Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What Does it Mean that the Gates of Hell Won't Prevail?

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to Simon:
“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Lots of ink (and blood) has been spilled on the issue of Peter's role as the Rock, and that's usually where the debate ends.  Catholics say that Simon is the rock, since Jesus just renamed him Peter (which means Rock), and this is pretty clearly what's meant.  Protestants deny this, claiming that Peter's Greek name means small rock.  Nevermind that Jesus named Peter in Aramaic, not Greek (as John 1:42 tells us), and that Petros is the masculine form of the Greek word for rock (petra).

For now, just set that issue to one side.  My concern is that we get so hung up on the Petrine/papal aspect that we ignore the broader context.  I've raised this point before, asking, “Why Did Jesus Build His Own Church?”  The answer to that question has some pretty profound implications for how we understand the idea of Church - and yes, how we understand the necessity of the papacy.  But today, I want to approach this verse from a third angle: What does Jesus mean that the Gates of Hell won't prevail?


Mormons and Protestants tend to argue that this passage just promises final triumph: that in the end, the good guys win, evil is vanquished, and Christ is glorified.  As this LDS website argues:
Did death (the word "hell" referred to here is really the Greek word Hades) prevail over Jesus Christ? Of course not. He triumphed over death. But He DID die - yet returned to life, an immortal, glorious, resurrected Being. If Christ, against whom the gates of death did not prevail, could die, then is it not possible that His Church could also die - and later be brought back to life (restored)?
But there are two problems with this interpretation.

First, death didn't prevail over Jesus, even temporarily. In John 10:17-18, He says: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”  The Cross wasn't Jesus losing, even for an instance.  Rather, the Cross was the moment in which  Jesus' victory is made visible, in which “having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the Cross” (Col. 2:15).

Second, overcoming an enemy temporarily is still prevailing.  The King James Version of Judges 6:2 says that “the hand of Midian prevailed against Israel.”  The Mormon version is identical.  But obviously, Midian didn't finally triumph over Israel.  Israel's still around, while Midian is long dead.  The Book of Judges even shows us that Midian's victory was temporary.  But no matter: Midian prevailed against Israel.

If the entire Church fell into apostasy as Mormons and many Protestants claim, even for a little while, then the Gates of Hell prevailed.  Doesn't matter if they claim that the gates prevailed for an hour or a millennium.  Christ promised that the Gates of Hell would not prevail.  We can trust Jesus that the Apostasy that these Mormons and Protestants never happened.  “Let God be true and every man a liar” (Romans 3:4).

Update: I'm going to be talking about this subject on Son Rise Morning Show on Thursday morning at 8:40 AM Eastern.  Feel free to listen in!  Go to the website and click “On the Air” to listen live, or tune in to hear it re-broadcast on EWTN Radio later on.

24 comments:

  1. Joe, a number of comments.

    1. What is your interpretation of Matthew 7:24-27?

    2. How do you know that Christ addressed Peter in Aramaic?

    3. If He did, then upon what basis do you assume that He used the word kephas for both petros and petra?

    4. If it is the case that Christ spoke in Aramaic to Peter, and if it is the case that this speech says what you think it does, then did the Holy Spirit err in inspiring the apostle to write the Gospel in Greek?

    5. If you are correct about your interpretation of the gates of Hell not prevailing against the church, would this not make either Jesus or John or Daniel a false prophet?

    For Jesus tells us that the gates of hell will not prevail against His church, but Daniel says that the antiChrist will make war and prevail against the saints, and John, likewise, says the same (cf. Dan 7:21 & Rev 13:7, note also that while the Greek word in Rev 13:7 differs from the word Christ uses in Matthew 16, it seems to be a stronger verb) - so who is right?

    6. On what basis can you purport to know what every single Christian has believed for the past 2,000 years?

    7. If your interpretation of the word "Church" differs from my Protestant understanding of the same term, then are you not guilty of committing the fallacy of equivocation?

    -h.

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  2. As I heard in a homily once, and from a slightly different perspective, gates are not offensive weapons: They hold things in or keep things out. So, if we're up against the gates of hell, they're either trying to keep us in and we have recourse to the Mercy and Love of God or they're trying to keep us from reaching out to one who is in sin, and again, they can't stop us from reaching out to the sinner.

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  3. @HRDiaz III:
    It's generally agreed that the language Jesus spoke was Aramaic. Even wiki agrees http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aramaic_of_Jesus (If you don't accept wikipedia, you can reference the footnotes which support this statement.) It's also generally agreed that Matthew's Gospel was originally written in Aramaic.

    In the Old Testament, God is the rock (see for example the Psalms: The Lord is my rock and my salvation).

    Prevailing against the Church is different than individual members succumbing to evil. Christ does not force us to follow him. He always gives us the grace we need to be faithful, but if we choose to abandon him, he allows us. He's not an abusive spouse.

    If Mr. Popery interprets the word "Church" differently, does he commit falacy or would that be your falacy? Question to ponder.

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  4. H.R.Diaz,

    1) That the Church won't ever fail, but that all competing creations of the Gospel ultimately will, even if (like the house built on sand) they're able to take a lot of the world's assaults before buckling. Scott Hahn has a great exegesis of this passage that I heard recently. I think it's quite sensible to view the Rock as both Christ and Peter in this context.

    2) John 1:42 says so. The Church Fathers also tell us that Matthew's Gospel was originally in Aramaic, even though we only have the Greek versions.

    3) John 1:42 says He used the word Kephas for Peter, and John's clear that "Petros" is a translation of the name that Jesus gave him. And there's only one word for rock in Aramaic: kephas.

    4) No. First, see the point in 2 about Matthew's Gospel originally being in Aramaic. Second, Petros is an appropriate translation of the name Kepha. It wasn't St. Matthew who claimed that Petros means small rock and that Petra means large rock. That's the error.

    5) No. Are you suggesting that Daniel 7:21 and Revelation 13:7 say that the Church will be overcome by the forces of evil? If so, it seems that you're the one claiming that the Bible (or Jesus) is wrong.

    In any case, neither Daniel 7:21 nor Revelation 13:7 says that. Both passage make it clear that the Saints will persevere and not (ever) be overcome. See Daniel 7:22 and Revelation 13:8 and 10.

    6) I have no idea what you're talking about.

    7) No. First, "Church" has a meaning in Scripture: it's not just up to you to make up a meaning. But second, my point is true even under a very broad definition of Church.

    In Christ,

    Joe

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  5. I go along with Petrus on this. For some reason, people seem to think that this means that the Church will be able to withstand the attacks of Hell; on the contrary, I say that it is Hell that will not be able to withstand the attacks of the Church! We're supposed to be the Church Militant, for crying out loud, not the Church Sedentary!

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  6. Howard and Peter,

    There was a good discussion on this mixed in the comments here.

    Short answer: the reason it's understood to mean "that the Church will be able to withstand the attacks of Hell" is because of the active phrase "prevail against." It's not saying "the Gates of Hell won't survive against the Church," but "the Gates of Hell won't 'prevail against' (or 'overcome') the Church."

    So Jesus' promise here isn't that the Church will vanquish the forces of Hell, but that the forces of Hell won't vanquish the Church. That doesn't mean the Church stops being militant, of course -- knowing that we can't lose the fight is all the more reason to get in the ring.

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  7. Joe, it sounds as though you're referring to the 'forces' of hell.

    Looking at the comments from the post you reference, I have to agree with Seth. Even metaphorically, gates are not offensive: they are a barrier, not a weapon. We can't model the metaphor after our own liking. What are gates used for? Even if you understand them as the power of a city, it's a defensive power at best.

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  8. Peter,

    The trouble is how to rectify the fact that the "Gates" imagery seems defensive, while the "prevail against" verbage (katischusousin) seems offensive.

    One seemingly harmonious way of understanding this is the imagery of siege warfare. If the Church Militant is the assaulting force, the Gates of Hell aren't passive, but defensive. That is, the Gates are where the gatesmen would be firing arrows, pouring down hot oil, and the like. If the Church is crushed, the Gates prevail.

    That's the view that I tend to take of it, but I agree that it's certainly possible to read the passage differently. For what it's worth, both views can be found in the Catena Aurea.

    Jerome says that the gates are probably “vice and sin, or at least the doctrines of heretics by which men are ensnared and drawn into hell.” Likewise, Rabanus Maurus described the Gates as “the path of destruction.” Origen said that anyone “against whomsoever the gates of hell prevail” is to be considered outside the Church. Those three all view the Gates as attacking (or at least enticing towards destruction). On the other hand, Hilary seems to take your view, saying:

    “But in this bestowing of a new name [Peter] is a happy foundation of the Church, and a rock worthy of that building, which should break up the laws of hell, burst the gates of Tartarus, and all the shackles of death. And to show the firmness of this Church thus built upon a rock, He adds, And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. ”

    So it looks like both views have solid Patristic support. But how does one account for the use of "prevail against" or "overcome" if the Gates are sheerly defensive?

    Joe

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  9. Matthew 7:24-27 is an important passage in understanding the Church. Jesus says that it's the fool whose house collapses while the wise man's house stands strong. We all know that Jesus built the Church.

    Is Jesus a wise man or a fool?

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  10. Joe,

    I appreciate the Paternal quotes (where did you find them, by the way? I did a quick search earlier and didn't find anything on point.)

    With the Fathers, I say that vice, sin, and destruction do not "prevail" over us unless we give ourselves over to them. They are the gates by which we enter into hell. They must be freely chosen to a certain extent in order to corrupt and drag to hell. So, more than attack us, they attract us in our fallen nature, and prevail by acting longer than we hold out. I note that at dictionary.com I seem to find support, where 'prevail is defined as 1) be widespread or current, 2) appear more important, 3) be or prove superior in strength, power or influence [which I note does not necessarily indicate an attack], 4) succeed, become dominant, win out [again, this can be done by holding out] and 5) use persuasion or inducement successfully.

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  11. Peter,

    The Catena Aurea here. For my narrow purposes, it would seem that either of the two views would prevent a total Apostasy.

    Joe

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  12. The Aramaic Cephas was translated into the Greek Petros. This strongly implies that Petros isn’t a proper name because proper names aren’t translated. As Oscar Cullmann argues, “if we must translate them, then in order to preserve the original impact of the word Cephas we should instead of ‘Simon Peter’ have ‘Simon Rock.’” - Cullmann, Oscar. Peter. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953. p. 19

    I think Petros was most likely a title. (Perhaps this is why James calls Peter 'Simon' at the Council of Jerusalem, Acts 15:13-14)

    From this point, we might follow Origen in saying every true believer is a Peter:

    "And if we too have said like Peter, 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,' not as if flesh and blood had revealed it unto us, but by light from the Father in heaven having shone in our heart, we become a Peter, and to us there might be said by the Word, 'Thou art Peter,' etc." - Allan Menzies, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), Origen's Commentary on Matthew, Chapters 10-11.

    Finally, it seems as if Jesus is saying the gates of Hell won't overcome the Church *because* of its foundation.

    So, it seems to me, assuming these points, a reasonable understanding of the phrase is that the bearers of the title 'Peter' can't be overcome. Cf. Rom. 8:38-39 So, the gates of hell are that which seek to overcome believers.

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  13. Stevo,

    I agree with Cullman's point. It makes little sense to me that we use "Peter" instead of "Kepha" (or "Petros" or "Cephas") or "Rock." Seems arbitrary.

    I don't think it's true that "Petros isn’t a proper name because proper names aren’t translated." As far as I know, virtually every proper name in Scripture is Hellenized: the Hebrew יְהוֹשֻׁעַ into the Greek Ἰησοῦς, for example.

    But you're right that particular care is given to ensure that readers know what Peter's name means. In that sense, it functions as both a personal name (it's given only to Simon, and is never used by anyone else) and a title.

    It's true that when we follow Christ, we all become Petrine, just as we become Christian. So we bear both the One Name and the other. But I don't think that makes us Peter, any more than it makes us Christ.

    God bless,

    Joe

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  16. Joe:

    You wrote:

    "1) That the Church won't ever fail, but that all competing creations of the Gospel ultimately will, even if (like the house built on sand) they're able to take a lot of the world's assaults before buckling. Scott Hahn has a great exegesis of this passage that I heard recently. I think it's quite sensible to view the Rock as both Christ and Peter in this context."

    The teaching of Christ is The Rock. He makes this clear when He says that anyone who hears these words of mind and does them is like a man who builds his house on a rock.

    I don't see Peter in this passage at all.

    "2) John 1:42 says so. The Church Fathers also tell us that Matthew's Gospel was originally in Aramaic, even though we only have the Greek versions."

    Is John 1:42 parallel to Matthew 16:18?

    "3) John 1:42 says He used the word Kephas for Peter, and John's clear that "Petros" is a translation of the name that Jesus gave him. And there's only one word for rock in Aramaic: kephas."

    Kephas corresponds to petros. But there is another word for Rock in Aramaic, namely shu`a' which would correspond to petra.
    The difference between the two words is "little pebble" and "massive rock," in both Greek and Aramaic.

    "4) No. First, see the point in 2 about Matthew's Gospel originally being in Aramaic. Second, Petros is an appropriate translation of the name Kepha. It wasn't St. Matthew who claimed that Petros means small rock and that Petra means large rock. That's the error."

    There are Greek writers prior to the writers of the New Testament who used Petra to denote a large rock and petros to denote a little pebble/rock.

    Homer and Heraclitus among them. So I don't think we are in error on this point.

    "5) No. Are you suggesting that Daniel 7:21 and Revelation 13:7 say that the Church will be overcome by the forces of evil? If so, it seems that you're the one claiming that the Bible (or Jesus) is wrong.

    In any case, neither Daniel 7:21 nor Revelation 13:7 says that. Both passage make it clear that the Saints will persevere and not (ever) be overcome. See Daniel 7:22 and Revelation 13:8 and 10."

    I'm not suggesting that. The saints will be persecuted. They will experience temporal defeat in this sense: heresies, division, etc.

    "6) I have no idea what you're talking about."

    Ok.

    "7) No. First, "Church" has a meaning in Scripture: it's not just up to you to make up a meaning. But second, my point is true even under a very broad definition of Church."

    I'm not looking to make up my own meaning. lol I am looking to define church according to Scripture. If church, to you, means the organization to which you belong, but to me it means the universal body of believers (i.e. the invisible church), then that would constitute a big difference of meaning between the two of us.

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  17. 1) Anyone who follows the Gospel is part of the Church, the House built upon Rock is the Church. Which immediately raises the question: who or what is the rock upon which the Church is built? So this passage raises the question, it doesn't answer it.

    2) John 1:42 illuminates the meaning of Matthew 16:18. It helps answer the question raised by Matthew 7:24-27.

    3) On the Aramaic, it's true that shu`a' exists (it means, as I understand, rocky ground), but significantly, the Peshitta Syriac New Testament quotes Jesus in Matthew 16:18 as calling Peter "Kepha" and saying He'd build His Church upon "Kepha." The fact that He could have chosen another word only strengthens the Catholic case.

    On a similar note, if Jesus had been intending to draw a distinction between Peter the Rock, and the Rock upon which He would build His Church, He could have easily done so in first-century Greek, since the word for "little pebble/rock" was lithos (not Petros). You'll note that lithos is used 60 times in the New Testament to describe small stones (or to describe Christ, the Stumbling-stone and Cornerstone). Petros is never used to mean "little pebble/rock" anywhere in Scripture.

    (4) I'm referring to koine Greek, the dialect that the New Testament. I don't think you'll find any non-poetic examples distinguishing the two in koine. The functional split was between petra and lithos.

    Homer spoke Homeric Greek (obviously) and Heraclitus wrote (I believe) in Attic and/or Ionic.

    (5) Are we agreeing on this point? I can't tell.

    (7) My point still stands.

    Having said that, you're wrong about the Church being merely invisible. I've got numerous posts showing that "Church" as used in the New Testament wasn't Invisible. Same with the phrase "the Kingdom of God" and the phrase "the Kingdom of Heaven." A light upon a hill isn't invisible. So all of these supernatural realities have visible manifestations.

    The Church has always been a visible institution, governed by both good, bad, and in-between sorts of folks. After all, Judas held Church office, as Acts 1 tells us. If you wanted to go before the Church in the first century, you could -- see Acts 15, for example. My question to you: if you wanted to go before the Church in the ninth century, could you? And if so, where would you go?

    God bless,

    Joe

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  18. Joe, brilliant as always.

    Can you do a post soon that really tackles Eastern Orthodoxy?

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  19. St. Paul felt perfectly comfortable referring to "Simon" as "Cephas," which I think avoids the whole petra/petros controversy.

    Even if we were to assume that our Lord renamed (or nicknamed) Simon "little stone," what would the Protestant commentators make of that? What exactly does that mean to you?

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  20. "1) Anyone who follows the Gospel is part of the Church, the House built upon Rock is the Church. Which immediately raises the question: who or what is the rock upon which the Church is built? So this passage raises the question, it doesn't answer it."

    The passage clearly answers it: Whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a man who built his house on a rock. The Gospel of Christ is that Rock.

    "2) John 1:42 illuminates the meaning of Matthew 16:18. It helps answer the question raised by Matthew 7:24-27."

    I don't see how John 1:42 illuminates the meaning of Matthew 16:18. Also, it has nothing to do with Matthew 7:24-27.

    -------

    I was wondering what you make of Chrysostom's interpretation of this passage (i.e. Matt 16:18). He writes:

    "Having said to Peter, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonas, and of having promised to lay the foundation of the Church upon his confession; not long after He says, Get thee behind me, Satan. And elsewhere he said, Upon this rock. He did not say upon Peter for it is not upon the man, but upon his own faith that the church is built. And what is this faith? You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." (In pentecosten 52.806.75 - 52.807.1)

    -h.

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  22. You really didn't answer the question.

    If the entire Church fell into error for even a short time as you state, then the gates of Hell will have prevailed.

    That means that only a tiny portion of the Church has to remain faithful, which isn't very reassuring.

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  23. Sue,

    I think that is the answer. And you're right, Christ isn't letting us lull ourselves into complacency. Look at the once-thriving Church in North Africa. All but gone. Same thing in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity. There's no reason that couldn't happen here.

    We're not promised that we'll be okay, no matter what. That's Once Saved, Always Saved, and the Church has always rejected it, as does Scripture. Rather, we're promised that the Church will be okay, no matter what. Our job, then, is to make sure that we're part of the Church, no matter what.

    In Christ,

    Joe

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