The Gates Of Hell
© Copyright 2003 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino.
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 Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades [Hell] will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:13-18).
Jesus’s last sentence is one Christians have heard for nearly 2000 years in a variety of contexts. This article discusses one context seldom highlighted that we think is foundational to understanding the full import of the passage.
Some argue from Jesus’s last sentence that Peter is the head of the church. Others argue from it that Jesus is the Christ, not merely that he was endowed with the “Christ principle” at his baptism, as some heretical gnostics argue. Most Christians have heard this sentence used to affirm that the church will never be overcome completely by Satan or evil. It is one of the favorite passages used by Christians who counter cultic claims that “true” Christianity disappeared sometime at the end of the apostolic age, only to be “recovered” or “restored” by their own group’s founder/prophet, such as, for example, Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). While many use Matthew 16:18 to affirm that the church will endure no matter what evil might come against it, we think there’s another fundamental promise in the verse that most people don’t even think about.
It might well be the case, as many commentators argue, that this verse can give us assurance that the church will prevail over all adverse circumstances; however this verse plainly says something much more dramatic. The church will overcome anything the Devil may raise in defense against it. In other words, it is not merely that the church will endure, but more positively that it will take over what the Devil seeks to keep from it.
The Bible does promise that God’s message will accomplish what God intends for it (Isaiah 55:11). The Bible also promises that the power of the gospel will convert all those who hear and believe (Romans 10:8-10). The Bible tells us that the church’s foundation is the apostles and the prophets, with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). Revelation 5:12 promises that the church will ultimately reign with Christ over all creation.
Those who add Matthew 16:18 to the list of passages affirming the enduring permanence of the church are many, including most commentators such as R. C. H. Lenski and J. P. Lange. Lenski comments, “The implication is that hell’s gates shall pour out her hosts to assault the church of Christ, but the church shall not be overthrown” (The Interpretation of Matthew, 628). Greek scholar A. T. Robertson notes, “The ekklēsia [church] which consists of those confessing Christ as Peter has just done will not cease. The gates of Hades or bars of Sheol will not close down on it” (Word Pictures in the New Testament: Gospel According to Matthew, 133).
To focus on the stability of the church at the expense of ignoring the fragile and transitory power of evil (symbolized here by Hades, the kingdom of death) is to miss a bold promise from our Lord. Let’s think about this for a minute. There are many items one might use in battle: swords, catapults, missiles, gates, tanks, moats, etc. Some are offensive weapons: used primarily to attack one’s enemy. Some are defensive weapons: used to defend oneself from an enemy’s attack. Swords are examples of offensive weapons. Moats are examples of defensive weapons. Now, what kind of weapon is a gate? As a part of a wall, it is primarily a defensive weapon (even though it can be opened to let out offensive forces). A gate keeps attackers out of one’s fortress. So, if the gates of Hades or hell cannot prevail against the church, that must mean that the church will mount a successful offense against the powers of evil. J. P. Lange notes that the commentator Meyer understands this sense, “the superiority of the Church over hades, without any allusion to an attack on the part of hades” (The Gospel According to Matthew, 298). In other words, when the gates “will not prevail,” that means that the church, in effect, knocks down the gates.
There are at least two senses in which the church overcomes evil: the resurrection of Christ from the dead (hades), and the promulgation of the gospel in the world, converting men from the kingdom of the devil to the kingdom of God. Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 15:22-26:
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
By Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection, the power of the devil is broken. Jesus himself said, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn. 12:31). Colossians 2:15 says, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
In fact we find that the church which began with a handful of empowered disciples grew with great rapidity. Luke records the growth of the church in the book of Acts, noting that thousands of people became Christians at once (2:41; 4:4), that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (2:47). The growth of the church was so great that the Bible even affirms that the gospel was preached throughout the “whole world,” meaning the Roman Empire, during the lifetime of the apostles (see Rom. 10:18; Col. 1:6, 23; 2 Tim. 4:17).
Paul promises us that when we are prepared for spiritual battle (Eph. 6:1-18) we can “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (10). Paul explains that our spiritual weapons destroy all that is opposed to Christ:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:3-5).
The apostle John echoes this:
You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them [the false spirits of antichrist], because the one in you is greater than the one who is in the world (1 John 4:4).
Now let’s take a fresh look at Matthew 16:18: “and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” We can go confidently into the world with the message of the gospel, knowing that the power of the resurrected Christ goes with us – and that there is no one who is so trapped by the power of the devil that the power of the gospel cannot reach that person with God’s grace and mercy. To the contrary, everywhere the gospel is preached the church triumphs over evil, the kingdom expands and evil retreats. We can join with the apostle John in rejoicing over the final fulfillment revealed to him:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:2-4).
The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead,
he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not
resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently
instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change
of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26