When God asks a question, He isn’t trying to fill gaps in His knowledge. His questions are always followed by life changing revelations to the ones He is addressing. Consider a few of the questions God has asked and the implications for the listeners: “Who told you that you were naked? (Gen 3:11); “What is that in your hand?” (Ex 4:2); “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4).Jesus was preparing to share a profound truth with His disciples one day as he began to ask them questions about what people were saying about him. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Jesus asked.The disciples answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”Then Jesus asked the most important question ever asked, the one to which we all must respond. “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:13-18).
What did Jesus mean when he said the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church? Gates are physical and stationary barriers that cannot advance with aggressive action, so Jesus must mean that the church is somehow putting force on the gates of hell.
Numerous commentaries based on Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:18 describe the church storming the gates of hell and breaking down the strongholds of the enemy. But that image presents a problem. Nowhere in scripture are we called to take up arms against the enemy in an offensive way. On the contrary, we are called to stand firm against evil, knowing that our strength comes from the Lord. The pieces of the armor of God described in Ephesians 6 are protective and defensive, enabling us to stand against the attacks of the enemy. The only possible exception is the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. We use the word to resist temptation as Jesus did in the desert.
Time and time again we see in the Old Testament God’s people defeating their enemies against overwhelming odds by following His instructions to perform seemingly benign actions such as marching around the wall of a city, blowing trumpets, and smashing jars. In the final clash between good and evil in Revelation, we are not found on that battlefield either. God is clear in His word and in His actions that the battle belongs to Him.
Not only does the battle not belong to us, it already has been won. The Apostle Paul prayed that we might grasp the “immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:19-23).
So how exactly is the Church breaching the gates of hell?
The phrase used in Matthew’s gospel for gates of hell, pulai hadou, is a Jewish expression meaning “realm of the dead.” The two words appear in Job 38:17 and Isaiah 38:10 (Septuagint version), and in both instances, the phrase refers to death. When Jesus promised Peter that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church, he wasn’t referring to some sort of crusade against demonic forces, but rather to the powerlessness of death over believers. Jesus will build His Church on the faith of those who proclaim Him as Lord, and the members of His Body will not be defeated by death.
The Lord reminded me of His promise while I was serving on a Kairos Prison Ministry team inside a women’s prison. I was singing with a group of prisoners during a worship service when I began to look around at these women, some of whom had just given their lives to the Lord. They were weeping and lifting their hands in praise, many of them openly worshiping God for the first time in their lives. I was so moved by the strong impression I had of God’s overwhelming love for these women and His pleasure and delight in their sweet worship, I had to stop singing. There in the very heart of territory long held by the enemy, I could hear the heavenly angel choir singing with these women. I was awestruck by the indescribably beautiful sound of an unearthly harmony wrapping around the human voices in the room.
During those incredible few moments, God reminded me how very thin the veil is between the earthly and the heavenly realms. Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, and the heavenly hosts are praising God and rejoicing over the salvation of the lost. When souls are saved, the church advances, and the dominion of death diminishes. These things are not happening somewhere up there or out there; they are happening right here around us as Jesus builds His Church toward its completion.
Jesus asked a group of women in prison the all important question, “Who do you say that I am?”
God revealed the truth to them, and they answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
These women stepped from death to life.
The gates of hell did not prevail.
And the angels sang.
Sharon Pullen is a member of Church of the Holy Cross in North Raleigh.