At a certain point in His ministry, Jesus began preparing his followers for His approaching death. They had to understand that His death would be neither beginning nor end to God's plan, but rather a transfer of responsibility to His followers so they could complete what had be begun. Let me read from Matthew 16:13-18.
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).
Let's focus on just one sentence here: "I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." I do like the way it's expressed in the King James Version, "I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
We can’t understand this statement in the same way Jesus’ listeners did. The history of Israel was one of kingdoms and empires, controlling or being controlled. In Old Testament times the foundation of an empire was generally the strongest of several cities, and an empire often took its name from the main city. This was the case with Samaria, Babylon, Rome. Jesus' disciples could probably think of several empires which ruled until another kingdom grew up right under their noses and eventually conquered them. While Assyria ruled, Babylon grew to challenge and then overcome it; Babylon became an empire, then fell to Persia; and so on.
If one empire wanted to conquer another, this could only be accomplished by capturing and either occupying or destroying the central city of that empire. In a time when arrows, spears and rocks were the strongest offensive weapons, the best protection was a solid wall, so these cities were surrounded by great walls. The only intentional gaps in the walls were gates so that people could come and go in good times.
Can you picture the gates? That image was familiar enough to the disciples. The word gate actually describes the entire area of entry into a city, not just the part that opened and closed. A gate area could have several barriers, often constructed of thick wood with iron reinforcement. Some gates were actually twisting passage ways through which an enemy would have to sustain weapon fire from the high passage walls.
Gates were strong and imposing. But gates are also passive. They do not move to attack. They just stand there. When Jesus said, "the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it,” the picture was not one of hell attacking His church but of the church attacking - and conquering - the stronghold(s) of Satan.
Just as ancient armies would attack one city after another until breaching the final stronghold, the church should be consciously and visibly breaking into some of hell’s strongholds, anticipating and foreshadowing the final victory.
If this is so; if the Lord is still building His church; if His church is to be attacking the strongholds of Satan; if the church should be breaking through the gates of those strongholds; then we should see this taking place now, even as the church looks to the final confrontation between Satan's evil empire and the kingdom of God.
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share some of the stories of church growth and kingdom expansion that illustrate this picture. I hope you’ll be as encouraged as I am when we look realistically at what God is doing through His church in our time.