"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.
The question is asked: what rock is this, and what are the gates of Hades?
What rock is this? There are three currents of opinion:
a) it refers to Peter himself, supported mainly by the catholic institutions who see here the appointment of Peter as the leader of the church. Peter and rock are two different words in the Greek in which the Gospel was written, but both equally translate the aramaic Kêphâ the language in which the Lord Jesus probably spoke. Comment: the disciples did not understand that he meant Peter, for shortly afterwards they argued between themselves about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:1, Mark 9:34); neither is this opinion confirmed by teaching and later events recorded in the Scriptures.
b) it is the declaration made by Peter in the previous verse: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." In Greek, the language used by the Holy Spirit to transmit the Gospels to us, Peter (Petros) is a stone, or the chip of a rock, while that rock (petrâi) is a rock, or cliff, the same word used for the rock on which the wise man built his house (Matthew 7:24). The Lord Jesus was making a pun with the word Kêphâ, referring first to Peter then to what he had declared, and this is the rock on which the church of Christ is built.
c) it is the Lord Jesus himself. In accordance with many Scriptures which call Him rock, or corner stone (Psalm 118.22, Matthew 21:42, Ephesians 2:20, etc.), thus also it was understood by Peter (Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:6,7), and it was a pun as explained in " b ". It is as if He had said: "Simon, it was the Father who disclosed to you what you have declared; I also say to you that your name is Stone, but now I reveal to you that on this Rock (pointing to Himself) I will build My church ".
The first answer it is not justifiable, the second is acceptable and has good supporters, but the third has a firmer base in the Scriptures, being perfectly in accordance with Ephesians 2:20 where we read, with reference to the church: "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone… "
The apostles and prophets are not the foundation, but their foundation is the teaching of Christ Jesus, the chief cornerstone whose position and dimensions, as in the buildings of that time, direct the whole building.
What are the gates of Hades? The Greek word Hades, is a translation of the Hebrew Sheol, the invisible world where the deceased go. Sheol comprises the Gehena, where the spirits of those destined to eternal death go (Matthew 5:29, 10:28, etc.), and Abraham's Bosom where those of the righteous go (Luke 16:22,23). For example, between His death and resurrection Christ went to Paradise, another word for Abraham's Bosom (Luke 23:43), in Hades (Acts 2:27, 31). The word Sheol is sometimes translated as the grave (Genesis 37:35, etc.) and pit (Numbers 16:30,33, Isaiah 14:15, etc. ).
We have in the verse in focus the picture of two buildings, the church of Christ on the Rock, and the house of the Death, or Sheol, with its gates. These gates are mentioned in the Old Testament (Job 38:17; Psalm 9:13; 107:18; Isaiah the 38:10) and the idea is that they only give entrance, not allowing exit to anybody. But they could not prevent Christ from leaving, when he triumphantly rose again to the world of the living, by means of His resurrection.
Nor will they prevail against His church. Having won victory over death, Christ is the guarantee of its perpetuity. When Christ comes for His church, those who have died in Him will rise again and those still living will be transformed, to live for ever with Him. Then "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?" "… But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Corinthians 15:54, 55,57).
"I will build my church": it is the first time that the church of Christ is mentioned in the New Testament. It does not appear in the Old Testament. Christ says that He is going to build it Himself. If He is the Rock on which the church is built, how can He also build it? In physical terms this would be impossible.
We see the relationship between Christ and this spiritual building, the church, in 1 Peter 2:4-10:
The cornerstone: "Behold, I lay in Zion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious, and he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame." Being the Word of God, the Lord Jesus came to the world, taking upon Himself the form of Son of Man, made God known to us and allowed us to have eternal life when He gave Himself as a sacrifice for us on the cross.
The stones used in the construction: "You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." The prime substance of the construction consists of people, all those who have been saved by grace through faith in the redeeming work of Christ, and they are the "living stones". He doesn't build His church with ideas, doctrines, philosophies or methods. They are good for nothing, no matter how excellent and orthodox they may be, if in the first place there are no converted souls to observe them.
The builder: resurrected and having received supreme authority from the Father, the Lord Jesus is building this construction of which we who believe in Him are part. He nourishes and cares for His church (Ephesians 5:29), because it is His body of which He is the head (Colossians 1:18,24). It is very important to absorb this: "may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you into our minds" (1 Peter 5:10). The builder is not a faulty man, nor a local church nor an ecclesiastical entity: he is the eternal God, in the person of Christ! Paul himself said, about his mission of apostle: "… we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, you are God's building."
The church of Christ is a spiritual building that encompasses the entire world, it started on the day of Pentecost and will be finished on the day when Christ comes to take it up with Him to heaven. It is not just one local church, therefore " you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light." (1 Peter 2:9). It is the universal church, still being formed today, and not yet begun when the Lord Jesus said those words. Through the cross Gentiles and Jews were and continue to be united and reconciled to God in only one body, having access to the Father in one Spirit and becoming a part of the family of God. This is the spiritual building that is now under construction, on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). It is by the church that the manifold wisdom of God is made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord ( Ephesians 3:11).
Note: an assembly or church that meets in any place should not be confused with this eternal building, " the church of Christ ". The local church will be "the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" if it is submissive, faithful and obedient to Him. Local churches are essential for the practice of love and fellowship between believers, instruction, mutual support, and growth "into a holy temple in the Lord, built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit." (Ephesians 2:21-22). In the same way as the church of Christ, it is made up of people: there is little to gain in emphasising purity of doctrine, rules of faith or an uncontaminated communion, within a vacuum.
Local churches are born and also die: there is no guarantee of perpetuity. They die because of the decease or moving away of its members, if there are no survivors. These are natural causes.
But, if they are not vigilant, local churches are also in danger of declining and dying spiritually, poisoned by heresies, contaminated by alliances with the world or stifled by regulations and traditions of men, imposed by their overseers or resulting from alliances, conventions and ecclesiastical ties with other churches like them. Though it would be highly desirable for all its members always to be "living stones" of the church of Christ, they are unfortunately subject to the infiltration of unbelievers disguised as believers. The "living stones" which happen to be within them will suffer because of this, but even if the local church dies spiritually they will never cease to belong to the church of Christ, for they have been saved through the grace of God by faith, and have eternal life which will never be taken away from them.
R David Jones