"The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail Against It"
On one occasion, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” The answers varied: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or perhaps one of the other prophets. Then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blessed Peter for his confession, adding, “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, ESV).
What did Jesus mean when he said the gates of hell will not prevail against his church?
“Hell” in this text translates the Greek hadēs (which is the reading in many modern English translations). That word does not refer to the place of eternal punishment, nor to the realm of evil, but to the abode of the dead, the unseen realm of human spirits departed from this life. The enemy Jesus had in mind here, then—the one over which he said his church will be victorious—is death.
What are the “gates” of hell? The expression echoes Old Testament references to “the gates of death” and “the gates of sheol [the Hebrew name for the place of the dead]” (cf. Job 17:16; 38:17; Psalm 9:13; 107:18; Isaiah 38:10). The image of gates represents power and strength—particularly the power either to keep out or to imprison within. Jesus’ expression conveys the seemingly final and unbreakable power that death holds over all of us.
So when Jesus says that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” his church, his language “doesn’t mean that the kingdom will withstand the attacks of Hades. It means that Hades can’t withstand the attack of the kingdom” (Nathan Ward, “The Gates of Hades,” Biblical Insights 5.9, 20). Hades, wrote J. C. Fenton, “cannot close its gates to imprison the members of Jesus’ congregation” (Westminster Pelican Commentaries: Matthew 69).
Death could not keep Jesus imprisoned. He rose again on the third day, just as he said he would (cf. John 2:18ff; Matthew 12:38-40; 17:22). His resurrection fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and declared him to be the Son of God (Acts 2:24-33; Romans 1:4). As we sometimes sing: “Death cannot keep its prey…He tore the bars away.”
Just as death could not keep Jesus imprisoned, his resurrection provides a guarantee that death cannot keep his people imprisoned. Through his sacrificial death for sin, the fear of death that enslaves us can be broken (Hebrews 2:14-15). Through his resurrection, we have a guarantee of our own (1 Corinthians 15). His victory over death ensures our victory over death. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said. “He who believes in me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
Commenting on our text, Kenneth Chumbley wrote, “Death signals the end for most enterprises, but not for Christ’s church. Death would neither stop Christ from building it, nor spell defeat for those who comprise it” (The Gospel of Matthew 300). Because of Jesus, death ultimately is powerless over those who belong to him. As Paul wrote, death will be “swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).
“On this rock I will build my church, and the power of death will not be able to defeat it” (Matthew 16:18, NCV).