The Papacy (Pope), St.  Peter, and the Keys to the Kingdom

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death 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 16:18-19)

In my last two posts here and here I covered in depth why Peter is the “rock” on which Christ told us he would build his Church.  Now we turn to the significance of the keys of the kingdom Christ chose to give to St. Peter after the Father revealed to him who Christ was (Matthew 16:17).

Most Biblical scholars, both Protestant and Catholic will reference Isaiah 22:15-23 to understand the meaning of Matthew 16:19.  In this passage we see Sheba who has been steward over the household of King Hezekiah is to be removed from his office and replaced by Eliakim.  “I will thrust you from your office, and you will be cast down from your station.  In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle 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.  And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house.” 

Mark’s Gospel records the question Jesus asks the apostles “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter’s response (Mark 8:27-30).  But only Matthew records what Jesus says to Peter following his profession of faith – “And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! 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 powers of death 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 16:17-19)

Why was this exchange not seen as important enough for Mark to record?  One clue is to understand Matthew’s Gospel was written specifically for Jews.  When something unique is included that is not present in the other Gospels it quite likely has a reference to the Jewish faith and must be understood in that context.

Jesus is clear his Church is to be a kingdom and he himself is the king.  Scripture is clear this kingdom is the fulfillment of the Jewish kingship of David and his descendants.  This is why the angel tells Mary her son “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  (Luke 1:32-33). 

As we study the line of kings in the Old Testament who sit on the throne of David, there is a pattern we see regarding authority.  The royal steward is placed over the head of the household, receives the “key” of David and the authority to “bind and loose.”  This is a successive office that persists throughout the Jewish lines of kings.  Some examples we see are Ahishar during the reign of King Solomon (1 Kings 4:6), Azra during the reign of King Elah (1 Kings 16:9), Obadiah during the reign of King Ahab (1 Kings 18:3), and the example above from Isaiah 22 of Eliakim during the reign of King Hezekiah.  The authority of receiving the keys of the kingdom as well as the authority to “bind and loose” would have been something very familiar to Jewish believers and they would have understood Peter would step into the role of the steward, or head of the household, especially in the absence of Christ.

And it’s not just the Jewish kings who have this royal office to govern their household.  We also see this in Egypt, where Joseph is placed over the household of Pharoah.  There are some interesting parallels between St. Peter and Joseph.  Joseph receives his appointment because of his ability to interpret dreams, which are revelations from God.  Scripture records “And Pharaoh said to his servants, ‘Can we find such a man as this, in whom is the Spirit of God?’ So Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discreet and wise as you are; you shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.’” (Genesis 41:38-40).  Joseph is given a ring as a sign of his authority from Pharoah (Genesis 41:42).  Peter receives a direct revelation from God that leads Christ to profess his appointment and reception of the keys of his kingdom to signify his authority (Matthew 16:13-19).  Both Joseph and Peter receive a new name (Genesis 41:45, John 1:42).  Joseph receives a bride (Genesis 41:45) and Peter receives responsibility for Christ’s bride, the Church (Matthew 16:13-19).

In addition to the passage of Isaiah we also see the metaphor of the keys used in Revelation 3:7 “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 shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.’” Some will point to this passage to mean Christ still has the keys, so in reality he didn’t give them to Peter.  This requires a denial of what Christ tells Peter in Matthew 16:13-19.  This is not an either/or but rather a both/and.  All authority has been given to Christ by the Father, but he takes what he has and shares it with his apostles, as was covered in this post

Why in Matthew 16:19 does Christ refer to the “keys” he gives to St. Peter as being plural and the passages in Isaiah 22:15-23 and Revelation 3:7 refer to a singular key?  There are multiple explanations for this, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  One would be the key of David referred to in these passages specifically represents the authority over the Jewish people through the line of Davidic kings, and Peter receives “keys” to represent the universality of the Church.  Another view is Christ gives all of the apostles the authority to “bind and loose” in Matthew 18:18.  But they most significantly do not receive the keys; that is exclusive to St. Peter.  For this reason the Catholic church understands the authority given to all bishops is only authentically exercised when they remain in communion with the successor of St. Peter, the pope (CCC883).

There are also other keys mentioned in the book of Revelation that need to be considered in our understanding as well.  When St. John has a vision of Christ, he is told “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”  (Revelation 1:17-18)  Within the context of what Christ tells St. Peter when he tells him he will give him the “keys of the kingdom” in Matthew 16:13-19, he also tells him the “powers of death” shall not prevail against the Church.  It is reasonable to understand these keys of Death and Hades Christ controls are also shared with St. Peter.

As St. Peter becomes the royal steward of Christ’s kingdom, one of the titles given by Catholics to the pope is “vicar of Christ.”  A vicar simply means one who is serving as a substitute or agent.  Protestants in general object to this term and authority given to the Pope.  From the Catholic perspective it is Christ who gives the office of the Pope this authority when he delegates the keys of the kingdom to St. Peter. 

And we see Peter taking on this role of “vicar” in Sacred Scripture even before Christ leaves the earth.  There is an interesting story recorded in the very next Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel after Christ has assigned Peter the role of his royal steward.  “When they came to Caperna-um, the collectors of the half-shekel tax went up to Peter and said, ‘Does not your teacher pay the tax?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And when he came home, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, ‘What do you think, Simon?  From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute?  From their sons or from others?’ And when he said, ‘From others,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are free.  However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel; take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.’” (Matthew 17:24-27).

The first thing we notice in this account is for some reason Jesus was not available.  The text speaks to “when he came home.”  The question we should then ask is why, out of all of Christ’s followers did the tax collectors come to Peter to ask about the tax in Christ’s absence?  Again we see Scripture separates him from the rest of the apostles, and even those outside of Christ’s inner circle recognize he has been given the role of authority by Christ to act as his representative.  Peter has no hesitation to definitively answer their question on behalf of Christ.  The other thing to notice is when Christ returns he also had no problem that Peter spoke for him.  He validates Peter is legitimately in this role to speak on his behalf by providing a single coin to pay both the tax for himself and Peter. If Peter is operating in this role while Christ still walked the earth, how much more is he needed in this role after Christ ascended into heaven?

In giving St. Peter the keys of the kingdom, Christ appointed him to be the steward over his household, the Church, especially in his absence.  And Catholics we would understand this to be a successive office, just as the office of the stewards in the Davidic kingdom remained filled throughout the centuries, and just as the role of all the apostles is a successive office.  The Church did not need a St. Peter only during the first early decades.  The role of the Pope allows for continuity and unity to be preserved in the Church throughout schisms and unrest and doctrinal divides and political upheavals.  Christ promised us the powers of death would not prevail against the Church; he did not promise there would not be a formidable battle to be waged.  But when we seek the true Church Christ established with his authority, we have to look no further than to the Church that retains the keys Christ gave to his royal steward, St. Peter, and those who have followed after him in the office of pope.

My next post will review how Peter exercised the authority of the keys during the first major conflict in the early Church – the question of whether or not Gentile converts entering the Church were required to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law. 

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