In Matthew 16, we read that in response to Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:17), Jesus says:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”Matthew 16:18-19
These verses have been used by the Roman Catholic Church to support the concepts of papal authority and papal succession, suggesting that Peter’s successors hold the keys of the kingdom.
But is this correct?
What was Jesus speaking about when he said “on this rock I will build my church”? And what are the “keys of the kingdom”?
In a recent Sermon Extra video, Pastor Mike and I discussed this topic. Here are some highlights, and then you can see the full video below.
What was Jesus speaking about when he said “on this rock I will build my church”?
There are 3 possible options:
- Jesus is speaking about Peter as the first leader of the church
- Jesus is referring to Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah) and the Son of the Living God (deity)
- Jesus is referring to himself as the rock (cornerstone) upon which the church is based
The strength of the first view (that Jesus is speaking about Peter) is the fact that Peter’s name means “stone.” So, perhaps Jesus is speaking about Peter through a play on words.
However, when Peter himself writes his first epistle (1 Peter), he writes that we who are believers are like living stones which are being built together into a spiritual house (temple), with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he says that we who are believers are members of the household of God, which is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20).
When John (who was present when Jesus said those words recorded in Matthew 16) wrote his gospel, he made this statement his grand culmination:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.John 20:30-31
It’s surprising just how similar John’s words are to Peter’s statement: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. John says that this is the way to receive eternal life. So, is this confession of Jesus as Messiah and God the foundation of the church?
Here’s the thing: even if it is referring to Peter, and Jesus was giving Peter a position of primacy of leadership in the early church, it does not necessarily follow that Peter’s primacy of leadership would then be handed down in succession to whoever held his position in the future. This is especially true, since Peter’s position changed over the course of time in the early days of Christianity. Early on, we see Peter as a leader in the church in Jerusalem, but eventually he left Jerusalem. He eventually died in Rome, but the church in Rome was not started by him.
The idea of papal succession is quite a leap from this verse, and it has significant historical issues with it as well, as I explain in the video linked below.
What are the “Keys of the Kingdom”?
Keys are something which open doors and close doors. Did Jesus give these keys specifically to Peter, or were they given to Christian leaders in general, or even to believers in general?
If they were given to Peter, it is worth noting that Peter is the one who opened the doors to salvation through Jesus first to the Jews on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), then to the Samaritans (Acts 8), and then to the Gentiles (Acts 10-11).
It is certainly significant that the exact phrase that is used in Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16 about the keys of the kingdom: “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” is used again by Jesus only two chapters later in Matthew 18, when he is talking about how to deal with a fellow believer who has sinned against you.
There, after explaining the protocol for dealing with these situations, he says:
“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”Matthew 18:18-20
This is spoken to all of Jesus’ disciples, not just Peter, but the final statements seem to make it clear that this statement applies to all believers who gather in Jesus’ name.
Here’s the video in which we discuss this in a bit more detail, especially in regard to this historical development of interpretation within the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches: