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Still standing

Jesus told Peter and the rest of the apostles that He would build His church and “the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). I understand this first and foremost to be referring to His resurrection. Jesus was getting ready to tell them about His upcoming death (and resurrection). In v. 21 we're told that “From that time on” He began to speak of these things. Peter’s rebuking response in v. 22 shows the group’s inability to fathom this. Therefore, with the words of v. 18 He’s letting them know (albeit in somewhat cryptic language) that His upcoming death will not prevent Him from establishing His church (ekklesia).

To appreciate what He is saying we need a little background on Hades. Contrary to the belief of some, it is not the same thing as hell. Hades was where a person’s spirit went after death, regardless of whether they were righteous or unrighteous. When Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19ff, the spirits of both went to Hades after they died. The rich man’s spirit was in the part of Hades where there was suffering and Lazarus was in the part where there was comfort. Hades was then an intermediate place of waiting that was neither heaven nor hell.

After Christ’s death on the cross His spirit went to Hades (that’s the word Peter uses in Acts 2:27 so the NIV’s “realm of the dead” is good as far as it goes but transliterating it as the ESV, NASB and other versions do is probably the best choice). Unlike anyone who had ever gone to Hades before, Jesus didn’t stay. He couldn’t stay. “It was impossible for death to keep its hold on Him” (Acts 2:24). He went to that city swollen with the spirits of all who had gone before. The gates rang shut behind Him as they had done on all others but this time they didn’t stay shut. Like Samson (Judges 16), He tore the gate right off its hinges. The grave could not hold Him—He rose from the dead.

Forty days after His resurrection, He ascended into heaven. He sent the Holy Spirit as He had promised and just as Christ had been the representative of God so the Spirit became the presence of the resurrected Christ among His people (John 7:39, 14:18ff). His church was established (Acts 2). The gates of Hades were unable to stop Him.

That’s the big splash of Jesus’ promise that “the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” But big splashes have ripples and so does Christ’s promise. One of the ripples that emanates across the ages is that His church is here to stay—it will not be overcome by death, the Roman Empire or anything else! Through His death and resurrection, Christ conquered all and the church is the fruit of that.

Paul will later write. “To Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we or imagine, or according to His power that is within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever! Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Twenty centuries have come and gone. Civilizations have appeared and disappeared. Empires have risen and fallen. Governments have been established and overthrown. The heat of the sun has brought to dust what was once flourishing and the wind has scattered it ashes over the face of the earth. The church still stands. It stands not because of its members (and many times despite them). It stands not because of its successes, its strength or its witness—it stands because of its Lord! And it will continue to do so because He is able to make it stand.

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