The Rock, the Ekklesia and the Gates of Hades

The ‘Rock’,  the ‘Ekklesia’  and

the ‘Gates of Hades’

Jim van Heiningen

“On this rock I will build my church,

and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it”

(Matthew 16:18).

When Jesus mentions the ‘gates of Hades’ in the New Testament, He is not coining a new expression or introducing the disciples to a new concept. In the Old Testament they are mentioned some six times (Job, Psalms and Isaiah); God himself speaks about them in Job 38. Now, the seventh time, it is the Son who mentions the ‘gates of Hades’ – and it is the only time in the New Testament.

Should you wonder about “Ekklesia” – the word we’re using in this article – it is the actual word used by Matthew for “church”. It means “congregation”, or the “company of the called out ones”.

‘Hades’, the Greek name for the realm of death, was called ‘Sheol’ in Hebrew, and so, in the Old Testament, we read about the “gates of Sheol” or the “gates of death”. That realm of Sheol/Hades was thought of as a city with gates. Even today we may speak of ‘death’s door’. And so when Jesus spoke of the “gates of Hades”, there were no raised eyebrows. It made perfect sense to his listeners. They understood that once a person had gone through those gates, he was truly ‘gone’ – he was not coming back.

     Beyond the Gates 

Jesus knew both the ‘rich man’ and poor Lazarus (Lk. 16) – He knew them in life and He knew them in death. That is, He not only knew them perfectly before they entered the ‘gates’, He also knew them beyond the ‘gates’. His account about these two men makes us realize that they were in two distinct parts of Hades – two parts which had between them an unbridgeable ‘gulf fixed’. The part where the believers were confined was called “Abraham’s bosom”.

Later we learn from Peter and from Paul that our Lord himself “also first descended” into Hades, but then that “He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens” – and that He is the One who “led captivity captive” (Eph. 4). The ‘invincible’ gates of Hades stopped being invincible – Jesus Christ rose triumphantly from the grave and from Hades (Acts 2:27-31). He had descended there, not as one defeated, but as One victorious. He went in to claim all of the redeemed – all who had died since Abel, and were confined to Hades, in “Abraham’s bosom”. The Conqueror took them with him to heaven (John 20:17).

The Conquering Captain 

Solomon tells us that “Sheol is never satisfied and never says: ‘Enough!’” (Pr. 30:15-16). The gates of Hades had swallowed up all – with the apparent exceptions of Enoch, Moses and Elijah. But, as Hebrews 2 tells us, the ‘Captain of our salvation’, Jesus Christ, appeared and dealt decisively with “him who had the power (and dominion) of death, that is, the devil”.

Whoever was going to break the power of the ‘gates of Hades’, would first have to enter through them. That is what He did – and then He rose..! He cancelled the power and dominion of the ‘gates’ over human beings. Any man or woman who swears allegiance to the Conquering Captain is released! The believer’s body may still die, but he will never enter those gates.

Subject to Bondage     

The gates of Hades represent Satan’s “power (and dominion) of death”. This cynical and sinister power pervades everything on earth – death still reigns supreme among those not (yet) released by the Captain. “Through fear of death [they continue] all their lifetime subject to bondage”. Satan is “the Prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). God’s children too may still experience fear. The apostle John did, but what the risen Lord told him is what He tells us: “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. 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. 1:17-18). The gates of Hades and Death, now without their keys, have been rendered ineffective, i.e. they have lost their grip and control over all who embrace the conquering Captain!


The keys were wrested from “him who had the power (and dominion) of death, that is the devil”. Our Lord secured them through his own death and resurrection. All this was perfectly foreseen by him, and so, in Matthew 16, it is in that light that He speaks to the disciples about the coming Ekklesia. Its ‘building ground’ would be the Rock of his absolute and eternal victory – He himself would be the Builder. But the environment would be hostile and intimidating – to such a degree that Jesus openly speaks of the gates of Hades, in other words, of Satan’s rage and Satan’s determination to prevail against that Ekklesia. Earlier He had already told them: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues” (Mt. 10:16-17).

Final Outcome  

At the same time, of course, Jesus points to the future: “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it”. In all their hostility and determination to wipe out the redeemed and ruin their testimony on earth, Satan and Hades will not succeed. There will be a ‘day of reckoning’ and a final deathblow. Hades itself will be cast into the ‘lake of fire’ (Rev. 20:14); “then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’” (1 Co. 15:54).

The Other Reality    

The Ekklesia is thought of as a Building, a Body and a Bride – as a Building, with special reference to its Foundation; as a Body, with special reference to its Functions; and as a Bride, with special reference to its glorious Future. However, in the context of Matthew 16 we may also see it as a Bridgehead, with special reference to the Frontline.

A ‘bridgehead’ is set up by a military force, an advance unit that has crossed the frontlines, invading enemy territory. It is to establish itself there, as firmly as possible, and prepare for the arrival of the main army under its Great Captain. As it defies all the accumulated force and fury of the enemy, in this case the “Prince of the world”, the bridgehead may look extremely vulnerable. Even so, its mission is to extend its hold on more and more territory, i.e. on more and more ‘souls of men’ (Acts 1:8).

The Kingdom of Heaven  

The Great Captain, on his way with the main force (Rev. 19), is fully aware of the situation. He is also in constant touch with his Ekklesia bridgehead. “Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world. I have given them your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world” (Jn. 17:11, 14-15, 18).
Right from the beginning of the New Testament the imminence of the main ‘ Kingdom of Heaven ’ force was recognized and proclaimed (Mt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7). But then the strategy of the ‘bridgehead’ was unfolded (Mt. 16:13-27; Acts 1:3, 8).

Wrestle and Rescue

Even now the Kingdom of Heaven is not yet here – the Ekklesia bridgehead is being given more time to rescue those who are under the spell of the gates of Hades, and in their bondage – “on some have compassion..; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (Jude 22-23). This is the word from HQ in case we slacken: “Finally.., be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Eph. 6:10-13).

Being the Lord’s own in this world was never meant to be a sinecure (little work, good pay). As one soldier told another: “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Tim. 2:3-4). “Till I come”, the Captain said, ‘be busy!’ (Lk. 19:13).

The ‘Local Ekklesia’

So far we have been applying these things to the universal Ekklesia. What the Lord is announcing in Matthew 16 is the building on the Rock of the universal Ekklesia – in the face of the gates of Hades. But in Matthew 18 He goes on to the local ekklesia. And it is here in these verses – from 15 till 20 – that we find all the basic instructions for those who ‘man’ the local ‘bridgehead’ – that is for you and me in the local congregation! They are imperative instructions:

1. Crucial contact with the Captain (20);
2. Constant consultations with HQ (19);
3. Collective concord in the Spirit (19);
4. Consistent compliance with the heavenly initiative (18);
5. Clearheaded corrections even when acutely painful (17);
6. Close conformity to detail (16);
7. Caring consideration of every single companion (15).

Clouding Concerns

Conspicuously absent are any instructions about organization, denomination, hierarchy, statutes, sanctuary, pastor, pulpit, altar, ceremonies, traditions, etc. All such concerns, important though they may seem from a religious point of view, really cloud the issues. The whole passage stands or falls on whether the last verse is reality: Jesus Christ in the midst of his followers, however few they may be – communicating to them, blessing them, equipping them and guiding them!  Nothing less will do!

None of men’s splendid and ‘time-honored’ maneuverings will stop the advance of the gates of Hades. That advance has been spectacular in what used to be ‘Christian Europe’ – across the board, whether we are thinking of the RC Church, of Lutherans, Anabaptists, Calvinists, Anglicans, Methodists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals… We can now only speak of “secular Europe ”, but before very long that looks like changing to “Muslim Europe”. Many of the 15 million Muslims in Europe are already agitating and asserting themselves.

Hades Marching On

The gates of Hades will never prevail against the universal Ekklesia, but the way they have prevailed against local ekklesias throughout history is astounding! Bridgehead after local bridgehead has been, and is, succumbing! Only just the other day we were told of the only (!) Evangelical church in a big Spanish town, “The Abundant Life Church”. It was swallowed up by the gates of Hades. Nothing remained! You can probably add your own stories of similar disasters.

The Captain wrote brief letters to seven local ekklesias (Rev. 2-3). In no uncertain terms does He tell them what is really going on: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” – the gates of Death and Hades getting on with the job.
The reality of him being “in the midst” of his local ekklesia is both simple and breathtaking. Yet in stark contrast to that reality, one ‘bridgehead’ (in Laodicea ) had decided they could go it alone – so they had him outside the door..! In fact He was crowded out by all their ‘improvements’. They were now ‘rich’ and ‘wealthy’ and ‘in need of nothing’. Makes you think that even at that time the “prosperity gospel” must have been a useful weapon in the enemy’s hand.

The ‘Hades-strategies’ are working fine today – more and more bridgeheads being maneuvered into that Laodicea ‘stage’. It is the ‘pre-swallow’ stage.

Bewitched and Bewildered

The once so valiant bridgeheads of Galatia had very foolishly allowed themselves to be bewitched by the enemy; it got them “under a curse” and they had become “estranged from Christ” (Gal. 3 & 5). Indeed, there is not a bridgehead in the world that can successfully stand up to the “wiles of the devil”, unless it sincerely follows the counsel of Peter: “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon him, for He cares for you. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world” (1 Pet. 5:6-9).

The Lord of the Ekklesia will keep the gates of Hades at bay, if and when the men and women of his ‘bridgeheads’ truly “humble themselves under the mighty hand of God”, and are truly “sober and vigilant”, and truly “resist the enemy, steadfast in the faith”.

Draw Near and HE…

How’s your ‘bridgehead’ faring these days? More or less happily trudging along in the familiar church ruts and routines, and not much of a threat to Satan’s dominion in the area? Perhaps already close to shutting down? Or… truly conscious of these realities: “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5)?
Says James: “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (Jas. 4:7-10).

Dare to Be a Daniel

It is truly amazing what God can do, and what He will do, when a heart is open to him. Hebrews 11 mentions by name some who have gone before, right from Abel through patriarchs and judges and on to the prophets, “who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens” (33-34). The following verses also describe the very high cost of suffering many had to pay for their faithfulness. All these “of whom the world was not worthy” are now a tremendous inspiration to us – chosen as we are and commissioned by the Captain to be part of a local ‘bridgehead’. “Out of weakness they were made strong” and ‘out of weakness’ He makes us strong – strong in Christ!

Daniel and his three friends were young, they were captives in a pagan country, they were made eunuchs, but their one purpose remained: to be faithful to their God, even if they had to spurn local culture and traditions, the ‘done thing’, the religious sensitivities, and political correctness – even if they’d have to lay down their lives. In faraway Babylon they had their earthly masters to tell them what to do, but as far as conscience and moral choices were concerned, these very young men had only God himself! And God was enough for them.

Would you dare be a Daniel, would you dare to stand alone and go the way of the cross, the way of rejection – once you have seen the Lord’s way of simplicity in Matthew 18, once you have heard the Lord’s call to gather around HIM, swearing allegiance to HIM alone, even if that would make you part of the very few – of perhaps ‘two or three’ only?

For his local ‘bridgehead’ the Captain does not sound a call to ‘stand up and be counted!’, rather to ‘kneel down and be counted!’… After all, HE is the One who stood up to the Gates of Hades, He is the victorious One. Kneeling down to him now, together with the other few (of the “Gideon’s band” if you like), will make you an effective part of the Matthew 18:20 local ekklesia bridgehead.

The Day Approaching

Every true Christian (and every local ekklesia) has three living links to his Lord and Captain – whether these are functioning properly may be another matter. They are the links of faith, love and hope. Faith anchors him to the Rock, to the Word of God’s authority, and to the memory of all those who have gone before. Love refers to his ever-growing and intimate relationship with the Captain and with all of the redeemed in the local ekklesia bridgehead, as he continually assembles with them to ‘stir up’ and be ‘stirred up’. Hope is the wide-eyed expectation of the ‘great reward’ put before him, when, after all he has endured, doing the will of God, he will see the Captain – face to face!

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: ‘For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry’” (Hb. 10:23-25; 35-37).

By God’s grace don’t let your links be weakened, not for a moment! Do not cast away your confidence, your faith; keep on considering one another in love, and hold fast the confession of your hope – without wavering!


1 Thessalonians 5:24