Doors allow access to or prevent us from entering a room or home. Gates are usually more imposing and important. They guard the access to large spaces: cities, estates, and the way to eternal life. In Bible times, most cities of any size were surrounded by walls, so gates were a constant feature in people’s’ lives. No wonder, then, that the role of gates became symbolic of other values and ideas.
THE IMPORTANCE OF GATES IN BIBLICAL CULTURE
Gates were primarily for protection. They were open during the day but closed at night (Josh 2:5). Gatekeepers were posted to keep intruders out (Neh 7:1-3). Sometimes gates even became personified as living guardians and representatives of a city: “Lift your heads, you gates. Be lifted, you ancient doors, so that the king of glory may come in” (Ps 24:7). The opening of a gate symbolized a royal welcomed. Conversely, a city without a gate was the ultimate target: “Attack the nation living peacefully and securely, declares the LORD. It is a nation with no gates or bars” (Jer 49:31).
Because of their importance to a city, gates were often the place where leaders would meet to discuss affairs of state and settle legal matters. One such event is the climax of the book of Ruth, when Boaz negotiated with another relative over the fate of Naomi, Ruth, and the legacy of a man named Elimelech. When they reached an agreement, the witnesses spoke up: “All the people who were at the gate, including the leaders, said, ‘We are witnesses. May the LORD make this wife, who is coming into your home, like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built our family of Israel. So show your strength of character in Ephrathah and make a name for yourself in Bethlehem’ ” (Ruth 4:11). A crucial moment in the ancestry of King David and Jesus the Messiah was decided by the exchange of a sandal at the city gate of Bethlehem (Ruth 4:1-22). In addition, the virtuous wife was praised in the city gates (Prov 31:31), her husband was known there (Prov 31:23), and wisdom cries out there (Prov 1:21).
Jesus described the two basic approaches to life as a choice between two gates: “Enter through the narrow gate because the gate and road that lead to destruction are wide. Many enter through the wide gate. But the narrow gate and the road that lead to life are full of trouble. Only a few people find the narrow gate” (Matt 7:13-14). He also described himself as the only gate through which we can find salvation: “I am the gate. Those who enter the sheep pen through me will be saved. They will go in and out of the sheep pen and find food” (John 10:9). The gate is a symbol for Christ himself, the only gain entrance to an earthly city through the gate, so one can only enter the heavenly city through the gate of Christ.
Jesus also mentioned a more ominous set of gates, the gates of hell, but he promised that the church to be born after his death and resurrection would confront hell victoriously: “You are Peter, and I can guarantee that on this rock I will build my church. And the gates of hell will not overpower it” (Matt 16:18).
While the Old Testament prophecies of future well-being for the people for the people of God feature secure gates (Isa 60:11, 18; Ezek 40-48), the New Testament book of Revelation displays the gates of the New Jerusalem in all the glory (Rev 21:12-25). Although for most people a gate symbolized the security that was created when it was closed, one of the features of the New Jerusalem is that “its gates will be open all day. They will never closed because there won’t be any night there” (Rev 21:25). In the new heaven and new earth, gates will be decorative memorials, no longer needed for protection since God’s presence makes the grand city the ultimate safe place.