The Keys of the Kingdom

© Copyright 1998, 2001 (Revised) by Bob and Gretchen Passantino


Jesus said, “I will give you [Peter] 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” (Matt. 16:19).

Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:15-20).

Locked Church Door

These passages are familiar to most Christians, and yet for all their familiarity, much of their rich significance is missed by many who do not understand the cultural and spiritual significance. Both passages are in some ways cryptic, because they assume familiarity with first century and Old Testament religious practices that most readers today don’t have.

People tend to take such enigmatic scriptural statements as those in Matthew 16 and 18 and build explanations around them that go beyond the bare bones of the text. Evangelicals point to Matthew 18 to support the idea that “church” is wherever “two or three” are gathered in Christ’s name. Mormons point to this same passage to support the idea that salvation (exaltation) is only available through the Mormon church. Roman Catholics use Matthew 18 to support the teaching that the church, represented by the priest, “mediates” between humans and God regarding the forgiveness of sin. Roman Catholics use Matthew 16 to affirm the primacy of Peter as the first universal “pope.”

Ugly Church

When a reader understands the cultural, historical, and biblical background of the two passages, it becomes clear that the interpretations above are inadequate. We can have a richer understanding of the passages once we understand the Old Testament background, the first century cultural context, the context of the texts, and the relationship of the texts to other New Testament passages.

Matthew 16:19 asserts that Jesus chose Peter as his “viceroy” to display God’s redemptive plan of the church after Jesus’ ascension, when he promised Peter and the eleven that they would be empowered to bring the good news to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the extent of the Roman Empire.

Matthew 18:15-20 asserts that when the local expression of the church, the congregation, acts under Christ’s authority, in God’s Will, by God’s standards, it can and should announce judgment and exclusion to those who reject God’s redemption, but it also should announce forgiveness and salvation to those who embrace God’s redemption.

First, Matthew 16 uses the metaphor of “keys” to indicate representative power from God. Although the word “keys” is used only in this passage, we know that Jesus also granted power to the twelve in Matthew 10:12-15, 32-33, 40-42 and John 20:21-23; to the Seventy disciples in Luke 10:10-16; and to the church in Matthew 18:18-19. The metaphor was a common one both in the Old Testament and in the cultures around Palestine during that time and the time of Christ. Isaiah 22:20-22 is a clear example. The passage reads,

In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.

This is a Messianic reference incorporating a general custom in Israel and surrounding nations during the first millennium B.C. The custom was that the king, governor, prince, master, or head of household could give someone the power to act “in his name,” that is, in his place in his absence or for certain duties. This “prime minister” or “right hand man” was given a ceremonial robe, belt, and key to signify his authority under the leader. When the individual with the “key” (and other items) made a judgment over his master’s property and/or people, it communicated and represented the master’s will.

In Matthew 16, Jesus is appointing Peter as his “viceroy,” and in the Book of Acts we see Peter fulfilling that commission in Jerusalem, Judea, among the Samaritans, and among the Gentiles.

Peter receives the keys

The principle concerning the power of a royal representative is especially clear in the story of Esther. Throughout Esther we see the formal relationship between the king and Mordecai, the king and Haman, & especially between the king and his wife, Esther. This is particularly clear in Esther 4:9-11, where Esther recites the royal edict that no one may approach the king without his gesturing them forward with his scepter (a synonymous symbol to a royal key).

Matthew 16 and 18 were written before Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, and before Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2) by which three thousand were converted. At Pentecost the Jewish Christian “church” was established distinct from Jewish churches that did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Therefore, we can assume that the “church” Jesus referred to was the local synagogue congregation, which usually had one or more rabbis (teachers), a minimum of 10 or 12 Jewish adult males in each prayer service (minyan), and a maximum of about 200 regular members and their families. These synagogue “churches” served their local neighborhoods (in a metropolitan setting such as Jerusalem) or local community (in smaller towns, villages, and rural areas). They were places of prayer, worship, teaching of the scriptures (the Old Testament at that time), fellowship among believing members, regulation of Jewish religious life, and as courts of arbitration in local civil disputes.

Synagogue meeting

As a matter of fact, this basic structure was carried over into the Jewish Christian congregations and Jewish/Gentile Christian congregations in the first and second century. We still see remnants of it in the order of service in liturgical traditions such as the eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, the Episcopalian/Anglican, and the Lutheran churches.

The issue Jesus addresses in Matthew 18 is apparently a civil or personal dispute between two members of the same synagogue “church.” As such, the synagogue church represented God’s will in much the same way Israel did to the nations. We can take this as good advice for the Christian church of today as well.

According to the law given by God through Moses, both criminal and civil disputes were settled using the principle that a party can prevail only if there are “two or three witnesses” to the offense (Deut. 17:6; 19:15). Deuteronomy 19:15 declares,

One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.

Jesus himself commended this practice, noting in John 5:31 that “If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true,” not because the Son of God is a liar, but because no one should believe someone who claims he is the Son of God merely based on his claim, but instead we should believe because of multiple unequivocal “witnesses” or evidences. He continues, saying, “There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know that the witness which He witnesses of Me is true” (v. 32), further noting additional “witnesses:” John the Baptist (v. 33), Jesus’ miracles (v. 36), the Father’s voice (v. 37), and the scriptures (v. 39).

He returns to this theme in John 8:14, paradoxically announcing that “Even if I bear witness of Myself, My witness is true” [since he has proven by other witnesses that he is the Son of God]. Immediately following, he refers to the rules of witnesses (8:16‑18).

Later in Christianity, the apostle Paul commended the Bereans for testing his teachings (Acts 17:11), and warned the Galatians not to believe false witnesses, even if the witness is an angel or Paul himself (Gal. 1:6‑10). They would have been tested not only by the content of their preaching, but by the evidence or testimony available, following the “two or more” rule.


In Matthew 18, in the context of correcting the sinning brother, the person sinned against has an obligation to go to that person to try to resolve it privately. If he is unable, then he is to take “one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established'” (Matt. 18:16). If the brother still refuses to repent, then it is the obligation of the congregation (the “church”) to act as Christ’s representative in holding the sinning brother accountable, and then expelling him from the church if he remains unrepentant (vv. 17‑19).

Thus, Christian churches today should place great responsibility on the local congregation for ensuring that its members are treated fairly and that unrepentant sin is inexcusable. When the church (including, but not limited to, the “two or three” witnesses required) judges someone guilty or restored, it is acting as Christ instructed it to act, and as God commanded both in the Old Testament synagogue churches and in the New Testament and historical Christian churches after Christ’s coming.

Christians should be careful to distinguish that the “keys,” the power to “forgive” and “retain” sins, is a derivative or reflective power of announcing forgiveness or judgment according to God’s standards.

There are additional aspects of the “keys of the kingdom” mentioned in Matthew 16:19, Isaiah 22:22, and Rev. 1:18. (There is an analogous passage about the “key of knowledge” in Luke 11:52). The contextual passage of Isaiah 22:22 reads,

In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah.  I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the people of Judah.  I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.  I will drive him like a peg into a firm place; he will become a seat of honor for the house of his father.  All the glory of his family will hang on him: its offspring and offshoots—all its lesser vessels, from the bowls to all the jars. In that day,” declares the Lord Almighty, “the peg driven into the firm place will give way; it will be sheared off and will fall, and the load hanging on it will be cut down.” The Lord has spoken.

The apostle John’s reference to Christ with the keys in Rev. 1:18 would have been immediately understood by his first century A.D. readers as a reference to Is. 22:22. In Revelation 1:18 the risen Christ says to the apostle John,

Do not be afraid. I am the first and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

Likewise, when Jesus used the term in Matthew 16, his disciples understood that they were to act in his behalf and communicate his will through their own actions and words. This responsibility is echoed in John 20:21-23, in which the resurrected Christ commands his disciples, saying,

Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. . . . Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.

In this sense, all Christians have the responsibility to communicate God’s will and God’s plan of salvation to those who don’t know it. We are God’s representatives, and individual congregations are represented by their pastors.

Revelation keys

The passage in Matthew 16 refers specifically to Peter, and by inference to all Christians. We see from the book of Acts that Peter, representing both Christ and the church, “used” the “keys of the kingdom” in first proclaiming the gospel to the Jews (Acts 2), then confirming that the gospel was meant also for the Samaritans (Acts 8:14‑25), and finally confirming the universal nature of the gospel, including to the Gentiles (Acts 10). This is the pattern Jesus commanded in his concluding remarks just before his ascension (recorded in Acts 1:7-8):

It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The risen Christ summarized this authority and responsibility in Matthew 28:19:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.

Of course, any misrepresentation that churches or Christians make are invalid uses of “the keys” or acting “in His Name” since they contradict the will of the Master (Jesus Christ). We are told to represent Jesus, but not that we can act with authority outside his will. We are commissioned to announce God’s forgiveness and judgment, not to determine God’s forgiveness and judgment. The Augsburg Confession (XXV 3) summarizes this principle:

It is not the voice or word of the man who speaks it, but it is the Word of God, who forgives sin, for it is spoken in God’s stead and by God’s command.”

The concept of “the keys of the kingdom” provides a depth and richness to our understanding of Jesus commissioning Christians to share the gospel and warn people of God’s judgment against unrepentant sinners. Rather than fearing human judgment, we can be confident of Christ’s perfect judgment communicated by his church.


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