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What kind of impact is the church supposed to have in the world? Is it a continuing impact or one that ebbs and flows? Does yesterday’s victories guarantee that the territory taken by a church will remain indefinitely? These are questions that are rarely asked by people in the church and the state of most congregations attest to this ignorance. Far too often we assume that all of yesterday’s work, prayers and victories will be enough to sustain us continually. That we essentially rest on our laurels following a brief and intense season of spreading the gospel, making disciples and expanding the territory of the Kingdom of God here on earth.
We have seen over and over again stories of revivals of times past, or outpourings which rejuvenated regions become just that, stories. Did the Welsh revival guarantee that Wales would always have a strong and vibrant church in it? Did the Azuza Street revival cancel out all of the problems, idolatry, brokenness, and wickedness that came to California afterwards? Did the Great Awakenings do enough to make it so that there was no more need of the gospel to be preached because everyone was assumed to be a believer? I am seriously asking these questions, because this is how many people think and when you question this mindset people don’t know how to respond.
We first must accept the fact that the borders of the Kingdom are not set in stone here on Earth. Those borders are able to expand out into the world like light pressing into darkness but it also means they can contract back in as well. As it is with light the issue is not that the darkness overcame the light but the issue is that the light dimmed until it could no longer shine into the darkness. This is the story of the church, this is the story of many churches and this is the story about many denominations and organizations.
What did Jesus say to Peter in Matthew 16:18? Jesus spoke of the strategy the church would use to expand the Kingdom by saying “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against.” This is a very common verse among both Protestants and Catholics (a debate I’m not getting into today) but I want us to focus on the last part of that verse that says “the gates of hades (hell) shall not prevail against it.” This is a revelation given by Jesus that has been continually misinterpreted for generations. The common thought is that here Satan and his forces are on the offensive and that his gates are marching against the mighty city of the church. As long as the church remains behind its walls it will remain safe and vibrant because those gates will never prevail against the church.
In reality what is happening here is the exact opposite of what people assume, it is not the gates of the enemy which are on the offensive it is the church. Jesus is saying that as the church goes out and proclaims the gospel of “Jesus is Lord and the Son of God” Satan will be unable to hold back the tidal wave that has been unleased upon him. You see the gates of hell will not prevail as long as there is constant pressure against them, they will break open and allow its territory to be reclaimed and restored through the gospel. However once that pressure which opened up the gate is gone the gates will be shut, repaired and are reinforced.
We look at verses in the Bible such as Revelation 12:17 and forget that this is a war which we are in against the darkness. This is not a last stand like the Alamo or Helm’s Deep but open warfare that we are engaged in. The gates of hades/hell came into being following Adam’s fall and during those generations Satan walled off fallen mankind from God in order to keep them in slavery and in darkness (John 3:19, 8:12, Ephesians 5:8).
What we have to understand is that there is more than one gate into the territory of the enemy, think of if as an open prairie land with concentric circular walls every 50km or so. When the kingdom is active and expanding it pushes through a gate like a torrent of water and it spreads throughout that entire 50km territory and eventually begins to bump up against the next wall and gate of the enemy. When the church fails to continue pressing into Satan’s territory it resembles flood water that is slowly receding from the reclaimed land. Eventually the water will dry up and the old walls and gate of the enemy will be repaired forcing the church to have to retake the land all over again.
This is the story of the church, it is the story of tidal waves of prayer, power and progress which tears through one of the enemy’s gates. Then the church (or a local congregation) moves into its new territory and within a generation it becomes complacent. Then like water after a flood it slowly recedes back to where it came from. At times the kingdom has been able to push through several layers of the enemy’s entrenchments but those victories are not indefinite. Constant pressure must remain against the walls and gates of the enemy to maintain the reclaimed territory. This pressure comes from prayer, evangelism, holiness, justice, love, acts of power, acts of kindness, an unwavering devotion to the great commission, praise, worship and unity.
Far too often places which used to be fortresses and mighty lighthouses of the faith have crumbled from the retaliations of the world and the absence of a living church. Think about it, there was a time when Turkey, Alexandria (in modern Egypt), and Carthage (in modern Libya) were capitals of the Church, but not any more. Places such as Germany and England were the carriers of the gospel to the New World and the Far East but now relish in having nothing to do with Christ any longer.
The territory taken by the Kingdom through the church is not guaranteed to remain part of the church indefinitely. Each generation must take up the mantle and continue the pressure against the gates of the enemy. There’s an old saying that goes “freedom is always one generation away from extinction” and the same sentiment can be applied to individual churches, each one is only one generation away from collapse. This is not some pie in the sky idea, research shows that inevitably each congregation will come to a tipping point where it must rejuvenate itself and begin to advance again or if it does not, it begins a slow steady decline into death.
I’ve been a part of several churches that faced this crossroad; two of them no longer exist, two went through massive leadership and congregational upheavals and one is still making its decision. This is the real battle which churches face: how to remain alive, like a seed they are planted and they grow up into a tree but time, wind, rain, snow, ice and even fire come against it. Eventually the tree has to come to a point where it begins to drop seeds so the land around it can be covered in trees. Or the tree can succumb to the pressures of nature and begin to wither, eventually it will collapse into the ground and slowly be converted to earth (dirt). The choice is life or decay, one brings reproduction and the other brings death.
The best the fallen tree can hope for is to become fertilizer for the other trees around it which endured the pressures of the world. That is of course if the entire forest isn’t cut down and carried away to be made into lumber or paper to be used by others. Which leaves nothing but barren dirt and rock to try and begin the process of restoration all over again, a process which could take generations.
Ancient Israel’s Infatuation With The Gates Of Hell
To see these receding waters in action among God’s people we can look back at the history of Israel, especially after the division of the monarchy. This was a time that came after the pinnacle of the kingdom after the reign of David and Solomon. It was a time of decline, lost territory, no faith, and reverence towards God was replaced with appeasement and idolatry. It was an age of compromise where the people wanted both God and the ways of the world.
The people once again wanted to be like the nations around themselves and fell into idolatry. This was an age of child sacrifice, the construction of false altars paid for by the kingdom, pagan festivals and assimilation into the cultures around Israel. This process did not begin under the divided kingdom but under the leadership of Solomon, who in an attempt to please his wives allowed them to continue serving the gods of their homelands (1 Kings 11:1-8). Solomon commissioned the building of altars, he even made sacrifices to idols on them and eventually he drifted away from God (1 Kings 11:9). In the heart of Solomon a prophetic picture of what was happening to the nation as a whole began to emerge.
The people wanted enough of God to retain their identity and covenant blessings but they also wanted all of the other gods as well to get their blessings. The people only worshiped YHWH when they saw the other gods were not listening, and when YHWH did help them it was only a matter of time before they went back to their idols. The people were infatuated with the ways the Philistines, Assyrians, Edomites, Moabites, Egyptians and Babylonians to the point that they also worshiped their gods. Israel saw gods which appealed to their flesh because they replaced relationship and holiness with service and obligation.
It wasn’t long before the seeds scattered by Solomon corrupted the nation as we see through his descendants who sat on the throne of Judah.
2 Chronicles 28:1-4 Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem; and he did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord, as his father David had done. 2 For he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel, and made molded images for the Baals. 3 He burned incense in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and burned his children in the fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel. 4 And he sacrificed and burned incense on the [a]high places, on the hills, and under every green tree. (NKJV)
2 Kings 21:4-6 “4 He (Manasseh) also built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem I will put My name.” 5 And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. 6 Also he made his son pass through the fire, practiced soothsaying, used witchcraft, and consulted spiritists and mediums. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke Him to anger.” (NKJV) (See Deuteronomy 18:10)
Jeremiah 32:35 And they built the high places of Baal which are in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I did not command them, nor did it come into My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.’ (NKJV) (see also Ezekiel 16:20-25, 20:31, 23:37)
For those of you who think that “passing through the fire” is a metaphor here is an account from a first century Greek historian by the name of Plutarch who made this observation about Carthage (a similar culture to the Philistines who are both of Phoenician origin) “… but with full knowledge and understanding they themselves offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan; but should she utter a single moan or let fall a single tear, she had to forfeit the money, and her child was sacrificed nevertheless; and the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums that the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.”
Then there is this 12th century rabbinic commentary written by Rashi about Jeremiah 7:31 “Tophet is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.” That is how far Israel fell into idolatry and the ways of the world despite being God’s chosen people and having a covenant with Him. It is no wonder that God allowed the Babylonians to come in and remove a faithful remnant from the land before it was cut down like a forest which was nothing but dead and decayed trees.
Even in modern times the allure remains, just consider this article (another here ) about Uganda in 2010 a nation supposedly in the midst of revival: “The Ugandan government told us that human sacrifice is on the increase, and according to the head of the country’s Anti-Human Sacrifice Taskforce the crime is directly linked to rising levels of development and prosperity, and an increasing belief that witchcraft can help people get rich quickly… They capture other people’s children. They bring the heart and the blood directly here to take to the spirits… They bring them in small tins and they place these objects under the tree from which the voices of the spirits are coming, Asked how often clients brought blood and body parts, the witch-doctor said they came on average three times a week – with all that the spirits demand from them.”
This is the same mentality which was alive in Israel once they had fallen away from God. They saw the idols as a means to achieve wealth and power, which is why Baal was widely worshiped because he was the god responsible for rain and the harvest. The parting of the Red Sea and the reign of David did not spare Israel from the responsibly to faithfully serve God, they trusted in previous victories and used that knowledge to excuse their behavior and sins because they assumed that God would never do anything about it (Jeremiah 14:13-14).
The Church’s Failures Against The Gates Of Hell
Often it seems that the church better resembles the Samaritans after they were relocated into the Kingdom of Israel by Assyria. Those who brought their old gods with them and only recognized YHWH because of the troubles they encountered in the land.
2 Kings 17: 32:34 “32 So they feared the Lord, and from every class they appointed for themselves priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places.33 They feared the Lord, yet served their own gods—according to the rituals of the nations from among whom they were carried away. 34 To this day they continue practicing the former rituals; they do not fear the Lord, nor do they follow their statutes or their ordinances, or the law and commandment which the Lord had commanded the children of Jacob, whom He named Israel” (NKJV)
They sought appeasement and not relationship, the Samaritans wanted to live as they did before but wanted the benefits of YWHW so that they would not be tormented by the lions in the land. It seems that the modern Western church has fallen victim to the same mindset, except instead of serving Baal or Chemosh it serves the gods of money, programs, humanism, self-idolatry, lethargy and appeasement. The gospel becomes a hindrance to the branding of the church and the name of Jesus has become too offensive scaring away many potential customers… I mean members .
It doesn’t help that as a body we are constantly gorging ourselves on our brothers and sisters in Christ, the church better resembles a roving band of cannibals than the loving sheep Jesus called us to be. We are divided on every issue from theology to music to the color of the carpet, each church is an island to itself because everyone inside of it as also a lone island unwilling to work with the others. And when we are united the problem faced by many today is that they are too busy to serve God because they are under bondage to the gods of debt and obligation.
The Holy Spirit has gone from being the witness of the power and nearness of God to having to be the master bridge builder just to get enough people together to pray that the gospel would be preached. The church is unable to maintain its constant pressure against the gates of hell because each droplet of water is arguing (Luke 11:17) with the other about which direction to push in, how hard to push and how much better the old days were when we lived in a cloud.
What should be a tidal wave dissipates into a mist which does nothing more than crash and condense along the walls of the enemy and evaporates as soon as the sun rises. Why is it that we look at this mist and call it a tidal wave? Why do we ooh and aah at what is ineffective and call it glorious? We create the Church of the Mist to commemorate the day the mist finally reached the wall. Then a couple of years later the Church of the Mist divides and the Church of the Fog is born and we have two congregations worshiping something that never did anything to expand the kingdom all the while convincing themselves that they are changing the world, even though they can’t see that world because of the wall and gate they are unable to overcome.
Eventually entire theological books are written to justify the mist, they study the mist to discern if it is the mist spoken of in Genesis 2:6 or if it is a cloud which came down from the sky all the while ignoring what God actually wants us to do. They praise God that occasionally on a good day some of the mist can make it through the gates and God willing perhaps a puddle could form on the other side. “Oh Lord we pray that we could be as that puddle then in the last days a remnant could bypass this gate and enter the other side.” This sounds absolutely ridiculous when you compare it to how the church is supposed to operate in this world.
Look At Me I’m The Kingdom Now!
The church and the Kingdom of God are interconnected but they are not always the same thing. We need to see the Kingdom as the overall territory where the gospel has taken hold, where people are delivered, healed, restored and discipled. While the church acts as fortresses, watchtowers and schools within that territory which is controlled by the great King. Scriptures such as Romans 14:17, 1 Corinthians 4:20 and Luke 17:20-21 don’t speak of the Kingdom as being a natural entity but something which is demonstrated through us and exists within us. It is described within us as being joy, righteousness, peace, power and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Kingdom exists in Heaven and in the spiritual realm but God is looking for people and congregations who are willing to bring that Kingdom into the Earth in a tangible way. The problem is that people no longer see their place in the Kingdom beyond sitting in a chair on Sundays and paying their tithes. We have lost the personal urgency to be a witness of the Kingdom wherever we are and in the midst of the place God called us.
I’m reminded of something Leonard Ravenhill once said “Sunday morning shows how popular the church is; Sunday night shows how popular the preacher is; prayer meeting shows how popular God is.” What is it that drives people into a church is it programs, music, day care, coffee, conversation, activities or is it the living presence of God. I’m not saying that all of those other things are bad but they must collectively come second after God. Otherwise we run the risk of all of those secondary things taking priority over the gospel, discipleship, the moving of the Holy Spirit and God’s presence.
We need unity, prayer and action to maintain this pressure upon the gates of the enemy so that they will crumble and all of those trapped within those walls can be freed from sin and eternal death. When we take our hearts out of the world we are finally able to see things according to God’s vantage point. Then when enough people have this heavenly perspective unity is born and the faint mist begins to transform back into the might tidal wave of God’s power which is able to topple over the gates of hell allowing the church and the gospel to press into new territory to see people healed, saved and delivered. Just don’t forget to always keep up the pressure against the enemy’s defenses so we don’t lose what God has given to us.
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Why The Church Fails To Conquer The Gates Of Hell Cameron Conway is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.