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.
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.