The keys to the kingdom of heaven

Read time: 6 minutes

Jonathan Leeman offers an interpretation of Jesus’ enigmatic statement about the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19) on the 9 Marks Blog. It is excerpted from his book The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline. It caught my eye because I have just finished writing a chapter on the kingdom of God for a… well, for whatever….

His interpretation runs like this, if I have understood it correctly. Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus says that he will build his church on the rock of Peter who confesses. In other words, he will build his church on “confessors”—on people who “believe the right gospel words (like the Word himself who became flesh)”. So in giving the keys of the kingdom to Peter and the apostles Jesus gives him the “authority to do what Jesus had just done with him: to act as God’s official representative on earth for affirming true gospel confessions and confessors”.

The apostles had heaven’s authority for declaring who on earth is a kingdom citizen and therefore represents heaven…. The authority of the keys is the authority to assess a person’s gospel words and deeds and to render a judgment.

We then have a practical expression of this in Matthew 18:15-18. Jesus tells his disciples that if a brother sins and repeatedly refuses to listen even to the church, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”. The binding and loosing formula is then repeated.

Leeman’s reading of the two passages seems broadly correct, though reducing Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ to a matter of believing the “right gospel words” is faintly ridiculous and probably self-serving. Yes, it may include Jesus as the Word made flesh, but Leeman’s definition is clearly meant to allow the church to correct and ultimately excommunicate its members for getting their doctrines wrong, which misses the point of Jesus’ statement by some distance.

What concerns me as far as New Testament interpretation is concerned, however, is that in addressing this as a matter of contemporary church discipline Leeman has removed the passage from an eschatological context and relocated it in an entirely ecclesiological context. For Leeman the church is the “assembly of all Christians from all ages”; for Jesus it was a community called to make the extremely difficult and dangerous transition from nation under judgment to renewed people of God. Like so much of our Bible teaching Leeman’s approach, whatever pastoral merits it may have, suppresses the narrative-historical dimension of the text. So if he’s right, he’s right in the wrong way.

There is an interesting passage in Isaiah 22 that I think sheds some light on Jesus’ saying. We have a vivid description of Jerusalem under siege. In that day God calls for weeping and mourning, but instead there is celebration: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (22:12-13). Isaiah is told: “Surely this iniquity will not be atoned for until you die.”

He is then instructed to say to the steward Shebna, who is over the king’s household and presumably to a large extent to blame for the disastrous state of affairs, that he will be violently removed from his office—”office” in the sense of role, rather than the room where he had his desk: the Lord “will seize firm hold on you and whirl you around and around, and throw you like a ball into a wide land” (22:17-18). It’s a marvellous image and should be used more often. In his place God will install his servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah:

…and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your sash on him, and will commit your authority to his hand. And he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. 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. (Is. 22:20-22)

The keys represent the authority of the steward to act on behalf of the king, ensuring in particular, in this case, that the people of Jerusalem do not go partying when they are facing destruction because of their sins.

If Jesus—or Matthew—had this story in mind, then by giving Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven Jesus casts him as the honest and faithful steward who will ensure the moral and spiritual integrity of the new covenant community in a time of crisis, when again Jerusalem is facing destruction because of the sin and complacency of the people.

Three other passages have a bearing here.

In Matthew 23:13 Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees because “you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in”. The scribes and Pharisees are not good stewards of the king’s household. The point to stress is that entering the kingdom of heaven cannot simply be equated with entrance into church: it is a matter of being part of what God is doing on behalf of his people—and in many ways against his people—at a time of eschatological crisis.

The link with forgiveness is also suggested by John 20:23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Against the backdrop of the eschatological narrative—that is the story of judgment against disobedient Israel—forgiveness of sins means the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. Jesus gives his disciples the same authority that he had, as the eschatological Son of Man (Matt. 9:6), to forgive the sins of Israel, insofar as the nation turns to him for its salvation and healing. So Peter, the good steward, will later preach to the “house of Israel”: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).

In Revelation 3:7 Jesus is the one who “has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens”, which sounds very much like Isaiah 22:22. He has opened a door for the church in Philadelphia because they “have kept my word and have not denied my name”. Moreover, they will be kept “from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole [empire] (oikoumenēs)”. Again, the eschatological aspect is firmly in view.

But how much difference does the eschatological aspect make? Or what difference would it make to our application of this passage if we were to take the eschatological aspect into account? Perhaps the point to stress is that in the context of the Gospels what is at stake is not matters of doctrine. The scribes and Pharisees get all their doctrines right and completely fail to get what Jesus is saying about the kingdom of God. What is at stake is the confession of who Jesus is and the integrity of communities such as the church in Philadelphia that confessed his name in face of extreme hostility and the threat of death.

Can that be translated into modern terms? Probably, but before we rush to discipline and excommunicate, I think we need to make sure that we are still motivated by an eschatological and missional dynamic—a conviction about Christ as the beginning of new creation, a compelling sense of frailty and vulnerability—and not merely by a concern to safeguard our dogmatic traditions or a self-righteous enthusiasm for deciding who is in and who is out.

Craig Beard | Thu, 02/09/2012 - 20:09 | Permalink

> I have just finished writing a chapter on the kingdom of God for a… well, for whatever….

What a tease!  It is really just a stand-along thing or is there another book in the works?

The ecclesiological and eschatological come together if we allow that Jesus was giving the apostles the authority to bring into the church for its voyage from ancient Israel to new creation in the same way that Noah brought into the ark for its voyage from antediluvian to postdiluvian world.  Of course, to hold this view it helps to acknowledge Jesus and the apostles rightly saw the eschaton as occurring before their generation died out - which I believe is precisely the case.

Jonathan Leeman | Tue, 02/14/2012 - 01:13 | Permalink


Thanks for the good post. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I actually think that your view and mine fit together quite nicely, especially if you allow the possibility that my understanding of ecclesiology be eschatalogical, and my understanding of doctrine be personal. What am I missing? Blessings!

@Jonathan Leeman:

You are probably right. It’s very easy for interpretations to pass each other like ships in the night. My reason for stressing the eschatological dimension is two-fold: firstly, because we routinely filter it out of the Gospels; and secondly, because I think we might gain something valuable for church and mission if we recovered the eschatological dimension to our own existence. And I think that we could all do a lot more to understand the narrative-historical continuity between our situation and that of the New Testament—rather than simply mining the New Testament for support for doctrines. So I would suggest that the differences would be hermeneutical rather than substantive.

Having said that, I think that an emphasis on the eschatological today should bring with a concern for the moral and spiritual “discipline” of the believing community.

I’m interested in your understanding of doctrine as personal. Perhaps you could elaborate on that if you have the time.

@Andrew Perriman:

Can’t wait for Leeman’s responce—where at thou, bro ?

From a layperson’s point of view, I find both interpretations are worlds’ apart !  You both are just tryin’ to play nice.

Informed rant alert : the neo-reformed crowd just love  slamming  doors and tucking the keys in that shiny antiseptic box marked ‘pure doctrine’. Self-serving indeed.Imagine challenging any of these guys in a “bible study” ( that’s what they call it, i think ) with the eschatological dimension of those  particular texts. Gasp ! God help you if you just happen to be female too !

Andrew, have you read the embarrasingly non-sensical 9 Marks post that led  to Leemans’ take on the kingdom keys passage ?…

You’re too much of a gentleman to address such chicanery , I guess. Perhaps  you could write some future posts about your thoughts on the nature of ecclesiology of post-christian christianity; i.e. what would “discipline” in this emerging believeing community look like ? 

Presumptuous task, I know. But the neo-reformed aren’t afraid to go there. So why not give it a go ?

Leanne ODonnell | Mon, 02/27/2012 - 03:25 | Permalink

oh my, youve got a lot of revelation. Ican only imagine the spiritual attacks you get because of it.

My husband has same insights as you.

look forward to reading more.