The Keys of the Kingdom

“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” (Matthew 16:19, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV).

The phrase “the keys of the kingdom” appears only once in the Bible, in the above passage. A couple days ago my family and I read Wayne Grudem’s discussion of the phrase in Chapter 46, “The Power of the Church,” of his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994). His discussion was adapted from his “The Keys of the Kingdom” article in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1984). In preparation for our family reading of Grudem’s exposition I read articles on “keys of the kingdom” and on “bind and loose” in The International Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, and New Bible Dictionary and comments on Matthew 16:18-19 and 18:18 in commentaries on Matthew by D. A. Carson (in The Expositor’s Commentary on the Bible), R. T. France, Donald A. Hagner, Leon Morris, and Michael J. Wilkins. Here I’ll share from my personal thoughts on the phrase.

Looking at “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” in its context, I surmised that it was related to one or both of Jesus’ promises to Peter before and after making it: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18) and “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Thus I considered what Jesus meant by those two promises.

You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

A footnote in the Bible that I use most, ESV Study Bible, states that the Greek words for “Peter” and “rock” sound similar, suggesting that Jesus was affirming that he would build his church on Peter. Like other Protestants, I don’t accept the Roman Catholic view that Jesus was referring to the Roman Catholic church as “my church” with Peter’s being its first pope and with its inheriting the promise made to him.

Thus I reflected on what role Peter played in the early church in order to determine what Jesus meant by his promise to Peter. I recollected that in Acts 2 Peter preached on the day of Pentecost described there and considered by many to be the occasion of the birth of the church. I also recollected that in Acts 8 Peter (and John) laid his hands on Philip’s Samaritan converts so that they received the Holy Spirit, showing that they were part of the church. And I recollected that in Acts 10 Peter preached to the Gentiles gathered in the house of Cornelius with the result that the Holy Spirit fell on them, showing that they too were part of the church. Thus God used Peter in making Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles part of the church.

This suggested to me that in telling Peter “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” Jesus may have been referring to the role that Peter would play in opening the church to Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles.

Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

My ESV Study Bible gives these verses as cross-references to the passage:
– “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).
– “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23).
Matthew 18:15-17 indicates that, like John 20:23, Matthew 18:18 refers to forgiving of sin and withholding of forgiveness of sin. However like other Protestants, I don’t accept the Roman Catholic view that Jesus was giving Peter and the Roman Catholic Church the power to forgive or to withhold forgiveness of sin.

Thus I turned to Grudem’s discussion of “keys of the kingdom” to see how he explains “bind” and “loose.” He gives two explanations:
– They refer to placing under church discipline and releasing from church discipline. The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 and the baptizing of the Gentiles gathered in the house of Cornelius in Acts 10 are examples of Peter’s exercising this power.
– They refer to forbidding and permitting various kinds of conduct, an explanation prompted by Jewish rabbis of the time using “bind” and “loose” in that way. The decree of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is an example of the early church’s exercising this power.
Grudem argues for the first explanation.

This suggested to me that in telling Peter “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” Jesus may have been referring to the power which Peter and, since Matthew 18:18 is addressed to all the disciples and not just to Peter, the church would have regarding discipline or regarding what is right and wrong for Christians to do. Since the scholars whose articles and comments I read on the matter don’t agree on which of the two Jesus was referring to, I’m uncertain which he was referring to. However in actual practice, as shown by the examples I gave in the preceding paragraph, the church has both exercised discipline and ruled on what is right and wrong for Christians to do.

Conclusion

Grudem concludes: “Therefore it seems that ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven which Jesus promised to Peter in Matthew 16:19 included both (1) ability to admit people to the kingdom through preaching the gospel, and (2) authority to exercise church discipline for those who do enter” (page 390). Most scholars whose articles and comments I read on the matter reached a similar conclusion except that they were split on whether (2) should be authority to exercise discipline or to rule on what is right and wrong for Christians to do.

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