13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Matthew 16:13-16, NIV)
Jesus asks His disciples the paramount question: Who is He? Peter is the one who seems to have the best grasp at this point.
Acknowledging Jesus to be the Messiah was a way of saying: “You are the One in whom all God’s promises come to bear!”
It’s no light statement. But neither is what Jesus says in response to Peter, something that has implications for us, too. Jesus doesn’t just applaud Peter and say something like: “You passed the test!” As we will see, acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah means that we are invited into His mission.
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Matthew 16:17-18)
Maybe you grew up in some church settings that would paraphrase this verse to say, “the gates of Hell.” Even some English translations of the Bible render the verse that way (KJV, ESV, NLT). Well, to be candid, that is just a bad translation. Ready for a quick Greek lesson? The word for “Hell,” comes Gehenna (γέεννα) and “Hades” (ᾅδης) speaks of the underworld, or the “realm of the dead” as the ancient Hebrew concept of Sheol attests to. The first point here is that these are two different words and are not synonyms. It is not the gates of “Hell” but the gates of “Hades” that Jesus speaks of here.
So, why refer to the realm of the dead here?
Peter’s declaration of Jesus’ identity, Jesus’ affirmation of Peter’s vocation, and Jesus’ ensuing prediction of His own death and resurrection (Matthew 16:21) are all part of a larger framework.
The ancients had a foggy, convoluted understanding of death and the afterlife, most of which was grim. Furthermore, death was often personified in the Old Testament, likened to a terrifying entity that had an endless appetite (Habakkuk 2:5). Indeed, you could say that Death (let’s pretend it is personal and has a name) has established a kingdom with borders and is guarded by impenetrable gates. Has anyone dared to even challenge Death’s power? No one can escape their eventual meeting with Death. And get this… neither was Jesus. Like everyone else, Jesus knew He had an inevitable date with Death, but Jesus did not see the meeting as despairing, but as a date with destiny. Why? Because Jesus saw Death as an Enemy to be destroyed. Spoiler alert, Jesus did die, Death had gotten his hands on Jesus. But what happened next? Wait. There is a next? I thought Death had the final word? Not according to Jesus.
The early followers of Jesus saw His resurrection not just as a supernatural act against a force of nature but as a victory over an ancient Enemy.
That’s why Jesus reveals Himself to John during his Apocalypse with this title.
I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. (Revelation 1:18)
The realm of the dead has a new Lord: King Jesus—He holds the keys! And that is why—and this is key—Jesus says the “gates of Hades will not prevail.” Gates are not on the offense, they are immobile and on the defense. The realm of the dead, and Death himself, is on the defense as the kingdom of God advances and raids the fallen kingdom of Hades.
Jesus, who robbed the grave (the realm of the dead), invites us to become grave robbers. We participate in the work that robs Death from having dominion over others!
What could be a more exciting mission?
Whatever the foggy understanding of death and the afterlife was in the Old Testament era, Jesus has revolutionized our understanding of death so that those who trust Him are welcomed into a wonderful existence with Him postmortem (example: Philippians 1:12-26) while, waiting for the age of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15).