Jesus said, “…I will build my church (ekklesia – “called out assembly”) and the gates of hell [hades] shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16.18). What did he mean by “the gates of Hell” not being able to overcome Christ’s Church? Several different interpretations exist. The most common view is that “the gates of Hades” refers to attacks on the Church by Satan and his demonic forces and that this is a promise that Satan will not succeed. The problem is with the word gates, which is a strange way to refer to an attacking army. It suggests a defensive situation, and the natural way of understanding it is that hades will not be able to resist the forces of the Church when the Church is assaulting it. Unfortunately, although the Bible recognizes the reality of spiritual warfare, it does not speak of evangelism in those exact terms.
The other understanding of these words is that they refer merely to death, for passing through hell’s gates was a common Jewish way of referring to death. If this is what Jesus means, the idea would be that not even death, whether in its natural form or in times of great mass persecutions, would be able to destroy the Church [believers] Christ is building.
In any case, the idea is that in spite of attacks from various quarters, the Body of Christ [the Church] will be invincible, and the reason for its invincibility is that it is built on Christ. I suggest that this interpretation supports the view of “this rock” that we have taken, for we remember that when Satan requested permission to blow on Peter at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter was able to recover only because Jesus took care of him and prayed for him. Jesus told Peter, “Simon, Satan has demanded you…that he might sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22.31-32). Because Peter was founded on the rock, which was Christ, he survived the temptation.
The gates of Hades has often been interpreted as representing the evil forces of Satan attacking the Church of Jesus Christ. But gates are not instruments of warfare. Their purpose is not to conquer but to protect those behind them from being conquered, or, in the case of a prison, to keep them from escaping. And Hades, which corresponds to the Hebrew sheol, refers here to the abode of the dead, not to eternal hell.
When the terms gates and Hades are properly understood, it becomes clear that Jesus was declaring that death has no power to hold God’s redeemed people captive. Its gates are not strong enough to overpower (to have mastery over) and keep the Church of God imprisoned, whose Lord has conquered sin and death on her behalf. Because “death no longer is master over Him,” it is no longer master over those who belong to Him. “Because I live,” Jesus said, “you shall live also.” Satan now has the power of death, and he continually uses that power in his futile attempt to destroy Christ’s Church. But Christ’s ultimate victory over Satan’s power of death is so certain that the writer of Hebrews speaks of it in the past tense: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy [render powerless] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”
It is that great truth of which Peter spoke at Pentecost, declaring that “God raised [Christ] up again, loosing [putting an end to] the pangs [agony] of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.“ It is the truth about which Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers who were wavering in their belief in the resurrection. He declared, “Death is swallowed up in victory,” and then asked, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In light of what He was about to teach them concerning His own death and resurrection and their own willingness to deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow Him, Jesus now assured the Twelve, and all believers who would ever come to Him, that the gates of Hades, the chains of death itself, could never permanently overpower them and hold them captive.
Peter was not the rock, but he did have an important role to play. Specifically, he (and all believers in the Church) were given “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” with the added promise, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (v.19). Does that mean Peter was given the exclusive and daunting privilege of determining who would go to heaven and who would not?
Peter used the keys (the authority of the Church) by opening the door of the Gospel to Jews by his preaching at Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2, and by opening the door of the Gospel to Gentiles by his preaching in the house of Cornelius, recorded in Acts 10. Peter was the apostle to the Jews, so he preached to the Jews first. But although he was the apostle to the Jews, Peter was also the first to bring the Gospel to a strictly Gentile audience.
Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. He is the sinner’s Savior. Therefore, to repent of sin and believe on Him is to pass from death to life and to find salvation. To reject Him is to perish forever. This is Good News. Believe it, and tell others too.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org