The Centrality of the Keys
According to Lord's Day 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism, there are two keys that open and close the kingdom of heaven. The two are the preaching of the holy gospel and church discipline.
In today's society both the preaching and church discipline have fallen upon hard times. People don't want to be told, want instead to be left free to make their own decisions. To the extent that preaching is authoritative and sets forth the only way to live and to be saved, to the same extent preaching is frowned upon. Similarly, to the extent that church discipline punishes a sinner for an unscriptural pattern of living, to the same extent church discipline has fallen out of favor.
I do not in this article wish to speak about the preaching itself, or about church discipline. I wish instead to consider the background question of the keys themselves. What role has the Lord God given to these keys? How important are they?
We shall find out that the keys are vitally important. We shirk or slight these keys to our detriment.
The Kingdom of Heaven
There is one place only in the Bible where we come across the phrase “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” That's in Matthew 16, where Jesus says this: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (vs. 19). To understand the Lord's phrase we need first to consider what He means by the term 'the kingdom of heaven'.
The kingdom of heaven is that domain over which heaven reigns. Jesus Christ has ascended to the right hand of God, where all authority in heaven and earth was given to Him, and so He is today Lord of lords and King of kings. All the world, therefore, is His kingdom.
Yet from Scripture and experience we know that much of the world lives in rebellion against the King of kings, refuses to acknowledge Christ as king. That reality does not diminish Christ's ability to exercise His will over the rebels, but it does point up that these rebels (that's the unbelievers) do not enjoy, do not participate in, the benefits that belong to Christ's kingdom. These rebels, these unbelievers are in Christ's kingdom, but are not of Christ's kingdom. The gifts that Christ has obtained for sinners on the cross – and these gifts include the forgiveness of sins, peace with God, and so on – are not distributed to the unbelievers; they are distributed only to the believers, those who acknowledge Christ's kingship.
The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven
Jesus speaks about “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” What picture is this phrase to conjure up in our minds? Are we to think of a room with big doors – that's the kingdom of heaven and its privileges – and to get through those doors we have to get hold of some keys? If yes, what are those keys?
It is Jesus who uses the phrase “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Yet the notion of 'keys' is not new with Jesus. As with so much of His vocabulary, Jesus has learned this term from His Father's revelation in the Old Testament. I refer specifically to Isaiah 22:22: “The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder; So he shall open, and no one shall shut; And he shall shut, and no one shall open.” To understand Jesus' words about the keys of the kingdom of heaven, we need to come to grips with the Lord's word in Isaiah 22.1
“The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder,” says the passage. The prophet Isaiah is speaking here to a certain Shebna who was steward in the king's house. He misused his stewardship to enrich himself, and so God would remove the stewardship from him and commit Shebna's responsibility to a better man, to Eliakim.
For our purposes, it is important that we understand the role of the steward. Israel's king was meant not only to govern the people, but also administer justice (cf. Psalm 72:1). So the people were to have access to the king; think of the two women with their two boys (one dead) who came to Solomon for justice. But how does that work? Could the people just willy-nilly knock on the doors of the king's throne room and expect the king instantly to have time for them? Understandably, the answer is No. The king appointed a 'steward', a man who was 'over the house', and this man was (among other tasks) to make the appointments for the king. Yet it's clear too that not every Israelite could come to the king with whatever complaint he might have; the king would be far too busy for them all. So the steward was also entrusted with the task of screening the requests and determining which was of sufficient importance to come to the king. If the steward agreed that your case was worth the king's time, he'd make you an appointment, and on the appointed day you could front up to the king's chamber and the guards would let you in – because the steward had said so. Conversely, if the steward felt that your case was frivolous, he would deny you a slot to see the king, and so when you approached the guards to enter the king's presence they wouldn't open the door for you. You see: the steward would open access to the king and no one could shut; or the steward would deny access to the king, and no one could open it. So it's clear: the steward had an enormous responsibility, and in fact had great power too.
This material forms the Old Testament background to Jesus' words about the keys of the kingdom in Matthew 16. Jesus says in vs. 19: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Those keys: as with Eliakim in Is 22, the point of keys is the question of access. With Eliakim the point was access to the king and therefore access to the king's justice in your particular dispute. In Matthew 16 the point is access to the King of kings, Jesus Christ, and therefore access to His justice, i.e., whether His atoning work on Calvary can be your righteousness before God, whether you can enjoy forgiveness of sins for Jesus' sake, whether you can be assured of peace with God. As Eliakim's decision to open access to the king meant that no one could shut, and Eliakim's decision to deny access to the king meant that no one could open it, so in Matthew 16 the decision of the person with the keys is final; “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This makes it clear: the keys are vitally important; whoever has those keys determines who has access to the kingdom of heaven, determines who may enjoy the privileges of the kingdom (forgiveness of sins, peace with God) and who may not. Whatever he decides is ratified in heaven!
Who has the Keys?
That raises a critical question: who has the keys? To whom did Jesus entrust these keys in Matthew 16?
At first reading it appears that the Lord Jesus gave these keys to Peter. Vs. 18: “I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys…” On the basis of that reading the Roman Catholic Church builds its doctrine that the Pope – successor, it is said, to Peter – determines who can be saved…
But a more careful reading of the passage demonstrates that Jesus did not entrust the keys only to Peter. I mention the following points: 2
- While it is true that the passage about the keys in vs. 19 is addressed first to Peter, the fact of the matter is that Jesus was speaking to all twelve. Vs 13: Jesus “asked His disciples, saying, 'Who do men say that I … am?'“ After they had offered the opinion of the public, Jesus replied with this question, “But who do you say that I am?” The 'you' here is plural; Jesus wants the opinion of the twelve. Simon Peter voiced the opinion of the twelve, and told Jesus that in their opinion He was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” – and there follows the exchange about the keys of the kingdom. Then we read in vs. 20 that Jesus “commanded His disciples” – so not just Peter – “that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ” – as they had just confessed through Peter's mouth. Point: Jesus was speaking to all twelve, be it that He was looking at Peter – the one who was first to voice the true confession of Jesus' identity.
- In Matthew 18 Jesus repeats the very same words He voiced in Matthew 16 while He was looking at Peter: “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This time, however, the pronoun 'you' is in plural form, and the point is that Jesus is distinctly speaking to all twelve and telling them all that their actions of binding and loosing – in other words, their using the keys – opens and shuts the kingdom of heaven. In no way, then, can Jesus' words in Matthew 16 be limited to Peter alone.
- In the same way, Jesus' words in Matthew 16 about Peter being the rock upon which the Lord builds His church is applied in Ephesians 2 to all the apostles (vs. 20).
So, to limit Jesus' words in Matthew 16 to Peter alone, and insist that Peter alone (or a successor to Peter) controls the keys to the kingdom of heaven is simply wrong.
Let Jesus' reference be, then, to the twelve. To them Jesus gives the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and that's to say that when they open the kingdom to you, the kingdom is open and when they close the kingdom to you the kingdom is closed. Their function parallels that of the Old Testament steward: he determines who may see the king and who may not.