‘And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it’ (Matthew 16:18).
What is this ‘church’ to which our Lord refers in this famous verse? It is common for people to interpret ‘church’ here (ekklesia in the Greek) to refer to the church as an institution on earth.
Of course, Catholics see here the perpetuation of their hierarchy. Protestants, also, often say the church in our Lord’s promise is the local church as an institution. I disagree with these interpretations and will give you what I think the passage means.
In my opinion, the key to the passage is the phrase ‘the gates of hades’. A common view is that this phrase refers to the influence of Satan, the prince of darkness who rules in hell.
But ordinarily the word ‘hades’ (translated ‘hell’ in the KJV) has a general reference to the place where the departed dead go, rather than just that portion inhabited by Satan. The ‘gates’ of hades would naturally refer to that which leads to hades, namely death.
This is what it means in Isaiah 38:10, where Hezekiah anticipating his demise said, ‘I am deprived of the residue of my days, I shall to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years’.
‘Grave’ in this passage is sheol, the Old Testament counterpart of hades. Therefore, I believe the true meaning of this passage is this: death and the state that lies beyond it, the unseen world of departed spirits, shall not prevail against the church.
In other words, the church of which Jesus speaks will survive death and the passing of time; it will last for ever.
If my view is correct, this verse cannot refer to earthly institutions, since all of them, even the local church which Christ established, will pass away when he comes. What will endure is the ‘called out’ assembly of all believers, which is the true body of Christ.
Inside these earthly institutions, and I am afraid sometimes outside them, are all the redeemed, chosen people of God who make up the body of Christ. I believe in the local church and think all believers should be a member of one, but this is not the church against which the gates of hell will not prevail.
There is no guarantee that any particular church will be perpetuated. We see them going out of business all the time. Even the institution of the local church will cease to exist when Jesus returns. But the church for which Jesus died (Ephesians 5:25), consisting of all the elect of God, will go on throughout eternity.
J. L. Dagg, the Baptist theologian, said (in reference to Ephesians 3:21), ‘Local churches exist only in the present world; and when the end of time arrives, they will cease to exist. It is therefore impossible that this text should refer to local churches, either as a genus or as individuals; for it speaks of a glory in the church, world without end’.
Albert Edersheim, the great Jewish Christian scholar, said that the church of Matthew 16:18 ‘was not intended for a time, like a school of thought, but would last beyond death and the disembodied state’.
‘Churches’, although important and a vital part of God’s programme, can and often do fail. But the church that Jesus built will last throughout eternity.