Weekly Bible Study
Tuesday 6th October 2020
Topic: The Keys of The Church
Text: Matthew 16:19
The phrase “the keys of the kingdom” mentioned in our text today occurs only once in the Bible. What is the meaning of these “keys of the kingdom of heaven”? Elsewhere in the New Testament a key always implies authority to open a door and give entrance to a place or realm. Jesus says, “Woe to you lawyers! for you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52). Moreover, Jesus says in Revelation 1:18, “I have the keys of Death and Hades,” implying that he has the authority to grant entrance and exit from those realms. (Rev. 3:7; 9:1; 20:1; Isa. 22:22.)
The “keys of the kingdom of heaven” therefore represents the authority to preach the gospel of Christ (Matt. 16:19) and thus to open the door of the kingdom of heaven and allow people to enter. Peter first used this authority by preaching the gospel at Pentecost (Acts 2:14–42). But the other apostles also were given this authority in a primary sense (they wrote the gospel in permanent form in the New Testament). And all believers have this “key” in a secondary sense, for they can all share the gospel with others, and thereby open the kingdom of heaven to those who will enter it. But is there any other authority, in addition to this, that Jesus implies by the phrase “the keys of the kingdom of heaven”?
There are two factors suggesting that the authority of the keys here also includes the authority to exercise discipline within the church:
(1) The plural “keys” suggests authority over more than one door. Thus, more than simply entrance into the kingdom is implied; some authority within the kingdom is also suggested.
(2) Jesus completes the promise about the keys with a statement about “binding” and “loosing,” which closely parallels another saying of his in Matthew 18, in which “binding” and “loosing” mean placing under church discipline and releasing from church discipline: If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer. Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. (Matt. 18:17–18) But if “binding” and “loosing” clearly refer to church discipline in Matthew 18, then it seems likely that they would also refer to church discipline in Matthew 16, where Jesus’ words are very similar. This understanding of binding and loosing in terms of church discipline also fits the context of Matthew 16:19, for on this understanding, after promising to build his church (v. 18), Jesus promises to give not only the authority to open the door of entrance into the kingdom, but also some administrative authority to regulate the conduct of people once they are inside.
Therefore it seems that “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” which Jesus promised to Peter in Matthew 16:19 included both
(1) ability to admit people to the kingdom through preaching the gospel,
(2) authority to exercise church discipline for those who do enter.
In Matthew 16:16–19, both aspects of the authority of the keys, though first given to Peter, were soon expanded to include the authority given to the church as a whole. In preaching the gospel and in exercising discipline the church now exercises the authority of the keys of the kingdom.
Yet the authority of the keys with respect to church discipline is not completely unlimited. It will only be effective against true sin (Matt. 18:15), sin as defined by God’s Word. Therefore the authority to carry out discipline in the church is an authority that must be carried out in accordance with the standards of Scripture.
Thus, Jesus is teaching that church discipline will have heavenly sanction. But it is not as if the church must wait for God to endorse its actions after the actions have occurred. Rather, whenever the church enacts discipline it can be confident that God has already begun the process spiritually. Whenever it releases from discipline, forgives the sinner, and restores personal relationships, the church can be confident that God has already begun the restoration spiritually (John 20:23). In this way Jesus promises that the spiritual relationship between God and the person subject to discipline will be immediately affected in ways consistent with the direction of the church’s disciplinary action. Legitimate church discipline, therefore, involves the awesome certainty that corresponding heavenly discipline has already begun. Therefore, Christians should submit to this discipline and not run from it