Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What are the gates of hell?

The phrase the “gates of hell” is translated in some versions as the “gates of Hades.” The gates of hell or gates of Hades is found only once in the entire Scriptures, in Matthew 16:18. In this passage, Jesus is referring to the building of His ekklesia: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my ekklesia, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

At this time Jesus had not yet established His ekklesia. In fact, this is the first instance of the word “
ekklesia” in the New Testament. The Greek word ekklesia means the “called out” or assembly. In other words, the ekklesia that Jesus is referencing means the assembly of people who have been called out of the world by the gospel of Christ. 
Ekklesia is wrongly translated into the word "church" - see the next post on the translation of ekklesia.

Bible scholars debate the actual meaning of the phrase “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” One of the better interpretations to the meaning of this phrase is as follows. In ancient times, the cities were surrounded by walls with gates, and in battles the gates of these cities would usually be the first place their enemies assaulted. This was because the protection of the city was determined by the strength or power of its gates.

As such, the “gates of hell” or “gates of Hades” means the power of Hades. The name “Hades” was originally the name of the god who presided over the realm of the dead and was oftentimes referred to as the “house of Hades.” It designated the place to which everyone who departs this life descends, regardless of their moral character. In the New Testament, Hades is the realm of the dead, and in this verse Hades or hell is represented as a mighty city with its gates representing its power.

Jesus refers here to His impending death. Though He would be crucified and buried, He would rise from the dead and build His ekklesia. As such, Jesus is emphasizing the fact that the powers of death could not hold Him in. Not only would the ekklesia be established in spite of the powers of Hades or hell, but the ekklesia would thrive in spite of these powers. The ekklesia will never fail, though generation after generation succumbs to the power of physical death, yet other generations will arise to perpetuate the ekklesia. And it will continue until it has filled its mission on earth as Jesus has commanded:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

It is clear that Jesus was declaring that death has no power to hold God's people captive. Its gates are not strong enough to overpower and keep imprisoned the ekklesia of God. The Lord has conquered death (Romans 8:2; Acts 2:24). And because “death no longer is master over Him” (Romans 6:9), it is no longer master over those who belong to Him. 

Analysing Matthew 16:18:
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my ekklesia, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”
There are really only three parts to this expression—"The gates” is one part. “Of Hell” is another part. And “Shall not prevail against it” is the third part. Let’s take those parts in reverse order.
First, the phrase “shall not prevail” is from the Greek word katischuo, which itself comes from two Greek words kata meaning “against” or “upon” and ischuo which means “to be strong” or “to have strength.” Put them together and you have katischuo, which means to have the strength to go into battle against the foe. Not only that, it means to have the strength to have the victory over your foe. It’s not only the strength to fight; it’s also the strength to win. “Prevail” is a good translation; so is “overcome.” It’s a military term. It’s what an army needs to win the battle.
But this is in the negative. Jesus is saying that the Gates of Hell—whatever they are—may fight the ekklesia but they will not win. The battle will rage long and hard, soldiers will die on every side, and the gates of Hell may win a few skirmishes, a whole string of battles, but they will not win the war. The gates of Hell are strong, but they aren’t strong enough.
Second, the phrase “of Hell” doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means. When we hear the word “Hell,” we think of a place with fire and brimstone, a place were lost men and women suffer eternally. The Bible indeed speaks of such a place and it is called Hell.
But the Greek word Jesus used is hades. It does not always refer to the place of eternal torment. Did you know that in Greek mythology there was a character whose name was Hades? He was the god of the underworld. Specifically, he was the god of the realm of the dead. Hades just comes from two Greek words. It literally means “not to see.” Hades in the Bible generally refers to the invisible realm of the dead. In that sense it corresponds to the Hebrew word sheol. It is that shadowy, unseen world where the dead go. And here’s an important fact: When the Bible speaks of Hades it is not necessarily making a distinction between the saved and the lost. It is simply the land of the dead.
Let me say it plainly. The Bible does teach that some will suffer eternally in a place of terrible torment. The Greek word most often used for that place is gehenna. But when the Bible speaks of the invisible realm of the dead, the word it uses is hades.
So Jesus is saying that the gates of the realm of the dead will never overpower the ekklesia. But what are the “gates?”
Third, the word “gates” is a very common Greek word. “Gates” are a means of entrance by which you pass from one realm to another. Gates serve two purposes—they keep people in and they keep people out. For instance, this same word is used for the gates of the city of Jerusalem, for the gates to the temple, and for prison gates. Gates are a means of access, a means of entry.
If hades is the land of the dead, what is the gate by which you enter that realm? Death. You have to die to enter the realm of the dead. Death is the gateway to hades.
What, then, is Jesus saying? He is saying that death and all its ugly power will never overcome the ekklesia He is building.
But why did He say that? Because He knew something his disciples didn’t know. If you have your Bible, drop down just three verses to verse 21: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” To us, this is old news. We’ve heard it a thousand times. But to the disciples, this was first they had heard about it. Jesus … the Messiah … the Son of God … was going to die.
Now connect verse 18 with verse 21. When Jesus said the power of death will never overcome the ekklesia, he said it because when he rose from the dead, he broke open the gates of hades. Up until Jesus’ day no one had ever escaped from the land of the dead. But Jesus did. And he came out holding the keys in his hand.
That’s what Revelation 1:18 says. “I am the Living One. I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” How do you get the keys to Hades? You break the gate wide open. You die and then you come back from the dead.
And that is why the gates of Hades—death itself—can never overpower the ekklesia. Because Jesus Christ has died and come back from the dead and he holds in his hand the keys to the gates of Hades.

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