I will build my church.
A key, then, was not something that could be easily concealed; it was a piece of timber perhaps 20cm (9 inches) long, with pins in the end, to insert in the slot of the lock to displace the pins keeping it locked. It was laid on the shoulder of Shebna (Isaiah 22:19-23). Have we some keys to the discussion at Caesarea Philippi?
The ruins of Caesarea Philippi can be visited at Banias in the far north of the Holy Land, at the foot of Mt Hermon (Jabal al-Shaykh). The place already had religious associations with the Greek god Pan. In 20 BC the area was given to Herod the Great by Caesar Augustus, and Herod built a temple of white marble to Augustus there.
Augustus was born Gaius Octavius. Following the assassination of his maternal great-uncle Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Caesar’s will named Octavius as his adopted son and heir, so Octavius became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavius. In 42 BC, Julius Caesar was declared Divus Iulius, the Divine Julius. Following the deification of Caesar, Octavian added Divi Filius (Son of the Divine) to his name, becoming Gaius Julius Caesar Divi Filius: Gaius Julius Caesar the son of god. So we already have a son of god with a recently built temple at the time of Jesus.
On Herod’s death the area passed to Herod’s son Philip, and Philip built the capital of his territory there in 2 BC, and called it Caesarea Philippi to distinguish it from the other Caesarea on the coast. Now, as well as the recent Temple to Augustus the son of god, we have the even more recently built city.
The location of the discussion in Matthew 16:13-20 gives us Augustus the son of the (dead) god Julius Caesar, for whom the newly built city was named. Here at this place, Peter the rock says : “You are the Christ, the son of the living God!”
And Jesus says: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church!” Not a city of rock, not a temple of marble, but his church: not a building, but an ekklesia, a qahal Jahwe, a “calling out” of God’s people. This seems an unusual use of the word “build”, unlike what the disciples saw around them at Caesarea Philippi.
Think of “church” as a verb, an activity, rather than a noun, a thing. Jesus is building a dynamic action of living stones, founded on Peter. We are defined as the people of that action. The passage of time has prevailed against the temple to Augustus and over the city in his name built at the rock where the Jordan rises. The gates of hell have not prevailed against the “church” called together today, and called out from this gathering to be the dynamic of the kingdom to every person and place we go.
However long I take my place in a garage, I will never be a car. However long I take my place in a church building, or in a gathering of disciples, I will be a disciple only when that dynamic, that Spirit, guides my life. Jesus is the Christ, son of the living God. We are the christened, those in whose being the life of that same God is coursing.
How rich are the depths of God! To him be the glory for ever. Amen! (Romans 11:33-36)
I will build my church.