The phrase the “gates of hell” is translated in some versions as the “gates of Hades.” “Gates of hell” or “gates of Hades” is found only once in the entire Scriptures. In this passage, Jesus is referring to the building of His church:
“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.” Matthew 16:18
At that time Jesus had not yet established His church. In fact, this is the first instance of the word church in the New Testament. The word church, as used by Jesus, is derived from the Greek ekklasia, which means “called out” or “assembly.” In other words, the church that Jesus is referencing as His church is the assembly of people who have been called out of the world by the gospel of Christ.
In ancient times, the cities were surrounded by walls with gates, and in battles the gates of these cities would usually be the first place their enemies assaulted. This was because the protection of the city was determined by the strength or power of its gates.
As such, the “gates of hell” or “gates of Hades” means the power of Hades. The name “Hades” was originally the name of the god who presided over the realm of the dead and was often referred to as the “house of Hades.” It designated the place to which everyone who departs this life descends, regardless of their moral character. In the New Testament, Hades is the realm of the dead, and in this verse Hades or hell is represented as a mighty city with its gates representing its power.
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus refers to His impending death. Though He would be crucified and buried, He would rise from the dead and build His church. Jesus is emphasizing the fact that the powers of death could not hold Him in. Not only would the church be established in spite of the powers of Hades or hell, but the church would thrive in spite of these powers. The church will never fail, though generation after generation succumbs to the power of physical death, yet other generations will arise to perpetuate the church. And it will continue until it has fulfilled its mission on earth as Jesus has commanded:
“And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” Matthew 28:18–20
Jesus was declaring that death has no power to hold God's people captive. Its gates are not strong enough to overpower and keep imprisoned the church of God. In His resurrection, Jesus conquered death (Romans 8:2; Acts 2:24). And because “death no longer is master over Him” (Romans 6:9), it is no longer master over those who belong to Him.
Satan has the power of death, and he will always use that power to try to destroy the church of Christ. But believers have this promise from Jesus that His church, those “called out” will prevail:
“Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also.” John 14:19