He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:15-18 NRSV)
Peter is a rock. At least that’s the nickname Jesus gave him. Petros means “rock” in Greek.
So what makes Peter – frequently clueless, sometimes fearful, often not-quite-right Peter – a rock? Maybe he has some rock-like qualities on his own, but we don’t always see them.
Peter earned the nickname “Rock” because his faith in Jesus as Israel’s messiah made him part of something that is more rock-like still: the church of Jesus Christ. Since Peter is the first disciple in Matthew’s gospel to confess his faith, he is the foundation on which Jesus will build his church. And what an awesome church it will be.
Jesus said that he would build a church against which the gates of Hades will not prevail.
Hades was the god of the underworld in ancient Greek mythology. In his underworld realm, Hades ruled over the realm of the dead. His name could therefore also be used of the place where the dead were thought to live a shadowy sort of existence. Jewish ideas about the fate of the dead varied greatly over time, but the scholars who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek used the word hades to translate the Hebrew sheol. Like hades, sheol was the place where people go after death.
In Greek mythology, the gates of Hades were guarded by a three-headed dog name Cerberus who prevented the dead from escaping. The gates of Hades insured that there would be no coming back to the land of the living. The gates weren’t there so much to keep people out as to keep people in.
Using the language of ancient myth, Jesus assured his disciples that death doesn’t have the last word. The gates of Hades won’t succeed in their purpose. Christ’s church will prevail over death. Jesus himself will rise on the third day, and the dead in Christ will rise when the Son of Man comes. Jesus will tear open the gates of Hades.
Many decades ago, Dallas Holm captured what Jesus meant in the words of his song, Rise Again:
Go ahead, and bury Me;
But very soon, I will be free!
‘Cause I’ll rise again;
Ain’t no power on earth can keep Me down!
Yes, I’ll rise again;
Death can’t keep Me in the ground
“Death can’t keep me in the ground” and “the gates of Hades will not prevail” are almost identical expressions.
Jesus promised that the gates of Hades will not prevail against his church. This promise sets the stage for the first passion prediction in Matthew, as well as for Jesus’ challenge to his disciples: “Take up your cross and follow me.” Both Jesus and his disciples can face even death with confidence because of God’s resurrection power.