What are the Keys to the Kingdom? Matthew 16:18-19

After Peter declares Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus tells Peter that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church built on “this rock.”  He then gives Peter the keys to the kingdom so that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven.  Virtually every phrase in Matthew 16:18-19 has been taken out of context and applied to various Christian church structure. In order to avoid misinterpreting these verses, we need to read phrases like “keys to the kingdom” in the context of Second Temple period Judaism.

Keys to the Kingdom

The “gates of hell shall not prevail” is a well-known phrase which turns up in contemporary worship and is often misunderstood. Does Jesus mean Satan will not prevail against the church?

Davies and Allison suggest the phrase ought to be read in the context of “the end time scenario, when the powers of the underworld will be unleashed from below, from the abyss, and rage against the saints.” For example, in 1 Enoch 56 the writer describes end times chaos when the kings of the east trample the land of the elect, “In those days, Sheol shall open her mouth, and they shall be swallowed up into it and perish. (Thus) Sheol shall swallow up the sinners in the presence of the elect ones” (56:8).

In 1QH, the writer praises God “because you saved my life from the pit, and from the Sheol of Abaddon” (xi.19). But for the unrighteous, “And the doors of the pit close upon the one expectant with injustice, and everlasting bolts upon all the spirits of the serpent” (xi.18). The “gates of hell” are closed and locked for the unrighteous:

1QHa Col. xi:16-18 And when they rush forth, Sh[eo]l [and A]bad[don] open; [al]l the arrows of the pit 17 make their voice heard while going down to the abyss; and the gates of [Sheol] open [for all] the deeds of the serpent. 18 And the doors of the pit close upon the one expectant with injustice, and everlasting bolts upon all the spirits of the serpent.

The “gates of hell” is likely a reference to the hostility the disciples will face once they begin their mission to bring the gospel to the Jews and then to the world. They will be attacked, persecuted, and some will die because of their testimony for Jesus. This fits better with second temple Judaism use of the phrase “gates of hell.” “Jewish literature “gates of Hades” is frequently idiomatic for “powers of death” (Blomberg, Matthew, 253). For example, in Isaiah 38:10, when Hezekiah is about to die, he says, “I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years.”

Peter is given the “keys to the kingdom” so that whatever he binds and looses on earth, will be bound or loosed in heaven. This phrase has been used to support the primacy of Peter and the bishops of Rome, so that Peter could forgive sin. “Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Penance and transmitted the power to forgive sins to Peter and, later, to the other Apostles.”

It is true that keys are associated with authority. In Isaiah 22:22, the Lord will establish the authority of Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, “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.” This verse sounds much like Jesus’s words in Matthew.

But in the context of the Second Temple Judaism, the idea of “binding and loosing” refers to interpreting the Torah and applying it to new situations. If the command was applicable, then it was “bound.” If they determined it was a commandment not applicable in a specific circumstance, then it was “loosed.”

Powell observes the rabbis (and Matthew) did not consider “loosing the Law” as “dismissing scripture or countering its authority.” God’s Law is perfect, but the problem was the Law’s intention and how that intention can be brought forward into a new situation. This is something akin to dispensationalism’s horizontal and vertical truth or drawing principals from the Old Testament Law.

m.Aboth 3:2 R. Hananiah b. Teradion says, “[If] two sit together and between them do not pass teachings of Torah, lo, this is a seat of the scornful, “as it is said, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful (Ps. 1:1). “But two who are sitting, and words of Torah do pass between them—the Presence is with them, “as it is said, Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord and gave thought to His name (Mal. 3:16).” I know that this applies to two. How do I know that even if a single person sits and works on Torah, the Holy One, blessed be he, sets aside a reward for him? As it is said, Let him sit alone and keep silent, because he has laid it upon him (Lam. 3:28).

m.Aboth 3:2 R. Halafta of Kefar Hananiah says, “Among ten who sit and work hard on Torah the Presence comes to rest, “as it is said, God stands in the congregation of God (Ps. 82:1).  “And how do we know that the same is so even of five?  For it is said, And he has founded his group upon the earth (Am. 9:6). “And how do we know that this is so even of three?  Since it is said, And he judges among the judges (Ps. 82:1). “And how do we know that this is so even of two?  Because it is said, Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard (Mal. 3:16). “And how do we know that this is so even of one?  Since it is said, In every place where I record my name I will come to you and I will bless you (Ex. 20:24).”

Rather than giving Peter the authority to forgive sin, Jesus is telling Peter (and the other disciples) to apply his teaching to new situations in which they find themselves as they continue his ministry after the resurrection.


Bibliography: J. Marcus, “The Gates of Hades and the Keys of the Kingdom (Matt 16:18–19),” CBQ 50 (1988): 443–55; Mark Allan Powell, “Binding and Loosing: A Paradigm for Ethical Discernment from the Gospel of Matthew,” Currents in Theology and Mission 30 (2003): 438-445; 438.

Upon this Rock – Matthew 16:17-19

When Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, Peter’s answer is correct, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Matthew’s expansion of Mark 8:27-30 is important: Peter is the rock on which Jesus will build his church (16:17-19). What did Jesus mean when he called Peter “the rock”?

Primacy of Peter

Jesus says God has revealed this to him (v. 17). Jesus pronounces a blessing on Peter when he confesses Jesus as the Christ. Like the beatitudes (using μακάριος), this expresses Peter’s happy state because Jesus’ Father in heaven has revealed this to him (he is not expressing the opinions of the crowds).

“My Father in Heaven” echoes the Lord’s prayer, but Jesus confirms his relationship with God which Peter just confessed. Simon Bar-Jonah, the Greek Βαριωνᾶ reflects the Aramaic בַּר יוֹחָנָן, υἱὲ Ἰωάννου “son of John.” Gundry argues Matthew changed the name from John to Jonah to associate Simon with “the sign of Jonah” (12:39; 16:4). For more details, see this article: Robert W. Wall, “Peter, ‘Son’ of Jonah: the Conversion of Cornelius in the Context of Canon,”  JSNT 29 (1987): 79–90. Other examples of renaming: Abraham (Gen 17:5), Sarah (Gen 17:15), Jacob (Gen 32:28), Jerusalem (Isa 62:2–4; cf. Zech 8:3; Bar 5:4), the conquering saints (Rev 2:17; cf. Isa 65:15), and Aseneth (Jos. Asen. 15:7) (Allison and Davies, Matthew, 2:626).

Jesus calls Simon “Peter” or Cephas in Aramaic and declares he will build his church on “this rock.” According to John 1:42, Jesus has already given Peter the nickname “the rock.” So this is a confirmation of the appropriateness of that nickname (Blomberg, Matthew, 251).

Does this verse designate Peter as the leader of the twelve apostles after the resurrection? Does the word “church” necessarily mean “the Christian Church” in the same sense it is used in Acts or Paul’s Letters?

First, Jesus says, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” What is the “rock” on which Jesus will build? The problem is the demonstrative pronoun this is feminine, referring to the feminine noun “rock.” The pronoun may not refer to the name Peter because Peter (Πέτρος) is masculine. The pronoun could refer to Peter, to Peter’s confession, or to Jesus himself.

Second, the metaphor is a structure built on solid bedrock. The word petra (πέτρα) bedrock or massive rock formations (BDAG), but by the first century the word was used interchangeably with the masculine πέτρος. A solid building is built on the bedrock rather than soil. The best example is the Temple Mount where the stones at the base of the Western Wall are placed on solid bedrock. Jesus made this point in the final parable in the Sermon on the Mount, the wise man builds his house on rock, the fool builds on sand (7:24-27). In Ephesians 2:19-22, Paul describes the “church as the Temple of the Lord,” built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as “the chief cornerstone.” Although there is some discussion on what the cornerstone means in that verse, the point is that the foundation of the building is itself secured to Christ Jesus.

Another possibility: πέτρα can refer to the foundation of an “impregnable position or a rocky fortress” (BDAG). In the context, the “gates of hell shall not prevail” may reflect a siege metaphor, so instead of a “church” the building built on the foundation is a solid Temple fortress. In fact, the Temple in Jerusalem was a strong military defensive position which held out against the Romans for some time.

Third, this verse was interpreted in church history as supporting the primacy of Peter as the chief apostle, and his church is the Roman church. As is often said, the Vatican is built on Peter’s grave, so quite literally the church is “built on Peter.”

Fourth, the word translated church in most English Bibles (ἐκκλησία) does not always mean “the church” in the same sense it is used later in the New Testament. The Greek word refers to an assembly of people, but Jesus may have used the Hebrew/Aramaic qahal, an assembly gathered for worship. If the feeding of the 5000 intentionally evoked the gathering of Israel in the wilderness, then (perhaps) this assembly is Jesus’ followers as a new Israel. Craig Blomberg says, “It is virtually impossible to sustain the view that Jesus is here offering the church as an alternative to the kingdom” (Matthew, 253). So too, John Nolland, “It is doubtful whether Jesus anticipated the emergence of the church as an entity separate from Israel” (Matthew, 667).

I agree, reading later church structure into Matthew 16:16 is a mistake and misses the point about what Jesus is doing in his ministry.

Logos Free Book of the Month for November 2021 – Making Sense of the Trinity

Logos Bible Software is breaking all the rules for November’s free book of the month. Partnering with Baker, they are giving away two free books: Millard Erickson’s Making Sense of the Trinity: Three Crucial Questions (Baker Academic 2000) and Scripture and Truth, edited by D. A. Carson; John D. Woodbridge (Revised edition, Baker, 1992). Scripture and Truth collects twelve essays by well-known evangelical scholars discussing inspiration from biblical, historical, or theological perspectives.

In addition to the two free books, Logos has 24 additional resources also on sale at deep discounts (total retail value $750). There is a little bit for everyone here, biblical and theological studies as well as some church history and pastoral resources.

There are some excellent books on this list, I highly recommend Joel Green and Lee Martin McDonald, The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts for those interested in New Testament Backgrounds, and I have used Moises Silva, Interpreting Galatians as a textbook several times in a graduate level class on Romans. Both the Victor P. Hamilton volumes are worth the price, and I am glad to get a copy of Ben Witherington’s New Testament History: A Narrative Account in Logos.

  • $0.99 – Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bumps Are What You Climb On: Encouragement for Difficult Days
  • $0.99 – John J. Davis, The Perfect Shepherd
  • $1.99 – Ken Sande, Resolving Everyday Conflict
  • $1.99 – Grant Osborne and Stephen Woodward, Handbook for Bible Study
  • $2.99 – Ronald Heine, Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith
  • $2.99 – Warren W. Wiersbe, On Earth as It Is in Heaven: How the Lord’s Prayer Teaches Us to Pray More Effectively
  • $3.99 – James Montgomery Boice, The Epistles of John: An Expositional Commentary
  • $3.99 – James Montgomery Boice, Daniel: An Expositional Commentary
  • $4.99 – John E. Hartley, Genesis (Understanding the Bible Commentary)
  • $4.99 – J. Ramsey Michaels, John (Understanding the Bible Commentary)
  • $5.99 – Ben Witherington, III, New Testament History: A Narrative Account
  • $5.99 – Walter Kaiser, Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church
  • $6.99 – D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Exposition of Ephesians: God’s Ultimate Purpose
  • $6.99 – Moises Silva, Interpreting Galatians: Explorations in Exegetical Method, 2nd ed.
  • $7.99 – James L. Resseguie, The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary
  • $7.99 – Bill T. Arnold, Encountering the Book of Genesis: A Study of Its Content and Issues
  • $8.99 – Francis J. Moloney, Love in the Gospel of John: An Exegetical, Theological, and Literary Study
  • $8.99 – Karl Allen Kuhn, The Kingdom according to Luke-Acts: A Social, Literary, and Theological Introduction
  • $9.99 – Tremper Longman, III, editor, The Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary
  • $9.99 – Joel Green and Lee Martin McDonald, The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts
  • $11.99 – Victor P. Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary
  • $11.99 – Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch
  • $12.99 – Robert H. Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation
  • $12.99 – Herman Bavink, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1: The Prolegomena

I pretty much spent my all my lunch money on Logos resources this month…buy as many or as few as you like, but the deals expire at the end of November 2021.

If you do not already have Logos Bible Software, you should get Logos Fundamental ($49.99) or Basic (free) packages and take advantage of the free Logos Book of the Month promotion (check out my review of Logos 9). All it takes is a Faithlife account, and you can read your books using the iOS or Android app, the Logos web app, or the (much more powerful) desktop version for both Windows or Mac.





Biblical Studies Carnival 188 for October 2021

The great-grandfather of BiblioBlogging Jim West posted the 188th Biblical Studies Carnival, gathering together the best posts from the worlds of biblical and theological studies last month. Jim says the theme of the month is “scary,” probably a reference to Halloween. On the other hand, some bloggers are really quite scary. I guess Jim decided against a Reformation theme, since we know he loves Reformation Day so much.

Luther Meme Stloen from Jim West

Jim’s Reformation Day posts got me thinking…Reformation Day has become a little like St. Patrick’s Day, when everyone is Irish for a day. The end of October everyone is suddenly Lutheran, posting their Reformation thoughts and prayers to social media. By the first week of November all that goes back in the box and the Advent decorations start hitting social media.

In other blogging news, Brian Small posted Hebrews Highlights this month. If you are working in Hebrews, Brian’s blog is a goldmine of resources.

Bob MacDonald is our host on December 1 for Carnival 189 and I will host #190 right here on Reading Acts.  I am taking reservations for 2022 carnivals, so if you would like to talk about hosting a carnival, contact me via email, plong42@gmail.com or DM on twitter (plong42). Right now I have no one lined up for the new year, but other than that, the year is wide open.  The Biblical Studies Carnival is a great way to drive traffic through your blog and get some wider internet fame. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about hosting. As Jim West himself says, “You should host a carnival.”

In Reading Acts News, October was my best month ever in terms of daily average visitors and total monthly hits. I spent some time in that whole COVID thing doing under-the-hood things to increase traffic, and some of those are starting to payoff. I think this calls for a few book giveaways….some of you really like those!

Check out the Biblical Studies Carnival Master List at the top of this page to visit past carnivals.

Gregg Davidson and Kenneth Turner, The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One

Davidson, Gregg and Kenneth J. Turner. The Manifold Beauty of Genesis 1: A Multi-Layered Approach. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2021. 210 pp. Pb; $22.99.   Link to Kregel Academic

This new book on Genesis 1 from Kregel Academic represents a biblical theological reading of Genesis one. Each chapter in The Manifold Beauty of Genesis 1 represents a theological interpretation of the creation story. Although they do not deny Genesis 1 is a literal creation story, the authors are more interested in the theology of the creation story than relating the seven days of creation to any scientific theory. Although the principal topic is Genesis 1, the chapters provide a full canonical perspective for each theological topic.

Genesis 1Gregg Davidson is a professor and chair of the School of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi. He contributed to The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth (Kregel 2016). Kenneth Turner is professor of Old Testament and biblical languages at Toccoa Falls College. His Ph.D. dissertation was published as The Death of Deaths in the Death of Israel: Deuteronomy’s Theology of Exile (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and edited the Daniel I. Block festschrift (Eisenbrauns, 2013).

The first two chapters of this book lay out their method. Using the metaphor of geological layers, the authors suggest scripture often contains many layers of truth. For example, Isaiah’s messianic prophecies can be interpreted as a prediction of a king who will break the power of the oppressor (Isaiah 9:1-7). But those same prophecies include the suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). The second chapter offers a second analogy for a theological reading of Genesis. Comparing the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, they argue that both are true, even if there are some differences. Ancient eastern cultures often use numbers symbolically in ways that western culture does not. That Matthew has three groups of fourteen in his genealogy and Luke has seventy-seven names from God to Jesus is significant theologically. “Truth claims of the Bible should not be measured against literary norms of a culture 2000 years removed” (20). Drawing the analogy to the creation story in Genesis 1, the authors wonder about the separation of light and darkness twice in the chapter. How can there be light (1:3-5) before God creates the sun (1:14-18)? The numbers three and seven are pervasive in the creation story. Both observations point to the theology underlying the creation story.

In the introduction, the authors are clear that none of their suggested layers are entirely new. This is true, each of their suggested layers draws on previous scholarship, as demonstrated by footnotes to both ancient and contemporary literature. They argue the themes presented in this book are complementary, they all “contribute to and reinforce the unified message of Genesis 1” (11). The authors agree with the Chicago statement on biblical inerrancy, but understand a distinction between the literal meaning and a literalistic interpretation.

A potential objection to a theological reading of Genesis 1 is the motivation to harmonize Scripture and science. The authors point out that literary understandings of Genesis 1 were popular long before apparent conflicts were raised by science. Both Origin and Augustine believed in the authority of Scripture but also wrote figuratively on the days of creation. In addition, many of the biblical scholars they cite in the course of the book specifically disavow evolution (39). Some readers may be challenged by the assertion that Genesis 1 can teach seven different themes. For example, how can the days in Genesis 1 be literal, but not literal? How can the days be both sequential and not sequential? Throughout the book, the authors stress that these are not seven competing views of Genesis 1, but layers of meaning that are all present in the text. They do not want to assert that one is more important than another, including a literal reading of the seven days of creation.

The rest of the book explores seven layers of meaning in Genesis 1, highlighting various aspects of biblical theology. For each layer, the authors present a theological reading of the creation story, followed by several challenges and responses. For example, “this view is new, so it can’t be true,” or “this view is too complicated to be plausible” (140-41). In each case, they briefly deal with potential objections to the theological reading. Chapters end with a series of discussion questions useful for classroom or small group Bible study.

First, Genesis 1 can be read as a song. In this chapter, the authors highlight the literary and poetic framework of the first chapter of Genesis. There is a parallel structure to the days of creation, with the first three days dealing with the formlessness of creation by giving it proper form, and the second three days dealing with the emptiness of creation, filling it with various things (birds, fish, animals, humans). I first encountered this idea in Allen Ross, Creation and Blessing (Baker, 1996), although this is a common view.

Second, the creation story can be read as an analogy. Although the content of this chapter is the biblical theology of work. In Exodus 20:8-11, Israel was to consider the creation week a model, or an analogy, for the human rhythm of work and rest (43) and the idea of Sabbath is embedded in the creation story itself. The authors will return to the idea of Sabbath in their chapter on Genesis 1 as calendar.

Third, Genesis 1 is often described as a polemic against the gods of the ancient Near East. Genesis 1 is an origin story which is in some ways comparable to Babylonian, Egyptian or Mesopotamia mythology. But there are important distinctions. For example, Genesis highlights human worth as image bearers of God. Another major distinction is God considers his creation good, something missing from ancient near eastern creation stories.

Fourth, the creation story is often related to a larger theme in biblical theology, covenant. Following Daniel Block’s Covenant: The Framework of God’s Plan (Baker, 2021), the authors observe that the idea of covenant plays a critical role in the biblical narrative. After comparing the Mosaic covenant with the form of a Hittite vassal treaty, they briefly describe Abrahamic and Noahic covenant. For many, the creation covenant might be described as a “royal land grant.” Adam is like a vassal placed in the Garden of Eden to perform certain tasks for the sovereign. In a land grant, when the vassal fails, they are exiled from the land. When Adam broke the clear commandment of God, he was exiled from the Garden of Eden. This has become a pervasive theme in biblical theology in recent years, for example, see Matthew S. Harmon, Rebels and Exiles: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration (IVP Academic 2020) or L. Michael Morales, Exodus Old and New: A Biblical Theology of Redemption (IVP Academic 2020)

Fifth, Genesis 1 is sometimes compared to a temple. Following Greg Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission (IVP Academic 2004) or John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Zondervan, 2009), the authors compare the biblical description of creation with ancient Near Eastern temples, especially the idea of a cosmic mountain where the gods lived. They point out many texts drawn from the whole that compare the original creation to the garden of Eden. This cosmic temple is the unique place of God’s presence as well as the place of God’s throne, where his priestly inhabitants live and serve him. There are several parallels between descriptions of the Garden of Eden and Solomon’s temple (helpfully summarized in several charts). Looking ahead to the end of the canon of Scripture, they draw attention to the new heavens and new earth in Revelation 21-22 as a restoration of the original creation (see also Harmon’s Rebels and Exiles).

Sixth, Genesis 1 can be read in the context of calendars, or, to put it differently, a biblical theology of time. The chapter surveys the importance of festivals and liturgical dates in the law and draws analogies to how these times are associated with Noah’s flood, the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings, and the creation story. Once again, several charts helpfully illustrated these points. The chapter follows Michael LeFebvre’s Liturgy of Creation (IVP Academic, 2019).

Seventh, the creation story introduces an important theme found through the Old Testament, Land. The authors are following John Sailhamer and Seth Postell in this chapter, but there are other biblical theologies of land, such as Walter Bruggeman’s The Land: Place As Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Fortress, 1977), Oren R. Martin, Bound for the Promised Land (IVP Academic, 2015) and Benjamin L. Gladd, From Adam and Israel to the Church (IVP Academic, 2019). In this chapter, the authors draw some analogies from the Garden of Eden to the promised land, but the main comparison is between Adam and Israel. Just as Adam was to serve as a priest in the temple (the garden of Eden) Israel was to be a kingdom of priests. Comparisons between Genesis 1 and the Law are summarized in two detailed charts (150-51). Adam’s failure anticipates Israel’s failure to be priests, but it also opens the door to future messianic hope. This is signaled as early as Genesis 3:15, but also in the blessing of Jacob (Genesis 49), and the rescue from Egypt (Exodus 15), the second generation in the wilderness (Numbers 24), and in the curses and blessings of the law (Deuteronomy 32- 33).

Conclusion. Each of these seven layers are excellent introductions to a full monograph on the biblical theology of covenant, temple, or land, etc. These are all popular biblical theology themes, as illustrated in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series or the Essential Studies on Biblical Theology series (both IVP Academic).

As expressed in the introduction to the book, the authors hope readers will appreciate the grandeur and beauty of the creation story after reading this book. But they also want readers to recognize that a proper understanding of Genesis 1 is not limited to a single perspective. The creation story reflects the manifold beauty of God’s creation in its diverse theological aspects.


Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.