The “gates of hell” also translated in some versions of the Bible as the “gates of Hades” is referenced only once in Scripture. This can be found in Matthew 16:18. The passage says, “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” (Matthew 16:18). Here, Jesus is referring to the building of His church.
This is a period when Jesus had not established His church yet. This is actually the first instance of the word church in the New Testament. The word church, as used by Jesus means “assembly” or the “called out.” The church that Jesus is referring to as His Church is the assembly of people who have been called out of the world by the gospel of Christ.
The actual meaning of the phrase “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” is debated among Bible scholars. Many believe Jesus is referring to spiritual warfare. Jesus is saying something that is clear for the continuation of the community of believers and the success of the message that they have proclaimed. Here the “gates of hell” or “gates of Hades” ultimately means the power of Hades. In the New Testament, hell or Hades is the realm of the dead. In this particular verse, hell is characterized as a mighty city with its gates representing the power of death.
Here, Jesus is referring to His impending death and the fact that death has no power to hold God’s people captive. While He was going to be crucified and buried, He would rise from the dead and build His church. In this passage, Jesus is reminding us of the fact that the powers of death could not hold Him in. Jesus is declaring that the church can thrive despite these powers. Jesus commanded:
“All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. God therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
As followers of Christ, perhaps our greatest “good work” for which God equips us is to obey the command of Christ to “make disciples of all nations” referenced in Matthew 28. This command encompasses everything from growing in our walk with Christ, to proclaiming the message of Christ within our own community and to the ends of the earth no matter what forces may be working against us as the church. We seek to live as growing disciples ourselves as we make disciples of others, including sharing the Gospel and, for those who trust Christ, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all that Christ commanded. Because we trust God and believe that His Word is true, we not only allow His Word to work in our lives, we also take that Word to the ends of the earth, calling others to faith in Christ.
Matthew 28:18-20 is also a reminder that the cost of this discipleship is everything. This will require giving up things in your life that are taking away from your relationship with Christ. This will require you to say no to temptations and things of this world. The Bible talks about the cost of following Christ in detail. We are told in Luke 9:23 (in reference to Jesus) “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” You will face trials, loneliness and suffering but the reward far outweighs the trials, loneliness or suffering you will face during this earthly life. This is the vision Jesus has for the church.
The gates of hell are not strong enough to overpower the church of God. The church can’t be imprisoned. We know this because Jesus conquered death. The Bible tells us, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” Scripture also says, “God raised Him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it (Acts 2:24). Romans 6:9 says, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him.” Because death is no longer master, death has lost its sting. It can no longer reign over those who belong to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Jesus is saying that the gates of hell will not overcome the church. He is calling the disciples in mission that will bring them into conflict with both political and spiritual forces. These forces will put their lives at risk. But they can be confident in the fact that nothing, not even death, will ultimately overcome the community built on Jesus Christ.