The Keys of the Kingdom

A parent hands Johnny or Susan the keys to the car. With that simple act goes a great deal of responsibility and stewardship. The keys that Jesus gives his church (Matthew 16:18–19 and 18:18) have much greater responsibility attached.

The King builds his church. The King has come, establishing his kingdom. Matthew’s Gospel proclaims the coming of the true King of Israel. The Old Testament describes the establishment of God’s kingdom, and anticipates the fullness of it. It looks forward to the trees rejoicing, the nations sounding God’s praise, the islands and deserts proclaiming God’s grace (Isaiah 42). The parables focus on the kingdom. The miracles are not just “wow!” events, but they put in visible form the reality of the blessing proclaimed verbally in the teaching and preaching of the kingdom. The kingdom is present because the King himself is there.

“The Church, in short, is a present manifestation of the Kingdom of God and in her the Kingdom’s transforming power operates and from her its life and blessedness flows to form an oasis in the desert of this world’s sin and mis­ery, darkness and death, to which the thirsty traveler may come and drink deeply at the well-springs of salvation.”

Raymond O. Zorn, Church and Kingdom, p.81

Christ builds his church.Jesus Christ is the architect and builder. The origin of the church is not human, but divine. He builds on Peter (and his confession). Don’t separate the confession from Peter, but also, don’t separate Peter from his confession–or from the other disciples. Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Those who share that confession are added to the church. The church may seem weak and irrelevant. At the time Jesus was speaking it consisted primarily of his twelve followers. Today it often appears weak and out-numbered. Yet the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Focus on the majesty of your Savior, and be assured that he will not abandon his church to the forces of Hades.

“Our Lord says emphatically ‘I will build,’ and thereby appropri­ates for himself the the objective task of calling this church into existence by his Messianic acts. Though Pe­ter confessing be the foundation, the church is not of Peter’s or of any human making, the Lord him­self will build it. And not only this, he will supremely rule in it, for out of the fullness of his authority he immediately proceeds to invest Peter with the power of the keys: ‘I will give unto thee.’”

Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom and the Church, pp. 78-79

Share in Peter’s confession. Jesus takes his disciples aside and asks them who they believe he is. Peter properly confesses that Jesus is the glorious Messianic Son of Man, the Christ, but also sees that he is the Son of the living God. That is a confession that was worked in Peter by the Father in heaven. Matthew’s Gospel confronts you with the question Jesus asked his disciples. Who do you think Jesus is? Do you see him as a great spiritual leader similar to other historic, inspiring leaders? Is he only an example? Or do you understand in your heart and confess before men that you are a sinner, that you deserve judgment, and that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, the one who died and rose to redeem his people? Do you trust him as your Redeemer?

Use the keys to bind. Bind on earth. Keys carry authority. In Isaiah 22:15–25, Eliakim will be promoted over Shebna, a self-serving administrator in Hezekiah’s court. By the time of the Assyrian threat, Eliakim would hold the office of administer of the palace, prepared to oppose the Assyrian official, Isaiah 36:3. The key of David is the authority of the kingdom from which the Messiah would come, Isaiah 9:6. To that King would be given the authority of David’s royal house. The authority to bind and loose is associated with the keys of the kingdom. In Matthew 16:1 it is tied in with the acceptance or rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. In Matthew 18:18 it is connected with a persistently unrepentant lifestyle, sinful conduct that is persisted in despite informal, more formal, and finally, official warning. Discipline has negative connotations, but it starts with self-discipline. Remember that church elders in exercising discipline are not trying to read the heart. A judgment of suspension from the Lord’s Supper or even excommunication is not saying, “We don’t think you are regenerate, therefore we are barring you from the means of grace.” Rather, it is saying, your life contradicts what the Bible describes as a Christian, and until that changes, you must be treated as one who is outside the kingdom.

“For the proper use of he keys of the kingdom, it is absolutely essential that the church neither subtract from nor add to the Scriptural requirement for salvation — faith in Jesus Christ. The church may only declare, not augment, the conditions laid down by Christ and the apostles for entrance into the kingdom, but those conditions it must declare fully.”

R. B. Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ, p. 303

Bind in heaven. It is not that God is helplessly bound by decisions made by church courts (which after all, are composed of sinful, fallible men). God honors the decisions of earthly courts as they faithfully proclaim and apply the Word of God, the good news of Jesus Christ. You see this principle in action in the conclusion of the parable of the unmerciful servant, where you are warned that God will treat each of you with this kind of judgment if you do not forgive your brother from your heart, Matthew 18:35 (compare Hebrews 12:14). Jesus is warning that there are eternal consequences to refusing to hear the voice of the church—if it is proclaiming and applying his Word.

Loose on earth. A key serves, not only to lock, but also to unlock, not only to imprison, but to set free. The keys with which Christ entrusts the church are not blanks for it to cut to whatever shape she wishes. Rather, they are to reject and admit in accordance with the decrees of the King. The discipline steps of Matthew 18:15-17 have as a clear purpose the restoration and reclamation of the brother. Note the connection between Lord’s Day 31 and Lord’s Day 30. The authority of the keys is reflected in the administration of the sacraments, particularly in admitting to or baring from the Lord’s Table. Church courts need to guard against being too hesitant to proclaim forgiveness. Rejoice that in the Lord’s Supper Christ himself comes to you, the same Christ who is presented in the Word.

Loose in heaven.God does recognize the forgiveness proclaimed in his name. He does forgive sinners. Why is Jesus emphasizing forgiveness so much in this chapter? Because he entered this world, he suffered and died, he rose again—all so that you might be forgiven. The parable that follows in Matthew 18 emphasizes the forgiving character of the king, reflecting the mercy of God. Calvin is pastorally on target in pointing out that Christ comforts trembling consciences and relieves them from fear. Just as the proclamation of judgment has eternal consequences, so does the heralding of the good news.

“Christ, wishing to administer comfort to trembling consciences, and to relieve them from fear, declares that any who may have offended are freed from guilt in the sight of God, provided that they be reconciled to the Church.”

John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospels, at Matthew 18:18

Persistent sinners, beware. Hear the word of warning that Christ proclaims through his church. But forgiven sinners (and God now calls you “saints”) take firm grasp of the forgiveness proclaimed in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth—because you are taking hold of Christ himself!