This verse has always seemed peculiar to me. What did Jesus mean, exactly, by gates of hell not prevailing against the church?
My first understanding was one of triumphalism—the church would continue to grow as we worked for the kingdom. This was probably an outgrowth of the Methodist amillenial eschatology gleaned during my growing years. But it is not an uncommon view expressed by
And the meaning of the passage is, that all the plots, stratagems, and machinations, of the enemies of the church, should not be able to overcome it—a promise that has been remarkably fulfilled.Adam Clarke
Our Lord's expression means, that neither the plots, stratagems, nor strength of Satan and his angels, should ever so far prevail as to destroy the sacred truths in the above confession. Sometimes the gates are taken for the troops which issue out from them: we may firmly believe, that though hell should open her gates, and vomit out her devil and all his angels, to fight against Christ and his saints, ruin and discomfiture must be the consequence on their part; as the arm of the Omnipotent must prevail.The picture is one of a military campaign between the church and the gates of hell, and the aggressor depends on the point of view. Is either one truly viable? Think about this. Why would the church want to break down the gates of hell and invade? Or how could gates be aggressors? Don't they just swing on hinges? How would that work? Or is the whole verse a metaphor of the overcoming life of the church in the world?
The solution is to look at this from a different angle. The word hades relates to the Hebrew sheol found in the Old Testament. Before Jesus' resurrection it was the general place of the dead described as having bars and gates:
Job 17:16And likewise having great power:
Will it go down to the bars of Sheol?
Shall we descend together into the dust?
I said, In the middle of my days
I must depart;
I am consigned to the gates of Sheol
for the rest of my years.
What man can live and never see death?
Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?
Hosea 13:14Coupling these thoughts together, we can see that in Matt. 16 Christ was referring to the church as those who would pass from death unto life. This first happened in this world as the keys of the kingdom were given to Peter and the gospel went forth to Judea, Samaria, and onward. Then finally there is the last resurrection as Christ proclaims his ownership of the keys of Death and Hades (Revelation 1:18) having secured them by his own triumphal rising (1 Corinthians 15).
Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from Death?
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your sting?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes.