The Keys of the Kingdom – Matthew 16 and the church of Rome

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 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.” Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:13-23). 

Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy and a number of other denominations place a very great significance on these verses in establishing their respective claims to being the one true church with vicarious powers to forgive sin and determine doctrine.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Jesus entrusted a specific authority to Peter: “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. The “power of the keys” designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church … The power to “bind and loose” connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom.1

The Catechism further teaches that “this pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles … is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope”: 2

The Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered. The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head.

What is the rock on which the church is built?

The passage from Matthew 16 deals at its heart with the issue of Jesus’ true status and identity. As it was at that time, there are many today who profess to believe in Jesus as a prophet (Muslims), or accept him as an inspired teacher (Hindus) or believe at least that he existed in history. But Jesus asks Simon Peter: who do YOU say that I am? This is the critical question by which the Christian church is defined and distinguished.

Peter recognized Jesus as the Christ (Messiah) and the Son of God. Many have stumbled over this issue and are excluded from the church because of their unbelief. Peter explains this in his first letter:

As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,” and, “A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for. (1 Peter 2:4-8)

Exclusion from the church is thus on the basis of rejecting the message, not Peter’s authority. The church is not founded upon the vehicle (which is Peter), but upon the revelation entrusted to him (the true identity of Jesus and its implications).

From the letter to the Romans it appears once more that it is on the proclamation of Jesus according to His divine revelation, that God has established the church:

Now to Him who is able to establish you [i.e. the church] by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey Him …. (Romans 16:25)

Soon after his confession, Peter was harshly rebuked as an agent of Satan for suggesting that Jesus should avoid the cross (Matthew 16:23). Paul later rebuked Peter to his face “for he was clearly in the wrong” (Galatians 2:11). Peter was hardly infallible and clearly not the bastion of the church that Roman Catholicism would make him out to be. Jesus did not entrust himself to men, “for he knew what was in man” (John 2:24). 

The first person in the Bible to receive the keys to the kingdom (with powers to bind and loose) was Eliakim the son of Hilkiah:

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. (Isaiah 22:20-22)

The act of placing a symbol of authority on the shoulder of a subordinate (still practiced in certain ceremonies today) confers a special status or authority upon that person. However, the person conferring the authority does not by doing so (i) divest himself of the supreme or original authority, nor (ii) imply that the person receiving it would himself have the power to confer it upon another or choose his own successors.

In keeping with this practice, Jesus never relinquished his position as Head of the church3 which even now he actively governs through the work of the Holy Spirit. The keys remain firmly in his hands:

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.(Revelations 1:18)

To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. (Revelations 3:7)

It is also clear from the example of Eliakim that God will remove and appoint people to His service at will – on the criterion of faithfulness. The authority prophetically conferred upon Eliakim in Isaiah 22 was by that same word of prophecy being stripped from Shebna, his predecessor. Shebna had previously held the position conferred upon Eliakim, but was being deposed because of his compromise and corruption. A similar precedent is found in the removal of King Saul and the substitution of David (1 Samuel 15:23), although Saul defiantly continued to occupy the throne until his death.

In using the allegory of the keys in his commissioning of Peter, Jesus was clearly alluding to the incident of Shebna and Eliakim (which would have been well known to him and to any devout Jew at the time). The significance of the allusion becomes clear from Matthew 21:

Jesus said to them, Have you never read in the Scriptures: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes” ?

Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet. (Matthew 21:42-46)

As in the precedent of Shebna, the conferring of the keys in Peter’s case signified that the Jewish religious establishment was being divested of its authority – and this authority was now being vested in the fishermen from Galilee who would yield the fruits of the kingdom through their faithful witness to the risen Christ.

In light of God’s rejection of the Jews, who were natural heirs to the kingdom, Paul issues a stern warning to those who might claim to be hold the keys to the kingdom in the present day:

You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. (Romans 11:19-20)

A God who transacts only on the basis of faithfulness permits no security of tenure or institutional prerogative. No-one has entered heaven for being a member of the Jewish race, and no one will enter heaven for being an official member of the Roman Catholic church.

Apostolic succession

The twelve apostles were chosen to see Christ risen in fulfilment of prophecy and to perform a unique task as witnesses to his resurrection in the formation of the New Covenant Church . The church is thus described as being “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone There can be no succession to the apostles, in the unique role described. A foundation cannot be altered once laid.

Judas was substituted before Pentecost by Matthias – another eye-witness to the resurrection. But this was arguably a demonstration of human fallibility as God had ordained Saul of Tarsus as an apostle by “supernatural birth” and he was permitted to see the resurrected and ascended Christ appear from his exalted position in heaven. Paul later testifies to the fact that he was not ordained by man, but appointed by God himself:

Paul, an apostle – sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead (Galatians 1:1).

In his prayer in John 17, Jesus clearly distinguishes between the apostles and those who would later come to believe through their message. His prayer for the subsequent believers is for them to come into the unity of the faith which evidently comes about through conformity to the apostles’ teaching:

I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. (Romans 16:17)

The pivotal role of the apostles is affirmed by their participation in judgement on thrones alongside Jesus (Matthew 19:28) and their depiction as foundations of the heavenly city (Revelations 21:14).

The church throughout the ages has been bound by the apostles’ teaching to continue in the preservation and dissemination of the message4 which was once and for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 1:3) – but not in its foundation, elaboration, expansion or determination, whether by tradition or otherwise. This unique task was duly completed prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD – the apostolic commission having been fulfilled through the proclamation before that time of the gospel to the whole world5 and the confirmation of its doctrines in the writings which have subsequently become known as the New Testament.

What is meant by binding and loosing?

The authority given to Peter and afterwards also to the other apostles6 was described in the terminology of binding and loosing. These terms were in common use at the time of Jesus, as explained by Alfred Edersheim:7

No other terms were in more con­stant use in Rabbinic Canon-Law than those of ‘binding and loosing.’ The words are the literal translation of the Hebrew equivalents Asar, which means ‘to bind,’ in the sense of prohibiting, and Hittir, which means ‘to loose,’ in the sense of per­mitting.

As the elders and priests of Israel were authorised to make decisive rulings on the application of the Law under the Sinai covenant (see Deuteronomy 17:8-13), so too the apostles were given to determine the application of the law under the new covenant. They exercised this authority at the Jerusalem Council over which James and not Peter presided – when Gentile converts to the faith were “loosed” from the prescripts of the Mosaic law. This ruling clearly applies to the universal church and for all time.

In the fuller delineation of the authority conferred upon them, the testimony to Christ and the doctrines of the New Covenant were left to the apostlesto be recorded and completed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit10 and these writings make up the books of the New Testament which is authoritative and “binding” upon all those who profess faith in the Messiah.

The vesting of these powers in the Lord’s disciples was prophesied through Isaiah about 700 BC:

The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread, and he will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare. Many of them will stumble; they will fall and be broken, they will be snared and captured.” Bind up the testimony and seal up the law among my disciples. (Isaiah 8:13-16)

Once bound and sealed, the doctrines are clearly not open to revision or elaboration. (See further the article Binding and loosing by Peter Cohen).

Does the church have the power to forgive sins?

As a consequence of preaching the gospel, forgiveness of sins would come for all who believe and are baptised in Jesus’ name.

There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.(Romans 3:23-25)

Forgiveness is obtained through faith in the completed work of Jesus on the cross. There is no account anywhere in the New Testament of an apostle purporting to absolve any person of their sins, whether through the prescription of penance or otherwise. When Simon the sorcerer blasphemed by offering money for the power to impart the Holy Spirit, Peter did not call him to the confessional or grant absolution. Instead he instructed Simon:

Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.(Acts 8:22-23)

From Peter’s response it appears that forgiveness (i) must be sought of God, and (ii) is granted at God’s discretion and not administered as a sacrament or obtained consequent to any formula or ritual.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray according to the example given in Matthew 6 and this prayer includes a petition to God, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. This forgiveness is then stated to be conditional:

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)

We also have Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.

Forgiveness is not an institutional prerogative, to be conferred by man. Instead it is an act of God based on the attitude of the heart – which only He can see.

By the account of Acts 8, discussed earlier, Peter clearly did not think that he and the other apostles had the power to forgive sins, in the way that the Roman church understands from John 20.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:21-23)

The apostles were commissioned to be witnesses to the risen Christ, and this inJerusalem, Judea, Samaria and unto the ends of the earth. The Holy Spirit was given to empower them for this task (Acts 1:8). As a consequence of their proclamation, those who believe and are baptised will be saved (through the forgiveness of their sins and reconciliation with God) and those who do not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16).

In Luke’s gospel Jesus reiterates the apostolic commission which was to bring about repentance and forgiveness through the proclamation of the gospel12 – repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

At the house of Silas, Peter explains his commission as follows:

He [Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:42-43)

According to Roman Catholicism, forgiveness is obtained as a sacrement administered by the church. In support of this notion, the Catechism cites St Augustine’s Sermon:12

 [The Church] has received the keys of the kingdom of heaven so that, in her, sins may be forgiven through Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit’s action. In this Church, the soul dead through sin comes back to life in order to live with Christ whose grace has saved us.

 But sins forgiven “in” the church through the blood of Christ “whose grace has saved us” appears to differ from the notion of sins forgiven “by” the church working salvation through the administration of sacraments.

The Apostle John’s instruction on confession and forgiveness is this: “If we confess our sins, He (i.e. God) is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

The Catechism states that “the power to bind and loose connotes the authority … to pronounce doctrinal judgments” and further that “the college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head”.13

This implies that the validity of any doctrinal pronouncement depends on ordination through the receipt of “holy orders” and a continued affiliation with the Pope. The Bible, on the contrary, never establishes the validity of doctrine with reference to the person’s credentials.

Paul had numerous contentions with false apostles and deceitful workmen. The Bible does not state whether these persons were formally ordained, nor does it call upon their lack of ordination as a basis for rejecting their doctrine.

Even in biblical times it is evident that many were preaching falsehoods and perverting the word of God to their own destruction.14 The motive was often to promote an alternative allegiance to that which is owing to Christ alone.

I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. (Acts 20:29-30)

Paul never insisted on his position or status within the church in order to bring correction or gain acceptance of his doctrinal pronouncements. Instead he appealed to the believers’ conscience.15 The insistence on letters of recommendation – i.e. certifications of credentials, written in ink by human hands – was regarded with some contempt: 

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. (2 Corinthians 3:1-2)

There is no record in Scripture of any matter being referred to Peter for his doctrinal ruling or endorsement. Instead, Paul recognized that differences will arise in order that it may be shown who has God’s approval (1 Corinthians 11:19). God is the ultimate custodian of His own truth.

Church governance according to the Bible

The testimony of the book of Acts and the epistles is that the apostles spent considerable time with each of the local churches instructing them in the doctrines of Christ, and appointed elders and deacons to govern the affairs of the church after they left. There is no evidence of a centralised church hierarchy as found in the Roman church.

The book of Revelations starts with seven letters which the exalted and glorified Jesus dictates “to the seven churches”. We might assume, if the churches were united under a Pope, that Jesus would simply have dictated one letter and addressed it to him (or, alternatively, that the Pope would have been the author of the letters).

In his letter to the church in Ephesus (Revelations 2:1-7), Jesus commends them for hating the practice of the Nicolaitans – the name given to those who advocate a distinction in the church between priests and laity. Jesus taught, “call no man father, for you have one Father who is in heaven.” The church is a nation of priests before God (1 Peter 2:9) with one baptism, one Spirit and one Lord – who is also the High Priest and the only mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). From Christ, who is its Head, “the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16).

In the vision preceding the seven letters (Revelations 1:12-16), we see Jesus himself presiding over the seven lamp-stands (symbolising the seven churches). This alludes to the prophecy of Zechariah chapter four which shows forth a church which is led and sustained by the Holy Spirit, not by fallible men.

The object of our faith

A primary effect of Roman Catholic doctrine is to shift the believer’s focus away from Christ and onto the church. The Catechism has as its own manifest purpose:16

Catechesis strives to awaken and nourish in the faithful faith in the incomparable greatness of the risen Christ’s gift to his Church.

This may seem like a very slight change in emphasis away from Christ – the object of true biblical faith – but this shift betrays the means by which Roman Catholicism has usurped the loyalty and faithfulness owing to Christ himself and vested it in its own institution. Roman Catholics are consequently taught to put their faith in the church and the manifold “gifts” or “sacraments” which it employs for their salvation. Christians put their faith in Jesus Christ and his completed work.

Jesus invites the tired and weary to come to him for rest, to look to him for forgiveness, for salvation, and for guidance into all truth. And from him will come the calling and unction to do His works.

The church is intended as the recipient of these graces, not the one that confers them. The church is His body, whom he loves as a husband loves his wife. Church is the community of the faithful, not a hierarchy of governance and authority. Once we allow an institution or priestly class to interpose itself between us and God, then we have “lost connection with the Head” (Colossians 2:9).

It is our spirits that affirm with His Spirit that we are his children, and if children then heirs (Romans 8:16) – no institution can give us this assurance. Jesus’ parable of the virgins (Matthew 25) clearly speaks of those who keep their lights burning and of those who run out of oil (the latter group being shut out of the kingdom – unable to enter, even through purgatory!).

Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain”” (1 Corinthians 15:2).

Here also the message is clear: remain faithful to the gospel and you will be saved. Your baptismal certificate counts for nothing. Looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).


The church, the bride of Christ, is not defined formalistically (i.e. by membership of a religious institution) but by faithfulness. Jesus as the bridegroom will choose his own bride.

The church is established on the confession that the person Jesus was the promised Messiah and the Son of God.

The authority given to Peter and the other apostles was not transferable, nor did it involve an abrogation of the original authority and power of the One who conferred it.

The power of binding and loosing was duly exercised in the compilation of the gospels and other writings of the New Testament as a testimony to Christ, and in determining the extent and application of the Law under the New Covenant.

Jesus continues to be the head of the Church and directs its affairs on earth through the agency of the Holy Spirit.

And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way (Ephesians 1:22).

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15).

The idea that our membership in a race (the Jews of the Old Testament) or an institution (the Roman Catholic church will secure our eternal destiny, is not in keeping with Biblical teaching. Those who do not have the Spirit have no part in him, no matter which grouping or institution they belong to. 

Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.(Romans 8:8-9)

Nevertheless, “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.’” 17

[1] Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1994, article 553, p.124.
[2] op. cit., articles 881-883, p.205.
[3] Ephesians 1:22, 4:15, 5:23; Colossians 1:18, etc.
[4] 2 Timothy 2:2, 4:2, 1 Peter 3:15, etc.
[5] Colossians 1:6; Romans 10:18.
[6] Matthew 18:18.
[7] Alfred Edersheim, The life and times of Jesus the Messiah, ch. XXXVI.
[8] Acts 15:1-29.
[9] At the conclusion of John’s gospel we find the interesting statement: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written”.
[10] John 14:26.
[11] Luke 24:27.
[12] Sermo 214, 11: Migne, Patrologia Latina 38, 1064. Cited in the Catechism, op. cit., article 981, p. 224.
[13] op. cit., articles 553 & 881-883 at pp. 124 & 205, respectively.
[14] 2 Timothy 2:18, 2 Peter 3:16, etc.
[15] 2 Corinthians 4:2, 5:11.
[16] op. cit., article 983, p. 225.
[17] 2 Timothy 2:19.