Jesus’ words in Matthew 16 about his church have always puzzled me: “the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” I assumed “gates of Hell” was a metaphor within the metaphor for the “army” that came out through those gates to assail the Church. That seems to enforce the perception of many Christians that the Church is under constant attack from Evil; so no matter how bad things get, the Church will remain standing. That fits pretty well with the passage from Ephesians 6 that I referenced in my little piece about Evil, where the image is of the Christian on the *defensive, making a dogged stand.
A number of years ago I heard someone comment that the “gates of Hell shall not prevail” makes better sense when understood as the Church is assaulting Hell. Attacking a stronghold means smashing its gates. So, the metaphor is the Church is on the attack, and it will be victorious.
Look at how this verse is interpreted both ways with two different translations:
Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.
And now I’m going to tell you who you are, really are. You are Peter, a rock. This is the rock on which I will put together my church, a church so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out.
I think the text is talking about the Church assaulting Hell itself. That makes better sense of the words. But, I’ve still been puzzled about the how and when the Church does this, because I’ve held on to the idea that the Church is on the defensive.
Reading the verse in The Message this time a light bulb snapped on. It isn’t that Evil is trying to conquer God’s people; it’s that God’s people are conquering Enemy territory. Every time the hungry are fed, the homeless are given shelter, and every time someone is baptized, all in the name of Jesus, Hell is under assault. God’s people live in Enemy territory, waging a 360 degree battle; just as in WWII, when the US marines got into the enemy territory on Iwo Jima and struggled against an enemy dug in everywhere.
How are you participating in the attack on the gates of Evil? What about your church? Is it defensive or on the assault?
Coming up with tactics shouldn’t be too hard. Jesus already demonstrates them for you.
*pet peeve moment. If you’ve ever heard a sermon on the armor of God you’ve likely heard that little nugget of nonsense that the only “offensive” weapon in the list is the sword of truth; everything else is “defensive”. It’s an idea that has been held up as some incredibly important pious notion about the passive nature of Christianity. Absolute rubbish!! The shield was not a just a “defensive” weapon to keep a soldier safe. It was a weapon. Yes it stopped arrows, but it could also knock enemies on their ass, break their face, or cause fatal head trauma. Nothing passive about that.
** While Peterson’s The Message is technically a paraphrase, and it can be argued he often stretches the sense of the text, I have found that quite often he captures the basic idea of the text quite well.