Attacking the Gates of Hell

Note: this message was preached on Sunday, May 15, 2016.

Apparently you survived Friday the Thirteenth. The infamous day was two days ago. It came three times last year—be glad it comes only once in 2016. (My father was born on a Friday the thirteenth, a fact which friends over the years have held against me.)

In response to this superstition, a Philadelphia group calling itself the "Friday the 13th Club" began meeting in 1936 on Friday the thirteenth at 1:13 PM (13:13 PM on military time) They had lunch, walked under ladders, broke mirrors, and spilled salt. The group disbanded in 2000; perhaps we should create a new one.

Friday the Thirteenth is over, but you're not out of the woods yet. Today begins National Dog Bite Prevention Week. Why would we need such a week?

Dogs bit more than about 6,500 on-duty mail carriers in the country last year, according to the U.S. Postal Service. This is a significant increase from the previous year. Most incidents took place in Houston. Dallas tied for third nationally; Fort Worth came in tenth.

What dogs are biting our culture today? What bad luck has found us? What challenges are you facing personally? What should you do about them?

Last Sunday I was in Israel, leading a study tour. One of the most significant events of the entire week came at a place filled with more evil, sin, and horror than we can imagine. Yet Jesus chose that place to found his church.

What we learned there applies to us here.

Go to the "gates of hell" (Matthew 16:13–18)

Our text begins: "When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say the Son of Man is?'" (v. 13). This "region" (mere, area) stood 1,150 feet above sea level on the southwest base of Mt. Hermon, the tallest peak in Israel (standing more than 9,000 feet above sea level). The area is one of the most beautiful sites in Israel; whenever I lead study tours to the Holy Land we always take a day to visit.

The site was known as "Caesarea" in honor of Emperor Augustus, who gave the district to Herod the Great in 20 B.C. His son Philip rebuilt and beautified the town after his father's death in 4 B.C., and named it in honor of both Caesar and himself.

An ancient cave is prominent; before earthquakes filled in its floor it led to a shaft that bored so deeply into the earth, its depth was never discovered. To the ancients this was the "Gates of Hades," the doorway to the underworld. The Romans built a magnificent white marble temple in front of this cave, dedicated to the worship of the emperor.

Pagan worshipers traveling through the area left idols on shelves they carved into the rock of the hillside. They believed their god Pan to have been born in the cave, and called the area Panias (or Banias). Fourteen temples to the worship of Baal were scattered around the region as well.

The site is located 120 miles from Jerusalem and twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee; it was north of Israel's historic boundaries, in the heart of Gentile paganism. Jewish pilgrims seldom if ever visited the area. Jesus and his disciples had to hike for days, climbing 1,700 feet uphill, to reach it.

Claims about Jesus

When they did, he spent some time in private prayer (Luke 9:18) and then asked them, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" His disciples were quick to answer: "They replied, 'Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets'" (v. 14). 

The first option was the opinion of Herod: "At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, 'This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him'" (Matt. 14:1–2).  Those who agreed with him saw Jesus as a reincarnated messenger sent to prepare the way for the military Messiah to come.

"Others say Elijah," they reported. Most Jews considered him the greatest of their prophets. God had promised: "I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse" (Malachi 4:5–6). Since he did not die (2 Kings 2:11–12), many expected him to return in person. Modern Jewish Passover celebrations include an empty chair for Elijah, in hopes that he will come to announce the Messiah's arrival.

"Still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets," they added. Some Jews apparently expected Jeremiah to return before the Messiah came, to bring the Ark and other Temple furnishing back to their rightful place. In addition, Jesus' judgments against the people (Matt. 11:20–24) and about the temple (Matt. 12:6; 24:1­2) may have reminded them of this prophet.

Professing the Christ

Now we come to the point of Jesus' question: "'But what about you?' he asked. 'Who do you say I am?'" (v. 15). The first "you" is emphatic in the Greek; we could paraphrase, "But what about your opinion?" The One who knew "all things" (John 21:17) did not need the disciples to give him popular estimates regarding his identity. His purpose in asking was to compare conventional wisdom with the growing understanding of his own followers.

Then Peter spoke up: "Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God'" (v. 16). "Christ" identifies Jesus as the Messiah, the promised deliverer of the nation. But "Son of the living God" clarifies—he would not be a mere man come to deliver the people, but God himself come to save his people.

Our Lord accepted and agreed with his lead apostle's declaration: "Jesus replied, 'Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven'" (v. 17). "Simon bar Jonah" was Peter's given name. By using it rather than the nickname he assigned him, Jesus emphasized his humanity. He did not want Peter to become prideful as a result of his correct declaration (this was a consistent temptation for Peter; cf. Matt. 26:33; Luke 22:33).

Peter made the first essential step toward sacrificial discipleship: know the One you serve. Focus on him as your King and Lord. Proclaim him with what you say and do.  Seek to glorify him with your service, whatever its cost. Remember that you serve him, not yourself.

Then Jesus made the universal and timeless declaration, "I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (v. 18). "Peter" translates petros, "small rock" or "pebble." "Rock" translates petra, "massive boulder." The "rock" on which Jesus built his church is himself and Peter's declaration about him.

Then and there, facing the most ungodly, pagan site imaginable, Jesus began the church. For this purpose: "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." A literal translation would be, "the gates of hell will not withstand its assault."

From then to today we know that the church exists for one reason: to attack the gates of hell. We are an army, not a building; a movement, not an institution. We exist to take Christ to the culture. We are commissioned to "go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). We are called to take Christ to our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). We are to go to the world for the sake of the Lord.

Find your ministry

Now, how does this story relate to your story? Consider this fact: all Jesus was, he still is.

Peter pronounced him the "Christ, the Son of the Living God." He is still that. He is still God's promised one—he will return one day as King of kings and Lord of lords. He is still the Son of the Living God, Lord of all that is. What he was, he is.

When Jesus founded his church, who would have imagined that the Empire and its emperor worship would one day crumble on the ash heap of history? That Baalism and paganism would disappear? That the fledgling movement begun that day by a Galilean rabbi would encircle the globe with two billion followers?

This week I read a fascinating article on the amazing growth of the Christian church:

  • In AD 100, there was one Christian for every 360 non-Christians in the world.
  • In AD 1000, the ratio was 1:270.
  •  In AD 1500, it was 1:85.
  • In AD 1900, it was 1:21.
  • In AD 1970, it was 1:13.
  • Today it is 1:2.

Now consider these facts:

  • There were 17,400 Christian missionaries in 1900; today the number exceeds 400,000.
  • The number of Christians in Africa has grown from less than ten percent to nearly fifty percent.
  • Christianity in Asia is growing at twice the population rate.
  • In China, there were one million Protestants in 1949; today there are 58 million. By 2030, China will be the largest Christian nation in the world.
  • Christianity in Iran is growing at twenty percent per year, the fastest rate in the world.

Jesus is still attacking the gates of hell. And he calls us to join him.


When we face challenges, God wants us to go to him and then go to them. He wants us to seek his power and protection, then take his word to our world. The "spiritual armor" (Ephesians 6) has no covering for the back. When we retreat, we're on our own. When we advance, we go in his power.

So ask yourself two questions:

One: What is your ministry? What is God calling you to do as you join him in taking his word to the world?

Two: Who is your strength? Who are you trusting with your challenges? To whom do you turn with your needs? Self-sufficiency is still spiritual suicide. Trust the One who founded the church to be your power and Lord today.

Jonathan Edwards, the great preacher of the First Great Awakening, once wrote in his diary: "Resolved first: that every man should live to the glory of God. Resolved second: that whether others do this or not, I will." William Carey, the pioneer missionary to India, stated: "I am not my own, nor would I choose for myself. Let God employ me where he thinks fit." F. B. Meyer, perhaps the greatest preacher of his generation, said, "If I had a hundred lives, they should be at Christ's disposal."

Is your life at Christ's disposal today?