After Simon Peter makes his famous declaration that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus tells the apostle, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:16, 18 NIV).
Jesus’ reference to “this rock” has been the subject of much debate. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares, “The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the ‘rock’ of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him the shepherd of the whole flock …” In other words, Christ named Peter the first in an unbroken line of popes.
Other interpreters say Jesus meant that He will build His church:
• On Himself (Jesus is “this rock”)
• On Peter’s profession of faith, or
• On the life and teachings of Jesus as revealed in the apostolic record
The third view has much to commend it. Christ’s life and teachings are the foundation of the church. Ephesians 2:20 tells us Jesus is the cornerstone of the church. The prophets and apostles are the foundation as the bearers of God’s revealed truth preserved in the Scriptures.
As Michael F. Ross writes in Christian Research Journal, “Peter became ‘the rock’ not as an individual with an office, but as the leader of the apostolic band of men who received and recorded New Testament revelation…. The New Testament knows no Head but Jesus Christ.”
But there’s even more going on here, particularly with respect to Jesus’ reference to “the gates of Hades.”
The gates of Hades
It’s important to note that Jesus has taken His disciples to Caesarea Philippi, located in the northern part of the Old Testament region of Bashan, at the foot of Mt. Hermon.
The site is famous in the ancient world as the center of the worship of Pan, the Greek god of the wild who bears the horns, legs, and hindquarters of a goat, and for a temple to the high god Zeus, considered in Jesus’ day to be incarnate in Augustus Caesar.
In addition, more than 20 temples to various pagan gods have been surveyed on Mt. Hermon and its surroundings. This spot also is near the headwaters of the Jordan River, so it bears historical importance for the Israelites.
Against this background, rich with historical and theological meaning, Jesus stands and reveals Himself as the eternal Son of God. In essence, He is declaring war on the kingdom of Satan.
As biblical scholar Michael Heiser points out, Jesus’ reference to the “rock” is an important double entendre: “the ‘rock’ refers to the mountain location where Jesus makes the statement…. Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, at ‘this rock’ (this mountain – Mount Hermon). Why? This place was considered the ‘gates of hell,’ the gateway to the realm of the dead, in Old Testament times.”
This is high theological drama. Jesus says He will build His church, and the gates of Hades – a Greek term denoting the abode of the dead – will not stop him. ( The Gospel writer uses Hades rather than Gehenna, or hell, although the terms are related.)
We tend to think of Satan as the aggressor against God’s kingdom on earth. But as Jesus makes plain, just the opposite is true. Christ has come to invade Satan’s realm. The “gates of Hades” are defensive structures, not offensive weapons, and they are about to be stormed.
As Heiser points out, “Jesus begins at ground zero in the cosmic geography of both testaments to announce the great reversal. It is the gates of hell that are under assault – and they will not hold up against the Church. Hell will one day be Satan’s tomb.”
It gets better. Several days later, Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John on a “high mountain.” While early church tradition believed this to be Mt. Tabor, it makes more sense to be Mt. Hermon, which, at 8,500 feet vs. Mt. Tabor’s 1,843 feet, better fits the Gospel accounts.
This is where, in Jewish literature such as the book of 1 Enoch, the “sons of God” launch their rebellion against Yahweh (see Gen. 6:1-4; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6).
Now, on this same mountain peak, Jesus reveals to His disciples exactly who He is – the embodied essence of the triune God, made visible through the Incarnation.
After this, Jesus sets His eyes on Jerusalem and His impending death, the means by which God’s eternal redemption is accomplished. But on “this rock” – Mt. Hermon – the Son of Man has drawn a line in the sand. The realm of darkness has been put on notice. The great cosmic battle for the souls of fallen human beings has begun.