In Matthew 16:13-18 we find a very pivotal passage in regard to Jesus' ministry. Much
of His early work had been centered on His miracles and the teaching He was able to do as a
result of them, while the latter half of His ministry was focused more on preparing His
disciples for the coming kingdom (i.e., the church). Our text in Matthew 16 is somewhat
of a midway point.
In this passage, Jesus asks his disciples about the people's ideas concerning His identity. He then turned this question to his disciples, to which Peter responded, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." This confession was certainly the peak of Peter's career as an apostle up to that point, and the truth of this statement was so important that Jesus said, "upon this rock I will build my church."
Jesus would not (and did not) build His church on Peter or any other human. He also did not build His church on a confession (Peter's or that of any other human). His church was built upon the fact that Jesus was indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God. This statement would've been true regardless of whether or not Peter believed and confessed it. For if Jesus had not been the Christ, He would not have been able to build the church, the only vehicle of salvation.
Jesus went on to say that once this church was built, the gates of Hades would not prevail against it. The enemy here is not Hell (incorrectly translated as such in the KJV), but Hades (death). And the word translated "prevail against" means to be stronger than, to overpower, or to overcome. There are two points to be made regarding this statement.
First, whatever you do in this life, whatever endeavors you undertake or goals you pursue, death will end it! It won't matter what kind of job you had. It won't matter whether you were rich or poor, or even whether your pursuits were selfish or selfless. Everything will come to an end when you die. The only exception to this is found in the church! Your good deeds done as a member of Christ's one church are not nullified at your death. Revelation 14:13 says, "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them." These are your good works done as a Christian, and contextually have to do with enduring persecution even to death. Jesus, and only Jesus, conquered death personally by dying and then being resurrected, never to die again. And his final enemy to defeat for everyone is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). So Hades will suffer ultimate defeat at the hands of Christ and His church. It will not prevail!
Second, when we think about Jesus' promise that death would not prevail against the church, it is easy to picture the church in a defensive position against death. Death attacks the church, but will not win. Although this is true, it might benefit us to see ourselves as on the offensive. The gates (entrances) of Hades will not be able to withstand against the efforts of Jesus' followers (1 Corinthians 15:51-58).
As Christians we should see ourselves on a mission, attacking death! And the way we attack and defeat death is by taking as many souls out of death's hands as possible. This can only be done by helping others focus their efforts on things that matter — things that death cannot defeat. By teaching others the gospel plan of salvation and how to live spiritually as Christians, we can show them how to truly be successful in life and death, and how to gain eternal benefits.
But you and I can't cower back and simply try to protect what we have; we must take an offensive approach. We won't win every soul, but we have been promised that we shall prevail!