I Have a Question

Questions of general interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

What did Jesus mean when he said to Peter, as recorded in Matthew 16:18, that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [my church]”?

Charles Muldowney, professor of comparative religion, Valley Forge Military Academy, and Church public affairs director, Philadelphia Pennsylvania Region. Some Latter-day Saints may wonder how to respond to people of other Christian faiths who find support in Matthew 16:18 for their belief that there would never be a general apostasy.

The Greek word used to denote church in Matthew 16:18 is ecclesia, which literally means a “calling out” and originally referred to a civil assembly. Thus Jesus’ use of the phrase “my church” referred to an assembly “called” by him.

In the present dispensation, the Lord used church in this same sense. He revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith that “whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church. …

“Behold, whosoever is of my church, and endureth of my church to the end, him will I establish upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.” (D&C 10:67, 69.)

In these instances the “church” is not so much an institution as it is a group of individuals who repent, come unto Christ through the ordinances of the gospel, and endure in faith to the end. Upon them the adversary has no claim.

Thus Matthew 16:18–19 does not relate to the continuity of the relationship between Christ and his church organization in time. Instead, the passage refers to the protective and saving bond between Christ and repentant sinners—his sons and daughters—now and throughout eternity. [Matt 16:18–19] (See Mosiah 27:24–29; D&C 138:23.)

The phrase “gates of hell” refers to the place of restriction for the unjust dead. The barrier that separates them from the paradise of the dead is the justice of God. This idea is expressed in the Savior’s parable of the beggar Lazarus. The parable teaches, among other things, that communication between paradise and hell, or spirit prison, is restricted because there is “a great gulf fixed” between the two places. (See Luke 16:19–26.) Lehi and Nephi witnessed a very similar “gulf” in their visions of the tree of life. (See 1 Ne. 8:26; 1 Ne. 15:28–34.) Nephi described it as “a representation of that awful hell. … The justice of God did … divide the wicked from the righteous.” (1 Ne. 15:29–30.)

Jesus’ atonement bridged the gulf and breached the “gates” so that the repentant in prison could be liberated through the vicarious ordinances. The gates of hell could not prevail against them.

Shortly after making the statements recorded in Matthew 16:18–19, Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John. [Matt. 16:18–19] (See Matt. 17:1–9.) Of that marvelous occasion, latter-day prophets have said that priesthood keys and sealing power (see Matt. 16:19) were bestowed upon those leading Apostles (see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 158; Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1955, 2:110–12).

It is not surprising that Peter, later as senior Apostle, the equivalent of the President of the Church and possessing sacred priesthood keys and sealing power, was the Apostle who clearly spoke of Jesus’ mission to the dead in the spirit world. (See 1 Pet. 3:18–20.) President Harold B. Lee said: “The gates of hell would have prevailed if the gospel had not been taught to the spirits in prison and to those who had not had ample opportunity to receive the gospel here in its fulness. It would have prevailed if there was not a vicarious work for the dead … [or] other vicarious work pertaining to the exaltation which those who accept the gospel might receive, both ordinances for the living and for the dead.” (In Conference Report, Apr. 1953, pp. 26–28.)

In this great redemptive work we see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise that the Messiah would “bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.” (Isa. 42:7.)

Matthew 16:18–19 [Matt. 16:18–19] sets forth clear and important doctrine, and both verses are best understood in relation to each other and in light of modern revelation. The passage is also a beautiful testimony of Christ’s love—for both the living and the dead. The Apostle Paul provides eloquent summary: “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

“Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38–39.)

I’d like to magnify my calling as a home teacher by serving beyond the required monthly visit, yet I sense that my assigned families don’t particularly need or want extra help. What can I do?

Richard J. Marshall, Young Men president, Valley View Ninth Ward, Salt Lake Holladay North Stake. Before we assume that a family or individual we home teach does not need more attention than our brief monthly visit, we could ask ourselves questions like these: Do we really know them well enough to know their needs? Are we sincere in our offers to help? Do we sound them out with sensitivity and tact? Do we ask the bishop for insight into the family’s true needs? Further, do we spiritually prepare ourselves for each important monthly visit?

Just because a family appears to be getting along well does not mean that they cannot benefit from our ongoing care. The Lord knows their needs and will guide us in helping meet them if we are prayerful and diligent. Sometimes those needs cannot be fully addressed in monthly visits.

Appearances can be misleading; for example, a family that sits across the room from us, each smiling and nodding, may not in fact be giving us their best attention. Perhaps after the cordial visit, we say to ourselves, All’s well here; no one poor or needy in this household. But isn’t it possible that someone in the home is poor in spirit, needy in faith, sick at heart, or afflicted with problems he or she carefully hides? (See D&C 52:40.)

It is possible that some of the families or individuals we home teach may not welcome our visits and efforts to be their friends as much as we would like. If they merely tolerate us, how can we carry out—let alone magnify—our charge to “watch over” and strengthen them? (See D&C 20:51, 53.)

To “perform fully” as home teachers, President David O. McKay wrote, we should be “continually aware” of the whole range of “physical, temporal, and spiritual needs and circumstances of … every child, every youth, and every adult in the homes and families who have been placed in our trust and care.” (Priesthood Home Teaching Handbook, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1967, pp. ii–iii.) How much greater is the challenge, then, if a family allows us but a few minutes once every month to share a brief message!

Such a situation calls for special care and planning to build a meaningful relationship with the family. And that means looking for opportunities to do them good turns beyond the official visit. Any two home teachers who put their minds together can quickly generate a list of thoughtful acts of service that will not offend but will warm the hearts of even the most indifferent individuals.

President Ezra Taft Benson defined home teaching as an inspired program that “touches hearts, … changes lives, and … saves souls,” adding that “if faithfully followed, it will help to spiritually renew the Church and exalt its individual members and families.” (Ensign, May 1987, p. 48.)

If those we home teach do not want “extra” help, we need not be discouraged. They may not accept our help for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with us personally. Perhaps they refuse our help because they do not want to burden us—despite our assurances to the contrary. Though it never hurts to offer our help, we should remember that there are other ways to magnify our callings and help bless their lives.

For example, a family who declines our help may appreciate very much our ongoing attention and spontaneous personal contact. Remembering birthdays or calling or dropping them a note to commend them on a special achievement can help promote trust and friendship with the family. If we are prayerful and sincerely seek ways to help them, we can be confident that our efforts are acceptable to the Lord.

Great things happen when a home teacher is energized and constantly focused on watching over those in his care. The Lord is with his home teachers, and he will help them to be effective in their sacred calling as they serve with diligence and enthusiasm.