The Church and the Gates of Hades
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.
Such an encouraging verse with a powerful, uplifting promise! And yet, due to translation error and false teachings this powerful passage is misunderstood by so many!
For example, “the gates of hell” should be more accurately translated from the Greek “the gates of Hades.” Hades and hell are actually two different words in the Greek which describe two different places, but many think they’re the same thing due to many English translations translating Hades as hell, which in turn is due to the translators being influenced by the erroneous teaching that Hades and hell are the same. Hell is gehenna in the Greek (Matt. 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6). The word originally referred to the city of Jerusalem’s garbage dump, and then was used to symbolically refer to the eternal lake of fire reserved for Satan and his followers after judgment. Hades is where the dead wait for judgment. The rich man was in torment in Hades, although several translations erroneously translate the word as “hell” (Luke 16:23). However, Jesus and the thief whom he forgave were also in Hades after they died, in the part referred to as Paradise or Abraham’s bosom or side (Acts 2:27; cf. Luke 23:39-43; 16:22-24) which is separated from where the rich man is tormented by a gulf or chasm (Luke 16:26). Thus, Hades is a place where both the righteous and unrighteous dead are, unlike hell which is reserved for the unrighteous for all eternity. On the day of judgment, Death and Hades will deliver up the dead that are in them and then be cast into the lake of fire which is hell, after which all who are judged by God to be condemned will also be cast into hell, along with Satan (Rev. 20:10-15). Thus, Hades and hell are two different places. By telling Peter that “the gates of Hades” shall not prevail against the church, Jesus was in effect promising that the church would not die.
Another misunderstanding many have about this passage revolves around the mistaken notion that one church is just as good as another. This ecumenical mindset ignores several biblical points about the church:
- When Jesus spoke of building his church in this passage, notice that he spoke of the church in a singular fashion, not as pluralistic. In other words, he said, “…I will build my church.” He didn’t say, “…I will build my churches.”
- This is because the New Testament reveals that there in fact is only one church. Paul spoke of the body of Christ as being his church (Eph. 1:22-23), and then specifically said that there is only one body, as well as only one faith (Eph. 4:4-5). If the body is the church, and there is one body, then there is one church. One church, one body, one faith. Compare that to the thousands of different denominations, sects, and cults which all believe different things while claiming to all follow Christ…even though Christ’s New Testament specifically commands Christians that “…all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10; cf. John 17:20-23; Phil. 2:1-2).
Another misunderstanding many have about this passage revolves around the Roman Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession which teaches that Peter was the first Pope. This verse is commonly cited by Catholicism to mean that Jesus was saying that the church was built on Peter. However, this notion is mistaken for two reasons:
- Peter could not have been the first Pope, because Peter was married (Matt. 8:14-15; 1 Cor. 9:5) and Catholic doctrine teaches that the Pope and other bishops must be celibate, even though the New Testament specifically states that bishops must be married (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6). (With this in mind, compare Catholic doctrine to the prophecy of Paul in 1 Timothy 4:1-3.)
- It is well known that “Peter” means “rock,” and so the assumption is made that when Jesus said, “…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”, he was saying that the church would be built on Peter. However, a study of the Greek words used in Matthew 16:18 reveals that Jesus actually used two different words here. When he said, “…you are Peter…”, he used the masculine Greek word Petros, which refers to a rock or stone. However, when he then said, “…upon this rock…”, he used the feminine Greek word petra, which refers to a large rock or stone, or a cliff. The two similar but different words show by definition that Jesus had two similar but different concepts in mind when he spoke this sentence. The church would not be built upon the rock of the apostle Peter (Petros), but upon a large rock or cliff (petra). Contextually, the only thing Jesus could have in mind in reference to the petra would be the confession Peter had just made that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God (Matt. 16:16), which of course we know is the foundation of faith upon which the church is built (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11).
Thus, today’s Scripture of the Day records a promise Jesus made to Peter, the other apostles, and us that gives me comfort every time I read it. He promised to build his church, of which there is only one, upon the rock of the confession of faith in him as the Son of God, and that his church would never die and thus be overcome by the gates of Hades.
Are you a part of his church? The Bible specifically states that he is the Savior of his church (Eph. 5:23). Do you want Christ to be your Savior? Be a part of his church, not some man-made denomination. Make the same heart-felt confession of faith that Peter made (Matt. 16:16; Rom. 10:9-10), choose to repent of your sins (Luke 13:3; Acts 3:19), and wash your sins away via immersion into the body of Christ, his church (1 Cor. 12:13; cf. Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38).