The Meaning of the Keys of St. Peter

Handing over the ‘keys of the kingdom’ — conferring an extraordinary degree of authority — refers back to Isaiah 22.

Peter Paul Rubens, “St. Peter the Apostle,” ca. 1611
Peter Paul Rubens, “St. Peter the Apostle,” ca. 1611 (photo: Public Domain)

In two key passages of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus leaves his Church with two great gifts. The first (Matthew 16:19) is addressed to St. 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 second (Matthew 18:1) is addressed to his disciples:

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

The counter-argument made by many Protestant commentators, exegetes and apologists is that receiving the keys of the kingdom is identical to binding and loosing. Hence, when Jesus also gives the latter power to the disciples as a whole in Matthew 18:18, they conclude that they have all received the keys of the kingdom like Peter has. But this doesn’t follow at all. The Greek in Matthew 16:19 has a semi-colon after what is rendered in the RSV as: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, it’s a strong break or pause in the text. Then it has the word “and” (καὶ/ kai), and then Jesus talks about Peter receiving the power to bind and loose.

This means (or so it seems to me, anyway) that it is two different things, rather than the second clause of the verse being the definition or complete description of the first. It’s still notable that Peter is given this power singularly and by name, whereas the disciples receive it only as a collective. Everything in the Bible means something. Details are not insignificant.

It’s exactly like the pope and bishops in the Catholic Church. All priests and bishops can forgive sins and grant absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation (confession). So can the pope.

Receiving the “keys of the kingdom” refers back to Isaiah 22. To make a long story short, even many Protestant commentators agree that this was an extraordinary degree of authority. Words used to describe it include vizier, master of the house, chamberlain, steward, curator, guardian, manager, superintendent, one who regulates the “administration” of the “house,” and who has “legislative authority in the church,” “chief teacher of the church,” one who is “over” the Church, who has full authority, administrative authority, etc.

Some things are so obvious that they can be overlooked. The one relevant text simply doesn’t assert that that the keys of the kingdom were given to all the disciples. In context, Jesus is undeniably addressing Peter alone: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona!” (Matthew 16:17). Then he says: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church ...” (Matthew 16:18). Then, still addressing Peter alone, he says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven ...” (Matthew 16:19). After four verses of exclusive attention to Peter, the narrative states: “Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ” (Matthew 16:20) and “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples ...” (Matthew 16:21).

Now, if the keys were intended to be given to all the disciples, it’s quite reasonable to assume that the text would surely have noted that and made it undeniable too. I think Jesus would have said something like, “I will give all of you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” or “I will give you and your fellow disciples the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” But it says no such thing. Only Peter receives them. Jesus uses the phrase (in RSV) “I will give you” only two other times. Both times he was addressing a crowd: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28); “I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21:15). Peter is the only individual recipient of something Jesus gives, accompanied by the phrase, “I will give you.”

If we search the phrase “I have given you” in the RSV, we find that it occurs twice (Jesus saying it both times). One is directed toward the 70 disciples (Luke 10:1, 17): “Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you” (Luke 10:19).

The other is to the 12 disciples, directing them to wash each other’s feet as he had done to them: “For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

Likewise, the similar phrase, “To you it has been given” is directed by Jesus to the 12 disciples (Matthew 13:10; Luke 8:9): “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11; cf. Luke 8:10). Once again, we see that these sorts of phrases are either applied to the disciples or larger crowds, or (once) to Peter alone, when he received the keys of the kingdom.

It’s the same dynamic with Jesus and prayer. Either the Bible says that he went off and prayed (often on a mountain: Matthew 14:23; Mark 6:46; Luke 6:12; 9:28), without further detail, or prayed for his disciples (and also all his followers), that they would be united (John 17:9, 21: “I am praying for ... those whom thou hast given me ... that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee”). As far as I have been able to determine, there is only one time (Luke 22:31-32) where the Bible records him praying for one person by name:

Simon, Simon (i.e., Peter), behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.