Jesus said to Peter: "And I say to you , You are Peter ("Rock" in Greek - Petros, and in Aramaic - Cepha), and upon this Rock, I will build my Church, and the gates ("pulai" in Greek, "sha'ar" in Hebrew) of Hell shall not prevail against it." Matt. 16:18
When the words of Jesus are read or heard, the understanding that occurs is often the opposite of what is intended. Often the understanding is that the Church will be preserved from succumbing under the battering of Hell. But the opposite is true. The gates are not an offensive weapon but a defensive fortification. The Church is the one on the offensive, rather than being the one on the defensive, and it is Hell that is the one being battered and breached. We ought understand the words of Jesus in this way - the gates of Hell shall not prevail under the onslaught of the Church against them!
The gates, what are they? Informing the "gates" of this passage is not what is understood by gates today. Today it conjures up the picture of wooden or metal rather flattened barrier standing in the way of the entrance, and on hinges, closing the entrance off, and secured by some type of bar or lock. Ancient Israel did know this type of gate, but that was only the most outer part of a complex defensive fortification, the key to the defense of the whole city.
Tel Dan in the north of Israel provides a good example. An enemy desiring to gain entrance to the city, must ride or go on foot along the bottom of the high outer walls exposed to view and weapons of the defenders on the ramparts. He then must turn left to approach the outer gate. The holes may still be found sunk into stone within which were the posts of the outer gates which swung open and shut. Around this gate area is stony but leveled ground upon which the defending force could be amassed. Then the intruder host must again turn left to force entry into what can only be called the "gateway"., a more accurate translation than "gate".
The Tel Dan Gateway entrance
The turn is a calculated defensive stratagem as it breaks a charge, causing horse and man to be slowed at a crucial point and to be exposed sideways. That is the point where the intruder cannot employ weapons while having his flank fully exposed. Surviving intruders than find themselves in a wide area, which in peaceful times is the location for the King and his elders and for the rendering of judgement "at the gates". At Tel Dan the King's huge judgement seat has been reconstructed over the widely spaced original holes in the stone and to the side is the ledge serving as the seat of the elders. But in war time, the area is full of warriors. Then the stone road leads on the left and out of this area and up (the Gateway road always leads up and thus posing more of a difficulty for the attacker. This is because fortress cities were throughout the centuries built one civilization on top of the other there being no other place to go as the original hill contained access to the precious water supply. The final city thus was situated much higher than the original city and the only way to capture it was up. This is what "tel" signifies - Tel Megiddo, Tel Lachish, Tel Hazor, Tel Dan, Tel Arad).
The gateway now narrows, again important as it allows entrance to only two at a time or at the most three, but almost immediately, the intruder is confronted with the pilasters. These were protrusions from the side of the walls lining the road into the city, usually in pairs or triplets on either side of the road, which make for rooms for soldiers or guards. In Canaanite times they were shallow rooms, in Israelite times deeper. Invaders would be attacked from either side of the road from these rooms, successively as they made their way up.
Gateway with protruding pilasters and elevated embankments for attacking intruders on the road below.
The intruding invaders were also, and at the same time, attacked all along the way from up above them as the road was below ground level and shadowed by embankments all along the way. From above, there rained down upon the intruding men and horses’ arrows, stones and boiling oil. The way now was slow, blocked by dead and dying man and horse. Then the road turned again, this time to the right, slowing and exhausting and exposing the attacker's flank, and only then could the intruder be said to be in the city - only to be met by more defenders.
Hell is likened to a Fortified City of the underworld, which not only defends itself but also retains its captives, the sons of men, within its fortifications. Hell must be breached in order to rescue them. The Fury of Hell's defenders is pure Tumult and Shriek. That is the nature of the Fortified City in Israel, which informs the Old Testament backdrop to the New Testament sayings. The attack from the viewpoint of the besieged city can be visualized by the following: Many of the cities were double cities - a lower city and and upper city. Around this complex was the open field containing tents and dwellings for living and work. . At the approach of an enemy, the men, women, children, and animals crowd into the lower city which is protected by the walls of the city. The lower city, already crowded with dwellings for the populous, and defending warriors, becomes even more so. If the lower city is breached, the upper city, containing administrative functions, garrisons, food and grains storage, shrines, water access, etc. become intolerably crowded, hoping for the attack and the siege to be over. Such were some of the cities of Israel as indicated by the AYIM at the end of their names. AYIM means "double"- the double cities, upper and lower. Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), Mahanayim, Kiryatayim etc. Other cities were also "double" but without indication in their names.
The spiritual application
Have you walked in the depths of the Abyss? Have the gateways (SHA'ARei) of Death been exposed to you, the gateways (SHA'ARei) of the Dark Oppression? Job 38:17
I said in the waning of my days, To the gateway (SHA'ARei) of Sheol I have been commanded, That is what awaits the remainder of my days. I said, I will not see the LORD, the LORD!, in the Land of the living. I will not see men any more, people of the inhabited world. Isaiah 38:10
Christ never sent anyone anywhere without Him having gone there first. Christ has entered into the battle before us, and in behalf of us. He has breached the walls, successfully gone through the gateway, and penetrated deep into the Enemy's stronghold to rescue the captives.
The following Scriptures may best be understood in the context of Christ's successful invasion, intrusion and breaching of the Gates of Hades and his rescuing the captives that were and the captives to come.
In the body, He was put to death, in the spirit, He was raised to life. And in the spirit, He went to preach to the spirits in prison...
...the resurrection of Jesus Christ who has entered heaven and is at God's right hand
The dead had to be told the Good News as well, so that though, in their life on earth, they had been through the judgement that comes to all humanity, they might come to God's life in the spirit. 1 Peter 4: 5,6
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him"[ 2 Corinthians 2:14
This is why it says: "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men." (What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the Heavens, in order to fill the whole universe). (NRSV) Ephesians 4: 8-10
Orthodox Churches often represent the above (known as the harrowing of Hell - "hell" understood as Hades rather than the eternal abode or condition) in their iconography. The verses above answer the question where Jesus was on Holy Saturday, the day in between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. He had entered through the Gateway and was now bringing the captives out:
But the Church on earth ("Church Militant") continues the attack on Hell's fortress, not of the underworld, but on the Devil's dominion and inroads on this earth. Christ promises that Hell's gateways will give way before us. Thus, the Kingdom of God and His righteousness spreads and captives are set free.
"I say to you, you are that Rock, and on this Rock I will build my community, the ones I have called to join me in the battle. The Gateways of Hell will not withstand that attack you will make on it!".
What remains to understand is the "Rock". Though "rock" has been used to describe both God and Christ, there is another reference which may be in force here. It is true that the Church is built upon a Rock, but this rock may be flung with us on it! or, better still, we are that rock. We are Peter! It is true that the image of the church being built upon a rock somehow bringing down Hell's defensive gates may be hard to put together to the modern mind. But the mixing and superimposing of images frequent to the Hebrew mind of the Old Testament does away with the problem. The Gates are not in motion, not being thrown. It is the rock which is in motion, which is flung against the gates. This rock, once thrown, has the force to destroy the gates and the Kingdom of the Enemy and this rock, precisely being cast against the enemy kingdom is pictured for us in the book of Daniel:
"In the time of these kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, and this kingdom will not pass into the hands of another race; it shall shatter and destroy all the previous kingdoms, and itself last forever - just as you saw [here is what Daniel saw, "and I was looking and I saw a rock cut out of the mountain, a rock untouched by human hands and it struck..."] the stone untouched by hand break from the mountain and shatter iron, bronze, earthenware, silver and gold." Daniel 2: 44,45
What Christians need to do is be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves, identify the target, and engage. There is much at stake - the lives of others as well as our own. The targets for today may be societal ills, such as abortion, or they may be personal sins, that all experience and all struggle with. Often it is a mixture of both the societal and personal. They are many, and some are obstinate and resistant, but they cannot stand to the sway and say of the Savior, Jesus Christ. By His grace, we will succeed.