What does Matthew 16:19 mean? What does “binding” and “loosing” refer to and what are the keys of the kingdom of heaven? Why did Peter get the keys and what are the keys for?
First let’s get a little context for this verse.
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell [i.e., “hades” see ESV footnote] 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 16:16–19
Since the keys and the binding and loosing have to do with the kingdom of heaven we need to first get a clear idea of what exactly the kingdom of heaven is. The first thing to notice is that it is distinguished in these verses from the Church (or, “Assembly”). Someone might argue that these are different terms for the same thing. However, the kingdom of heaven is said to have servants that are unfaithful and are cast into “outer darkness” (Matt. 22:13). The Church, on the other hand, is composed of those “baptised into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 1:18). In addition, the Lord Jesus affirms that none of His sheep will be lost (Jn. 10:28–29). So, the kingdom of heaven refers to those who own the lordship of Jesus, that is they profess to be Christian. They may “believe” but only superficially (Jn. 2:23–25). Thus, they are disciples in name only. In contrast, those who are true disciples have believed truly (Jn. 4:24) and since Pentecost (Acts 1:5 with 1 Cor. 12:13) have been “baptized” into the Assembly. We need to keep this distinction in mind as we continue to examine the significance of the keys of the kingdom.
The first thought connected with “keys” is that of entrance into some restricted place. Most of us have keys to our home or our car. A night watchman will carry a master key or a set of keys as he makes his rounds checking on various locations under his authority. So, even in ordinary, life keys convey the notion of authority and administration. In Isaiah 22:22 we read regarding Eliakim son of Hilkiah, the palace administrator, “And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” The shoulder is a common metaphor in Scripture for responsibility and strength. This verse seems to be referenced in Revelation 3:7 where we again read of opening and shutting. “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.’” Here the thought again seems to be access but in this case to the truths found in the Word of God. So, I would take this as the Lord promising to open the understanding of the faithful Philadelphian (e.g., Lk. 24:27).
But, what exactly are the keys? The fact that the word is clearly plural tells us that there are at least two. One suggestion has been that these keys were used by Peter to open the door of the kingdom to the Jews (Acts 2:14ff) and then later to the Gentiles (Acts 10:34ff). I find this an inadequate explanation for two reasons. First, I believe there is a better explanation and second (and perhaps most importantly) one does not need two keys to open the same door twice.1 Now, the door must be the same otherwise we have to explain why there are different entrances for Jew and Gentile when Peter (note) plainly says “But we believe that we shall be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same manner as they also” (Acts 15:11, DBY). In addition, we are told that God opened a door of faith to the Gentiles through Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:27).
But, as I said, I believe there is a better interpretation.2 First, is there any hint as to what the keys might be? In Luke 11:52 we read, “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.” Since this is the only hint we have, let’s tentatively say that this suggests that at least one key represents that which conveys knowledge with respect to the kingdom, that is discipleship. Can we find another key and can we put them together?
We have already seen that the kingdom is a sphere of the Lord’s authority and thus a witness for Him. In Ephesians 4 verses 1–6 we have three spheres of witness. Verse 4 identifies the innermost sphere; that sphere is defined by the “one body” which is the Church (or, Assembly). Thus, this sphere contains only true believers. Verse 5 defines the next sphere which is defined by owning the Lord. Here we have to recognize the similarity to the kingdom as we see it in Matthew’s gospel, particularly from chapter 13 onward. So, here we have the next key, “baptism.”3 That these are the two keys, discipling and baptism, is nicely confirmed by Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This is exactly the gospel in which we would expect such a confirmation.
The keys were given to Peter as the representative of the disciples generally. This must be the case unless we suppose some special place was given to Peter, which would have been lost when he died. Instead, we have the example of Philip in Acts 8:5–24 as a disciple making disciples. We have in Philip’s activities here a confirmation of what we have suggested from Scripture. Philip preached “the good news about the kingdom of God (v. 12). There was a man named Simon who also “believed” (i.e., accepted the place of being a disciple) and was “baptized” (v. 13). Thus we have the two keys applied to Simon putting him on the ground of responsibility in the kingdom of God. Yet, he was not a true believer, only a professor, as the remainder of the passage confirms. Thus, he provides an example consistent with the mere profession that is described by Matthew in the parables and which we see all around us today.
One final comment is required here. Some mistakenly use the statement made by the Lord Jesus to Nicodemus in John 3:3 to argue that only true believers can be in the kingdom of God. They distinguish in this way between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. This would seem to set aside the lessons from Philip’s preaching. The problem is that Nicodemus was indeed looking for the kingdom of God, but early in the gospel of John that is what we would call the “Millennial kingdom.” This would correspond to the kingdom as presented by the Lord Jesus in Matthew before chapter 13. That kingdom was rejected in Matthew chapter 12. Nevertheless, Paul tells us in Romans 9–11 that the kingdom will still be realized. But, that is still in the future and depends on Israel’s repentance. At that time the Lord’s words will surely be fulfilled. So, we need to be careful not to misplace these separate lines of truth.4
We now have the background to consider the significance of “binding” and “loosing.” The first point that must be insisted on is that any human action cannot set aside righteousness. So, it is impossible to accept that either the binding or the loosing could contradict what is deemed righteous by heaven. Clearly, they represent administration with respect to the kingdom. Since we have seen that this is an earthly sphere of administration and that failure can attend human actions, the administration consists of those actions which men enjoin which are in fact righteous and can be authorized by heaven.5
1. I believe this distinction is important. I have frequently been impressed by the fact that when a right interpretation is recognized the absolute precision of Scripture is highlighted. I believe we often miss the more subtle points of a passage because we are too careless when reading.
2. If there were not a better interpretation we obviously would accept the first one described.
3. The context shows this is water baptism. See F. W. Grant, The Numerical Bible: Acts to 2 Corinthians, (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1978), 340.
4. See F. W. Grant, The Mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, (accessed 12/6/2021); for a fuller discussion.
5. The “binding” and “loosing” addressed to Peter in Matthew 16:19 is repeated in Matthew 18:18 to include all the disciples (and by extension to all gathered as an assembly in Jesus’ name). It must be earthly in sphere since the actions are separated from the heavenly sphere. [Daniel Hayes (Ed.)]