After Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus promised that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against his Church. (Matthew 16:18)
As long as I can remember, at least 30 years, I have had doubts about the consensus interpretation of this well-known passage.
What are the Gates of Hell?
As I survey commentaries on the book of Matthew, the almost universal interpretation of this passage is that the powers of hell will not overcome the Church or individual Christians.
I have two concerns with this view
- The figure of speech does not fit the interpretation. The gates of a city were not offensive weapons. They were defensive. There were shut against an attacking enemy.
- There is a similar figure of speech used in Genesis where the meaning seems to be clearer. These words were spoken about 2000 years before Jesus but are in passages that are central to the story of God’s salvation. The Church is based on that salvation. After the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham is told that his offspring will possess the gate of his enemies. (Genesis 22:17) When Rebekah’s family sent her from Syria to become Isaac’s wife they bless her with the words that her descendants would possess the gate of those who hate him. A survey of commentaries on Genesis reveals that the almost universal understanding of this figure in these contexts is that Abraham’s descendants would conquer their enemies. (Genesis 24:60)
Where these words in Genesis refer to the descendants of Abraham in general or to the singular unique descendant, Jesus, I am still undecided but the focus of the promise and blessing seems to be clear. They (He) will succeed in attacking their (his) enemy.
What does this mean for us?
I believe that Jesus is promising his Church that when they attack the forces of evil they will succeed. Hell’s defenses will not hold.
We attack evil when we seek to eliminate the sins in our own lives.
We do it when we serve in our churches and reach out to those outside.
We do it when we work to fulfill the Great Commission and make disciples.
We do it when we attack evil in society.