Jesus said: "I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18).
That saying comes strangely to our ears - we do not usually think of gates as prevailing - but to the people of Bible days it was pregnant with meaning. In fact, Jesus' words must have had a stunning impact on his hearers.
The phase "the gates of hell" was a common idiom in the Greek world. It was used to convey the idea of the strongest possible force. Today we might say, "mighty as an atom bomb ... powerful as an earthquake ... terrible as a tornado;" but when a Greek wanted to express irresistible, invincible force, he would speak about "the gates of hell" - he could think of nothing stronger.
Now to people who were familiar with that idiom, the effect of associating it with Jesus' little band of disciples must have been quite startling. As though he had said –
"Until now you have known nothing mightier than the gates of hell - but I am about to create a new thing, my church, against which the gates of hell will be as impotent as a paper sword against granite!"
What does this mean to us?
THE CHURCH IS THE TOUGHEST THING ON EARTH
The church tough? Indestructible?
On the face of it that proposition would seem absurd to many people even today; but it must have seemed still more absurd to the people who first heard Jesus proclaim it.
Look at the scene: Jesus is speaking to a small collection of fishermen, tax collectors, publicans, and peasants - only a dozen men all told, and one of them is under suspicion of being a thief. Yet Christ is promising to turn them into a body tougher than the proverbial "gates of hell". One can almost hear a guffaw of derision: "What? That lot? Tougher than hell? It'll be a wonder if they survive the first prod of a Roman spear!"
Even the men Jesus was speaking to found it hard to accept. In fact, neither they nor anyone else was surprised when, some two years later, he was arrested in Jerusalem and they did all desert him (Mt 26:56).
But God gathered them together again, poured out his Spirit upon them (Ac 2:1-4), put steel in their courage, and began to build the church that across the centuries has indeed proved itself to be the toughest thing on earth!
Despite two millennia of conflict - through rivers of blood, against fire and sword, rack and lash and prison, fang and claw, hatred, slander, and falsehood - the church has stood firm.
Gloriously, incredibly, the promise of Christ has proved to be absolutely true. Against his church, not even the gates of hell have been able to prevail!
As the old historian Eusebius wrote –
"Words cannot describe the outrageous agonies endured by the martyrs ... They were torn to bits from head to torn with potsherds like claws till death released them. Women were bound by one foot and hoisted high in the air by machines, head downwards, and with their bodies completely naked, without a morsel of clothing, thus presenting to all onlookers a most shameful, brutal, and inhuman spectacle. Others were tied to the branches and trunks of trees, and died horribly; for with the aid of machinery, the persecutors drew together the stoutest boughs, fastened the limbs of the martyrs to them, and then let the boughs fly back to their normal positions - thus they instantly tore apart the bodies of their victims. In this way they carried on - not for a few days or weeks, but year after year ... (There were occasions) when during a single day a hundred men, as well as women and little children were killed, after being subjected to a succession of ever-changing torments ... (They were) torn apart with hooks, broken on the rack, mercilessly flogged, subjected to countless other tortures too terrible to describe, in endless variety, until they were finally given to the flames. (Some) died under the torture itself, others were starved to death (But always they showed) a most wonderful ardor, the kind of truly divine energy and zeal that belongs to those who believe in the Christ of God. For as soon as sentence was pronounced against (one martyr), another and still another would rush to the judgment seat and confess that they were Christians. They regarded with indifference the terrible cruelty, and the many different tortures, and with undaunted boldness declared their devotion to the God of the universe. They received the final sentence of death with joy, laughter, and gaiety. Until their very last breath they sang, offering up hymns of thanksgiving to the God of the universe ... "
So, for each martyr who fell, a hundred more sprang to take his place, until the church, invincible, went on to girdle the earth!
Yet now, despite this record, and despite the continuing heroism of the martyr church behind the Iron Curtain, the promise of Christ is once again being scorned.
In our society men are describing the church as a fusty anachronism; they talk of the "post-christian" era; they equate the church with a dithering and effeminate parson; they picture it as a sweet old lady in a rocking chair - redundant as an ice-box in Iceland, harmless as a toothless teddy bear, obsolete as a stage coach on a freeway.
The church an image of toughness? The idea is a joke to many people. But behind the facade of denominationalism there still remains the real church of Jesus Christ, the one that he is building. That real church, that inner core of committed people, will prove today and in the future to be as unconquerable and as triumphant as it has been in the past. As S. Baring-Gould sang in Onward Christian Soldiers! –
Crowns and thrones may perish Kingdoms rise and wane But the church of Jesus Constant will remain; Gates of hell can never ‘'Gainst that church prevail", We have Christ's own promise - And that cannot fail!
In that tough church, the toughest thing on earth, the insecure find unshakable security, the nameless find divine identity, the lonely find unfailing fellowship, the dying find indestructible life, the disgraced find endless glory. All who yearn for those treasures had better get into that church! (He 12:22-24).