“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18
When Jesus uttered these words to Peter, it is the only recorded example where He used the term, “the gates of hell.” What exactly did He mean when He said, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”? Over the years I’ve heard various interpretations and there are at least three that warrant serious consideration.
The Minions of Hell:
In Biblical times, the gates of a city represented the seat of power. Most large cities then were walled and whenever visitors and traders would enter a city, they had to enter through the gates. Merchants and notable men of the city would wait there to greet them. An example of this appears in Genesis 19:1:
“And there came two angels to Sodom at even; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom: and Lot seeing them rose up to meet them; and he bowed himself with his face toward the ground;”
Another example is from Esther where Mordecai was often seen sitting at the gate with the king’s servants (Esther 2:19, Esther 2:21, Esther 3:2, et al).
In this light, the “gates of hell” could mean the powerful forces of hell (the Devil and his demons). They will not prevail against Christ’s church.
The Dominion of Hell:
As mentioned before large cities in the Bible were walled. The obvious purpose of this was defense. Whenever an enemy army attacked the city, they would try to breach the gate. Strong walls and a strong gate would thwart the efforts of the attackers and the city would be safe.
The Devil is the ruler of this world (John 14:30). He seeks to protect his domain and his gates are designed to hold off the true King. The gates of hell are his defense. But even the strongest gates cannot prevail against the power of Christ’s church.
The Greek word used for Hell in Matthew is ᾅδης (hadēs). This is not the place of judgment or eternal torment but the place of rest for the dead until the resurrection. Other passages describe this as the Bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:22). It’s the same word used in Acts 2:31:
“He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.”
Gates are often used to keep things out; but they are sometimes used to keep things in. The gates of hell that admit the dead, also keep them in. When Christ died, His soul descended to hell (hadēs). However, these gates were not able to keep Jesus in. The gates of hell could not prevail against the Risen Savior and neither will they prevail against His church!
Whatever the meaning of the term, the promise of Christ is clear. The gates of hell, whenever they stand before us, either to keep us out or keep us in, they will not prevail. Amen!