Images of the Savior (30 â€“ His Giving the Keys of the Kingdom)
During his time on earth, Jesus himself was preaching the gospel of the eternal Kingdom of Heaven, opening it to whom he would open it, and shutting it against whom he would shut it. But at the same time, he was also preparing his disciples to carry on this Kingdom-work when he should return to the Father, and begin to reign from God's right hand, sitting on the throne of David. He was then announcing the gospel and opening the Kingdom in his physical body; but he would soon be announcing the gospel and opening the Kingdom in his mystical body, the Church. For this reason, it was necessary that he take the keys of his kingly authority, and bestow them upon some representative (or representatives), to continue his work in his name, and with his authority, until the end of the age. Our account relates the details of this solemn bestowal of authority; and, although it has been much abused and perverted throughout Church history, its true meaning and importance must not therefore be minimized. We trust that the Spirit of God whom the Father has sent to us in the name of Jesus will protect us from all misunderstanding as we pursue the true meaning of his word today.
Let us first observe the basis for this bestowal of kingly authority: which is nothing other than Peter's confession, â€œYou are the Christ, the Son of the living Godâ€. We see from the response to Jesus' question in the previous verses, that many different persons had many different doctrines and ideas of who this man Jesus truly was. Many supposed that they held him in honor, considering him to be a great prophet, come back from beyond the grave; but in light of the true nature of this man, such an estimation was no honor at all, but a terrible slight against him, seeing he was so much higher than all the prophets who had ever come before him. In distinction to these inadequate views of Jesus, Peter confessed him to be the promised Messiah, both human and divine, and so the one who fulfilled all the things which were written in the scriptures about who this Messiah should be, and what he should do. It is in response to this true affirmation that Jesus gives to Peter the Kingdom keys. Let us assure ourselves first, then, that it may never be supposed that the authority of the keys belongs to him who confesses a false doctrine of Christ, or of his work of salvation. This observation alone must strike the death blow against them who claim to have this power, but who heap up their follies to heaven, supposing that justification must be completed by one's own works and penances, teaching the monstrous idea of a bank of merits, by which the good deeds of the saints may help atone for a man, and thus blaspheming the sufficiency of Christ's own atoning work, and holding to many other such evil doctrines besides.
Second, we must note that the ultimate source of this authority is the Father himself. For this confession, in response to which Jesus bestowed the authority of the keys, was not revealed by flesh and blood, but by the Father alone. Let us be clear that no human authority may pass on these keys to any other man, but only they who have been chosen by the Father, and brought to the light of true doctrine by his Spirit, may ever hold them. The keys are given by Jesus, but he gives them always in accordance with his Father's will, recognizing the one whom the Father has blessed with the light of true doctrine, and bestowing his keys on none other. If Jesus himself bestowed the keys only on him whom the Father had granted true understanding, we must certainly know that any authority we as the Church of his Son may have to grant them can only be in recognition and affirmation of the one whom the Father has already chosen. Thus, when the Spirit had already chosen Paul and Barnabas, the Church solemnly commissioned them, laying on their hands and sending them out (Acts 13:2-3).
Third, we note the goal, or end, to which the authority of these keys should be employed, and that is, the building up of the Church. And so Jesus said that upon Peter, by virtue of his true confession and proclamation of Christ, he was about to build his Church. In fact, we may certainly say that the persons to whom the Kingdom of Heaven has been opened, and who have thus entered into its realm, these and no others are the true Church. The authority to open up the Kingdom was therefore nothing but the authority to build the Church, by passing judgment on who could come and who could not. But we must not fail to remember that this judgment had always to come in accordance with the test of the doctrinal confession that Peter had just uttered.
Fourth, we observe the recipients of this Kingdom authority; and it is clear, in this passage, that it is Peter in particular. But as there is nothing here spoken of pertaining to whether or not this authority should always belong to Peter alone, or whether it should likewise be given and passed on to others; and if so, under what conditions and by what means; we must therefore look to the rest of the scriptures to answer these questions. In the first place, we are utterly confident that the authority of the keys must have belonged as well to the other apostles: for this authority was nothing other than an authority to build up the Church, and we are taught in the epistles of Paul that he, at least, possessed this authority in full measure, inasmuch as he claimed to have laid the Church's very foundation, through his proclamation of the true doctrine of Christ (I Corinthians 3:10-11); and so as well did the rest of the apostles, for he called them that foundation in very fact (Ephesians 2:19-22). Let us affirm, then, that this authority was likewise given to all the apostles, and Peter was ultimately no different than they in regards to authority or prestige, and was indeed subject to rebuke from the other apostles, when his practice failed to do justice to the truth of his doctrine (Galatians 2:11-14). We admit that Peter was different in this respect, that he was the first one to confess the doctrine which underlay his authority, and so he was the first one to be granted the keys; but he was by no means their sole, or even primary possessor in the days of the early Church, and he had no more authority to pass them on to his successors than did any of the other apostles. We must finally notice, on this point, that two chapters after our text, in Matthew 18:18-20, Jesus passes on this same solemn authority to the consensus of Church leadership; so we may be certain that, even today, wherever there is Christ's true Church, preaching the true gospel, those whom he has placed over the flock as leaders and shepherds possess this same solemn authority to bind or to loose, to open or shut the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven â€“ but always on the basis of the true confession of Christ to which they hold.
Fifth, we have touched already upon this, but we must be clear exactly what the essence of this authority of the keys truly entails; and that is, it is the authority to make judgment or pronouncement, on the basis of the true confession of Christ, as to who is indeed a citizen of the Heavenly Kingdom, and a true member of the Church. When Peter and the other apostles proclaimed their message, and one responded in sincerity and truth, confessing his faith in the Christ, they had full authority to make the solemn judgment, this one is a Christian indeed, and a citizen of the Kingdom, with all the rights and responsibilities that such citizenship entails. Similarly, when the leaders of the Church had determined that a man had denied the faith by his words or his continuance in impenitent sin, they were given the authority to judge that man a â€œheathen and a publicanâ€ (Matthew 18:17), until by repentance he had judged himself worthy of his Kingdom citizenship. But we must be very careful never to divorce this most solemn authority from the foundational criterion of the true confession of Christ, lest we turn it into a sham authority that possesses no true weight, but is rather used to terrify men and bring them under bondage to those who lift themselves up unduly in the Church. Of this sad perversion of an authority given to build up, and not to destroy (II Corinthians 13:10), we may see many examples in the Medieval history of the Church, and at other times in history as well. Along these lines, we must note the power that Christ later granted to all the apostles, through the Spirit which he breathed out upon them, to proclaim forgiveness with authority, on the basis of the message they were taking to the nations (John 20:22-23). In this case it is very clear what the essence of this power was, to announce the forgiveness of sins with full authority, seeing that their message would be be worked powerfully in the hearts and consciences of its hearers by the Spirit of God. By his ministry within the apostles, their witness would be powerful, bringing men to true faith in Jesus. They had a message by which they could proclaim the forgiveness of sins, and they had the Spirit to enable them to join the power of God to the word of God, so that those whom they forgave would be forgiven indeed. But again, we see that this authority belonged not to Peter alone, but to all the apostles with him.
Finally, we must take note of the means by which this power of the keys would be exercised; we have already spoken much of the Spirit-empowered proclamation of the gospel, by which the apostles were authorized to pronounce true forgiveness and Kingdom possession, with all the authority of Christ, and in his name (see Luke 24:47). But we must now note more particularly that it was by the ordinance of baptism that the apostles were authorized to make this public declaration. This authority and commission is given to them explicitly in Matthew 28:18-20; and we must be aware that it is not an altogether different commissioning than that by which Jesus gave to Peter the keys of the Kingdom, but rather a more particular explication of what he had generally told him before. We must remember that the leaders of the Church, who have been chosen by the Father, and solemnly installed by the Church herself, in recognition of the Spirit's moving, have true authority in Jesus' name to pronounce one a Kingdom-heir, in accordance with the doctrinal confession to which he steadfastly adheres; and we must be aware, moreover, that the way in which they pass this solemn and Christ-authorized judgment, is through the covenant sign of baptism. Oh, let us rejoice that Jesus, when he ascended bodily to the Father, did not thereby cut off his earthly work of opening the Kingdom to those whom the Father had chosen and shutting it against them who he had not been given, but that he established the means by which he would continue this work, on the basis of his own authority, in his mystical body the Church! Let us be thankful that, because of the true doctrine and covenant sign that Jesus has given to us, we may be assured just as solemnly of our possession of the Kingdom, if we have trusted in Christ, as if he himself had spoken the word in our ears; which, in a manner, he has, through his divinely appointed and empowered means within his body the Church.