"On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matt 16:18)Has it ever struck you as ... odd?
One thing that has nagged at me is that we typically perceive this precisely opposite of what the words mean. We read that "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" and think, "Satan's assault on Christ's Church won't win", but, if you think about it for a moment, "gates" are not an offensive weapon. They are purely defensive. This language doesn't seem to be about an attack against the Church, but about an attack against hell. So what was Jesus talking about?
Note, first, that this is not new to Jesus. This isn't a new concept that He came up with. God asked Job, "Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?" (Job 38:17) Job didn't interrupt. "Um ... God ... I don't know what the gates of death are." He understood it. Jesus wasn't talking about something His listeners didn't understand. So what was He talking about?
It is important to keep in mind that the "gates of hell" are, most literally, the gates of ᾅδης -- hadēs -- most often used as a reference not to the place of eternal torment, but to death or the grave. This phrase, then, most likely refers to death. Jesus was saying that death could not hold out against the Church He was going to build. And, when Paul lays out the basic Gospel, he includes Christ's death and His Resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-8). At first glance, then, Jesus was speaking about His own coming victory over death. Satan might close the doors of death behind Christ, but those gates could not hold Him.
There is another sense as well, I think. If "Hell" refers to death and the forces of Satan residing therein and "the gates of Hell" is a reference to the satanic forces that defend that "Hell", then the idea is one of Christ plundering Hell (death), as it were, to make His Church. This is actually what is described in Ephesians. There we read
You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience ... (Eph 2:1-2)That's "were dead" -- past tense. Then we read
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ -- by grace you have been saved -- and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus ... (Eph 2:4-6)So what we have here is precisely the "gates of Hell" concept. We were dead, "but God". God made us alive with Christ "when we were dead in our trespasses." Safely ensconced behind the gates of death, God made us alive together with Christ. The gates of Hell did not prevail. And every time someone comes to Christ, death is again defeated -- the gates of death do not prevail.
You've heard the phrase, "snatched from the jaws of death." We were not merely in the "jaws"; we were already dead. "But God." Praise Jesus the gates of death did not prevail against Him in His death and do not prevail against any whom He reconciles to the Father. Now that's Church-building!