Matthew 16 – The Rock and the Keys

This post is part of an on-going series meant to compliment the wonderful commentary provided in D.A. Carson’s For the Love of God, Vol 1, which tracks along with the M’Cheyne reading plan.  The links to both the reading plan and a free PDF of Carson’s book are available here.


Pietro Perugino, Christ Handing the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter.  Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome.  1481-1483.

Many passages of Scripture are treated with leeriness because of past abuses.  Matthew 16:17-19 is one of those passages.  Here, after Simon Peter’s stunning confession of Jesus as the Christ and Son of the Living God, Jesus states:

 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 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.

Traditionally, Roman Catholic theology has placed great importance on these verses.  The passage is quite a bit more clever in Greek than in English, as the name Petros was simply the masculine version of the Greek word for “rock.”  As Roman Catholics claim the mantle of successors of Peter at Rome for the Popes, they naturally claim that the Pope holds the keys of the Kingdom, and maintains the moniker of the Rock on which the Church is built. This idea is nicely encapsulated in Perugino’s fresco above, where Peter humbly accepts the keys from Christ, likely in front of depictions of the Arch of Constantine, alluding both to Rome and Papal authority.  Subtle.

Against this interpretation, Protestants have made several claims.  Certainly, there are historical problems with the Pope in Rome simply claiming Peter’s mantle, but these are not really a concern for us now.  What of the text in Matthew?  The questions stem basically from two considerations.  First, when Jesus says on “this rock” he will build his Church, what is the antecedent for “rock” – Peter, the confession, the revelation from God?  Second, who has the keys to the Kingdom, and related to that, what power are invested in these keys?

Peter as the Rock

As to the first problem, and the referent for “rock,” many have made the claim that it is not really to Peter at all, but some variant of the confession that he has made.  This confession, then, is said to be the rock that the Church is built on.  The thought can then be extended – the rock is really Christ confessed, so that Christ remains the rock.  This finds some accord in Matthew 7:24-27 and 1 Peter 2:6-8.

But this is more than a little specious, and is frankly reading into the text what Protestants want to find there.  First, Matthew 7:24-27 remarks that Jesus’ teaching, his words, are the rock on which one should build his/her life, not Jesus himself.  This falls short of the claim above – the confession was not just the value and worthiness of Jesus’ words, but rather of Jesus himself as the Messiah and Son of God.  These verses are related to our text as hinted at below, but they cannot be used as evidence that Peter is not the rock being referenced.

Likewise, the text in Peter does speak of Jesus as the rock, but there are difficulties here as well.  First, it speaks of him more often as a stone, even a cornerstone, which implies that narrowly focusing on the word “rock” is reading into the text a bit. Further, the use of “rock” in 1 Peter 2:8 is not for confessing on, but stumbling over!  It is a quite negative use of the metaphor, which seems to be in discord from how Matthew uses it.

Further, and most importantly, the most natural reading of Matthew 16:18 sees the word play between Peter and rock and rightly concludes that the rock is Peter.  Against overwhelming evidence otherwise, which doesn’t seem present, I have no problem thinking that the rock in question is Peter.   This doesn’t mean that the Roman Catholic interpretation is correct in all that it implies.  I find no reason to suspect that Peter’s title as “rock” was subsequently passed down, or even if it was, that the Pope in Rome would naturally be the inheritor of it.

Rather, we find that the apostolic teaching is the natural basis for building the church.  Paul writes in Ephesians 2:19-22

 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Revelation 21:14 implies the same.  We should not, then, be worried about turning into Roman Catholics simply because we note the special place of the apostles, led by Peter, in the building of the Church.  The revelation of God to the apostles and prophets is the foundation that our NT is built upon.  This is nothing new to us, and something that we should gladly confess.

The Keys of the Kingdom

And the keys?  Our best clue to their meaning is found in the second half of v. 19, where Peter is said to be able to bind and loose.  A good translation of this would be

Whatever you bind on Earth will already be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on the Earth shall already be loosed in heaven.

The simple addition of “already” is the one fairly major change here, compared to the ESV, NIV, TNIV, HCSB, and KJV.  In the text of Matthew, the words “binding” and “loosing” are perfect in tense.  The translations listed above make it seem like Peter is dictating what happens in heaven; whereas it is likely that his actions are really just representations of the reality of heaven.  Thus, Peter’s use of the keys is bringing the heavenly reality to earth; that is, in his actions Peter discloses heavenly reality.  If this sounds a lot like the process of revelation through the apostles already discussed above, it is likely because it is essentially that.  The apostles, and here Peter, disclose the truth of heaven on earth.  This is the role of the apostles.

But Matthew 16 is not the only place the power of the keys are found.  Two short chapters later, Matthew provides for us Jesus’ instructions for dealing with sin within the Church.  Here, the congregation (not a ruling board!) is directed to make the final plea to anyone falling under discipline.  If the accused refuse to repent from their sin, even refusing to listen to the church, then the unrepentant sinner is to be escorted to the door, and treated like an outsider.  Jesus gives the reason why the congregation has this power in 18:18

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

The church then, using Peter’s key, has the right to its power.  It can bind and loose, and in doing so rightly represents the reality already found in heaven.

We can start to put the pieces together now.  Jesus praises Peter because God has revealed the truth of his Messiah, at which time Jesus then promises that Peter himself, representative of the apostles, will be the foundation of the Hell-piercing Church.  He will do this through the provision of “keys,” so that Peter may represent on earth that which is already true in heaven.  The church, likewise, makes use of this power, especially in performing discipline within the body.

What does all this mean?  The NT is provided to the church through the revelation of God to the apostles and prophets.  It is the “rock” upon which we build our lives theologically, morally, ethically, in line with Jesus’ injunction in Matthew 7:24-27.  In doing this, we represent what is already true in heaven, primarily by setting the boundaries for what is good and acceptable Christian theology and practice.  We “bind” people into the Kingdom when, based off of NT revelation, they are baptized after making a good confession.  We “loose” people from the Kingdom when they transgress the written revelation, either in doctrine or in practice, and they refuse to repent.  The “rock” is the word revealed through Peter and the apostles, and the “keys of the Kingdom” are our application of that word to our lives, both individually and corporately.