Jesus uses the word “church” only twice in all of the Gospels, and both of them are in the Gospel of Matthew. (MT 16:18 and 18:17) This is significant because if Jesus came to build a church in the way we have been taught to think of it, he would have talked about it a lot more often and we would have had references to it in the other Gospels.
In the Gospel of Matthew, he renames his disciple Simon after he declares that Jesus is the Messiah.
– Jesus continued, saying “Your name is now Peter, because you are a rock, and upon you I will build my living church, and the gates of death will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you join together on earth will be joined together in heaven, and whatever you separate on earth will be separated in heaven.” – (MT 16:17-19, Condensed Gospel)
Most translations cite verse 18 like this – “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it.” (HCSB)
I have learned from my studies that the word that is translated as “forces” (or sometimes as “powers”) literally means “gates”, and that Jesus is not indicating Hell (as “Hades” is sometimes translated) with the word “Hades”. Hades isn’t a place, but refers to the “power of death” according to the notes in the Harper Collins Study Bible. This source also refers back to a note on MT 11:23, saying that Hades is the “Greek equivalent to Hebrew Sheol, realm of the departed dead.”
This is why I interpreted that scripture in the manner I did. We’ve read that line over and over and it doesn’t mean anything real to us until we dig further.
Peter, and all of Jesus’ disciples, including you and me, don’t have power over Hell. We have something far greater. We have power over death. Being a disciple of Jesus means that we embrace and affirm life. This isn’t about “coming back from the dead” or simply having eternal life after we die. It is about being fully alive now, and sharing that life with others.
What we are to unbind or loosen on Earth is the same as what the disciples were charged to do elsewhere in the Gospels – to forgive sin, exorcize demons, and to heal the sick. We are to free people from the death of not being fully alive.
Jesus came to build a living church, not one of stones and wood. He came to free us, right now, from the death that is not being fully alive. This isn’t about the future. It is about the present.
He came to let us know that all of our sins are forgiven. And then he wants us to go share that good news with others. We aren’t to make new converts so much as bring people back to life by forgiving them in the same way we are forgiven, and re-joining them to the community. We are to include everybody who has been kicked out. We are to seek out the lepers of our time – those people who have been excluded from society. We heal them and bring them back to life by welcoming them.