When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Matthew 16:13-18)
For many years, I viewed this passage as an affirmation that no matter how bleak things got, no matter how dark the world became, there would always be a church somewhere. It might be small and hunkered down — but the powers of hell would never be able to exterminate the church.
I was wrong.
I was wrong when I taught this in Bible classes and preached it in sermons.
When Jesus speaks of the “gates of Hades (or hell)”, he is referring to a defensive posture. Ancient tribes and clans built walls around their cities and these walls included gates to allow them to travel in and out. When it came to war, the purpose of the wall and gates is simple: keep out the opponent. Their security depended on the strength of their gates.
Jesus is teaching his followers to go on the offensive, to take the battle to the darkness. He is not advocating retreat.
A church — or a movement — that is built on the foundation of Jesus as Lord is a church that should be advancing against the gates of hell in order to reclaim lost ground. Gates are stationary; they do not move. It’s the church that is to move against them. And when we do, the gates of hell will not prevail against us. In other words, they’re not strong enough to keep us out.
Let’s reclaim people, marriages, children, neighborhoods, cities, and countries.
Rather than shrink back and hold on for dear life, let us move forward confident in the ability of light to dispel darkness.
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