Caesarea Philippi was an ancient town at the foot of Mount Hermon (Deut 3:8) on its southern slope, about 1150 feet above sea level and twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It is the northmost border of Palestine at the border of present Lebanon and Syria and near the ancient city of Dan. A spring flows from a cave of the mountain here known as a “bottomless pit.” It is a primary source of the Jordan river. Ancient pagans believed this cave as the entrance to Hades, the Greek underworld where god Pan lived. The spring water made the area fertile.
The town was dedicated to the god Pan in Greek mythology and was known as Paneas (Banias in Arabic). Pan looked like a man with goat’s legs, a tail, and sometimes horns. The ancient Canaanites built a sanctuary for Baal here. After the death of King Solomon, when Israel was divided, King Jeroboam I, the first king of the Northern Israel offered sacrifices to a golden calf in Dan that was only four miles west from Paneas and thus led the people into idolatry (1 Kgs 12:26-29). The Greeks and Romans also built sanctuaries at the mysterious cave of Pan. King Herod the Great had built a magnificent white marble temple in front of the cave, honoring Emperor Augustus in gratitude for giving him power over Paneas in 20 B.C.
Philip, a son of Herod the Great, was the tetrarch from 4 B.C. until his death in A.D. 34. He rebuilt the town of Paneas as his capital city, naming it Caesarea in honor of the then Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar. The name Caesarea Philippi (of Philip) helped to distinguish it from his father’s Caesarea at the seaport in Samaria called Caesarea Maritime on the coast of the Mediterranean on the Sharon plain.
Jesus purposefully chose this place of pagan worship to reveal his divinity to the disciples because Paneas was the entrance to Hades according to the pagans. At the Gates of Hades, Jesus proclaimed, addressing Peter: “upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” (Mt 16:18). Thus, Jesus expressed his sovereignty over the evil and the hell, at the sinful town of pagan worship and at the popularly believed gate of the netherworld.
When the Northern Israel separated from the Temple of Jerusalem and Judea, they fell into idolatry. Those who separate from the church and divine worship end up in secularism and go after material benefits. By going to the entrance of Hades and communicating the establishment of his church, Jesus conveyed to his apostles that he was closing the entrance of Hades for his believers. Let us avoid greed for worldly goals and join Jesus and his church to reach heaven.