What Did Jesus Mean When He Gave Peter the “Keys of the Kingdom”?

After Jesus had declared that He would build His church on the truth of Peter’s noble confession, He went on to say, “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 ). Later, addressing all the disciples, our Lord repeated the words, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” ( Matthew 18:18 ).

Jesus gave Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” not the keys to heaven.1 A key was a badge of authority ( Luke 11:52 ), and then as now was used to open doors. Peter used the keys Christ gave him to open the door to the Jews on the Day of Pentecost ( Acts 2 ), to the Samaritans after the preaching of Philip ( Acts 8:14-17 ), and to the Gentiles after the Lord had sent him a vision and an appeal from Cornelius ( Acts 10 ).

The concept of “binding and loosing” found in Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18 was commonly used among the Jewish people in relation to the authority of the rabbis to forbid and permit certain practices. Jesus gave Peter and the apostles authority over both the doctrine and practices of the first-century church. Through the leading of the Holy Spirit, they would be given wisdom to know what to forbid and what to permit.

This authority, not on exactly the same level as during the apostolic era, still resides in the leaders of the local church. They may not receive the same kind of supernatural guidance as the apostles did,but they possess the entire New Testament along with the direction of the Holy Spirit. 2 Therefore, when church leaders discipline a church member who promotes incorrect doctrine or is involved in evil behavior, they act with divine approval. They are carrying out God’s will, and what they do is ratified in heaven. Since their authority is not ultimately derived from their personal qualities or their office but from Scripture and the instruction of the Holy Spirit, they should exercise it humbly and prayerfully.

  1. The two expressions “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” actually have the same basic meaning. They should be understood within the context of the passages in which they are found. They can be used in a number of ways. They can refer to the universal sense of the entire creation, which is ultimately under the control of God. They can refer the mediatorial kingdom of Jesus Christ, which will come into being when Jesus returns triumphantly to reign directly over the earth. And, finally, they can refer to the kingdom of God, which is already present in the hearts of believers who have yielded themselves to Jesus Christ as Lord. Hebrews 12:22-24 expresses the reality of God’s present kingdom:
    “You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Back To Article
  2. The authority of the apostles and their chosen successors was basic to the survival of the early church. However, after centuries passed and the canon of Scripture along with the doctrinal foundation of the church had become firmly established, it was necessary to return to the Scriptures themselves as the primary source of authority. Back To Article
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