You would think Pilate, as the representative of the Roman Empire in Judea, held a lot of power. But when faced with the Jewish crowds crying “Crucify, crucify him!” (Luke 23:21) he gave in, despite the fact he acknowledged the innocence of Jesus. Notice what it says in verse 23 – “their voices prevailed”. The voices of the Jews or, as some versions bring out, especially the voices of the chief priests, were more powerful than Pilate at this point in time. And for a short while Jesus came under the combined power of the enemy – the Jewish and Roman authorities.
There’s an interesting Bible echo here with something Jesus said earlier in his ministry. The Greek word translated “prevailed” is only found in one other place in the New Testament, in the passage where Peter gave his rock confession – “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). As we read in yesterday’s reading that rock confession had now become an accusation at Jesus’ trial before the chief priests. Jesus was asked, “If you are the Christ, tell us” (Luke 22:67) and then, “Are you the Son of God then?” (Luke 22:70). It was Jesus’ acknowledgement of who he was, termed blasphemy by the chief priests, that led to his conviction by them. But look at what Jesus said to his disciples after Peter’s confession: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18). That’s the same word “prevail” and so we see a contrast between what Jesus experienced and what the disciples, and the ecclesia in general, was promised. Whereas the chief priests had power over Jesus, at least for a time, and prevailed, they would not prevail over the ecclesia.
What’s going on here? What did Jesus mean by his words in Matthew 16? What did he mean by the “gates of hell”?
In Scripture the gate of a city was very important. The person who sat in the gate had power to open and close it and the gate of a city subsequently became a metaphor for power and judgment. That’s why it’s so important in the promises to Abraham where he was promised his seed would “possess the gate of his enemies” (Gen. 22:17). That’s in the context of the enacted parable of the death and resurrection of Isaac, pointing forward to the death and resurrection of Christ. The greatest enemy of all, death, will one day be vanquished (1 Cor. 15:26) by the power of Christ who will be given “all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:25). But for a short while, in the context of Luke 23, Jesus came under the power of the enemy. The chief priests had control of the gate. They could lock it and unlock it and had the authority, as the religious leaders of the Jews, regarding who should live and who should die.
What Jesus did was take away their key and wrest the power from them. In the vision of the risen Lord seen by John in the book of Revelation, he says, “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:18). Now Jesus has the key to the gates of hell (or Hades)! And back in Matthew 16, following on from telling his disciples the gates of hell would not prevail against them, he said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). The authority to bind and loose, or lock and unlock the gate, had belonged to the chief priests. But Jesus had the ultimate victory over them, and over Death and Hades, by rising from the dead. Despite being bound himself (John 18:12) and led away to be crucified, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death” (Acts 2:24).
What we have here is the end of the old covenant being replaced by the new. The old covenant was presided over by the chief priests, and ultimately condemned everyone to death. The gates of hell were closed and locked. But in Christ there is now hope to be released from the gates of hell. They shall not prevail!
There’s one other interesting connection which draws out the same lesson. That word we’ve looked at – “prevailed” is more common in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the LXX. One occurrence is in Exodus 17 where we see Joshua leading out the people of Israel against the enemy, represented by Amalek. As they fought in the valley below Moses went to the top of the hill overlooking it and was instructed by God to lift his rod (a symbol of power) up in the air. We’re told “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed” (Ex. 17:11). The only way for Joshua to prevail over the power of the enemy was for Moses’ hands to be lifted up, but “Moses’ hands grew weary” (v.12). That’s because the old covenant, represented by Moses the lawgiver, is too weak to save. So, Aaron and Hur went on either side of him and helped lift his hands in the air until the battle was won. Paul brings out the lesson: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). Aaron, the high priest elect, and Hur, a prince of Judah, held up the hands of Moses, the prophet, all of which represents our Lord Jesus Christ – prophet, priest and king. By being lifted up on the cross, and despite being wounded on the heel by the enemy, Jesus won the ultimate victory.
Jesus is now the one who has power over the enemy. He is the “captain of their salvation” (Heb. 2:10). The word “captain” is the Greek word archegos and means something like “chief leader”. He is the chief over the chief priests, the High Priest sitting at God’s right hand. That passage in Hebrews then goes on to say, “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (v.14-15). What Jesus went through in our reading in Luke 23 was all part of God’s plan to defeat the enemy. By being lifted up on the cross our Lord destroyed the power of death and in so doing he opened the gates. By God’s grace we share in the victory of Jesus possessing the gates of hell (death) and no enemy, not even death, shall prevail against us, and we shall be raised.
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