For years I have known Matthew 16:18 “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” which Jesus himself spoke and understood the basic meaning. Though I have heard it preached and taught so many times, I could never work out the symbolism; how static “gates of hell” could “prevail against” anything. Resist, yes, but not prevail against; but “resist” is not what Jesus said, so He meant something else here in His symbolism in the “gates of hell.” He did not mean them just as inanimate objects, or envision them being crushed and broken down by the Church, as the Church proceeded against them – “rocks” don’t move.
In the King James Bible, “the gates” appears 62 times. Gates were important, for Second Kings 23:8-9 tell us “he broke down the high places of the gates which were in the entering in of the gate of Joshua ….. which were on a man’s left hand at the gate of the city.” “High places” were places of importance for other gods also, so we can see that not only did the Jews see “the gates” as important locations. They were important in the spiritual, as well as the flesh.
In Biblical times, cities had walls around them for protection and the only way into and out of the cities were through “the gates.” The Temple in Jerusalem also was designed in the same way, with multiple gates to control those who entered, as was the King’s palace. City gates were very important, not just for the defence of the city, they were also socially important – they where the place or places to be seen – the place to know what was happening. Esther 2:21 tells us “In those days, while Mordecai sat in the king’s gate, two of the king’s eunuchs, Bigthan and Teresh, of those who kept the door, were angry and tried to lay a hand on King Ahasuerus.”
For defensive reasons, city gates were large and complex in structure, with typically three sections, providing the defenders a tactical advantage over attackers. The complex shapes also meant that some locations became socially more important than others, such that even the King would be there, as Second Samuel 18:4 tells us “… the king stood by the side of the gate, and all the people came out by hundreds and by thousands.” Where the King was, there his court would be held also, as 19:8 explains that “then the king arose and sat in the gate. And they told it to the people, saying, Behold, the king sits in the gate! And all the people came before the king.” Thus the symbolism of “the gate” was being established such that in First Kings 22:10 we read that “the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah each sat on his throne, having put on their robes, in a floor in the entrance of the gate of Samaria. And all the prophets prophesied before them.” Where the King was, or more precisely, where he held court, was the centre of power and authority. Judges met there too, to dispense swift and very public justice. Proverbs 22:22 exemplifies this where we are instructed “Do not rob the poor, because he is poor; nor press down the afflicted in the gate.” Thus “the gates”, the city gates or the King’s gates became to symbolise both Authority and Power to Rule and Ruth 4:10-12 is an example there the gate = the court.
Paraphrased, what Jesus is therefore saying in Matthew 16:18 (“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”) is that: “I shall build my Church and the power of Satan, the power of hell itself, its decrees, its rules and its all councils, shall not and cannot triumph against or have victory over my Church.”
Jesus then used this analogy further in the next verse v19 when He says ”I will give the keys of the kingdom of Heaven to you. And whatever you may bind on earth shall occur, having been bound in Heaven, and whatever you may loose on earth shall occur, having been loosed in Heaven.” Keys control gates or doors, they lock and they unlock. They ultimately allow or deny passages. They are the symbol of authority and trust given to the gatekeepers by the ruler. We still use this today, when we give the “freedom of a city,” a symbolic key, to a citizen whom the city wishes to honour in a public way, even although today our cities have no walls or gates.
What Jesus is giving His Church, to all Christians in Matthew 16:19, are the Keys, the Authority of Christ Himself, to lock the gates of the government the power of hell. He is also giving authority for us to release the gates, the government the power of heaven.
Jesus did not choose His words at random. These are Godly words with true and full meaning and in that, they carry God’s power for those who will use them, they are truly God’s Words. For us to use the keys of the Kingdom, we first need us to understand them and then act wisely for the sake of His Kingdom. Jesus tells each of us in Matthew 10:16b to “be wise as serpents and innocent as dove”.
Amen and Amen.