Storming the Gates of Hades

Matthew 16:13-20 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 Christ, the Son of the living God." 17 Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, 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. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." 20 Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

Christian writer Greg Elder grew up along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. As a boy he used to spend long hours building intricate sand castles on the beach. One year, however, he encountered trouble. For several days in a row, local bullies came by and used their bare feet to kick down whatever sand castle he was building.

Finally this young boy had had enough. He decided to try an experiment. He started to build a sand castle as before, only this time he included cinder blocks and chunks of concrete as part of the base.

Once again the local bullies showed up. Once again they raised their bare feet to kick down his castle. This time, however, their tender feet collided with something that was not going to budge. As a result, several young men limped away in pain, they retired from the castle-kicking business, and little Greg Elder’s castle remained standing.

There are times when it seems as though Christianity is like a sand castle that all kinds of feet are trying to kick down. There’s the foot of our secular society who will say things like, “Belief in a god is good, but I don’t believe in organized religion.” (As if disorganized religion is somehow better.) There’s the foot of false doctrine that is infected, putrid and gangrene. There’s the foot of cynics who like Jesus but denigrate Jesus’ followers. There’s the foot of persecution where Christians are put on trial in courtrooms, who are judged in the court of public opinion, and far worse, where they are disfigured and dismembered for their faith. There’s the foot of our own sinful priorities that like Jesus being our Savior as long as we don’t have to confront the horrendous sins from which He has saved us.

Jesus is with His disciples in the northeastern area of Israel. Caesarea Philippi stood only twenty-five miles from the religious communities of Galilee. But the city’s religious practices were vastly different from those of the nearby Jewish towns. It was a city dominated by immoral activities and pagan worship.

In Old Testament times, the northeastern area of Israel became a center for Baal worship. In the nearby city of Dan, Israelite king Jeroboam built the high place that angered God and eventually led the Israelites to worship false gods. Eventually, worship of the baals was replaced with worship of Greek fertility gods. In the cliff that stood above the city, local people built shrines and temples to Pan, a god with a human torso and a goat body. He was the fertility god especially for the shepherds who lived there.

At the base of the cliff there was a huge cave. The pagans believed it was a gate to the underworld – to Hades. This is where their fertility gods lived during the winter and returned to earth each spring. In order to entice the return of their god, Pan, each year, the people of Caesarea Philippi engaged in horrible deeds, including temple prostitution (and even sex with goats).

When Jesus brought His disciples to the area, they must have been shocked. Caesarea Philippi was like a red-light district in their world and devout Jews would have avoided any contact with the despicable acts committed there.

It was a city of people eagerly knocking on the doors of hell.

Standing in the shadow of the pagan temples of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter boldly replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The disciples were probably stirred by the contrast between Jesus, the true and living God, and the false hopes of the pagans who trusted in “dead” gods.

Jesus continued, “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.”

I have to admit that I often got this picture wrong. I remember being taught that this is a defensive text where the Church will stand strong against the forces of Satan attacking us as Christians. It wasn’t until I stood at the mouth of that exact cave in Caesarea Philippi four years ago that I finally got it!

How wrong I was! The gates of the Christian Church are not being attacked. The Church is attacking the gates of hell! Christian soldiers are advancing against the forces of Satan. We are given keys as our weapons: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” We can either call people to repentance by binding their sins to them or we can free captives from their sins by forgiving them.

Gates were defensive structures in the ancient world. By saying that the gates of Hades would not overcome, Jesus suggested that those gates were going to be attacked.

The image here is not of God’s city being attacked and repelling the attackers but the city of the devil being attacked by the warriors of God. The city is this world, claimed by the prince of this world, the devil, after the Fall. The prince of this world even had the audacity to try to defeat the King of creation with desert temptations. But Jesus would not be overcome. The devil even flaunted his claim on this world before the Lord with Job and in the wilderness (Matthew 4:8-9; Job 1:7).

But the King attacks the fortress of the devil. He comes into the very domain of death and the devil. He enters the battle by taking on human flesh and blood. The devil snickers and the demons roar as Jesus is nailed to the cross. But is with blood and wood that Jesus defeats the devil. He frees souls from death by His own glorious resurrection from the grave. He removes the power of sin by taking sin’s sting upon Himself. He releases the devil’s foothold on this earth by being struck by the serpent’s fangs in His feet.

The Church of Christ is the mighty host of the Lord that does not wait inside a fortress repelling attacks. We are those who march forward against the gates of hell with the good news of the cross. The cross is a battering ram against sin, death, and the devil. It is the light for those captive to darkness. It is freedom for a world marked and claimed by the enemy, but retaken by God in Christ. Nothing can harm us – not the sea, the land, the wind, the devil – for we have received the seal of baptism on our foreheads. We have been marked and claimed by Christ (Revelation 7:1-2).

The Christian Church is not weak and vulnerable, just waiting to be attacked on all sides. Instead, Christ’s words transform fearful and reluctant disciples into stormtroopers for the Master.

Jesus presented a clear challenge with His words at Caesarea Philippi: He didn’t want his followers hiding from evil. He wanted them to storm the gates of hell.

So, how are you doing with your attacks against evil? Are you on the offensive or the defensive? Jesus’ followers cannot successfully confront evil when we are embarrassed about our faith.

After Jesus spoke to His disciples about storming the gates of hell, He also gave them a word of caution: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory” (Luke 9:26). Jesus knew that His followers would face ridicule and anger as they tried to confront evil. And His words come as a sharp challenge – no matter how fierce the resistance, His followers should never hide their faith in God.

In a city filled with false idols, Jesus asked His followers to commit to the one true God. While false gods promised prosperity and happiness, they would ultimately fail to deliver. Jesus didn’t promise an easy life, but He delivered on the promise of salvation – the only kind of prosperity that really matters.

Today, Christians must heed the words of our Lord, especially when we are tempted to hide our faith because of embarrassment or fear. Our world is filled with those who have “gained the world” but lost their souls (Luke 9:25). If we hide our faith, they may never find the salvation they need. Then we have let Satan win – win a precious soul for which Christ bled and died.

Standing as they were at a literal “Gate of Hades,” the disciples may have been overwhelmed by Jesus’ challenge. But Jesus assured them that His Church would be built on the Him – the “rock” that literally stood next to the cliff wall filled with niches for pagan idols.

We, too, are living in both a godless society where there are no moral absolutes and a polytheistic society that will allow for any type of god … except for the Triune God. We are living in a confusing and illogical society. A society that embraces racial diversity – until a police officer shoots a man of a different skin color. A society that embraces sexual equality – until a man strikes a woman. A society that embraces tolerance for everyone and everything – until a Christian is labeled for being “intolerant” when he speaks about sin or the Savior.

Unfortunately, many of us have cowered under the confusing and mixed-up message that society portrays. We don’t want to be judged in the court of public opinion. We don’t want to be vilified in social media. We don’t want to offend anyone, so we accept the sin that is all around us, even within our own homes, rather than confronting it. We are afraid to go on the offensive.

Or we just try to avoid the sinful culture altogether. We hide in our churches, schools, and homes, and shut the door on the evil that influences our culture. We are hunkered down on the defensive.

But Jesus challenged His followers to be on the offense — to proclaim the truth without shame.

Our schools and churches should become staging areas rather than fortresses – places that equip God’s people to confront a sinful world instead of hiding from it. Jesus knows that the pagan world will resist, but He challenges us to go there anyway, and to build His Church in those very places that are most morally decayed.

The enemies of the cross – at Caesarea Philippi, at Golgotha, in Iraq or here in Racine, all believe they will be successful in knocking down the castle of Christianity. They think it’s just loose sand. But they soon discover something. The base of the castle of Christianity is never going to budge. It is never going to move from its foundation because the base of the castle is Jesus Christ. 

As you and I encounter the feet of those forces that are trying to kick down the castle of Christianity, don’t be afraid. Those tender feet are no match for the Rock of our salvation. The same One who washed us clean at the cross is the same One who lives and rules and will not be kicked into submission by anything. The castle of Christianity will stand.

The gates of Hades will not.

One of the great lines in the movie “The Princess Bride” is when Miracle Max says to Inigo and Fezzik, “Have fun storming the castle.” Storming Satan’s castle may not seem like much fun – not with all the mistreatments, persecutions, imprisonments, and deaths. But winning is always fun. And Christ has already assured us of the victory. The devil is defeated. Death is dead. Sin has been struck down. The gates of Hades will not overcome.

Go on the offensive. Have fun storming the gates of Hades. Amen.