“The Gates of Hell”
Jesus referred to “the gates of Hades” (hell) in His bold statement to Peter (Matt. 16:18). For Matthew’s original readers, the word “gates” held special significance.
Ancient cities erected walls to protect themselves from invaders. Here and there along the walls they inserted massive gates to allow traffic in and out. In times of trouble, they could close the gates against attacking armies or bandits.
City gates, then, tended to be thoroughfares through which communications and commerce passed with frequency. Not surprisingly, bazaars and forums tended to congregate around a city’s gates, so that they became an important arena in a town’s public life. Goods were traded there and decision-makers gathered to hear news and deliberate on events of the day. Such gates exist to this day in some cities of the world.
Given this phenomenon, “gates” became a metaphor signifying the economic and political life of a walled city. The influential and powerful did their business “in the gates.” For example, the husband of the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 is “known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land” (Prov. 31:23). Boaz, the intended husband of Ruth, went to the gate to buy a marriage license (Ruth 4:1–12; also Deut. 25:7). War plans were devised and military treaties signed in the gates (Judg. 5:8, 11). Kings sat in the gates to address their people (2 Sam. 19:8). Even conspirators against kings hatched their plots and were exposed in the gates (Esth. 2:19–23).
So when Jesus spoke of the gates of Hades, He was drawing on a powerful image. Matthew’s original readers would have seen it as a political metaphor, the way we use the terms City Hall, the White House, or the Capitol today. For them, the gates of Hades were not just a spiritual abstraction but actual forces of evil at work among human systems—the Roman government, for instance. While not evil in and of itself, first-century government was quickly becoming corrupted and also anti-Christian.
Jesus was alluding to a spiritual warfare of cosmic proportions. His followers are pitted against the powers of hell itself, which not only attack individual believers but seek to corrupt institutions, enlisting them in their campaign against Christ. Satan’s guises can take many forms, as a look at any day’s news will attest.
Fortunately, Jesus also promised that in the end the gates of Hades would not succeed. That offers great hope to believers who live in difficult places and contend for good against powerful entities that, in ways known and unknown, are backed by spiritual forces of wickedness. In the midst of the fight Jesus has declared: “I will build My church!”