Matthew 16 contains the first of only two references to the “church” in the gospels. The second one is in chapter 18. Something new is appearing here, signified also by name changes. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, because he was to be the father of a multitude. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, also the new name of the coming nation of God. Peter’s name change here signifies another change: God’s kingdom would be known as the “church.”
Much ink has been spilled on the reference to the foundation of the church. Jesus says Peter’s new name is “rock” (Peter) and upon “this rock I will build my church.” Was the foundation to be Peter? The word for “Peter” in the first instance, however, and the word for “rock” in the second instance, while both meaning the same thing, are none-the-less, two different words. One (“Peter”) is masculine, the other (“rock”) is feminine. If Jesus meant Peter was the rock on which the church was founded, why didn’t he use the same word?
Better is the interpretation that the foundation of the Church is the “Christ, the son of the living God” whom Peter confesses. This adheres exactly with the teaching of the apostles (1 Corinthians 3:11).
Of greater interest is Jesus’ comment about the “gates of hell” not prevailing against the church. For some reason, most commentators presume this means hell will not overcome the Church. And yet, the text does not presume hell is the aggressor. The Church is the aggressor. The gates of hell are not the weapons of hell, but the protection of hell.
For far too long the Church has lamented the impact of the world and the forces of evil on Christ’s kingdom. But the Church was never intended to be a passive victim of Satan. The power of Christ is to prevail – if we will but use it. To “rescue the perishing and care for the dying, snatching them in pity from sin and the grave” is our mission. The gates of hell stand against us, but they will not prevail – if we will but persistently and purposefully press our cause. It’s when Christians sit back and do little to nothing, faithlessly bemoaning our imagined vulnerabilities that Hell’s gates open and we become the victims.
We must stop playing “defense” and get on the offensive.