The Gates of Hell
By Doug Reed
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Many times when we study the life of Christ, we treat Him as if he lived in the 21st century. In other words, we make Him one of us. Jesus is extraordinary when we do so, but He becomes all the more wonderful when we put Him in His first century context. When we look at Jesus as a first century Jew, one thing that stands out all the more is His love. Jesus brought a love and compassion the world had never seen before. He constantly challenged people’s ideas about how big God’s love is. Some loved Him for it, and some hated Him for it. Here at Caesarea Philippi Jesus sought to push the boundaries of His disciples’ understanding of the grace of God.
The King James Version of the Bible translates verse eighteen of the above passage to say that the gates of Hell will not prevail against Christ’s church. The King James Version translates a good many words as “Hell.” Some it probably shouldn’t. Saying such things is probably close to sacrilege to some. Everyone knows that Jesus and the apostles spoke King James English, right? No, the King James Version is a translation, a good one, but it has its strengths and weaknesses.
If we think Jesus was talking about Hell in the traditional since, this passage does not make sense. Why would the church want to storm the gates of Hell? Is there any place in the Bible that says the church would or should do such a thing? Hell does fit in this context, but Hades, which is the better translation, does. Hades is the equivalent of the Old Testament Sheol, the place of the dead.
Did the Old Testament people of God go to heaven when they died? It may surprise us that according to the scriptures and the understanding in Jesus’ day, they did not. Sin separated humanity from God not only in this life but also in the next. The dead were not in heaven but in Sheol or Hades. The tradition of Jesus day was that Hades had two huge gates. Those gates remained locked awaiting the day the Messiah would come and set the captives free.
At Caesarea Philippi Jesus was saying that day was now upon them. We see this concept in the book of Revelation where Jesus, the risen Lord, says I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death. (REV 1:8)
The early church understood this concept well. An early sermon from a fellow named Melito (AD 195) describes this thought in the most profound way. Speaking of Christ, he writes:
But he rose from the dead
And mounted up to the heights of heaven.
When the Lord had clothed himself with humanity,
And had suffered for the sake of the sufferer,
And had been bound for the sake of the imprisoned,
and had been judged for the sake of the condemned,
and buried for the sake of the one who was buried,
he rose up from the dead,
and cried with a loud voice:
Who is he that contends with me?
Let him stand in opposition to me.
I set the condemned man free;
I give the dead man life;
I raised up one who had been entombed.
Who is my opponent?
I, he says, am the Christ.
I am the one who destroyed death,
And triumphed over the enemy,
And trampled Hades underfoot,
And bound the strong one,
And carried off man
To the heights of heaven.
I, he says, am the Christ.
Jesus’ statement in Matthew sixteen has multilayers of meaning. The closer we look, the more we see. This incident takes place at Caesarea Philippi. That is no accident. If we recall our first century history, Herod the Great was king in Palestine until about 4 BC. When he died, the Romans divided his kingdom between Herod’s three sons. The one that got the Northeast region was Philip. When Philip came to power, he changed the name of the city from Paneas to Caesarea Philippi. He did so to honor two people. It does not take a language specialist to figure out who those two people were. The name Caesarea was to honor Caesar and the second name Philippi Philip chose to honor himself.
Caesarea Philippi was the most pagan place in all of Palestine. Most devout Jews would probably avoid it altogether, but Jesus went there deliberately. In a rocky part of the city on a bluff were two temples. One was built to honor Caesar. That alone would be considered blasphemy to the Jews, but nearby there was another temple built to worship the Greek god Pan. In fact, it was the worldwide center for Pan worship. As part of their devotion the followers of Pan would perform acts so lewd that I cannot mention them in this article. Right next to Pan’s temple was a great crevice or crack in the ground. It was thought to be the place where the dead spirits would go to and from Hades. It was called “The Gates of Hell.” Well, at least that is what the translators of the King James Version would call it. Its actual name was “The Gates of Hades.”
In proclaiming that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against His church, Jesus was saying His victory would not only encompass the afterlife but this life as well. Neither Caesar nor paganism would prevail against His people. If you recall the history of the first millennium, you know His words came true. Though Rome and Paganism tried to snuff out the light of the gospel, they were not able to do so.
Yet, Jesus’ words had an even more powerful meaning. Jesus deliberately took his disciples to the most sinful, Caesar glorying place in Palestine to give the revelation of who He was. Most devout Jews would probably avoid this city altogether. Here is where our ideas about God might be challenged a bit. I have heard it said that God only visits holy places. He only dwells in places where He feels welcome and where He is not offended. And many teach that God is offended quite easily. Where there is sin, God vacates the premises. However, the gospels reveal that such teachings are far from the truth.
Jesus hung out with sinners. He dined with tax collectors. The tax collectors were considered the greatest sinners of the day. They were cheats, traitors to their own people, and just plain thugs. These were people to be avoided. Jesus sought them out. He often went out of His way to find those in darkness. In Mark chapter five we read about Jesus’ encounter with a demon possessed man in the Gadarenes. This man was a gentile. We know this because he lived in the gentile territory of the Gadarenes. Gentiles were considered unclean. Strike one. This fellow dwelt among the tombs and pigs. Tombs were unclean according to Jewish law, and Jews and pigs definitely did not mix. Strike two. He was demon possessed. Strike three. Not a Jew on the planet would go near this man, except one. Jesus. Moreover, the Lord did not just happen upon this fellow. He went out of His way to find him.
At Caesarea Philippi we see Jesus revealing the glory of Who He is in perhaps the darkest corner of Palestine. What does this say for us? What about the darkest corners of our own lives? We all have areas of our lives we don’t want anyone else to see. The Lord might visit us when we are doing everything right, but He surely does not go to those places hidden in shame. If we think such things, the revelation at Caesarea Philippi should tell us to think again. Jesus’ proclamation tells us to look for the Lord in the areas of our greatest weakness and failure, because that is where He is going to be. There He declares that He is the Christ, and the darkness cannot prevail against Him. It is in such places that He wants to reveal the glory of Who He is.
How should this affect the way we look at our world around us? Have you ever thought of a place or person as being Godforsaken? Jesus showed on that day at Caesarea Philippi there is no such place or person. He revealed that He was a bigger Messiah than they could have ever imagined. His love was more vast than they could have expected. God wants to make that same revelation in our hearts, and when we see Jesus as He is, we are free.