The Gates of Hell in Matthew’s Gospel

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 

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 Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:13-16)

Background: The Confession of Peter

The Confession of Peter is a famous passage in which Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of the living God. The Synoptic Gospels all record the event, but Matthew provides more details. In this piece, we shall mainly use Matthew’s account to explore the meaning of the event and Matthew’s literary use of the story in his Gospel.

Matthew’s Gospel is often described as the most Jewish of the canonical gospels. The claim is not without warrant. Matthew’s first step in his Gospel is to provide a genealogy that connects Jesus to both Abraham and David. That move is not trivial. The link to Abraham establishes Jesus as a legitimate, potential, promised “seed” candidate (Genesis 3:15, 22:18). Simultaneously, the connection to David evokes ideas of a messianic king – themes known to people familiar with the Jewish worldview. Matthew also portrays Jesus in ways reminiscent of Moses, the chief Apostle and Prophet of Judaism. Both Moses and Jesus escaped being killed as infants by the rulers of their times; Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount contrasts with Moses’ giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Also, both men serve as deliverers of their people and perform miracles in the liberation process. Even in our day, the Jewishness of Matthew continues to be appreciated. I have watched several stories of Messianic Israeli Jews who embraced Jesus after reading Matthew.

In popular understanding, the Confession of Peter is important because it conveys divine revelation of Jesus’ true identity as the promised Messiah. That much is undoubtedly true, but Matthew does more in his telling, given the extra details he provides. Besides, we should notice that Matthew has already dropped numerous hints about Jesus’ true identity before Peter’s confession in Chapter 16. Let us consider a few of these hints. 

Matthew’s Many Portrayal of Jesus as Yahweh

First, Matthew introduces John the Baptist as one preparing the way for Jesus in this way (3:3): “This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” ’ In the original Isaiah passage, “the Lord” was Yahweh. So, Matthew’s use of the passage ascribes the divine name to Jesus. In Matthew’s story, John the Baptist did not know at this point that Jesus was Yahweh. Still, a careful reader of Matthew’s work would have noticed this literary move. 

Second, the story of Jesus calming the storm in Matthew  8 is another pericope hinting at Jesus’ identity as Yahweh. The story is rich with allusion to Jonah. In Jonah 1:9, Yahweh was the God of heaven who made the sea and dry land. Because he made the sea, he controlled associated phenomena like a storm. As Jonah understood, only Yahweh could calm a storm. In Matthew 8 and much like in Jonah, Jesus was on a boat fast asleep when a great storm rose against the boat. In Jonah, the sailors woke the prophet up so that he might call on his God like everyone else was doing. No doubt, the disciples also woke Jesus up so that he might call on God for rescue. Instead of calling on God, however, Jesus rebuked the storm, “and there was a great calm” (8:26). Astonished, “the men marveled, saying, “’What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” ‘ (8:27). The men knew what we also know today: humans do not rebuke a storm like a domesticated animal. Yet, they witnessed a man do just that on that occasion. If Jonah were on that boat, he would have more to say – and, of course, Matthew’s original audience knew Jonah and what he would say. 

This third instance is tricky because it is a confession of demons. Right after calming the storm, Jesus encounters two demoniacs. Before he could say a word, the demons, perhaps suffering from mild logorrhea, said (8:29): “‘What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”’  If the disciples were unsure about the storm-calming episode earlier, here were two demoniacs with inside knowledge of who Jesus was! They recognized him as the Son of God, much like Peter would later do. 

Fourth, the story of Jesus healing a paralytic in Matthew 9 is another instance. It’s similar to the storm-calming episode in that Matthew relies on accepted background knowledge for the story. A paralytic man was brought to Jesus on a mat for healing. Rather than immediately heal the man, Jesus made a controversial statement (9:2), “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” Present theologians took offense to the statement because only God could forgive sins. So, they reasoned that Jesus was blaspheming. By Jesus’ time, theologians had developed a sin theory of diseases by in Palestine. If you were sick, it was because you were sinful. People didn’t always know what exact sin was responsible for an ailment, but they learned to live with the idea. In this episode, Jesus took the theory for granted. Another relevant background information is that the theory also posits that only God can forgive sins (see Mark 2:10). Since there are several instances in the Hebrew Bible of God healing people through his prophets, this theory probably allowed for the possibility of God granting forgiveness through his human messengers as well. In any case, the theologians believed that Jesus had done something wrong, leading some of the theologians present to charge him with blasphemy. Perhaps Jesus had not pronounced the forgiveness properly in God’s name. Let us get back to the story. 

Upon realizing that the scribes and law experts were quietly charging him with blasphemy, Jesus made an empiricist move: he verifiably healed the man while telling offended theologians that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (9:6). “Son of Man” is itself another loaded Messianic descriptor and could have had the effect of further enraging the scribes. In any case, Jesus healed the paralytic not in Yahweh’s name but, in a manner of speaking, in his name. The way Matthew concludes the short episode is interesting. When the ordinary people in the crowd saw what happened, they praised God, who had given such authority to men. However, the theologians would have left the gathering with significant theological adjustments to consider as they just saw a man verifiably forgive sins – the way only Yahweh was supposed to.

In another event in Matthew 14, Jesus stayed to pray in a solitary place and sent his disciples ahead to the other side in a boat. When he was done praying sometime between 3 and 6 AM, he walked on the sea towards his disciples. Recognizing that was not how Archimedes’ Principle was supposed to work, the disciples reasonably concluded it was a weightless ghost. Jesus assured them that it was he with all his 140 pounds. Then the story took a turn. “And Peter answered him, “’Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” ‘ Let’s slowly parse this pericope.

To begin with, Matthew’s rendition of Peter’s address of Jesus as “Lord” may go back to the Septuagint’s (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) practice of rendering YHWH as “Lord.” If so, then Peter would be here recognizing Jesus as Yahweh. Second, Peter’s request to be commanded to walk towards Jesus on the waters is certainly not a case of Jesus merely helping Peter make up his mind to do a naturally impossible feat. In the light of the things said earlier concerning Jonah, Peter is taking notes. The implicit messaging behind Peter’s request involved his acknowledgment of Jesus’ ability to command the sea to do Jesus’ bidding. The command was more for the sea and wind than for Peter. Since only God could tame the sea, Peter’s success at walking on the sea at Jesus’ command puts Jesus in God’s place. Put another way, it shows Jesus as Yahweh. It is no surprise that the episode ends thus (14:33): “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” 

In Matthew, one could point to other instances hinting at or explicitly recognizing Jesus as divine before Peter’s Confession in chapter 16. That being the case, Matthew seems to do more with the story than capture Peter’s non-unique confession. He wants to make important theological points that I shall now unpack. Here is the passage again:

Matthew 16:13-18 ESV

[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, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” [15] He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” [16] Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” [17] And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. [18] And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” 

This is the only recorded occasion of Jesus going to Caesarea Philippi. From Galilee, where Jesus did most of his ministry, Caesarea Philippi is over 25 miles and a 14-hour walk away. Chuck Booher writes,

“Caesarea Philippi is located in the northern part of Israel in a plain in the upper Jordan Valley along the southwestern slopes of Mount Hermon. This ancient city was built on and against a majestic rock formation with lush vegetation. It served as the water source for the Huela Marshes that gave birth to the Jordan River.”

In the Second Temple period, Mount Hermon was known as the spot where the corrupting “sons of God” of Genesis 6 touched down on earth to wreak havoc on God’s creation. So, the location had a bad reputation.

This location has had a few name changes. In the Old Testament, it was known as Bashan, an Amorite stronghold conquered in the days of Joshua and allotted to the half-tribe of Manasseh (Joshua 17:5). In the Hellenistic period, it was first known as Panion and then later as Paneas. During the Roman occupation of the land, “Augustus gave Caesarea Philippi to Herod the Great in 20 BC. Formerly called Panion (and later Paneas), the city was renamed Caesarea Philippi by Herod’s son, Philipp II, in 3 BC in honor of Caesar Augustus” (Booher). The city has a small cave, temple, and spring dedicated to the half-goat-half-man god of panic, Pan. Devotees revered Pan as “one of the few gods who could cross into Hades and return to earth. As a result, this site was recognized as the gate of Hades in the disciples’ day” (Booher). 

Furthermore, the association of this location with the Underworld seems to have begun in the days of Amorite/Canaanite control of the land. Bashan had two capital cities, Ashtaroth and Edrei (Deuteronomy 1:4, Joshua 12:4). “Ashtaroth” is the plural form of “Ashtoreth,” which is the name of a Canaanite goddess (Heiser). The Israelites were often guilty of worshipping this goddess. Heiser notes,

Bashan and its two capital cities also had an ominous reputation in the wider Canaanite world. Mythological and ritual texts from Ugarit describe Ashtaroth and Edrei as the abode of the god mlk (Milku or Molech; KTU 1.108:1–3), a long dead (and deified) king. Molech’s name appears in a series of snake charms associated with Ashtaroth (KTU 1.100:41; 1.107:17); he was also connected to child sacrifice in the OT (1 Kgs 11:7; Lev 20:1–5; 18:21). Furthermore, the plural form of the name mlk (mlkm) means “kings.” As a result, the cities of Ashtaroth and Edrei (and, more broadly, all of Bashan) came to be associated with the broader Underworld population of deified ancestors and ancient warrior-kings, such as the Rephaim. Canaanite (Ugaritic) peoples, then, literally believed Bashan to be the gateway to the Underworld—the dwelling place of the dead.

Therefore, the later dedication of Bashan to Pan pulled from preexisting beliefs about the place. As Booher and Heiser emphasize, the rocky region housing a grotto devoted to Pan was known as “the gates of Hades,” the entry and exit points to the Underworld. This location was where Peter confessed Jesus as the Son of the living God. 

What is Matthew doing with this story?

After Peter’s confession, Jesus replies in verse 18: “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.”

Much wordplay is going on in this verse, and how one understands the verse depends on how one parses the wordplay. “Peter” means “rock, ” and Jesus and the disciples were standing in a rocky place at Mount Hermon’s base. So, “this rock” has multiple meanings. Most obviously, it refers to Simon Peter as a leader of the church, as Acts shows. But it also relates metaphorically to the location known as the “gates of Hades,” which also seem to have two related meanings. On the one hand, despite all the evil that has happened here in the past, such as child sacrifice and angelic rebellion, as well as the continuing idolatry in Jesus’ day, Jesus yet declares that his church-building project will thrive. Secondly, Jesus’ declaration also aims at the spiritual Underworld that Paneas represented. Like the god Pan, Jesus would go into the Underworld, through the gates of Hades, and come back alive. Notice that the very next verse (16:21) says, ‭

“From that time on, Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

So, Matthew explicitly connects the story with Jesus’ imminent death. 

Why Bashan Cannot Overcome Jesus’ Church

The reason (the gates of) Hades will not overpower Jesus’ church is that he made sure of it.  The glorified Jesus in Revelation 1:18 says he holds the “keys of death and Hades.” That is, Jesus now has the keys that used to belong to Hades, the lord of the Underworld. How did he get the keys from Hades? When he took a three-day trip to the realm of the dead. The imagery implies that death and Hades no longer have the final say on human destinies; Jesus does. He is able to free all the people held captive in the Underworld. This is what the final resurrection is all about – a time when the dead will come to life.

Do you know who else makes this connection? The first-class Pharisee himself. Paul writes in ‭Ephesians 4:8-10 NIVUK‬, 

[8] This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.’ [9] (What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? [10] He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 

Every churchgoer knows that Paul uses these verses, continuing with our construction metaphor, for the foundational gifts in the Church, including Apostles, Prophets, Teachers, Evangelists, and Pastors who are given to “build up” the Church, which Jesus already ensured will not be impeded by Hell. What may come as a surprise is the context of the quote. Paul modifies a verse from Psalm 68, devoted to the conquering Yahweh, “[18] When you ascended on high, you took many captives; you received gifts from people, even from the rebellious – that you, Lord God, might dwell there.”

This verse says that God took many captives and received (or took) gifts like victors in war do. (For his purposes, Paul changed the message of taking captives and gifts to one of taking captives but giving gifts.) Do you want to guess what specific region Psalm 68 says God will conquer? Yeap, Bashan. Psalms 68:15-16, 22-23 NIVUK‬:

[15] Mount Bashan, majestic mountain, Mount Bashan, rugged mountain, [16] why gaze in envy, you rugged mountain, at the mountain where God chooses to reign, where the Lord himself will dwell for ever?

[22] The Lord says, ‘I will bring them from Bashan; I will bring them from the depths of the sea, [23] that your feet may wade in the blood of your foes, while the tongues of your dogs have their share.’

Paul’s dense and knotty parenthetical explanation (What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?) could very well refer to Jesus’ descent into the Underworld – though it could also refer to the Incarnation. However, the former better explains “in order to fill the whole universe” when we consider the three-tier cosmology of the time (heavens, earth, and the nether realm – might Romans 10:7 be a loose allusion?). Paul’s christological adaptation of the message of Psalm 68 suggests that Jesus conquers Bashan (in place of/as Yahweh) and releases ministry gifts to build up his worldwide Church, which the gates of Hell (i.e Bashan and the Underworld) cannot stop.

Matthew provides more details about Peter’s Confession than the other Synoptic Gospels to make critical theological points. The mountain of Bashan is too important to be overlooked by “the most Jewish Gospel.” Bashan played a pivotal role in Israel’s failure to represent Yahweh well to the world, a failure that necessitated the coming of the Jewish Messiah. This refrain should be familiar to readers of this blog: we have about zero hope of understanding the New Testament without a solid understanding of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus led his guys on a 14-hour walk to Caesarea Philippi to deliver this teaching at a historically significant spot because there was an old score to settle. The new age was inaugurated, and the then-reigning entities must vacate office. The victory in Jesus’ death resulted from him taking the keys from the foes most feared by humans, Death and Hades. Now, Jesus can save to the uttermost. He is the one to fear.

Works Cited

Booher, Chuck. “Jesus’ Declaration at Caesarea Philippi.” Ed. John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016). Accessed 11 May, 2024.

Heiser, Michael. “Bashan and the Gates of Hell.” Ed. John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016). Accessed 11 May, 2024.

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *