Peter and the Keys of the Kingdom

by Mal Couch

"For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. " (Hebrews 4:12 )

Though it would be through the apostle Paul that the full meaning and revelation of the church would come, Jesus first uses the word in Matthew 16:18. Not only is the term church (Gk. Ekklesia) first used here in the New Testament but also in its context it is used in the technical sense of the coming of the new age of grace (the dispensation of grace) that would replace the Mosaic Law (the dispensation of law).

In the context, the Lord is preparing His disciples for His coming death. "From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day" (Matthew 16:21). Just prior to that, He had asked His disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (v. 13). The phrase Son of Man means, "The Son related to humankind." This is a powerful description of the Messiah, who would represent humanity in the presence of God the Father.

Peter answered the Lord first by saying, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (v. 16). In these words Peter confirmed that he understood that Jesus was the Anointed King (Messiah/Christ) and that He was somehow related to deity ("the Son related to God," Ps. 2). The Lord then called Peter "blessed" because the Father in heaven had revealed these truths to him (v. 17).

Jesus then spoke these important words:

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.--Matthew 16:18-19.

Before examining the various parts of these two verses, it is important to point out that Jesus raises two different subjects in the passage. The first subject has to do with Christ building His church; the second subject has to do with the kingdom of heaven. Grammatically, these two issues can be separated. Church in Matthew 16:18 and kingdom in verse 19 may not be identical in meaning. These words become clearer when we note that "the keys" belong to the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom is not identical with "my church" in verse 18. The two words belong to different concepts, the one to 'people' and the other to 'rule' or 'reign'.

By examining the passage carefully, one can see that two distinct subjects are in view: "I will build My church," and "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven." One would think that somehow if the two were the same, the passage might read something like "I will build My church and give to you, Peter, its keys." Or, "My church is the kingdom I have been teaching about all along." Or still, "Peter, you will be the head over My kingdom, the church." But no such hint is given, either in this context or in the history of the founding of the church, recorded in the book of Acts

To get a complete answer in regard to this passage of Scripture it is helpful to ask a series of questions.

1: Who or what is the "rock"?

Peter's name, Petros, is a masculine word in the Greek. The phrase "upon this the rock [petra] is actually feminine. Jesus in no way is calling Peter "the girl rock"! Notice that "this the" is feminine. This must be referring back to something already said, but it certainly is not pointing back to the disciple Peter. It must also be pointed out, however, that the feminine form of "rock" can be referring to something said or indicated that in itself is not feminine. The most logical explanation is that it refers to Peter's statement, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (v. 16). Jesus acknowledged Peter's words, "flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven"(v. 17).

Jesus purposely uses two Greek words which, though not identical are closely related in meaning. What he said was, "You are petros, and upon this petra I will build my church," meaning, "You are a rock, and upon the rocky ledge (or cliff) of the Christ, 'the Son of God the living' who was revealed to you and whom you confessed, I will build my church." If Jesus had intended to convey the thought that he was going to build his church on Peter he would have said, "and on you I will build my church."

Conclusion: the church is to be built upon the person of Christ, not upon the disciple Peter.

Who had a greater role in reaching the Gentiles at Rome?

Since Rome was the capital of the Gentile world, the question is raised as to the primacy of Peter in that city. Paul makes it continually clear in his writings that he was the apostle sent to the pagan world. This, of course, does not mean that Paul and Peter ministered exclusively to the two different groups, Jews and Gentiles. Many times in the ministry of Paul he was witnessing to his Jewish brothers. Likewise, Peter often found himself sharing the gospel with Gentiles.

But since the early church was made up of more Gentiles than Jews, one would expect Paul to be the head of the church, if God had so appointed a human figure to hold that position. After Paul's first missionary journey, he shared with the church at Antioch how God used him to open a "door of faith to the Gentiles" (Acts 14:27), and that by his mouth the Gentiles "should hear the word of the gospel, and believe (15:7).

When the Jews refused the truth at Corinth, Paul swore that from then on he would go to the Gentiles with the truth of Jesus (18:6). The Lord Himself had told the apostle, "I will send you far away to the Gentiles" (22:21) Paul made it clear he was the apostle to the Gentiles (Roman 11:13). In contrast, Peter makes it clear that his primary role was among the Jews, though scattered over the known world (1 Peter 1:1).

If Peter was to be the head of the church, as Roman Catholicism contends, why is this not mentioned elsewhere in the development of the New Testament? When Paul writes of Christ as the Head of the church, he makes no mention of any visible head; had one been appointed by Christ he would have been necessity compelled to mention here the fact. Paul throughout his teaching as to the Unity of the Body, which is the Church, never in the remotest way alludes to any necessity for there being a visible head to that portion of the mystical Christ which is here on earth.

Further, Paul, the Apostle, as he is designated by the Fathers, for example, by Augustine and Chrysotom, was entirely ignorant of the existence in the Church of any office superior to that which he held himself. Moreover, when the Acts of the Apostles is examined there is no reference, explicit or implicit, to any visible Head of the Church, who as Supreme Pastor governed the Church.

3: What is the "kingdom of heaven"?

3: In almost all instances, the expression 'kingdom of God' and 'kingdom of heaven' refer to the coming reign of Christ on earth. That this kingdom then goes on into eternity following the 1000-year reign of Christ is agreed upon by most dispensationalists. The focus on the kingdom-of-God issue can be discovered in the Gospels. John, Mark, and Luke use the expression kingdom of God exclusively. Yet Matthew used the phrase kingdom of heaven some 30 times and kingdom of God only 3 times.

In the view of most premillennialists and dispensationalists, the two expressions clearly point to the Davidic covenant and the millennial reign of David's Son, Jesus the Messiah! For example, David points out, "[The Lord] has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel" (1st Chronicles 28:6b). And Christ will come through Solomon's line. Though it is the Lord's kingdom (29:11), it is still bequeathed to David's sons and established forever (28:7-8).

Since Peter will help launch the church in Acts 2, what does it mean that he will be given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, especially since that kingdom is not the church? Isaiah 22:20-23, a passage not directly related to the issue, may shed some light on the question.

As Israel faces the terror of the Assyrians during the kingship of King Hezekiah (approx. 701 B.C.), Isaiah the prophet points out that God would place his servant Eliakim in Jerusalem with a certain great prophetic spiritual authority. "He will become [like] a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Then I will set the key of the house of David on his shoulder, when he opens no one will shut, when he shuts no one will open" (vv. 21-22).

Almost exactly like Eliakim, Peter would be given a certain open-ended authority over the city of Jerusalem and over the people of Judah, in regard to an issue of judgement in their acceptance and rejection of the gospel message. This authority, if it can be called that, also reflects upon great issues with the house of David and the kingly line. After all, it was Israel's king that was crucified by His own people for their own sins. As Peter preached, the people made judgments against the kingdom and their king.

For example, Peter cried out to the people of Jerusalem, "Repent, . . . that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets . . . " (Acts 3:19-21).

This is clearly a kingdom offer, though Peter certainly did not know God's timetable for the coming millennial reign. In theory, Peter was unlocking or opening. He was living out the voice of God! And before the Sanhedrin Peter cried out, "[Jesus] is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins" (5:31). Note how Peter focuses on the Messiah's work as Savior for Israel, the Jewish people.

In time, the message of Christ would slip away from the Jews. Peter's work of judgment against the people would be over. The gospel message would then go to the Gentiles. Israel would be cut off and scattered.

4: What do "binding" and "loosening" mean?

Returning to the question of binding and loosening, a closer examination of Matthew 16:19 is important. The text best reads: "I will [future tense] give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you should bind [aorist, active subjunctive] on earth shall itself have been bound [perfect, passive, participle] in heaven, and whatever you should loose [aorist, active subjunctive] on earth shall itself have been loosed [perfect, passive, participle] in heaven."

By the use of the two perfect passive participles, the Lord seems to be saying that what Peter does here on earth, with the Jews, with a reference to a kingdom message most applicable to them, the apostle is but carrying out what God has already determined in heaven to be done. Peter is but an instrument of judgment against the Jews that has been previously determined by the Lord. Thus, Peter is the Lord's visible instrument of judgment, but the final active authority still rests with God. Thus, he really does not have what is normally called "authority." He is a providential instrument against the Jews and their view of the kingdom of heaven. Once they have been judged through the "instrument" Peter, the work of the Lord through the church increases, as is shown in the book of Acts.

Is this interpretation correct? When the perfect participle is given its full force in the Matthean passages, the periphrastic future perfect in 16:19 becomes 'whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven' (similarly for 18:18). Thus, there is no evidence for sacerdotalism or priestly absolution in the New Testament.

Therefore, the church on earth carries out heaven's decisions. Heaven is not ratifying the church's decisions.

5: What are the earliest views about the passage in the early church?

A survey of patristic writings show that 17 of the early church fathers felt the passage means that the church was built on Peter. This includes Origen and Jerome.

A second view of the church fathers was that the church was built on all the apostles, not simply upon Peter. But a majority of the 45 of the church fathers felt that these words are to be understood of the Faith which Peter had confessed, that is, that this Faith, this profession of faith, by which we believe that Christ is Son of the living God, is the eternal and immovable foundation of the Church.

This is by far the more common interpretation, and it is attested to by the Eastern church fathers Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, Chrysostom, Theodoret, and Theophylact. It is supposed by such Western fathers as Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great.

That the rock was Peter would not be fully espoused until Siricius, bishop of Rome, in 385 wrote a letter to the bishop Himerius of Tarragona, Spain, arguing for the primacy of Peter.

Though it is a faulty hermeneutical argument, the interpretation that Christ is the Rock does not take away from the third interpretation, held by most of the fathers, that it is upon Peter's confession that the church rests. In fact some feel that both views are acceptable. Hence Dionysius the Carthusian gives the two interpretations as equally expressing the meaning of the words, saying, "And upon this rock, that is, upon the firmness and foundation of his Faith (i.e., upon that of Peter], or upon this Rock which thou hast confessed, that is Myself, the chief-corner-stone, the lofty mountain of which the Apostle says other foundation can no man lay.

But one of the major rules of biblical interpretation is that there is almost always just one meaning for a given passage. It would be rare for two very distinct ideas to be embedded in one sentence or short paragraph.

The weight of early church history points to the fact that most church fathers believed that Christ's statement in regard to the rock has to do with Peter's confession of who Jesus really is. It is upon that confession that the church will be built.

6: What has been the most common Roman Catholic view of Matthew 16?

Since around 1860, the Catechism of Father Joseph Derharbe has been recognized as the one of most important doctrinal statements for Catholics throughout North America. Thousands of Catholics cut their teeth on this little volume that carried the imprimatur of John Farley, the Archbishop of New York. According to this book, on the basis of Matthew 16, Christ appointed Peter to be the Supreme Head of His church. Deharbe notes: "We learn from this, 1. That Christ built His Church upon Peter, as upon the true foundation-stone; 2. That he gave him in particular the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; and 3. That He commissioned him alone to feed His whole flock." (Joseph Deharbe, A Complete Catechism of the Catholic Religion (New York: Schwartz, Kirwin and Fauss, 1912), 134.)

In the Roman Catholic catechism the question is asked, "Who followed Peter upon his death?" The answer:

"The councils, as well as the Fathers of all ages individually have unanimously and most decidedly, by word and deed, acknowledged in the Roman Popes the Primacy and Supremacy of St. Peter. The Ecumenical Council of Florence (1438) referred to 'the Decrees of the General Councils, and the Ecclesiastical Statutes,' when it declared 'that the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) possessed the Primacy over the whole universe; that he was the Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, St. Peter, and the true Vicegerent of Jesus Christ, the Head of the whole Church, . . . and whoever refused to recognize the Pope as the Head of the Church was at all times considered by all the faithful as an apostate." (Pp. 135-36).

The Catholic Church is serious about the Matthew 16 passage of Scripture. From this it builds an overwhelming system that is meant to control the religious life of all under the church's power. And this power starts with Peter and comes down to every Pope ever placed in office.

The Catechism of Father Deharbe points out that it is easy to find that visible church because perceptible marks have been left that the world can see. Because of this, all who deny the church are "under pain of eternal damnation" if they do not listen to her. (p. 139) "Non-Catholic Religious Societies" (Protestant denominations) are not true because they have no common Head (such as the Pope), and because their founders are not holy." (p. 141) As well, they "have rejected many articles of faith and means of sanctification, as, for example, the Sacrifice of the Mass and most of the Sacraments." (p. 141-42) The people in these groups are lost "Because they cannot produce from among themselves one Saint, confirmed as such by his miraculous power." (p. 142)

Contrary to what the Catholic Church tries to convey today, non-Catholics do not stand much of a chance for salvation unless they come back into the fold of the Mother Church: "From the beginning whoever obstinately refused to accept and believe a doctrine of Catholic Faith, when so declared ex cathedra by the Pope, was always cut off from the communion of the Church, and condemned as a heretic." (p. 146)

"All those who by their own fault are Heretics, i.e., who profess a doctrine that has been condemned by the Church; or who are Infidels - that is, who no longer have nor profess any Christian faith at all; and 2. All those who by their own fault are Schismatics - that is, who have renounced, not the doctrine of the Church, but their obedience to her, or to her Supreme head, the Pope." (p. 148-49)

Further, a heretic is one by his own fault, who knows about the Catholic Church, is convinced of her truth, but does not join her. But more, he could know her, if he searched, but through indifference and other culpable motives, neglects to do so. (p. 149) And apart from the Church there is no salvation. "Everyone is obliged, under pain of eternal damnation, to become a member of the Catholic Church, to believe her doctrine, to use her means of grace, and to submit to her authority." (p.148)

From the words of Jesus in Matthew 16, the Catholic Church has constructed a system that confines its followers to its own deadly path. In Peter, power was transferred from bishop to bishop, through the centuries, that has created a mountain of belief from which there is no room for challenge nor is there an escape. Those who do not believe all that the Church says are lost. But there are some changes in the wind that will prove to be a deeper and more subtle trap for those not familiar with Catholic strategy.

7: What are the changing Roman Catholic views of Matthew 16?

The Catechism continues and warns that all must adhere to the decisions of the church. And when the Pope speaks for the church, he speaks infallibly. "The General Council of the Vatican, in 1870, defined that the Pope is infallible when he teaches the church ex cathedra." (p.145)

After the first three or four centuries, developing Roman Catholicism held that the Catholic Church is the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God. Theologically, this is amillennialism. But in the theological writings of the modern church there is an attempt to change this Kingdom idea. How far this will go is not certain. In the 1286-page work Catholicism (1994) by Richard P. McBrien, new thoughts emerge about a Kingdom yet future that is related to, yet separate from, the earthly church. McBrien writes, "Insofar as the Church offers a credible witness to the truth, it will arouse the world to a 'living hope' in the coming of the Kingdom of God." (Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism, rev. ed. (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 673.)

He then quotes Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who states, "The Church is not itself the Kingdom of God." (p. 692) Another theologian, Edward Schillebeeck, writes, "The Church is committed to the coming Kingdom of God, but it is not yet in possession of the Kingdom. The Church is still on the way, in history, searching tentatively for solutions to the problems of human existence." (p.694) He goes on to say that when the church finds the solutions, the world can be fully "humanized."

To many recent Catholic theologians, the church is seeking a parallel path to the world, "critically involved in the building of the world and the progress of the nations. " (p. 694).

McBrien further writes, "The Church is necessary for the world as a sacrament, an efficacious sign and instrument of God's redemptive activity in Jesus Christ, leading toward the final Kingdom of God. . . . The Church is necessary for those individuals who are in fact called by God to acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus and to collaborate with him in the coming Kingdom of God. " (p. 730)

McBrien also admits that it was Augustine who first identified the Church with the Kingdom. (p. 1180) But twentieth-century Catholic theology insists that the church and the kingdom are not the same. The kingdom, they say, will be the product of divine and human initiative and collaboration. It will have political and social dimensions. (p. 1180) It will be fully manifested in the future. In the meantime, the Eucharist represents the Kingdom and even "anticipates" it. McBrien says, "The Catholic Church has never officially defined the meaning of the Kingdom of God. The Second Vatican Council overcomes the separation between general and individual eschatology, links the present and the future, and establishes a fundamental unity between the earthly and the heavenly." (p. 1181)

By what has been written so far by McBrien, it is not impossible that this could evolve into an imminent and near millennial view of the coming Kingdom. If this happens, a clash could be anticipated in the future between the promised Jewish millennial kingdom and the kingdom of the Catholic Church on earth. Thus, the open warfare and conflict with the false prophet, who could be the Pope, and the people of God, as described in the book of Revelation. And the Pope would be loyal to and standing behind the "political and social dimensions" of the kingdom of the antichrist!

The keys to the kingdom given to Peter has to do with his role of judgment of the Jewish nation and their notion of the reign of the Messiah. Wherever Peter went, he convicted the Jewish leaders about their rejection of Jesus as their Savior and Messiah. Peter was but the instrument in the hands of a sovereign God to carry out this opening and closing of doors (loosening and binding) spiritually for that generation of the Jewish people.

The Church is not that kingdom. But the Church is built upon the statement of Peter as to the divine person of the Lord.

In great error, the Catholic Church has created a primacy of Peter from the Matthew 16 passage to support their political structure. - Mal Couch, General Editor, A Biblical Handbook to the Acts of the Apostles, Kregel Publications (October 25, 2004). pp. 51-60

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