“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”-Matthew 16:18
Virtually every day I get spammed with email or social media ads saying something like this: “Is your church ready for the future? Times have changed, and if you’re not changing your approach to ministry your church will wither and die.” OK, that might be slightly exaggerated, but that’s the gist. The advertising hook is, “If you don’t change, your church will fail, and we have the right tools to help you change.” Usually they’re selling new curriculum or technology that will ensure the survival of our church.
This kind of advertising obviously works. Why? Because Christians love the church and desperately want to see the church thrive. That passion often leads to a faulty conclusion: through ministerial ingenuity we can ensure the success of the church in the future. It’s tempting.
To be sure our circumstances have drastically changed since the end of 2019. I’ll agree that looking ahead is a little scary. Will people stay committed to the church when culture has deemed it optional? Will people resume gathering for worship, encouragement, and edification? Will the church scatter to engage unbelievers and share the good news of Jesus Christ with them? Should we be confident moving forward? Will the church survive?
Here’s what Jesus says in Matthew 16:18: the gates of Hades will not overpower the church. This statement is the basis of unqualified confidence in the advancement of the kingdom of God. The mission of making and maturing disciples of Jesus is based on the promise of God that he guarantees its success.
Jesus’s famous statement about the church is a part of the dramatic moment when Peter acknowledges Jesus is the promised Messiah of the Old Testament (Matthew 16:13-17). He declares that even the “gates of Hades” will not overpower the church. Peter’s mission will not fail.
The key to our optimism for the church is the phrase “gates of Hades” in Jesus’s statement. In other contexts (like Isa. 38:10) “gates of Hades” refers by metonymy to the experience of death. The image of “gates” likely refers to the imprisoning power of death. Jesus is saying death cannot stop the church.
But whose death? Peter’s death? Jesus’s death? Our deaths? The answer to this is probably “yes”- all death. The “gates of Hades” will assault Jesus and His followers. Martyrdom cannot destroy the church because the church is eternal. This remarkable promise yields three key applications in our lives:
- Don’t fear the future. Sickness will come and go; governments too. Laws will change. Cultures will shift. In the midst of what seems like chaos, we need not fear for the church. Even in circumstances where war or persecution drive believers out of one nation and into another, God uses such times to advance his kingdom work.
- Trust Jesus, not trends. Our mission hasn’t changed. While we make adjustments to ministries, our confidence is never in a program, curriculum, or tech strategy. Peter’s confession stands: Jesus is the Messiah, and so long as we preach Christ crucified we can be confident in him. In one sense we can be relieved that the success of the church does not depend on our ingenuity or savvy; he is trustworthy!
- Prioritize the church. Given that nothing can overpower the church and it is the only earthly institution that will last forever, it stands to reason that we should be investing our time, energy, and resources into the mission of the church. One current disturbing trend is the labeling of participation in the church community as “non-essential.” Not only is the church essential, it is eternal. Do our lives reflect these truths?
We’re not selling a gimmick, a trend, or any other man-made coping mechanism. We proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, making and maturing disciples of Jesus for the glory of God. That mission is not only essential, but it is guaranteed to succeed.