"Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven"
(Delivered Sunday, June 24, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
Over the past few weeks, we have been studying together from what I believe is one of the most important passages in the Bible. It's contained in the Gospel of Matthew. It is, in fact, the very heart of Matthew's Gospel. So much of what we have been studying in Matthew's Gospel has led up to it; and so much of what we will be studying in it will have its basis in it.
In Matthew 16:13-19, we read;
When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “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 also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:13-19).
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The first thing we have learned from this amazing passage is that there is something that a man or woman absolutely must believe about Jesus Christ. It is something we've grown to refer to as "the blessed confession"; because it is an expression of faith in Jesus that has His own immediate blessing placed on it. It is the confession that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God"—a confession so fundamental that Jesus has promised to build His church upon it.
The second thing we have learned from this passage is the security and permanency of the church that Jesus promised to build upon this confession of faith. In this passage, Jesus speaks for the very first time about the church that He would build—speaking not of a 'church building', nor even a particular denomination; but rather, speaking of the whole body of people He would redeem through His sacrifice on the cross, and would call to Himself from out of the lostness and death of sin. He said that on that great confession that Peter uttered, "I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it".
And this morning, we come to a third and final point to consider from this passage; and that is the great spiritual authority Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, has granted to this church on earth that He promised to build. We'll just concentrate on verse 19 this morning; and on the staggering words that Jesus speaks to Peter: "And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
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Whenever I think of being given "keys", I think of "delegated authority". If you have been entrusted with the "keys" to something, it may not be yours to own or to use as you will; but it is yours to exercise authority over in the name of the one who entrusted the keys to you. You have the owner's authority given to you to open it or close it. You have their authority entrusted to you to let someone in, or to lock someone out.
I will never forget my greatest personal experience of being entrusted with "earthly keys". Many years ago, I worked for a graphic arts studio in the South Seattle area. I was sent by the studio just a few miles down the street to work on site, preparing "flip charts" for a meeting of the corporate directors of Horizon Air. It was on a Saturday; and as it turned out, I spent the whole day working directly with the founder and CEO of Horizon Air—pretty much doing his bidding in the creation of these charts and diagrams.
Near the end of the day, I still had some work to do to finish things up. And the CEO certainly didn't want to hang around any longer. So he said, "Look; I'm going to go home now. So, here's the keys." He handed the keys to the offices to me, and told me to be sure to lock up before I leave. And then, he walked out the door.
There I was all my myself; working away into the evening. And then, when I was done, I turned off the lights and pulled the keys to the door out of my pocket. And it was then that it hit me. I had been entrusted with the keys to the corporate offices of Horizon Air! There I was—little ol' me—actually being trusted to lock up Horizon Air for the evening!! I felt a great sense of power and responsibility! And I have to confess that once I locked the door and made sure it was secure, I even strutted a bit—swinging the keys in my hand.
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When you have the keys, you possess authority. You have an important charge entrusted to you; and the authority given to you to fulfill that charge. You have the power to open or close; to bind or loose. And the Bible often speaks of "keys" in that very way.
In the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah, for example, God promises to remove an evil high priest named Shebna from service to the Jewish temple; and to replace him with a good, godly, faithful priest named Eliakim. God speaks to that wicked high priest concerning his replacement—and of the authority and responsibility God would entrust to him—when He says,
And did you know that the Lord Jesus—our great High Priest—later claimed that same authority to Himself? In the Lord's seven letters to the seven churches, found in the Book of the Revelation, He introduced Himself to the church at ancient Philadelphia with these words:
In saying that He had possession of the keys of David, He was affirming that He possessed full authority over the covenant people of God.
I believe that the greatest expression of the authority that came from possessing "keys" is found in Revelation 1:17-18. There, the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ appears in a vision to the apostle John. It was a heavenly vision of our Lord in His resurrected glory and majesty. John was terrified at the glory of our Savior; but Jesus said,
Clearly, this meant that our risen Savior had utterly conquered death and hell through His cross; and now holds full authority over them.
And so, it is greatly significant that, in our passage this morning, our Lord tells Peter, who is the church's representative 'confessor' and 'testifier' of Christ—and through Peter, also tells the whole church—that He entrusts a set of keys to him. They are the keys, He says, "of the kingdom of heaven"; that is, the kingdom that Jesus Himself taught about in great detail in various parables in Chapter 13; that spiritual kingdom over which He Himself reigns as King, and which will one day be fully realized in His physical reign on the earth upon His return.
In our passage this morning, Jesus is about to go to the cross, die in our place for our sins, be raised on the third day, and then ascend to His Father—from where He will await the day of His glorious return to receive His church to Himself. He is about to leave His disciples and return to His heavenly home.
And if I may put it this way, it's as if He turns to Peter and says, "The work of the kingdom has been started; and I'm about to go now. Until I return for you, you—and all of the people who believe on Me because of your testimony—are going to be here while the work of the spread of the kingdom goes on. Here are the keys."
Think of it! The very keys of the kingdom of heaven! What great authority it is that our Savior and Lord has entrusted to His church on earth!
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Let's look at this passage closer. And as we do, we see—first—that the church's great authority is . . .
1. DERIVED FROM JESUS CHRIST.
Jesus begins by saying, "And I will give to you the keys of the kingdom . . ." They are His to give; and they cannot be possessed except that He Himself gave them and entrusted them.
Jesus had already demonstrated His authority to His disciples. When He taught, the people who heard Him were astonished, "for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matthew 7:29). He would stand up in a boat in the midst of a storm at sea, and command the storm to be quiet; and His disciples would marvel, saying, "Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?" (Matthew 8:27). Fearsome demons and unclean spirits would shriek in terror and cringe in His presence; crying out, "What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?" (Matthew 8:29).
And if this were not enough, Jesus even spoke plainly, and affirmed His own great authority. He said—just before ascending to the Father, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth" (Matthew 28:18). Furthermore, the Bible itself teaches us that
And we are assured that, because He has died and has been raised,
And now, as we find in our passage this morning, He has passed some of His great authority on to us as His church on earth.
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It's important to recognize that this authority is being pass on by our Lord in a particular context. It's not an authority that just anyone can claim.
First of all, it is an authority that is being passed on to those who have made the profession of faith that Peter made. Peter is being distinguished in our passage as the "model confessor"; and the confession that he made is being held up to us as the one that every true member of His church must genuinely believe. It isn't that this authority is being passed on to Peter alone; but it is being passed on, in him, to everyone who believes as he had just confessed—that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God". And so, this authority is the privilege of the body of His redeemed saints as a whole—but not to anyone else. This authority presupposes that the confession of faith has genuinely been made.
And second, it is an authority that is given in conjunction with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. You notice that Jesus speaks in the future tense—saying, "I will give you the keys . . ." The keys were not entrusted to His saints until after the Holy Spirit had been placed in them.
Think, for example, of John 20:21-22. In this passage, the resurrected Lord Jesus appears to His disciples and shows Himself to them. He greeted them with the words, "Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you." And then, when He had said this, He breathed on them; and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." This was, of course, a promise of the Holy Spirit—a symbolic "breathing" of the breath of God upon them, that would later be given to them in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit after Jesus had ascended to the Father. But notice that the power of the "keys"—the ability to forgive or retain sins—is not theirs until after they had received the Holy Spirit.
At another time, after His resurrection, He told reminded them of all the things that the Scriptures promised about Him; and said, "And you are witnesses of these things" (Luke 24:48). But He didn't just send them out to be His witnesses right then and there. He told them, "Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high" (v. 49).
Then, just before He ascended to the Father, He told them, "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). And it was only after the Holy Spirit came, and filled them with Himself, that Peter and the others were able to—as it were—open the doors with the keys, and proclaim the Good News with such power that multitudes believed.
So; the giving of the keys assumes two things. First, it assumes that those to whom they are being given constitute the assembly of those who confess—with Peter—that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Second, it assumes that those to whom this great authority is given exercise it, not in their own power and wisdom, but in the power and enabling of the Holy Spirit.
But assuming those two conditions, Jesus—the Authoritative One—here delegates the highest possible "kingdom" authority to His saints!
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Next, let's consider that it is authority that is . . .
2. GIVEN TO BE USED.
What is it the authority to do? What is it that the church is being authorized to "bind" or "loose"?
Jesus speaks in broad terms. He says, "whatever you bind on earth . . . whatever you loose on earth . . ." Obviously, we know that it is not an unqualified authority to bind or loose whatever WE may wish; because it is His authority—delegated to us for His cause and purposes; and surrendered to the leading of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who always guides us in accordance with the Scriptures. Jesus told His disciples, "And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it" (John 16:13-14). We're not promised "anything we ask"; but rather, anything we ask in Christ's "name"—that is, as if asking what He Himself would ask. We're told that "if we ask anything in according to His will, He hears us" (1 John 5:14). We're not promised to be heard regarding anything in accordance "with our own will"; but rather, anything we ask according to "His will".
So here, we, as the church on earth, are entrusted with "the keys of the kingdom of heaven"—Christ's own authority to "bind" and to "loose" on earth according to His will, in His name and as His representatives. So then, what is it that we are thus authorized to "bind" or "loose"?
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You'll notice that Jesus didn't give just one "key". Rather, He gave a set of "keys". And in the Bible, I see at least three main ways our delegated authority is to be exercised.
First, the church is authorized to "bind" or "loose" in the spread of the gospel of the kingdom. We have already touched on this to some degree. Jesus, in His great commission to the church, said,
And as we study the book of Acts, we find that this is exactly what Peter, and the other apostles, and the rest of the followers of Jesus, did with the authority that was given to them. Jesus told them, "[Y]ou shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). They turned the keys that had been entrusted to them; and they opened the doors for the whole world to hear the message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. It even went to the Gentiles (Acts 10-11).
What's more, it was an opened door that no one could shut! The authorities and religious leaders of Jerusalem commanded that the disciples stop preaching about Jesus. But they gathered together and turned the keys entrusted to them by prayer. Acts 4:29 tells us that they prayed,
Jesus promised that "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations" (Matthew 24:14). And it will be! And the keys have been entrusted to us. No one can bind what the church opens—if we will but "turn the keys" of authority that have been granted to us, and ask!
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Second, I see that Jesus has authorized His church to "bind" or "loose" in the forgiveness or retention of sins. Again, we've touched on this to some degree already. Jesus told His disciples, just before He left them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:22-23).
This is a great spiritual authority that has been entrusted to us—and it is a very sobering one as well. He has taught this to us in the only other passage in the Gospels in which He specifically mentions the church. Listen to what He says there; and get a sense of the greatness of the authority He has passed on to us!
The apostle Paul once commanded the believers in the Corinthian church to deal with a professing "Christian" in their midst who was engaging in gross sexual immorality. And he called upon them to use their authority and "turn the keys"! He said,
Imagine! Jesus has entrusted to the church the authority to declare—based on a professing believer's hardened unrepentance from sin—that they are, in reality, outside the family of God until they repent, turn from their sin, and become restored to obedience and to faith in Christ! We actually have the authority to remove the protective hand of God from someone, and turn them over to the devil! And then, once they repent, we have also been entrusted with the authority to declare them forgiven! And heaven says "Amen!" to our verdict!
This is obviously a very sobering "key" to turn! It should never be done by the assembly of saints in any way but in accordance with the leading and enabling of the Holy Spirit—and with great thought and prayer together! But clearly, it too is one of "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" that have been entrusted to His church. Given the fact that it is a "binding" and a "loosing" that is ratified in heaven, how terribly foolish it would be to dismiss and reject the church's use of this delegated authority!
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And a third way that Jesus has authorized His church to "bind" or "loose" is in respect to the content of faith and practice.
I feel that I have to express this point carefully; because I don't mean to say that the church is given the authority to "create" the content of faith and practice. It's in the Scriptures that we are commanded what to believe and how to conduct ourselves; and as we study the Scriptures together in the power of the Holy Spirit, He guides us in these things. But it is clear that Jesus has given His church the authority to officially "recognize" and "endorse" and "uphold" the content of biblical faith and practice.
One of the great examples of the use of this authority in action is found in the Book of Acts. The early church was faced with a dilemma. The message that the apostles taught was that God's grace was being extended to the Gentiles without qualification; but believers from Judea—some of whom were believing Pharisees—were coming to one of these Gentile communities and insisting that unless the believing Gentiles were circumcised according to the custom of Moses, they couldn't be saved.
The church leaders met together to debate this issue; and afterwards, the recognized leader of the church in Jerusalem—the apostle James—concluded the formal discussion with these words:
These were "the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem" (Acts 16:4); and as a result of them being communicated to the church at large, "the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily" (v. 5). The New Testament epistles are filled with such instructions—not decrees that were pulled out of thin air by the creativity of men; but authoritative interpretations and applications of the truths that had been revealed by God and preserved for the church by the Holy Spirit.
The Lord Jesus has given the authority to the church to officially endorse the content of biblical faith and practice for its members. And this is why Paul could write to Pastor Titus and say, ". . . I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). And it's why the writer of Hebrews could exhort his readers, "Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you" (Hebrews 13:17).
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So; this is the "keys of the kingdom of heaven" that Jesus has entrusted to His church. It is a delegated authority that is derived from Him; and it is an authority given to the church to (1) proclaim the gospel of salvation, (2) forgive and retain sins, and (3) endorse the content of biblical faith and practice. It is authority that He means for us to use faithfully in His name.
And this leads to note, finally, that it is an authority that is . . .
3. RATIFIED IN HEAVEN.
Jesus expressed the practical use of this authority in this way: ". . . and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." When Jesus' authority of the "keys" is rightly used in accordance with His will, there is a direct line connecting what is decreed in the church and what is decreed in heaven. The courts of heaven give approval to the decisions of the church on earth; and will show them to have been just and right on the day of judgment.
This connection between heaven and the church on earth is even more remarkable when you understand what is actually said in the original language of the text. The grammatical form of these words1 is difficult to translate into English; but they are such they could be translated, ". . . and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven." Understood in that way, the actions of the church—in the rightful use of the authority Jesus has given—will prove to have been a product of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and will be nothing less than a response on earth to the sovereign decrees that were already made in heaven!
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Given all this, let's never despise the church that Jesus has bought with His precious blood. It may seem small and powerless at times. It may be viewed by the world as insignificant and irrelevant. But the smallest and humblest gathering of followers of Jesus Christ in the most remote third-world country is—in reality—a part of an institution on earth that is more powerful than the mightiest super-power among the nations.
It is to His church—and to His church alone—that Jesus has given "the keys of the kingdom of heaven"; with the promise that "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
May we learn to faithfully, and confidently, use the authority that Jesus has given us for His glory.
1The verbs "will be bound" and "will be loosed" are in the future paraphrastic perfect.
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