What comes to mind when you think of retreat?
On our second touring day in Israel, we went to the place Jesus chose for retreat. Caesarea Philippi was the chief city twenty five miles or so north of the Sea of Galilee, into the Golan Heights, near the source of the Jordan River.
Why would Jesus take his disciples on a journey 25 miles to a big city? And why Caesarea Philippi, of all places, the center of pagan worship of Pan?
Here’s what the area looked like in Jesus’ day.
A giant spring gushed from the back of the cave (disrupted later by an earthquake) with water so deep that people thought it was the entrance to Hades. Beginning in the third century BCE, worshipers of Pan committed child sacrifices into the abyss. It was believed that if the victim disappeared into the water, Pan had accepted the offering. But if signs of blood appeared in the nearby springs, too bad. Pan wasn’t happy.
In 19 BCE, King Herod the Great built the Temple of Augustus in front of the cave, (far left on the artist’s drawing) with the back wall serving as the holy of holies of the temple- the passage into Pan’s cave.
You can still see the niches where the statues of Echo and Pan and Hermes were put.
Maybe you can imagine Jesus and his followers walking into this busy place, the center of honor and worship for both Pan and the Caesar in Rome. So what happened there? Matthew 16 tells us.
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter,[b] and on this rock[c] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
It blows my mind that Jesus took his friends smack dab into the center of pagan worship to ask them who they thought he was! He didn’t worry that they might be swayed or shocked by such a place, that they would be so busy staring that they wouldn’t hear what he had to say. We’re often so afraid of people different from us- afraid somehow that their differences might hurt us or rub off on us. But Jesus wasn’t.
Standing there, near this great rock, close to the place people considered the entrance of Hades, Jesus said, And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
Could it be that Jesus was speaking not only of Peter, whose name means Rock, but of the rock of Caesarea Philippi? That Jesus, who loved the hated and lowly and welcomed them into his ministry, would dare to talk about building his church on such a place as that? That he stood at the site which people considered the gates of Hades and claimed that this place and the people in it were claimed and treasured by God as well? It sounds to me that Jesus was saying that we’re not supposed to hide away in our Christian enclaves, but be out in God’s creation – even at what feels like the gates of Hell- and make God known.
Woo boy. That puts a whole new spin on Matthew 16 for me.
I don’t know about you, but all this thinking is making me sweat.
Ah, that’s better! Let’s stand beside this waterfall and feel the mist dampen our faces. Pictured here is one of the springs near Caesarea Philippi which joins with two others to form the Jordan River. We took a cool hike along it and saw what seemed like more trees than anywhere else in Israel! I believe this photo was taken at the Banias Nature Reserve. (Banias is the Arab and modern Hebrew name that means “of Pan.” Good old child-hungry Pan!)
The water refreshed us so much that Mary Carol, Debbie and I even had energy that afternoon to hire a taxi back in Galilee to take us around to Tiberius.
That cut out shape behind the two lovely ladies is the Sea of Galilee, in case you’re wondering. It had never occurred to me before this trip that apart from the stories of his birth and death, most all of the stories that we know about Jesus happened in towns along the edge of this lake. Almost all of them!
I know it was Jesus’ workplace back then, but here in 2017, it feels like retreat to me!