In Matthew 16, we find what seems to be the culmination of the first half of Jesus’ public ministry. The focus of that period was to reveal to his disciples who he actually was through his miracles and teaching. In Matthew 16, at Caesarea Philippi, Simon Peter’s confession is not only a statement of faith, it is a confirmation that the work of that first season of ministry had been accomplished. They now know that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Matthew 16:16). Clearly, the disciples do not have a full-orbed understanding of what that means, but from this moment forward the truth of Jesus’ identity is firmly out in the open. That launches the second half of Jesus’ ministry—which was more private (focusing on the disciples) and dealt with why Jesus came. In fact, immediately following Peter’s confession Jesus begins—for the first time—to prepare them for the events of his coming passion (Matthew 16:21).

In between the affirmation of Christ’s identity and preparation for Christ’s suffering, Jesus says to Peter…

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17–19)

Over the centuries, Jesus’ words have provided a seedbed for significant controversy—a controversy that we will not unravel in this brief article. Our focus is to consider v.19, and what it meant for Peter to receive “the keys of the kingdom” and what he was to do with them.

To begin, it is important to realize that this is not the only time in the New Testament that keys are mentioned in a symbolic way. Two other times, both found in the book of Revelation, also mention special keys:

“… I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.” (Revelation 1:18)

“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens…” (Revelation 3:7)

In both cases, Jesus is speaking, and, in both cases, he is the one who possesses these special keys. In Matthew 16, once more Jesus is speaking, but he declares that Peter will have possession of the keys. The Bible Knowledge Commentary tells us:

A “key” was a sign of authority, for a trusted steward kept the keys to his master’s possessions and dispensed them accordingly.

This means that, through “the keys of the kingdom” Peter was being given both authority and responsibility. While a number of perspectives have been offered on this text, one view of this stewardship theorizes that it would be Peter’s responsibility to utilize those keys to give entrance into the kingdom. This responsibility would be exercised in a series of events that would mirror Jesus’ commission to his disciples in Acts 1:8:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.

The pattern of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost part of the earth (i.e. Gentiles) can be seen in Peter’s various presentations of the gospel and affirmations of gospel work in the New Testament book of Acts. Jerusalem and Judea were recipients of Peter’s gospel preaching on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:14–41. When the gospel spread to Samaria, Peter was involved in that significant ethnic border-crossing as he affirmed the ministry of Philip there (Acts 8:5–14)—a ministry bringing oft-despised Samaritans into the body of Christ. In Acts 10, Peter traveled to Caesarea Maritima to present the message of Jesus to Cornelius, a Roman (Gentile) centurion. Cornelius and his household embraced Christ, following that spiritual decision with baptism. The result was Gentiles were now becoming followers of Christ.

According to this view, in each case, Peter symbolically used the keys of the kingdom to open the way for the message of Jesus to give kingdom access to another people group. This seems to be the point of Jesus’ words in Matthew 16 for, after promising Peter these keys, the Savior said:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)

As such, the binding and loosing could be seen as having been accomplished as Peter used the keys of the kingdom to open the message of the gospel representatively to each different group—Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles.

Bill Crowder

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