contradiction of Eternal Consequence
Jesus and the disciples had crossed over Galilee and traveled north for about fifty rugged miles to Caesarea Philippi. Both the time and place were of great significance, but far more crucial was how Jesus formed the question He posed to the disciples. The conjunction of contrast, “but,” turns from “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” (Mat 16:13), to the necessity of personal alignment: In contrast to the multitudes, where do you stand? It is in the answer to this question that one’s personal, eternal destiny is determined.
Identity is the Ultimate Issue
There were many complimentary ideas current about Jesus at the time—complimentary ideas in the minds of men, but absolutely blasphemous to God. Jesus, Himself, said of John the Baptist, “For I say to you, among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luk 7:28). In the unregenerate minds of men, to compare Jesus to John would seem to be a compliment. A return of either Elijah or Jeremiah would be an astounding event, but infinitely inferior to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The ultimate issue in saving faith is the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. He cannot save as a reformer, a great religious teacher, or a firebrand revolutionary. All of these—and many more titles—have been heaped upon Him throughout history. None of them come close to acknowledging who He is. Without a clear understanding of the “who” of Jesus, His teachings are robbed of power, and the cross is nothing more than a martyrdom, with no saving power. I believe it was Josh McDowell, perhaps quoting C.S. Lewis, who said that, “Jesus is either liar, lunatic, or Lord.”
The great thinker C.S. Lewis said, “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
On a recent flight, I was talking with a young lady. When she learned I was a Bible teacher, she said, “How interesting. I just finished a course on comparative religions, and was pleased to find that they all teach pretty much the same thing.” She was perplexed when I responded, “Jesus said … ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me’” (Joh 14:6). I said, “If Jesus spoke the truth, then all the other religious leaders are liars. If He did not speak the truth, then He is not worth including among the ‘great religious leaders.’ You must decide.” I could see this left her in a quandary. It is the perennial problem of all mankind.
The Unassailable Liberty
In America, we claim to live in the “Land of the Free.” While it is true that we still have some freedoms that are the envy of the world, even these are gradually being diminished. However, there is one freedom that no tyrant can restrict or abolish: That is the freedom of every soul to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” (emphasis added). Not only is this a liberty without restriction to all mankind, it is the greatest power wielded by any human being. It is a right and a choice that determines one’s eternal destiny.
Between the Rock and the Hot Place
The place of this event is critical. For here, Jesus first mentions the formation of the Church (Mat 16:18)—the beginning of the revelation of what Paul calls “the mystery” (Rom 16:25–26; Eph 3:5–7). With this announcement came the greatest challenge ever uttered from the lips of man, “the gates of Hades [hell] shall not prevail against it.” This was both a proclamation of war, and a prophecy of the victory of the Church and the defeat of the kingdom of Satan.
It is no accident that Jesus threw down the gauntlet outside Caesarea Philippi. It was a strategic master-stroke. Caesarea Philippi sat at the foot of Mount Hermon. The ancient Jews believed it was here that the fallen angels of Gen 6:1–2 came down to cohabit with women, with the goal of corrupting the race and thus blocking the coming of the Messiah. Further, the place was inhabited by giants in ancient times (Jos 12:1–5), which the Jews believed were indwelt by demons according to the extra-biblical book of 1 Enoch 15:1–12. This area was known as Bashan (which means “place of the serpent”). Psalm 22—which Jesus quoted from the cross—spoke of Him being “surrounded” and “encircled” by demonic “bulls of Bashan” (Psa 22:12–13). It was here that Jeroboam set up an idol and taught the children of Israel to worship Baal (1Ki 12:25–30).
Finally, when Caesarea Philippi was built, it was dedicated to Zeus—another demon-god (1Co 10:20). This area was in the land given to the tribe of Dan—the cursed, idol-worshipping tribe (Gen 49:16–18; Deu 33:22; Amo 8:14). Not surprisingly, the area of Mount Hermon came to have a dark and frightening reputation, and was called “the gates of Hell” (Dr. Michael S. Heiser, I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible, pg.118, and The Unseen Realm, pgs. 200–201, 281–284). It was here, in this historically significant place, that Jesus asked the disciples to declare their faith and allegiance to Him.
Hell’s Gates Shattered
There are scholars who believe that this challenge was an intentional provocation of the realm of Satan by Jesus that worked to bring about His crucifixion. Immediately after this event, Jesus is transfigured on Mount Hermon (Mat 17:1–8), considered the seat of Satan on earth. This was a preview of His resurrection, and the presence of Moses and Elijah not only spoke of the accuracy of the prophets, but also of the future resurrection of the saints. From this point on, the path of Jesus is relentlessly turned toward Jerusalem and the crucifixion.
Upon the “Rock of our Salvation” (Psa 95:1)—the Person and work of Jesus Christ—Jesus has built His Church. With the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the assault on the “gates of Hell” began. This spiritual “D-Day” initiated the invasion of the domain of the devil and the plundering of his kingdom. Jesus’ language implies that this assault is connected to the commission given to the disciples just before His ascension (Mat 28:18–20). The missionary-mandate is a trumpet-blast that compels the Church to a world-wide assault on the prince of darkness, “who made the world as a wilderness and destroyed its cities, who did not open the house [gates] of his prisoners” (Isa 14:17). It is the Lord Jesus alone who “gives freedom to the prisoners” (Psa 146:7b). His redemptive mission was to “bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house” (Isa 42:7). It was through His resurrection and ascension that Jesus “ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8).
Our proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9, ESV) is not only an expression of faith, it is also a declaration of loyalty and, thus, an affront to the fallen realm. It is no surprise that, in the early Church, Christian baptism was called a sacramentum, originally meaning “a soldier’s oath of loyalty.” Our profession of faith logically demands a growing alignment of our profession and our practice. The Apostle John said, “He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1Jo 2:6). The issue here is not salvation but, rather, fellowship and obedience. However, the fact of spiritual regeneration ought to lead to sanctification and spiritual growth (Tit 2:11–14; Tit 3:4–8).
If our Lord has declared spiritual war against the “gates of Hell,” we who believe are unfaithful cowards if we do not press the battle.

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