“The Keys of the Kingdom”

What are the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and what does it look like to use them? Answering that question is important, because if you are a member of a church, you—along with the rest of your church—are holding those keys in your hands.

Chris Hutchison on May 10, 2020
“The Keys of the Kingdom”
May 10, 2020

“The Keys of the Kingdom”

Passage: Matthew 16:19, 18:18-20
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The past two weeks we’ve been spending time in the gospel of Matthew, looking at the first two times that the word “church” is used in the New Testament.

The first instance came after Peter confessed, for the first time, that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of the Living God. Jesus affirmed Peter’s confession and then affirmed Peter himself, telling him that he would be a foundation stone for His church.

In that message we looked at the word for “church” in history and in the Greek Old Testament and saw that it was a word with a lot of political implications. It squares really well with the word “kingdom” that Jesus used repeatedly. A “church” is an assembly of kingdom citizens.

Last week we turned to Matthew 18 and heard about this process of church discipline, or perhaps better, church restoration. And there, Jesus described the church like a final court of appeal that hears and decides on disputes among members. That’s a really strange idea if we think like Canadians and view the church as a nice religious club. But if we think about the church biblically, and understand we’re an assembly of the citizens of the kingdom, then what Jesus taught in that chapter fits in to this picture really well.

Now in each of these past two passages, there was a verse or two or three at the end of the passage that we didn’t get to. These verses are really important and so today we’re going back to 16:19 and 18:18-20. And we’re going to see even more clearly how these two passages fit together and inform our understanding of the church in profound ways.

The Keys of the Kingdom

And so let’s start with chapter 16 verse 19. This comes right after Jesus told Peter that He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. And what’s the very next thing that Jesus says to him?

“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 16:19).

As a foundation stone for the church, Peter will hold the keys to the kingdom. This shows us that the church and the kingdom aren’t disconnected ideas. The church as an assembly of kingdom citizens, and being a foundation stone for the church meant holding the keys to the kingdom.

I remember when I was 16 or 17 and one of my first summer jobs was housesitting for a local doctor. He had a nice house, and it wasn’t small, and I’ll never forget the moment he handed me the keys. From that moment on, I had a fair bit of responsibility. I didn’t own the house, but I did have the authority to let people in, or to keep them out.

And here, Peter is being given the keys to Jesus’ whole kingdom. Can that really mean what it says? Will he really have the ability to lock or unlock, open or close, the kingdom of heaven to people?

That is what it’s saying. That’s what the language of “keys” implies. Just think of Luke 11:52, where Jesus said, “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52).

The “keys of the kingdom” have to do with entering or not entering the kingdom. And Peter, as the apostle who just confessed Jesus’ identity, is given the keys to the kingdom.

So what does that actually mean? What does it mean to have and to use the keys of the kingdom?

Jesus and the Keys

As is often the case, if we pay careful attention to the passage itself, we will find any manswers to our questions. So let’s start by noticing that Jesus is going to give Peter the keys. That means that Jesus has the keys first.

What does it look like for Jesus to use the keys of the kingdom? I want to suggest that, in this passage, we actually see Jesus using these keys to open the kingdom to Peter as he affirms Peter’s confession and affirms Peter himself. Just think of it this way: Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?” If Peter had answered, “I think you’re Elijah,” then what would Jesus have said? Perhaps something like, “I’m sorry, Peter, but you still don’t understand. You still don’t understand the King and you’re not quite yet a part of the kingdom.”

But when Peter makes His confession, what does Jesus do? He affirms Peter’s confession. And He affirms Peter Himself by saying that he is blessed because God has revealed this to him, and then affirming his place in the church. In other words, Jesus says, “yes, Peter, that is a true confession of me, and yes Peter, you are a true confessor of me.” And in so doing, he opens wide the door of the kingdom to Peter.

And what I want to suggest is that this is what it actually looks like to use the keys of the kingdom. Using the keys of the kingdom means saying, “This is a true confession of Jesus and the gospel, and this person is a true confessor of Jesus and the gospel.” Using the keys can also mean saying, “This is not a true confession of Jesus and the gospel, and this is not a true confessor of Jesus and the gospel.” Having the keys of the kingdom means having the authority to make those declarations.

Now here’s why I think this makes sense. First, it means that Jesus isn’t changing the subject or bringing something entirely new up. He says “I will give you the keys of the kingdom” because He’s just been using them.

And second, when we turn to the book of Acts we see Peter, along with the other apostles, doing for others what Jesus has done for them here. Think about Acts chapter 2, right after the Holy Spirit came, and Peter got up to preach that amazing sermon.

What was that sermon about? It was about Jesus being the Christ, the son of the living God. “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Or listen to Peter preaching in Acts chapter 4: “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11–12).

As Peter preaches, he’s doing in public what he did in chapter16 in private. He is saying, “this is the right confession about Jesus and the gospel,” and he is inviting others to make that good confession with him. That’s Peter using the keys to fling the door open and invite people to enter the kingdom.

We also see Peter using his keys through the whole process of welcoming the Gentiles into the church. With Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11, and at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, Peter and the other apostles do for the Gentiles what Jesus is doing for Peter in Matthew 16. They say, “Yes, you have made a true confession of Jesus and the gospel, and yes, you are a true confessor of Jesus and the gospel.”

In the book of Acts we also see Peter turning the key to close the door on people who want to enter but do not understand who Jesus is or what kind of response is required of them. Acts 8 is the clear example of this. The gospel is preached in Samaria, and many people believe, including a magician named Simon, who believed and was baptized.

But when the apostles come and lay hands on the believers for them to receive the Holy Spirit, Simon “offered them money, saying, ‘Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity’” (Acts 8:18b–23).

This was a guy who had professed belief in the gospel and was even baptized. But Peter tells him, “You don’t actually belong here. You are not actually a true confessor of Jesus—at least not yet.” That’s what it looks like to use the keys to close the door and not allow someone to be a part of the church.

So that is the best way that I can understand and explain what these keys of the kingdom are and what it looks like to use them. The keys of the kingdom is the authority to say, “This is a true confession of Jesus, and this is a true confessor of Jesus,” or, to say, “That is not a true confession of Jesus, and that is not a true confessor of Jesus.”1Jonathan Leeman, One Assembly, Kindle Location 823 In other words, Jesus is authorizing Peter to do for others what he just did for him.

Binding and Loosing

This idea of the keys opening and closing the door to the kingdom is connected to the language of “binding and loosing” in the rest of the passage. “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.”

Once again, this shows a connection between the church on earth and the seat of kingdom authority in heaven. As Peter, this foundation of the church, uses the keys of the kingdom, what he binds on earth is bound in heaven, and what he looses on earth is loosed in heaven.

There’s some debate as to whether “binding and loosing” is talking about people or whether it’s talking about issues or matters or decisions. I want to suggest, based on what we’ve already seen, that we can’t limit it to either. Binding and loosing is connected to using the keys to declare what is or is not a proper confession of Jesus, and who is or who is not a proper confessor of Jesus.

And what we can’t miss this important connection between what happens on earth and what happens in heaven. It’s not just that Peter is authorized to bind and loose, it’s that “whatever [he binds] on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever [he looses] on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” What Peter does on earth is reflected in what happens in heaven, where God Himself rules over His kingdom.

Peter’s pronouncements on gospel confessions and gospel confessors reflect and correspond to what is truly happening in the rule of God, and anticipate what will truly happen when God’s kingdom comes to earth in its fullness.

That’s big, isn’t it?

There’s one final comment I want to make before we finish up here on this verse. Jesus is speaking to Peter here, but we shouldn’t think that he is excluding the other apostles from being foundations or using the keys. Yes, Peter has an important role. He preached that first sermon in Acts 2 and took the lead in other matters.

But when we read through the whole gospel of Acts, we don’t see Peter having any kind of authority over the other apostles. Peter may have preached that first sermon, but later in the chapter we read that the Jerusalem church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), not just Peter’s teaching. And then there’s Ephesians 2:20, which says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20).

So the church is built on Peter, but not just on Peter. Peter was one of the apostles. And the church rests on the foundation of all of the apostles and their teaching about Jesus.

So that’s all from Matthew 16:19. We can sum it up by saying again that the connection between God’s kingdom and the church is real. The church is built on the foundation of the apostles who really had the keys to open and shut the door of the kingdom of heaven. As authorized representatives of God’s reign, they pronounced and proclaimed what was a proper confession of Jesus and who was a real confessor of Jesus, and therefore who was and who was not a part of God’s church, the assembly of his kingdom citizens.

The Church and the Keys

With that in mind, turn over to chapter 18, where we were last week. Jesus has just given the church directions for how to restore a sinning brother, or how to remove a brother from their midst if he does not turn aside from his sin. That’s a fair bit of authority He has just given to the gathered church.

And after that, we read verse 18, which we left behind last week. “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” (Matthew 18:18).

Do those words sound familiar at all? Those are the very same words that Jesus said to Peter back in chapter 16. But now, Jesus is saying that the gathered church is going to have this authority. In other words, they are going to have the keys of the kingdom and will have the authority to bind or loose. They will have the authority to declare what is a proper confession of Jesus and who is a real confessor of Jesus.

Remember what Jesus did with Peter? “That is a true confession of me, and you are a true confessor of me.” Now the church itself authorized to do this for its members. Because that’s what Jesus is describing in those four steps of church discipline or church restoration which we considered last week.

The church is authorized to say “this person is a true confessor of Jesus, because they have repented of their sin and been restored to the church.” Or, in that final fourth step, the church is authorized to say, “This person is not a true confessor of Jesus, because they are not repenting of their sin. And so we are using the keys to close the door of the church to them.”

And just like with Peter, there will be a correspondence between what they do on earth and what is happening in the domain of God’s rule, which is heaven. What they bind on earth will be, or already has been, bound in heaven. And what they loose on earth will be, or already has been, bound in heaven.

Just like with Peter, the decisions of the gathered church reflect and anticipate and correspond to God’s decisions as He reigns over His kingdom.

Now we don’t want to get carried away here. Our authority is not absolute. We don’t have the authority to bind and loose at will, like I’ve heard some people suggest. 1 Corinthians 5:12 is helpful here when it says, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Corinthians 5:12).

The scope of the church’s authority is the church itself. And that lines up with what we’ve seen in this context, and in the context of the book of Acts, and what we see in the rest of the New Testament. The church does not have authority over the rest of the world. The church has authority over itself and especially in these two areas we’ve been discussing.

The church has been authorized by Jesus to say “This is a right or wrong confession of the gospel, and this person is or is not a gospel confessor.” In other words, the church has authority to decide on its statement of faith and its membership. Its doctrine and its discipline.2Leeman, One Assembly, Kindle Location 828. And as it does that, it operates with the invested authority of the kingdom of God.

If that doesn’t blow your mind, if that doesn’t give you the shivers or make you say “wow” or something like that, I don’t know what to say. Because this is just stunning. And it’s right there in the text. Right there in this context of church restoration and discipline, Jesus Himself said, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you [plural] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you [plural] loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). That’s what He said.

Do you see how this idea of the church being a nice religious club just crumbles into powder when we actually see what Jesus Himself has said? The church is so important.

But we’re not finished. In verses 19-20, there’s more that Jesus says about the church’s authority and how it corresponds to God’s authority. And we’re going to organize the material in these next two verses under four headings that further describe the authority that Jesus has given to his church.

1) The Church’s Authority Connects to God’s Activity.

That’s what verse 19 tells us: “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19).

This verse is very often taken out of context. It’s very often read in isolation from the rest of the passage, and is often taken in reference to prayer. But we should see that the context is not talking about prayer. The context is talking about gathering to make decisions. Judicial decisions on matters like church discipline or receiving new members or deciding on a statement of faith.

And that is confirmed when we look at the original language. The word here for “anything” in the original language is often used to speak about judicial matters. And “judicial” basically means the kinds of matters that a judge would decide on. It’s the same word that’s translated as “grievance” in 1 Corinthians 6:1: “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?” (1 Corinthians 6:1).

So that specific word, and the overall context, suggests that verse 19 is not talking about prayer in general. The sense here is that the church is making a decision on one of these matters, and they are pursuing their claim with God. They are bringing the matter to Him.

And God says yes. God ratifies their decision. God allows it to succeed.

In other words, God is directly involved with that the church is doing. He is approving of and applying their decisions. And so the church’s authority connects to God’s activity.

2) The Church’s Authority Depends on the Church’s Gathering and Agreement.

This second point is saying that we as individuals don’t have this kind of authority on our own. God is not going to approve of and apply every decision we individually make. Our authority comes as we come together and agree together.

This whole passage has been reinforcing this. The whole point of the four steps is that one Christian can’t put another out of the church. There is this very careful process with all of these parties involved, and the person is put out of the church only if the two or three agree together and then the whole church agrees with them.

Similarly, in verse 18, “whatever you bind on earth” is a plural “you.” The whole church. Verse 19 says that if two agree on earth. You don’t need a huge, gigantic church to make that happen. All it takes is two to come to agreement and pursue their claim with God. But it does require the agreement of the two. And then verse 20 speaks about two or three being gathered.

I think also of Paul giving instructions to the Corinthian church to put a member out of their midst, and he tells them to do it “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:4).

Remember two weeks ago when we talked about the fact that the assembly, the gathering, gives a real, spatial, geographic representation of the kingdom of God? And that’s where the authority of the church is. In their gathering and their agreement. Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom not to individuals but to the assembly.

As a Baptist church, we take this seriously. The final and ultimate authority in this church is not in the leadership but in the congregation. The congregation has the final say on membership and doctrine. And while Scripture does tell the congregation to follow their shepherds and submit to their leaders (Hebrews 13:17), the congregation has the authority to remove those leaders if they decide they are not leading in accordance with Scripture (Galatians 1:8).

So under the Lord Jesus, the congregation is the final authority in a local church. But let’s make sure that we stress that this is the congregation gathered and agreeing. Being a Baptist in a congregational church doesn’t mean “I get my vote, and I’m not going to submit to anyone.” No, being a Baptist in a congregational church actually means that we submit to everyone. No individual member has authority. We share it together.

3) Our Authority Depends on Christ With Us

Our authority depends on our gathering and our agreement because when we gather and agree, Jesus is there with us. Verse 20: “For [or because] where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20).

Once again, this verse gets taken out of context a lot. We often take this verse as a comforting truth when only a few people show up for prayer meeting or that kind of thing. And there may be application to that kind of scenario, but once again, we need to remember the context. The context is the assembly gathering to make decisions on the kinds of matters we’ve been discussing.

And Jesus says the church has authority because He is among them. Now this could mean that He is with us by His Spirit. That’s possible, and it’s true. But in this context, it might be more helpful to think of it this way: we are His body. So when we come together in His name, He is there, just as much as when my organs and tissue and bones come together, I’m there. Jesus identifies with His church and authorizes that church to represent Him.

4) Finally, the Church’s Authority Depends on Being Gathered in Christ’s Name.

This is a really important one. Because I’m sure you’ve seen or been aware of situations where a church has gathered and made a really bad decision. Done something really terrible. Did Jesus authorize that? Were they representing Him in those moments? Was God approving of their decisions in the throne room of heaven’s kingdom?

The clue to answering those questions is this phrase, “in my name.” “Where two or three are gathered in my name” (Matthew 18:20).

Gathering in Jesus’ name doesn’t mean just saying His name as we gather, any more than praying in Jesus’ name means saying His name at the end of our prayer. Gathering in Jesus’ name, just like praying in Jesus’ name, means that our gathering lines up with and accurately represents the person and the character of Jesus.

In the Bible, someone’s name isn’t just the word or the sound you use to call someone for dinner. Someone’s name is a summary of their person and their character.

Praying in Jesus’ name means praying in alignment with His character, His revealed will as we discover it in Scripture. And gathering in Jesus’ name means that our gathering fits, lines up with, the person and the character of Jesus. It means making decisions that line up with what He’s revealed to us in His word. It means doing the kinds of things that Jesus would do. It means saying, “We know Jesus, and we know that this is something He’s want us to do.”

So a church that gathers and makes a sinful decision has not really gathered in Jesus’ name. They’re not acting in accordance with His character. They are not acting like His representatives. And they should not expect heaven’s approval on what they have done.

But if, having hearts saturated with Scripture, a church truly does gather in Jesus’ name, and makes a decision in alignment with His character and revealed will, they can know that Jesus identifies with them, authorizes them, and so is there with them; that God in heaven will approve and enact what they have done, and so cause and enable them to truly act like an embassy of the kingdom of God—agents of God’s reign, acting on God’s behalf, invested with God’s authority, working with God for the glory of Christ in the church.

Isn’t that incredible?

Just, Wow

And what we are all hopefully doing here in these moments—stopping to say, “wow,” stopping to soak in just how significant the church is and what a privilege it is to be a part of the church—this is one of the main take-home points of the message today.

I’ve been praying that through this series, and through this message, the Lord would shape our hearts, helping us to treasure the church appropriately, and helping us to think of and see His church more like He does. And when that happens, our behaviour and actions towards the church will change in countless ways.

So that’s a big part of the point today. Just aligning our attitudes with God’s.

And I’m so looking forward to when we’ll be able to put these things into more direct practice the next time the members of EBC gather to make decisions. Here at EBC we have members meetings every three months. And we can’t meet in May, and I’m sad about that, but the next time we can meet, if you’re a member, you need to be there.

When we gather to vote on our budget or bylaws or to appoint leaders or to make decisions, we’re doing what Jesus described in these passages. And that means, if you’re a member here, it should take a team of horses to stop you from being here to play your part as a decision-making citizen of heaven’s kingdom, gathering with the assembly in the name of Jesus to exercise our God-authorized authority together.

Speaking of membership, I’m hoping you’re also seeing a picture emerge here. If everything we’ve seen in the past three weeks is true, then formal membership in a local church not only makes sense but is absolutely necessary for these dynamics to take place.

When we take in new members here at EBC, we ask them to share their testimony and make sure that they let us know what they mean when they talk about the gospel. We want to make sure that they understand that they are sinners who deserve God’s judgement, but that Jesus died in their place to give them eternal life, and that they have been born again and justified by faith in Christ.

And when we welcome them into membership, we are using the keys of the kingdom to say, “Yes, that is a true confession of Jesus, and yes, you are a true confessor of Jesus.” It’s a beautiful, even a majestic event. And that’s something I’m planning to speak on more directly a few weeks from now.

Next week, we’re going to go to Matthew 28 and talk about baptism and the great commission and what that has to do with the church. And so that’s a discussion you can anticipate.

As we close here today, we’re going to sing and ask for the Lord to reign in us. That His kingdom would come in our hearts and then in our midst, so that He would make Emmanuel Baptist church a true and effective embassy of His great kingdom.

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