Various threats have arisen against the church throughout the centuries. Arianism took hold for many decades in the early church, and the purity of the church’s doctrine was on the line. Hostile powers, including Islamic empires and communist nations, have systematically sought to kill Christians and tear down church buildings. Secularization is attempting to push believers to the very margins of society.
None of these threats has proven successful. The church finally prevailed against Arianism in the fourth century and continues to stand against it today in its creeds and confessions. Islamic and communist empires have fallen, but the church continues in the lands where these powers once held sway, sometimes as a small minority but as a true presence nevertheless. Despite the inroads of secularization in the West, God’s true people are not bowing the knee to the gods of this age, and around the world, the gospel is penetrating Africa, Asia, South America, and elsewhere.
The church, battered and bruised by its trials, nevertheless stands. As the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” puts it: “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.” No matter what the world and the devil throw at the church, it will endure. That is Christ’s promise in today’s passage (Matt. 16:18). Indeed, our Lord pledges not only that the church will endure but that it will conquer. In the ancient world, the gates of a city were a defensive fortification. They were built to keep the enemy out. When Jesus says that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, He means that the church will conquer all of her foes, which are the foes of Christ Himself. The Spirit will be with His people, and though some battles may seem to set us back, we will never lose the war. Victory is the grand and glorious destiny of the Christian church.
John Calvin comments, “Against all the power of Satan the firmness of the Church will prove to be invincible, because the truth of God, on which the faith of the Church rests, will ever remain unshaken.” We may grow discouraged at times when we consider the state of the church, but we must remember that the church will endure and conquer. Christ’s own unfailing promise guarantees that end.