Lent: Peter & the Gates of Hell

When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 16:13-19

Continuing my slow read
through Matthew this Lent, I was struck to realize that imperfect, imprudent Peter was the first to confess Jesus as Messiah to his face. That would be in keeping with Peter, who was emotional, responsive and quick to jump headlong into things, both for better and for worse.

I’m also struck by Jesus saying “upon this Rock I will build my church and he gates of (‘the netherworld’) hell will not prevail against it.”

In that one statement are two very interesting ideas we tend to glide over. The first is the understanding that the “netherworld” – the supernatural realm – is to be engaged, and so we may infer that the church Jesus is forming is to be a church that is highly charged with the supernatural, itself. This will be no earthbound entity. Rather, this church, what Jesus called “my church” is to imbued with a supernatural holiness – Jesus’ own – the only sort of holiness that can withstand the assaults of “the netherworld.”

“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail over it.” I know there is some argument in apologetics circles (we do not do apologetics here, so don’t even bother engaging me in it) over whether Jesus was calling Peter a “rock” or a “pebble” and whether he was calling Peter or Himself the Foundation. To me getting hung up on that point tends to overlook the greater point, which is that Jesus did not say this line to Andrew or James or John. He said it to Peter, the First Bishop of Rome. Since nothing in scripture is there by accident, we make take that to be significant.

But what is most particularly interesting to me is the last part of Jesus’ proclamation: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against,” implying nothing less than a constant battle. Note, he did not say, “the gates of hell will never get near it…” instead what we may infer is that there will always be the constant clang and push of evil working in opposition, trying to prevail, and not succeeding, and we see that in the history of the church even up to its present times and the shameful scandals which have come to light in the last decade.

Where there is holiness, evil always exists on the periphery or nearby. Jesus in the desert, tempted by Satan who stood right alongside him. Jesus on the cross, thieves on either side. Where there is great light, darkness is nearby – darkness, in fact, emphasizes the light. Peter, whom Jesus constantly favors among the twelve, (even to paying Peter’s temple taxes) contradicting the Lord when he says he will suffer – and testing the Lord on the waters – is a study in the whole premise of the co-existence of dark and light. He embodies it when he sits outside the preatorium, worrying for Jesus one minute and then denying him the next.

The church of Rome is as faulty and imperfect as its first bishop. The human element will always deliver disappointment and yes, darkness. But in this daily tug-of-war, the constant attempt on one side to push through and overtake, and the constant defense (and counterpush) by the other side, we already know the outcome. The gates of hell shall not prevail.

I wrote earlier that the church would be no “earthbound entity” but that was not completely right. She is earthbounded by man, by the imperfect humanity which must necessarily run the thing in order to bring the truth and reality and Person of Christ to all of us. We would like the church to be perfect, but it never can be because the church, in the end, is us.

If we look at ourselves as microcosms of dark and light – little versions of this big battle – we see it within ourselves. Where there is holiness, evil is always right there, on the periphery, pushing, and too often prevailing. But conversely, if we are decrying our own hearts- of-darkness and the ways that glamorous evil has enticed us, it is urgently necessary to remember that it goes both ways, that the light – and holiness – are also right there, on the periphery, being offered. We need only grab hold of the Rock of Faith and then let ourselves be formed and trained with the weapons of holiness – prayer, contemplation, humility and openness – that the gates of hell may not prevail.

Big church (institution), little church (each of us) the struggle is the same.

Responding to this piece not once, but twice, Siggy demonstrates that he has been drinking the deep waters and he writes:

A House of Worship does not exist for God. A House of Worship exists to facilitate our potential. In the effort to regain Holiness after the ‘darkness’ of our mundane existence, a House of Worship offers us a place to remind us of God’s words and to reconnect with His commandments that serve as guideposts on the path that will elevate us.

Deacon Greg has thoughts on what creates ex-Catholics, following up on this report. And too, Amy Welborn has some thoughtful analysis.

How is your Lenten training going? Fortunately, another powerhouse of prayer will be created, soon. More light.

About Elizabeth Scalia
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  • Revchuck

    FWIW, the “pebble” thing only works with people who aren’t familiar with other languages. The Greek word for rock is *feminine* gender; pebble is masculine, but nobody wanted to imply that Pete was girlish, so he got stuck with it. Most anglophones aren’t familiar with the concept of gender in other languages, and that which gender a word is often has nothing to do with the object itself.

    Of course, IIRC, Jesus spoke to Peter in Aramaic, so which gender “rock” is in Greek is pretty much irrelevant.

    Peter is my favorite apostle. He was a knucklehead, so he and I have something in common. 8-) I just wish I “got it” like he did.

  • smottens

    Not sure if I’m missing something in the translation, but I’ve come to understand this passage the other way around. If “the gates of Hell” will not prevail against the church, it’s because the church is on the offence, not the defence.

  • TheAnchoress

    “gates of hell shall not prevail” sounds like the gates of hell do a pretty good offense too!

  • srthrux

    Smottens is right – the gates of a city were a defensive fortification, and the Church will indeed overcome! Since Jesus came, Hell and the devil are most surely on the defensive, and of course we know from the Scriptures that they are already defeated.
    I have heard that the Jewish view of Jesus & Peter would simultaneously view “on this rock” as referring to 1) Peter, 2)Peter’s confession, and 3) Jesus’ movement, which He commonly referred to as the Kingdom of Heaven (or of God). Our Greek-based though insists that it be one or the other, but the Eastern mind is more able to hold things in tension.
    I guess we will never plumb the depths of any one of Jesus’ statements – at least while in this life…

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  • KIA

    Re: Ex Catholics (why they leave)

    Interesting comments including Andrew Sullivan’s about why Catholic’s leave (or stay). It’s something I think about often. I often look back at my own “20 year hiatus” and know I left because it simply wasn’t “humanly possible” for me to live what the church required. The operative words of course are, “humanly possible.”

    I say never bet against the grace of God (and or the prayer of faithful family members). Even if one is poorly catechized like I was (mostly by choice, not because it wasn’t offered to me), once grace hits, I’m convinced God “fast tracks” anyone who honestly tries to live the faith.

    I’m also convinced few leave for all of the “reasons most use as excuses.” Let’s face it, before the abuse scandal, the best excuse was “mean nuns.” NO ONE who knows the True Presence of the Eucharist, OR understand the Holy Mass, will ever leave the Catholic Church. Who could leave Truth itself?

    There is also almost always an underlying “hidden” reason, and I suspect, in addition to not really knowing the True Presence or the power of the Mass, that reason is the unknowing of God’s extraordinary mercy. Many people still feel they are or have been “too bad to be forgiven.” Consequently, they might feel like they “know God’s rules”, but have no idea of God’s enormous love. John Paul II knew that well, which is why St. Faustina and Divine Mercy Sunday were so near and dear to his heart. A few simple lines from the Divine Mercy Chaplet should be enough alone to send all ex Catholic running back to the “ocean of mercy!”


    Let me first give my Catholic credentials: baptized, parochial school, choir boy, confirmed, altar boy, Jesuit High School, Catholic college and graduate school. I probably missed a few credentials in there. Let me add this, I am no longer a Roman Catholic. Although I occasionally attend the Mass with family and friends, I have been faithfully attending another church for over three decades. I try to avoid labeling of any sort, but I refer to myself as someone who is trying to be a faithful believer and follower of Jesus Christ. I would prefer to say that I’m Catholic, but not Roman. That seems a little obnoxious.

    I find it amusing to read how faithful Catholics, including some on this site, view the “fallen” (I have been told by a church legal expert that my proper designation is self-excommunicated). They do a great job in keeping former Catholics far away from the church. It seems that very few of them have been able to listen to those who no longer consider Rome to hold the keys to the “one true church.” Argue, yes. Listen, no.

    I work in a ministry that is involved with many denominations –including Roman Catholic. Most of the Evangelical churches are filled with ex Catholics. In the Northeast, they fill over 50% of these congregations. I was recently teaching in the Northwest, the most secular region in the country, where former Catholics make up a large percentage of the vastly expanding evangelical denominations. In my home church, the percentage is seventy-five.

    If Catholics want to win them back, they need to listen to their stories. I will reemphasize — listen. They will be quite surprised.

    That being said, I have great respect for Catholics. My daughter is attending a Catholic church while living in a nondenominational Christian community. Her path to Christ is different than mine, but I can rejoice in her faith. I might dare to say that most Catholics would not find her Catholicism very orthodox. The twenty-somethings have a large attraction to the trappings of more Orthodox churches without being very orthodox themselves.

    My prayer is that one day our labels will be meaningless; we will be able worship freely together. I hope we won’t need to wait to be around the throne of our King to enjoy that experience. I am encouraged by the words of Jesus to the woman at the well who questioned Him about places to worship: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”

  • http://none Darrell

    No. 8, great illustration of that “Gates of Hell” part! Sure, tell me what you think. It’s all about you.
    Tell us your stories. Tell us how we must change to accomodate you. That’s why the Church is here, isn’t it? We’re keeping you away? Oh yes, you’re being faithful. How nasty some people are not agreeing with you! The nerve! When they all agree with you, we will have reached the place we all have been heading towards. And what a place that is!

    It’s all here. It’s up to you to find what you need. Then you can change, with the help of God’s Spirit. The Church will stay. Always, true, constant, faithful, and obedient. Come. Find what you need.


    Darrell, Darrell,
    Unfortunately, you have proved my point.

  • http://none Darrell

    Imagine if, instead of Jesus telling us the Way, the Gospel would have been filled with people telling Jesus “Wait. Let me tell you MY story. Let me tell you what I think, what I think we should do!” Now wouldn’t THAT be special!

    Your self-absorbed attitude is the point. Although I am equally certain you’ll never see anything until you stop looking in the mirror.


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