The Gates Of Hell Shall Not Prevail
Matthew 16:18This is the third in a series of four messages on what Jesus had to say about the church. I am preaching these messages at the very beginning of my ministry so that we will have the right kind of foundation. After all, our ultimate goal is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ in this church and what better way to do that, than to stress the same things he stressed?
So far as we know, our Lord only mentioned the church twice. Both times are found in the Gospel of Matthew. In chapter 16 we find his most extensive statement about the church. That statement divides rather simply into four parts:
The Church’s Testimony — “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
The Church’s Foundation — “Upon this rock I will build my church.”
The Church’s Assurance — “The Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”
The Church’s Authority — “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
This morning we are looking at the Church’s Assurance—"And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” I would like to tell you first of all what these words mean and then I would like to tell you a story.
I. What These Words Mean
This statement is sometimes taken in a mystical sense, as if Jesus meant to say, “Don’t worry, it will all work out in the end .” Or, some have supposed that Jesus is saying that the church will be protected from Satanic attack. Actually, there is no reason to be mystical about this. These words have a very precise meaning and a very precise application.
There are really only three parts to this expression—"The gates” is one part. “Of Hell” is another part. And “Shall not prevail against it” is the third part. Let’s take those parts in reverse order.
First, the phrase “shall not prevail” is from the Greek word katischuo, which itself comes from two Greek words kata meaning “against” or “upon” and ischuo which means “to be strong” or “to have strength.” Put them together and you have katischuo, which means to have the strength to go into battle against the foe. Not only that, it means to have the strength to have the victory over your foe. It’s not only the strength to fight; it’s also the strength to win. “Prevail” is a good translation; so is “overcome.” It’s a military term. It’s what an army needs to win the battle.
But this is in the negative. Jesus is saying that the Gates of Hell—whatever they are—may fight the church but they will not win. The battle will rage long and hard, soldiers will die on every side, and the gates of Hell may win a few skirmishes, a whole string of battles, but they will not win the war. The gates of Hell are strong, but they aren’t strong enough.
Second, the phrase “of Hell” doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means. When we hear the word “Hell,” we think of a place with fire and brimstone, a place were lost men and women suffer eternally. The Bible indeed speaks of such a place and it is called Hell.
But the Greek word Jesus used is hades. It does not always refer to the place of eternal torment. Did you know that in Greek mythology there was a character whose name was Hades? He was the god of the underworld. Specifically, he was the god of the realm of the dead. Hades just comes from two Greek words. It literally means “not to see.” Hades in the Bible generally refers to the invisible realm of the dead. In that sense it corresponds to the Hebrew word sheol. It is that shadowy, unseen world where the dead go. And here’s an important fact: When the Bible speaks of Hades it is not necessarily making a distinction between the saved and the lost. It is simply the land of the dead.
Let me say it plainly. The Bible does teach that some will suffer eternally in a place of terrible torment. The Greek word most often used for that place is gehenna. But when the Bible speaks of the invisible realm of the dead, the word it uses is hades.
So Jesus is saying that the gates of the realm of the dead will never overpower the church. But what are the “gates?”
Third, the word “gates” is a very common Greek word. “Gates” are a means of entrance by which you pass from one realm to another. Gates serve two purposes—they keep people in and they keep people out. For instance, this same word is used for the gates of the city of Jerusalem, for the gates to the temple, and for prison gates. Gates are a means of access, a means of entry.
If hades is the land of the dead, what is the gate by which you enter that realm? Death. You have to die to enter the realm of the dead. Death is the gateway to hades.
What, then, is Jesus saying? He is saying that death and all its ugly power will never overcome the church he is building.
But why did he say that? Because he knew something his disciples didn’t know. If you have your Bible, drop down just three verses to verse 21: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” To us, this is old news. We’ve heard it a thousand times. But to the disciples, this was first they had heard about it. Jesus … the Messiah … the Son of God … was going to die.
Now connect verse 18 with verse 21. When Jesus said the power of death will never overcome the church, he said it because when he rose from the dead, he broke open the gates of hades. Up until Jesus’ day no one had ever escaped from the land of the dead. But Jesus did. And he came out holding the keys in his hand.
That’s what Revelation 1:18 says. “I am the Living One. I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” How do you get the keys to Hades? You break the gate wide open. You die and then you come back from the dead.
And that is why the gates of Hades—death itself—can never overpower the church. Because Jesus Christ has died and come back from the dead and he holds in his hand the keys to the gates of Hades.
II. The Man From Nigeria
And now for the story. Most of you know that I pastored a church in Dallas for almost six years. Because of our location we ministered to a great many Dallas Seminary students over the years. The most unusual seminary student we ever had came to us in the late summer of 1983.
He had come with his wife and his six children from Nigeria to America to study at Dallas Seminary. He came from a group called the New Salem Church. After he graduated, he planned to go back to Nigeria and spend his life teaching his people the Word of God.
From the moment Lekan Olatoye came to Northeast Bible Church I liked him. He and his wife Irene soon became faithful members of the church. They got involved in teaching the toddlers in Sunday School. Lekan took Evangelism Explosion and went on visitation for our church. When we found out that he knew something about electricity, we had him do some repair work for us. That year at Christmastime, when Marlene and I had an open house at our home, the whole family came. I can still see them, in my mind’s eye, sitting in a row on a couch in our living room.
In May of 1984, we had a Men’s Retreat at Pine Cove in east Texas. That Friday night Lekan joined in our air-hockey tournament. The next morning we had a sports tournament and he joined right in. When Don Sunukjian spoke to us, he took notes on the message. And that afternoon, about 2:15 P.M., I passed him as he was going to the pool, a towel draped casually around his neck. He went swimming and then joined a lazy game of volleyball.
Suddenly he pitched forward and fell to the ground. His glasses flew from his face. The other men thought he had fainted from overexertion, but when they could get no pulse, it was clear that something terrible had happened. A cry for help went out, and a paramedic who was with us administered CPR. Men gathered in groups to pray. At length an ambulance came and took him away.
But there was to be no miracle that day. In truth, he was dead before he hit the ground. It was a stroke or perhaps a massive heart attack.
We gathered our things and went back to Dallas. John Grassmick went with me to tell Irene. I have done many difficult things as a pastor, but the hardest thing I have ever done was to tell that sweet wife she no longer had a husband and to tell those dear children they no longer had a father.
“We Will Make Him A General Manager”
In the days after that I began to learn more about Lekan Olatoye. I found out that before he came to America, he had worked with the power company in Nigeria. Not as a field worker, but as an executive. When he converted from Islam, he dedicated his life to the service of Jesus Christ. And so, for the ten years before he came to America, he had asked to be transferred to various stations across Nigeria so that he could plant churches wherever he worked.
I found out that before he came, he had become the number two or three man in the Nigeria Power Authority. Number two or three in the whole country. He had a house that would fit in well in Oak Park. Over there, he had a lifestyle that would be considered upper class.
But he gave it all up. Before he came, his boss heard about it, went to Irene, and said, “Tell Lekan that if he will stay here, we will make him a General Manager.” It was the opportunity of a lifetime. But obeying the call of God, at the age of 42 he came to America.
Believe me when I say that when he came, it was as the hope of his church. He represented the future for the New Salem Church of Nigeria. He would be the anchor for a seminary that would prepare men to preach the Word of God.
Death Of A Thousand Dreams
And now he was dead at the age of 44, leaving behind a wife and six children. It was the strongest blow I have ever seen Satan take against the church. When Lekan died, a thousand dreams died with him.
There is a group of men and women who vividly remember those days in May. They served with me at Northeast Bible Church—John Grassmick and Bob Peabody and Randy Miller and Andy McQuitty and Mel Christiansen and Fern Brown and Liz Massey and Beverly Hansen, to name only a few. Randy spent hours on the phone trying to untangle the red tape so we could fly Lekan’s body back to Nigeria. Bob coordinated the mountain of financial details. Liz made sure that someone from the church was at the home 24 hours a day. In fact, following the African custom, from the moment that John and I broke the news to Irene till the moment the family left for Nigeria ten days later, there was someone from Northeast Bible Church with them day and night, 24 hours around the clock.
I mention that because it’s part of the answer. We didn’t realize it then, we were so busy. If something had to be done, we just did it. If we had to get some paperwork to the Nigerian consulate in Atlanta, somebody took care of it. If the kids needed glasses, we found the money and got them glasses. If we needed an accountant, Mel came over. And we never had to beg for meals.
We needed $20,000 in ten days to send the family back to Nigeria. It came in from all over Dallas. When the time came, we had the money.
We didn’t know it then, but those were our finest hours. It wasn’t until much later that we could look back and say that out of an enormous tragedy, God made our church stronger. For ten days in May that church in Texas came close to the New Testament.
Not How Long, But How Well
But still Lekan was dead. He was the first international student ever to die while enrolled at Dallas Seminary. There was no one from Nigeria to take his place. What would the Nigerians do? How would the church go on? It looked like Satan had won the battle. It looked like the Gates of Hades had indeed prevailed.
A few months later the Nigerians sent two men to visit us in Garland, Texas—Pastor Julian and Dr. Jones Fatunwase, the General Superintendent of the New Salem Church. They came halfway around the world just to thank us for what we had done.
At the end of the week, just before I took them to the airport, I said, “Tell me something. Is the church in Nigeria stronger or is it weaker now that Lekan has died? You sent him over here and he died in the middle of his studies. How is the church doing?”
And the answer came quickly. “Don’t you understand? The church is so much stronger now.” I said, “How so?” He said, “When we had the funeral, ten thousand people came.” They came from all over Nigeria. And one of those at the funeral was Lekan’s older brother Dele. He was not a Christian. Lekan had prayed for him for ten years. At that funeral, to use the Nigerian’s exact words, Dele Olatoye “decided for Jesus Christ.”
Not only that, but Dr. Fatunwase said, “There were so many people in our churches who had grown complacent.” They thought it wasn’t that important to live for the Lord. But when they heard that Lekan had died and when they heard—to use the exact words that were said to me—how he had died a “glorious death” serving the Lord, “hundreds of our people learned it’s not how long you live, but how well you live.” Then he said, “Our church in Nigeria is much, much stronger now.”
The Church Rolls On
That is what Jesus meant when he said, “The gates of Hades cannot prevail against it.” Ladies and gentlemen, we are all going to die someday. But the church goes on and on and on. That is the church’s assurance. We are here for a little while and then we are gone. But the church goes on.
I hold in my hands the Fiftieth Anniversary Yearbook of Calvary Memorial Church. I’ve been reading it lately because our Seventy-Fifth Anniversary comes up next year. This yearbook was published in 1965. On page 27 is a listing of the former pastors of the church. Some great names are on that page. Here is the list:
Dr. Louis Talbot (Deceased)
Rev. J. C. O’Hair (Deceased)
Rev. Lee W. Ames (Deceased)
Rev. James Emblem (Deceased)
Rev. Robert J. Devine (Deceased)
Rev. Arthur Fardon (Deceased)
Rev. Wayne Buchanan (Deceased)
Rev. Gordon Kemble (Deceased)
Our last three pastors—Rev. John R. Emmans, Pastor Bob Gray, and Pastor Don Gerig—are in good health, thank God.
But if the Lord tarries, all of us will be gone. But the church rolls on. Why? Because it doesn’t depend on mortal men. It is built on the word and promise of Jesus Christ, who is the Living One, who was dead and is now alive forevermore, who holds the keys of death and Hades in his hand.
Death cannot keep its prey,
Jesus my Savior.
He tore the bars away,
Jesus my Lord.
Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes.
He arose a victor from the dark domain
And He lives forever with His saints to reign.
He arose, He arose, Hallelujah, Christ Arose.
That, my friends, is the church’s assurance. That is our hope. Death cannot overpower the church. The Gates of Hell shall not prevail. Why? Satan has the gates, but Jesus has the keys.
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