Biblical Places Spiritual Spaces- A quick tour of Banyas

"Upon This Rock"

One of the 'coolest' places in the Land of Israel is the archeological site Banyas. This ancient city sits at the base of Mt Hermon and the melting snow forms streams that cool the area. It is here that Jesus brought his disciples to ask them a most important question.


What is the most important question we must answer in this life?

Why am I here?

What is life all about?

What must I do to be happy?

How can I get all the things that I need?

How can I be successful and prosperous?

Psychologists and counselors will often list these as the most often asked question that their clients deal with on a regular basis.

But there is one more…

13  Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others,  Elijah; but 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 Christ, the Son of the living God.”

 17 And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 I also say to you that you are  Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.

19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” 20  Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was  the Christ.       Matthew 16:1-20

 Here are a two Greek words that help us understand this passage:

“Peter”: Greek petros, a stone

“Rock”: Greek petra, large rock; bed-rock

Jesus took his disciples far away from the Religious Jewish communities- up to the north to a place where the foothills of Mt Hermon rise up in significant rock formations, and where the water from the snowcap on Mt Hermon runs down forming waterfalls and underground streams that flow out. 

Here are the same waterfalls during the winter rains.

Banyas is such a pleasant place that in the 12th Century, for a 20 year period, the Christian King of Jerusalem would meet the Muslim Caliph of Damascus and spend day playing chess, sharing meals, and deciding the politics of the region.

 This is the Greco-Roman cultic site of modern day Banyas, then known as Caesarea Philippi.

The communities in this area supported an active worship center of altars and temples to the Greco-Roman gods. 

The Temple to Augustus covered the mouth of  large cave where an underground stream surfaced and flow out. The cave is very deep and locals often referred to this place as the ‘gates to hell’.


Next was the Court of Pan and the Nymphs, were rituals were performed honoring these gods. Often these involved sexual acts on the part of the priests and worshippers.


 To the right was the Court of Nemesis, a deep cave where archeologists have found thousands of pottery shards. Apparently, this was the place to write the name of an enemy whom you wanted Nemesis to curse on a pottery vessel, then throw the pottery into the cave, shattering it and activating the curse.

To the right of this was an altar to Pan, the organizer of the gods (‘pantheon’) and a place where there was a raised metal plate with a fire underneath, where the priests would shave the hooves of goats and throw them on the hot altar.

They would begin jumping around (dancing), attempting to escape the hot surface. When they jumped off the circular plate, a priest would cut off a limb of the goat with a sword and throw it back on the grill. Now there was a three legged goat squirting blood trying to escape. When he did another limb would be cut off, and now there was a two legged goat dragging his body over the hot grill, finally expiring from the blood loss.

The Remains of the Dancing Goats altar

This bloody ritual was the highlight of the worship experience at Banyas.

It was here at this center of pagan worship that Jesus took his disciples to ask them the final exam question:

“Who do people say I am?”

They replied “Some say John the Baptist; and others,  Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

Then He said to them, But who do you say that I am?”

This is the question that we all have to answer. Who de we believe Jesus to be?

Peter blurts out “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God”.  From his later comments, its is obvious that Peter doesn’t really understand who Jesus really is. He has accepted the common understanding that the Christ, the Messiah, would be God’s chosen instrument to kick out the Romans and reestablish the Jewish kingdom. When Jesus informs them that He will be rejected by the religious authorities and killed, Peter tells him “That isn’t going to happen on my watch.

Nevertheless, he makes this bold declaration, “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.” Jesus agrees with Peter, noting that God Himself revealed that to Peter.

That is a key for our understanding of the essential element in evangelism. It is God Himself who is pursuing us, reaching out to us, revealing Himself to us. Our recognition of Him will only come from Him.

Then Jesus makes a cryptic response. “You are a stone (petros), but on the large rock (or bedrock) (petra) I will build my church and the gates of Hell (Hades) will not overpower it.”

Biblical scholars and ecclesiastic leaders have debated for centuries the meaning of this significant declaration by Jesus.

The Church in the Middle Ages was centered in Rome, and the accepted understanding was that this was the moment that Jesus declared that His church would be build on Peter and his ecclesiastic descendants, known as the Bishops of Rome, or “Popes”, who would rule over the churches on Earth with absolute authority. In fact, when the pope makes a declaration ‘ex-cathedra” it is considered to be an infallible statement- without error.

However, the scandalous lifestyles of the leaders of the Roman church in the 1500 and 1600’s prompted the leaders of the Reformation to rejected the leadership of the pope and his decrees. They were part of a movement that declared that the Bible is God’s Word and has ultimate authority over our lives, not the decrees, doctrines, and customs of the Roman church. Now these ‘Protestants’  consider that the “rock” that Jesus was referring to was not Peter and his descendants, but rather the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of Man and Son of God. That is the “rock” that the church was going to be built on.

This seems like a logical conclusion and good interpretation of what Jesus is saying. But there may be an additional understanding.

When you come to Banyas, and are standing in at the entrance to the archeological park, one thing that is very obvious is a significant rock formation with a vertical cliff, where there is a large cave, a stream flowing from the area of that cave, and cultic sites carved into the face of the cliff and onto the surface of the rock floor in front.  It’s a very big rock!


Could Jesus have had another illustration for his disciples along with the truth that He is the Messiah and that the church will be built upon that truth?

Perhaps as they viewed this location of the cultic worship, and observed people coming to watch the slaughter of goats on the hot grill, others smashing the pottery vessels to curse their enemies, and still others participating in the probable sexual worship of Pan and the Nymphs, they might have had another thought:

Jesus is going to build His church right on top of the idol worship, and these people will become our brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of God, and there is nothing that satan can do to stop it.   

I find this to be the case in my life, as well as that of my wife Laura. We were far from God, involved in our self-centered life, worshipping our idols of personal fun and fulfilment through pleasure, adventurous experiences, and whatever else came along. Then we had a significant experience with God, who revealed Himself to us, and He invited us to become part of His Family.  We did.

Many of you have had a similar experience. We all had our idols that we worshipped: Good times; Financial prosperity; Travel.; Professional achievement; Prestige; Influence over our friends; Power to do things we wanted to do; Fine cars; Fine homes; Many Friends.

Jesus came in and built His Church right on top of us an other idol worshppers. It seems to be a historical trend. Its not the ‘religious’ people who often get saved, but those who pursued other avenues to personal pleasure and success.

This question by Jesus Who do you say that I am? is still the most important question in our present culture.

We all answer this most important question through our life response. Everyone does give an answer, even if they don’t acknowledge it.

I love the lessons of Caesarea Philippi: Jesus is the Christ, Our King, and He is reaching out to those who are distracted by worshipping the idols of their culture. "Pleasure, Power, Position" is how our friend Beth Stewart puts it. All cultures throughout history have offered these things, but Jesus offers us true life.

The  thief (satan) comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10

Look around for those 'idol worshippers in your community. They are prime candidates for an invitation into true life. Jesus has been pursuing them and we get a chance to play our part in the process.

Moselle on a rainy day in Banyas

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Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are by Michael Bagby with a few by study tour associates Ben Massenburg, Tim Walsh, Dottie Smith, Craig Englert, and Luke Broadhurst.


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