November 2012

The Gates of Hell


Series: The impact of the Jewish roots of Jesus

Modern Banyas where the River Jordan has it’s visible origin.  In Biblical times, this source was called ‘The Gates of Hades’
Several years ago I led a party of about 20 on a trip through Israel. One of my favourite places was a place which today is called Banyas or Panias. In Matthew’s Gospel it is referred to as being in the region of Caesarea Philippi. The location was well known in Jesus’ day because it was the spot where the river Jordan had its visible origin. The melting snow of nearby Mount Hermon forms a river that runs underground until it surfaces at the foot of a small cliff at Panias. The place gets its name because a temple to the pagan god Pan was erected there. Actually, there is evidence that several temples and shrines stood at that spot, including a temple to Caesar. People at the time erected these monuments to their gods because it was believed that a river source, such as this, was the gateway between human world above and the underworld of the spirits below. This particular gateway was called The Gates of Hades.


Jesus was standing at this very spot surveying the temples erected to the false gods of the age when he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the son of man is?” (Matthew 16:13).  In essence Jesus was saying, “here people honour Pan and Caesar and any number of so called deities, but how do they view me?” After they had made their response Jesus asked his disciples a second question; “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Peter made the great declaration that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the true deity standing there amid the temples and shrines of paganism. In response to Peter’s affirmation Jesus said; “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.

I have read so many sermons and commentaries that claim that Jesus was speaking about the militant nature of the church to come. ‘Have you ever heard of anyone being attacked by a gate?! No, gates do not attack us, we attack gates! The church’s task is to storm the gates of Hell….’, and so on and so forth. However, given the background knowledge to Jesus’ statement it should be obvious enough to know that he was referring to the fact that all the powers of the spiritual underworld would not be able to prevail against the church. His church would not have to fear the power of the devil and his minions because he, Jesus, is its head and it is his body. His statement says nothing about militancy or of ‘plundering Hell’.


Jesus then went on to make another statement that has been widely misinterpreted and I intend to deal with that in my next post.


If you have any texts that you suspect have been misinterpreted or misunderstood then please mention them to me (post a comment).


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The Last Supper

Series: The impact of the Jewish roots of Jesus

One of the greatest works of art of all time is Leonardo de Vinci’s portrayal of the Last Supper in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan. Unfortunately it is woefully inaccurate from a historic point of view!  The painting depicts Jesus and his disciples sitting on chairs at a long rectangular table. Through the windows in the background we catch a glimpse of a mid-afternoon pastoral scene. The disciples are all pasty-faced Europeans and they are eating bread rolls and what looks suspiciously like fish or perhaps chicken.  


We know of course that the Passover meal started at sundown, around six in the evening, and that any view from the windows would, in all likelihood, be dark. The disciples were all nut-brown Semites, and they would have been eating lamb and unleavened flat-breads.  All this is relatively inconsequential.  However, the table layout seriously detracts from our understanding of what was actually happening when Jesus shared his last supper with his disciples that fateful Passover night.

At the time of the Last Supper, meals of that sort were customarily held at a U-shaped table (triclinium) popularised by the Romans.  The tables were low and the guests  sat on cushions with their feet behind them as they lent on the table with one arm. The positioning of the people around that table was most significant. The person who arranged the meal would sit at the end of the one arm. Next to him would be the host and on his left was the place of honour where the most favoured guest was seated. Seats for the other guests would be allocated in order of their importance, the least worthy of all being placed at the end of the opposite arm of the table. 

With this basic knowledge of the customs of the day and drawing from biblical evidence we can reconstruct the table seating arrangements for that “Last Supper”.  Jesus had sent Peter and John to prepare the Passover meal (Luke 22:8) and so one of them would have been seated to the right of the host, Jesus. The logical choice would have been Peter because Jesus had already identified him as the future leader of the church.  However, John identifies himself as the disciple who leaned back against Jesus at the Last Supper (John 21:20) so that would have placed him to the right of Jesus at the table.  Where was Peter sitting then?  From the sequence in which Jesus washed the disciples’ feet it seems that Peter was probably right at the other end of the table, in the place of least importance. Jesus had taught his disciples that they should not aspire to the seats of honour at the table but should take the least important place in the hope that the host would invite them to move up to a better place and thereby honour them before the other guests. When Peter saw that John was sitting at the top of the table it is quite likely that he would have made a show of going to the least important place.  John 13:21-25 backs this up where it records the following; ‘Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.”  His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him.  Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.”  Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” In order to gesture to John and make himself heard Peter was probably at the other end of the u-shaped table, directly opposite to where Jesus and John sat.
How Jesus answered John is very significant indeed. He said, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon.’ (John 13:26-27). It was customary for the host to honour his special guest by offering him the first portion of the meal, a piece of bread dipped in the lamb stew. This means that the guest of honour was none other than Judas, the great betrayer! (Seated in the place of honour next to Jesus.) What grace the Lord Jesus displayed! Knowing that Judas was to betray him and that the other disciples looked down upon him and had accused him of embezzling the groups funds, Jesus still honoured him in this way. Only Jesus could do that!

If you have any texts that you believe are misunderstood because of a lack of historical or cultural context then please comment so that we can all benefit.


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Jesus’ Jewish Roots

Series: The impact of the Jewish roots of Jesus

I have recently returned from visiting a fine church in Nashua, New Hampshire, USA. Once a month they hold an Erev Shabbat celebration where they recreate elements of the biblical festivals of ancient Israel. The idea is to connect with the Jewish roots of the Christian Faith and this has stimulated me to examine some of the Jewish background to Jesus’ life and teaching. Sometimes we struggle to fully comprehend what Jesus said and did because we view his life from our 21st century and cultural perspectives. In this series of posts I intend to examine a number of the more enigmatic saying of Jesus within the context of their original background. I have drawn some of my material from ‘Understanding the difficult words of Jesus’, by David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, ‘New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus’ also by David Bivin, and ‘Walking in the dust of Rabbi Jesus’ by Lois Tverberg. 

In this first post I will examine the background to John 7:37-38 which reads; ‘On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” NIV 

Jesus had gone up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, known as Sukkot. This was a week-long celebration to commemorate God’s provision for His people. The word ‘sukkot’, usually found in our English reference works as ‘ Succoth’, is used to signify the third group of festivals held in the 7th month of the Jewish religious year. Some trace its origin to the first halting place in the Israelites exodus from Egypt. The name itself means booths, or shelters, or tents and to this day orthodox Jews still erect booths in their gardens once a year to celebrate God’s goodness. 

The last day of this festival was extra-special. In Jesus’ day the High Priest would walk down to the pool of Siloam and fill a golden urn with ‘living water’. The term ‘living’ described water that was running and not stagnant and had special significance for ritual washings and other ceremonies. The High Priest would then carry the water up to the great bronze altar of sacrifice in the Temple courtyard and walk around it seven times. While he did this the thousands of people accompanying him would shout “Hosanna! (Save us now!) and chant from Isaiah 12:3 ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’. The most dramatic moment came when the High Priest raised the pitcher high in preparation for pouring the water over the altar. At that very moment Jesus shouted out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink!” In effect He was saying, “I am the source of the real living water that you sing of! Come to me!” 

The scriptures Jesus was referencing when He made his dramatic declaration were Isaiah 55 vs 1,3,6,7; “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters… Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live….Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon”. The priests would surely have known the passage Jesus was citing, and they would also have known how the passage they were singing from (Isaiah 12) ended. It started, ‘with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’ and ended at vs 6 with “Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.” 

To Jesus’ disciples this self-revelation should have been even more significant and they certainly understood it later because the apostle John wrote, ‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled for a while among us. We have seen His glory’ (John 1:14). God himself had come to live with his people, to tabernacle (Sukkot) with them, and to provide them with the living water of the Holy Spirit. Hallelujah!

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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.