And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. -Matthew 16:18
Throughout history, and to the present day, a whole lot of bad theology has been based on this verse in Matthew. But I’d like to focus on the words “gates of hell” in this brief study.
The first thing we need to do is to step back from the translation from the Authorized Version and KJV. “Gates of hell” is not only the translation used therein, it is often quoted that way by people who may not even own a KJV bible. But let’s take a look at the phrase in Greek.
πυλαι αδου = pýlē háidēs = gates [of] Hades
Covering all the words translated and words used for “hell” is not part of our scope here, but we need to distinguish Hades from another word used in Matthew which the KJV also translates as “hell.”
And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire . -Matthew 18:9b
Here the Greek for “hell fire” is γεενναν του πυρος = géenna ho pŷr = Gehenna that fire
Hades is “ the grave, the place of the dead” [Stong’s #86]; Gehenna is “Valley of Hinnom” [Strong’s #1067]. The Valley of Hinnom is a very real place in Israel and a very prophetic place. But we’ll have to leave that for another study. Our point here is that “hell” isn’t always “hell.”
So, we go back to Hades. Hades is not associated with fire (as Gehenna is). It is “the grave” and is rendered as such in the KJV in 1 Cor 15:55. From other studies, we know 1 Cor 15 is the great resurrection chapter. It is where we read of the future conquering of death and the grave. That brings us back to the Gates of Hell.
In Matthew 16:18, the Lord Jesus is explaining that the company of the “called out” (the church, in this case, Israel), built upon the solid rock of himself, shall experience the victory over death and the grave (Hades) referenced in 1 Cor 15.
But wouldn’t it be nice if this truth was spelled out even clearly elsewhere? Well, let’s take a look at this phrase in Hebrew in Isaiah 38. King Hezekiah was lamenting his expected death (notice in scripture that no one looks at death as some gateway to bliss).
“I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years.” -Is 38:10
(R to L) בְּשַׁעֲרֵ֣י שְׁאֹ֑ול = sha‛ar she'ôl = gates of the grave [Sheol]
Sheol is the Hebrew word which is the equivalent of Hades (gates of Sheol). We find “ πύλη ᾅδης” in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). This is identical to the Greek used in Matthew 16.
Hezekiah was expecting to die. He spoke of the grave as “the gates of hell,” for that is what it is. Death is not to be celebrated, that comes with resurrection. But we have confidence in death that “the gates of hell” will not “prevail.” If I run a tank into a chain link fence, which will prevail?
κατισχυσουσιν = katischýō = prevail = to be able / overcome [Strong’s #2729]
So, how we do beat the gates of hell, overcome the grave and conquer death? We need to be saved [rescued] from the curse of death and decay. We do so in resurrection, secured by the death, lack of decay in Hades, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ (who alone is immortal). So upon what do we build our hope? We build it on the Rock, which is Christ alone. We accept it as a free gift by grace alone through faith alone.
Let’s go back to Matthew 16...
Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter [Gk: a stone], and on this rock [Gk: bedrock] I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.
Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be rescued. - Acts 16:31
This is the witness of scripture, the bereaved are comforted with Resurrection, never with the thought that the dead are anything but dead.
When I die, I will not float about without a body. I will not be “happier than I’ve ever been.” I will not be dancing in heaven. I will be dead... but, in resurrection, the gates of the grave will not prevail and I will rise in a new, sinless body on that day! Because he rose again, I will rise again!
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. -John 11:23-25As we will see in the next two-part study, the Biblical way to comfort the bereaved is not to say "he went on to be with the Lord" or "he's with the Lord now." There is only one scriptural comfort, resurrection!