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Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Gates of Hell

You've read this, right? Jesus said it.
"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!


Anonymous said...

"Jesus wasn't talking about something His listeners didn't understand."

That provokes an interesting question. Why did Jesus not use his unbounded intellect to word his sentence in such a way that it would be understandable to all men who would someday read the Word of God?

Stan said...

I'm always hesitant to answer "Why does God do ...?" kinds of questions. However, Jesus did tell His disciples, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that 'seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.'" (Luke 8:10)

The assumption of the question is that it was Jesus's intent that everyone would understand everything He said and that He would say everything they needed to hear. Neither is accurate according to Jesus.

Bob said...

i never really understood the idea that the Gates somehow represent an offensive attack. i was like what? but the way you explained it makes perfect sense. consider that Jesus came to set the captives free. captive how? captive behind the gates of hell and death. o yea.. thank you Jesus.

Stan said...

Oh, now, see? There's your problem. You tried to "understand". You thought about it. Yeah, that will mess you up every time. No, kidding.

"When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Cor 15:54-57)

Anonymous said...

It seems then that a quandary for the Christian apologist is to not reveal the apologist's correct exegesis to anyone who was not intended to hear it. Ultimately, do you just have to trust God to only send readers who were supposed to understand things the way Jesus really intended for his inner circle?

David said...

Also, anonymous, it would not be possible for Him to word something in such a way that everyone could understand for all time. He spoke a different language. Ask anyone that has tried to translate languages and you'll find that it is nearly impossible to word for word translate something. Especially for an ancient language. Some times words just don't have a translatable equivalent. And as Stan pointed out, the goal wasn't too make it universally understandable. There is going to be some mystery only revealed to His followers.

Stan said...

Anonymous, no, we don't just trust God to only send readers who will understand it. The message is for all. Jesus said, "Many are called but few are chosen." Jesus in the quote I gave indicated that it was God's intent that they would hear and not understand. In the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus said, "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead." (Luke 16:31) For those who understand, it is life and salvation. For those who do not (read "refuse to"), it is condemnation.