The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven

The Keys of the
Kingdom of Heaven

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas, as well as visiting Professor of New Testament at Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 16:19-20


Probably most of my readers have at one time or another been informed by a friend or acquaintance that the church to which they belong is the only true church, and that forgiveness can be found only through it. Julius R. Mantey, a well-known Baptist Professor of New Testament Interpretation wrote a quarter of a century ago of such an experience: “Several years ago in Alaska, I was informed by a teen-age girl that her church was the only true church and that it alone was authorized by Christ to forgive men’s sins. Her reason was that Christ had said to Peter, ‘Upon this rock I will build my church… and I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.’ Since that day I have often heard and read similar statements by members of that same denomination. The sweeping nature of such a claim should at least arrest one’s attention. If it can be substantiated as valid historically and scripturally, the members of the numerous other denominations are at once proved to be without the pale of God’s mercy and pardon.” I think we can all agree with Mantey’s concluding words, “Accordingly we should gladly welcome any clear light that may be available upon the subject.”1

In our last study we reached the conclusion that, when the Lord said to Peter, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (cf. Matt. 16:18), He was referring to the truth expressed in Peter’s great confession of verse sixteen, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That view is true to the change in Greek words, that is, from Petros (a pebble) to petra (a mass of living rock, a cliff). It is true to the apostles’ sentiments expressed in their later letters (cf. Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:8). And, it may be surprising to some, it is true to the interpretations of many of the greatest of the Catholic interpreters. For example, Augustine in his works of the Gospel of John refers to the text in Matthew, saying, “On this rock which thou hast confessed I will build my church; for the rock is Christ.” And Jerome, the greatest Biblical scholar of the early church, denied the contemporary reference of the text to the Apostle Peter, contending in his commentary on Matthew, “The rock is Christ.”

In our last study we also alluded to the creed of Pope Pius IV, obligatory upon all in the Church of Rome, that the Scriptures should be interpreted “according to the unanimous consent of the Holy Fathers.” It is important, however, to remember that Tertullian, the North African Church Father, points out in his Scopiace that the keys were given to the church, and in his treatise on Modesty he explicitly denies that Peter could forgive sins committed against God, saying, “For the right and arbitrament is the Lord’s not the servant’s, God Himself, not the priest’s.”

The Church Father Cyprian pointed out in his work, On the Unity of the Church, “Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honor and power,” and in a letter wrote, “So that the Church is settled upon the bishops (pastors), and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers.” So, Peter was not a pope nor a bishop over the apostles, according to him, but an apostle among them.

The third century Alexandrian, Origen, a noted Church father, claimed that binding and loosing are exercised by all godly people whenever they give judgment in accordance with God’s Word.

It is evident, then, that there is no unanimous consent of the Holy Fathers that Peter is the rock upon which the church is built, nor that to Peter was given the ultimate authority to forgive sin.

But what of the text, “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19)? Is that not what it says? Let’s look and see.

The Major Interpretations of the Verse

The Romanist view. The common Romanist view is that authority was given to Peter, the first bishop of the church in Rome, and to his successors to admit and exclude from the church. Thus, by capitalizing upon the fear of eternity the church has often used its “binding and loosing powers” as a club over individuals and nations. A classic illustration of this is found in the conflict between Henry IV of Germany and Pope Gregory VII (1073-1075), which finally led to the Pope’s anathematizing of the king in these words, “I deprive King Henry, who has rebelled against thy church (he had addressed himself to Peter!) with unheard audacity, of the government over the whole kingdom of Germany and Italy, and I release all Christian men from the allegiance which they have sworn or may swear to him, and I forbid anyone to serve him as king … I bind him in the bonds of anathema in thy stead, and I bind him thus as commissioned by thee, that the nations may know that thou art Peter and that upon thy rock the son of the living God has built His church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”

What may we say to this remarkable claim? In the first place, it seems to run counter to Matthew 9:6, in which we find these words, “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins …” Further, the use of the term “whatsoever” lays stress not on individuals, but on things. The binding has to do with things, that is, most likely with certain teachings. Third, chapter eighteen and verse one would be inexplainable, if Rome’s claim were true. Then, too, in Revelation 1:18 it is said that our Lord has the ultimate keys, “the keys of death and hades.” And, fifth, in chapter eighteen, verse eighteen, this authority is given to the entire body in the words, “verily I say unto you (plu.), Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Notice the plurals: the church is in view and, if so, then Peter does not have the authority.

Finally, as one reads the New Testament, he discovers there is no instance where Peter, or any other individual, possessed the sacred power to forgive. No one confessed his sins to an apostle and received his forgiveness and absolution. In fact, just the opposite takes place. When Simon the sorcerer asked for the power of the Holy Spirit, flagrantly sinning against the Lord, did Peter forgive him? Listen to him, “Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter; for thy heart is not right IN THE SIGHT OF GOD. Repent, therefore, of this thy wickedness, and PRAY GOD, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee” (Acts 8:20-22).

The Lutheran view. According to Lutheran interpretation by this passage the Lord Jesus has given ministers the authority to pronounce forgiveness of sins according to the terms of the gospel of Christ, or otherwise to administer the gospel in the world.2 This idea may be the thought of John 20:33, but it is not the sense of the text here. The connection of the passage with 18:18 and church discipline is overlooked, and the sense of binding and loosing is missed.

Other Protestant views. Other suggestions have included such interpretations as: (1) authority is given by the Lord Jesus to Peter to open the kingdom to the Jews, as in Acts 2, and to the Gentiles, as in Acts 10. (2) Peter is given authority to be the chief among the apostles, but this authority has not been transmitted to others. Most of these views disconnect the verse, either from the immediate context or from the context of Matthew 18.

The Meaning of the Terms

“The keys of the kingdom of heaven” (16:19). We have a clue to the interpretation of the term, “keys,” in Luke 11:52, where we read, “Woe unto you, lawyers! For ye have taken away THE KEY of knowledge; ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.” Calvin comments, “The metaphor of ‘keys’ fits as well with the office of teaching, as Christ says in Luke 11:52 that the Scribes and Pharisees, as interpreters of the Law likewise have the key of the kingdom of heaven. For we know that the gate of life is only opened to us by the Word of God.”3 While Calvin puts the keys in the hands of the minister of the gospel, he has hit upon an important point. The keys do pertain to the administration of the kingdom, the sphere of divine activity upon the earth. Morgan suggests that the key is the “insignia of the office of scribe, the teacher of the law of God.” Here the subject of the kingdom is in view, and it reminds us of 13:52. In other words, the Lord, according to Morgan, is simply saying to Peter: You are my scribe.4

Since Peter’s commission is expanded to include the entire church in chapter eighteen, we must conclude that Peter is here seen as the representative of the church of Jesus Christ, of those who have confessed His Messiahship and Sonship. To him and to them is given the authority to instruct, or to legislate, in the kingdom of heaven.

“Bind” and “loose.” What do these terms mean? Among the rabbis the terms were technical terms for decisions on the Law. To bind was to forbid while to loose was to allow (cf 23:4). For example, one of their decisions reads, “To them that take a hot bath on the sabbath day, they bind (i.e., they forbid) washing, and they loose (i.e., they allow) perspiring.”5

It would seem, then, that these meanings are in perfect harmony with the notion that to the church is given legislative authority over divine things. Cf. 18:18.

The tenses of the verbs. The Greek tenses of the verbs, “bind” and “loose,” are future perfect. If we are to give them their literal significance, then the rendering of Williams is correct, “and whatever you forbid on earth must be what IS ALREADY FORBIDDEN in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth must be what IS ALREADY PERMITTED in heaven.” There is some question regarding this rendering but, if it is correct, then the meaning would seem to be that Peter and the church are not to determine the truth and its application, but to ratify it. Truth has its source in heaven.

The Meaning of the Verse

The expression of it. From what has been said, it would seem, then, that the Lord Jesus, having just spoken of the foundation of the church upon His Messiahship and Sonship, moves on to the granting to Peter and to the entire church the authority to legislate according to the Word of God, that is, TO DECLARE THE TERMS OF SALVATION AND TO DEFINE PROPER CONDUCT WITHIN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.

I am reminded of two passages which to me, at least, throw a flood of light upon this matter. In Matthew 21:43 the Lord Jesus, in the Parable of the Householder, speaks of the rejection of Himself by Israel and of a new divine initiative: “Therefore say I unto you, The Kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits of it” (cf. Rom. 11:11-12, 15, 30). The stewardship of the kingdom will be given to the Gentiles, that is, the church. In 16:19 we have advance notice of that.

The other passage is found in the writings of the Apostle Paul. In 1 Timothy 3:15 he writes, “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, THE PILLAR AND GROUND OF THE TRUTH.” The church is to be the defence of the faith entrusted to the people of God, the bulwark in disciplinary protection of the truth.

The historical inception of it. In the historical outworking of this delegation of authority there is definite progression. On the Day of Pentecost it is Peter who declares the terms of salvation to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 2:14-36). In Acts 3:1-10 it is Peter who looses the lame man, and then he again declares the terms of salvation to the Jews (cf. 3:11-26). In the fifth chapter we read of the binding of Ananias and Sapphira (5;1-11).

And in the house of Cornelius it is Peter again who declares the terms of salvation to the Gentiles (cf. 10:34-43).

One might think that to Peter had indeed been given the supreme power among the apostles until we read on in Acts. In the later chapters it is Paul who emerges as leader of the apostles, as the gospel makes its way to the West. In Antioch it is he who declares the terms of salvation to the Jews in the synagogue (cf. 13:16-41), and in the missionary journeys. Then, in the so-called Jerusalem Conference it is the apostles and the elders, together with James, who legislate for the church. James emerges as the leader in Jerusalem, while Paul remains predominant among the Gentiles. It is plain that Peter does not have the keys to himself.

The application of it. We learn, then that, the sacerdotal claims of the Roman church are not substantiated in the text of Holy Scripture, and what has been said about the keys may also be said about such claims as the institution of prayers for the dead, the making of the sign of the cross, the adoration of Mary, the saints, the cross, images, and relics. Lent, holy water, rosary beads, the sale of indulgences, the sacrifice of the mass, auricular confession of sins to a priest, purgatory, and the infallibility of the pope are other inventions. We must stand on the Word of God alone.

On the other hand, we must keep in mind that the Church of Jesus Christ, the true believing church, not some denomination or local body, has had entrusted to her the Word of God and the responsibility of instruction and legislation under its inspiration and authority.

It is the church’s responsibility to preach the way of salvation, reminding the world, “be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the NAME OF JESUS CHRIST of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by Him doth this man stand here before you well. This is THE STONE WHICH WAS SET AT NOUGHT OF YOU BUILDERS, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other; FOR THERE IS NO OTHER NAME UNDER HEAVEN GIVEN AMONG MEN, WHEREBY WE MUST BE SAVED” (Acts 4:10-12).

And it is the church’s responsibility to carry out discipline in the body that is brought into being by the preaching of the Word and the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration and faith. May God enable us to be faithful to our commission!

1 Julius R. Mantey, Was Peter a Pope? (Chicago, 1949), p. 9.

2 Lenski, pp. 628-32.

3 John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels (Grand Rapids, 1972), II, 187.

4 Morgan, p. 215.

5 Cf. Morrison, pp. 285-86.