What Are the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven?
Jesus told us to bind and loose. But is this practice relevant for the church today? Pastor John joins us over Skype today to address this question from a listener named Joe. “Hello, Pastor John! Jesus told the disciples that whatever they would bind or loose on earth would be so in heaven. The church has the ‘keys of the kingdom of heaven,’ meaning, ‘Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ (Matthew 16:19). So what can a local church bind and loose? And what could I and a Christian friend bind and loose? Does this text have any relevant application to the church today?”
Yes — the answer is yes. It’s relevant. It is relevant for today. It’s always been relevant. In every age of the church, it’s relevant. And yes, Joe, if you are a true follower of Jesus, you and your friend, as a true follower of Jesus, can bind and loose in the way that Jesus means it here.
So let’s read it, make sure we get the whole context, and then I’ll try to explain what I think it means and how it’s relevant. I’m reading Matthew 16:15–19. Jesus says to his disciples,
“Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 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.”
So Jesus asked the disciples who they believe he is. He’s getting at the core issue of discipleship: the identity of Jesus Christ. Whatever else Jesus teaches, if they don’t get this right, they don’t get anything right. It will all be distorted if it’s not built on this central bedrock of Jesus’s teaching about who he is.
Peter answers correctly, “You are the Christ [the Messiah], the Son of the living God. You’re the Messiah — not just any ordinary human messiah, but the unique divine Son of God.” And then Jesus makes clear that Peter did not come up with this on his own: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” In other words, this central, bedrock core of Jesus’s teaching — namely, his true reality — is a work of God in the mind of Peter, not a work of man. And therefore, he calls Peter blessed. “You’re blessed because God has given you this insight.”
“The bedrock on which the church is built is the bedrock of Jesus’s teachings.”
Then Jesus makes a play on words, because Peter’s name, Petros, means rock or stone. So Jesus says, “You are Petros, and on this rock [petra], this bedrock” — they’re not the same words. I’ll come back to that. They’re almost the same. There’s a wordplay. “You are Petros, and on this petra” — “You are a rock, and on this bedrock I’ll build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
Bedrock of the Church
Now, before we jump to the conclusion that Peter alone here is made the foundation of the church, notice three things.
1. Jesus did not say, “On you I will build my church,” which he very easily could have said. He said instead, “On this bedrock [petra] I will build my church.”
2. Even though Jesus says to Peter, “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,” that very same thing Jesus says to Christians in general, with the very same words, two chapters later in Matthew 18:18: “Truly, I say to you [plural — not you, Peter, but you, plural, who are gathered in my name], whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” That’s the second observation.
3. Jesus does not say, “You are Petros, and on this petros I will build my church.” He says, “You are Petros, and on this petra I will build my church.” Petra has a different connotation than petros — it’s not a loose stone; it’s bedrock stone. Here’s what I mean: In Matthew 27:60, where it says that Jesus’s tomb was cut out of the petra, the bedrock, that doesn’t mean it was cut out of a loose stone — like, here’s a stone, it maybe weighs ten pounds, it’s found on the side of the road, and he cut a grave in that stone. Well, that doesn’t work.
What he means is the side of this mountain is stone. This is a massive bedrock where you’d build something, and so you carve into this bedrock. That’s the connotation of petra. It’s not a loose stone like petros. Petra is bedrock. The same word is used in Matthew 7:24: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock [petra]” — not a pile of stones, not gravel, but the bedrock ground in the side of the mountain that you dig down into till you’ve got a good foundation. The bedrock is solid and permanent; it’s the teachings of Jesus, which he says can never pass away.
“Take your stand on the bedrock of Jesus’s word, with the reality of Jesus himself at the center.”
So, my understanding, in view of those three observations, is that the bedrock on which the church is built is the bedrock of Jesus’s teachings, with the rock-solid core of his identity — “you are the Messiah; you are the Son of God” — at the center of those teachings. And since Peter is the one who made that confession in this case, he’s treated as the representative of all those who would faithfully lift up the teachings of Jesus and the word of Jesus with the true reality of who he is at the center or as the bedrock of the church.
Turn the Key of Heaven
So, it’s these teachings of Jesus that are the keys of the kingdom, when he says, “I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom.” Which means that when you speak, Peter — or according to Matthew 18:18, when any faithful Christian who speaks the words with the bedrock of Jesus’s identity at the center — when you speak those words faithfully, you are using the keys of the kingdom to open the kingdom in people’s lives.
Here’s a clue that I think confirms we’re on the right track, from Luke 11:52: “Woe to you lawyers!” Jesus said. “For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” This is the key of the kingdom, the key of knowledge: the key of the teachings of Jesus, with the reality of Jesus himself at the center. That knowledge, that faithful proclamation of the word of Christ, with Christ’s identity at the center, truly taught, opens the kingdom to people’s lives. That knowledge withheld or distorted closes the kingdom to people.
And when Jesus says, “Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven” — which is the right future perfect translation of the verb tense. When Jesus says, “Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven,” he means that in all of this human key-turning — turning of the keys of the knowledge of God — we are doing what God has decided should come to pass. Our teaching is essential; God’s will is decisive.
So, Joe, you and your friend, and I would say all faithful Christians, can take your stand — and you should take your stand — on the bedrock of Jesus’s word, with the reality of Jesus himself at the center, and speak it. And in so doing, you will turn the key of heaven in people’s lives and open the kingdom to them.