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.

Leaders are Servants and Stewards – 1 Corinthians 4:1-5

In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul calls himself and Apollos “stewards” who have been entrusted with the most important thing imaginable, the “mysteries of God.” Like a fund manager, he is to protect God’s investment but also work to ensure a return on God’s investment.

Jesus, CEO


But as Gordon Fee points out, God seeks stewards who are faithful. They are not chosen due to their “not eloquence, nor wisdom (nor ‘initiative,’ nor ‘success’—our standard requirements).” Those who have been entrusted with the Gospel are to humbly servant the master and seek his glory and honor alone. The leaders of the Corinthian church are failing in just this regard, they are seeking their own honor rather than the one who has called them.

Paul and Apollos have been entrusted with the mysteries of God (4:1-2). A steward in this context is a servant entrusted with a task, a commission. Paul uses a slightly different word for servant in 4:1 than in 3:5 (ὑπηρέτης vs. διάκονος), but there is likely no difference in meaning. In both cases the servant is subordinate to a master and serves by doing the will of that master.

A steward (οἰκονόμος) is a manager or administrator. This could be a servant put in charge of a household (Joseph, for example, or the servants in Jesus parable in Luke 16). It can refer to a city official, such as a public treasurer, the word used to describe Erastus in Rom 16:23. An administrator is charged with a task (manage a city’s money, for example). In the LXX, the word translates Hebrew words of civil administrators (1 Kings 4:6, 16:9, Isa 36:3, 22, 37:2, etc., cf., eight occurrences in Josephus with the same sense).

The content of this deposit is the “mysteries of God.” Rather than a huge sum of money to invest and protect, Paul is a servant of God’s revelation. Mystery is typically something that must be revealed to be known, a secret hidden until the time is right. This is not something guess-able, but rather a revelation of something new and previous unknown.

In order to be a successful steward, they must be “found faithful.” If the steward is a money manager for a city, they have to protect the money entrusted to them and invest it in a way that returns a profit. Paul and Apollos are therefore accountable for their management of the mysteries of God. The preaching of the Gospel will naturally expand the body of Christ, and there are some strategies Paul might use to preach the Gospel in ways that are more likely to bear fruit. He goes first to the synagogue, for example, since that is where he will find people who already know the Scripture and may be looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, as well as some God-Fearing Gentiles who are interested in the Jewish God. When he was in Athens, he went to Mars Hill, a place where people enjoy discussing new ideas and debating philosophy. His goal was to go to the location where he would have the best chance getting an audience for the Gospel.

If Paul describes Apollos and himself as servants and stewards, then certainly the leaders of the church at Corinth are servants as well! Verse 6a Paul says that the things he has applied to himself and Apollos are applicable to all Christian leaders at every level, from a nursery worker to the long-time elder to the Lead pastor.

For Paul, the right attitude of a Church leader should be: “This is God’s church and I am just taking care of this for a while.”

What are some specific ways this servant-attitude can transform how the local church does ministry?

Book Review: James D. G. Dunn, Jesus according to the New Testament

Dunn, James D. G. Jesus according to the New Testament. Foreword by Rowan Williams. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2019. 211 pp. Pb; $20.   Link to Eerdmans  

Dunn observes in his postscript to his new book on Jesus that the impact Jesus initially made on his earliest followers continues to be felt today (p. 187). A study of Jesus cannot be simply a sequence of historical events or some ancient teachings with no significance for contemporary Christians. In fact, much of Dunn’s work has focused on the memory of Jesus among his earliest followers. See, for example, his magisterial trilogy Jesus Remembered (2003), Beginning from Jerusalem (2009) and Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity (2016), his collection of essays on The Oral Gospel Tradition (2016) or his earlier collection, Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels (2011). This new book targets a broader audience. It is written in a more popular style and Dunn does include many footnotes.

The book begins with “Jesus according to Jesus.” For most non-scholars, this seems like the likely place to start, but as Dunn observes, there is some skepticism concerning how much of Jesus’s teaching actually appears in the Gospels (p. 25). Dunn lists a series of “lessons” and distinctive features of Jesus’s ministry as recalled by his earliest followers. Most of these are not at all controversial, such as the Love command, Jesus’s priority for the poor and his welcoming sinners and other outsiders (including gentiles, women and children). That Jesus was a teacher who spoke in parables is in all strands of the tradition, as well as his exorcising evil spirits. Dunn does not include Jesus’s healing ministry here, although it is closely related to his exorcisms. He also surveys some of Jesus’s titles which imply he understood himself to be the messiah, the one who was sent by God, the son of God and the son of Man.

Dunn surveys the nuances of the three Synoptic Gospels in chapter two and John in chapter three. Since the canonical Gospels were written at least thirty to forty years after Jesus, Dunn briefly explains his view of the oral traditions about Jesus which circulated in this time. For each Gospel he briefly sums up their distinctive contributions (Mark’s messianic secret, Matthew’s focus on Israel, Luke’s focus on Jesus’s mission to sinners, John’s entirely different approach to demonstrating Jesus as the Messiah).

In “Jesus according to Acts” Dunn begins by comparing the commissions of Peter and Paul which may express Luke’s conviction that the greater mission to the gentiles was inspired by God (p. 77). It is the sermons in Acts which present the memory of Jesus, so Dunn examines these closely and makes note of the some disturbing absence of theology concerning the death of Jesus in the book. Luke presents the death of Jesus as fact, but it is not interpreted as it is in the Pauline letters.

Dunn includes two chapters on Jesus according to Paul, first focusing on the uniqueness of Paul’s Gospel as well as Paul’s own emphasis that his Gospel is not distinctive from the other apostles (with respect to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus). Much of these two chapters reviews Paul’s metaphors for salvation as well as Paul’s view of the future. For the details, Dunn’s The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Eerdmans, 2006) is an indispensable resource.

The book of Hebrews is perhaps the most distinctive book in the New Testament with respect to how it understands Jesus. It is the only book which focuses on Jesus as a high priest. Dunn thinks it is remarkable the book was included in the canon not only because of its anonymity, but also for this presentation of Jesus as a Jewish priest. He observes that in Judaism priestly ritual gave way to expounding the word of God, but in Christianity the word was subordinated to the “revived priestly ritual” (155).

The contribution of James, Peter, John and Jude to the New Testament understanding of Jesus are combined into a single chapter. In fact, James has remarkably little to say about Jesus, at least directly. Dunn demonstrates James new the Jesus tradition, at least in its oral form, by drawing parallels between James and the Sermon on the Mount. So too for 1 Peter and 1 John (2-3 John are more or less ignored). Jude and 2 Peter are a troublesome pair of letters; Dunn asks “how much of Christianity would have been lost if Jude and 2 Peter had not been included in the canon?”

Finally, Dunn describes how the book of Revelation understands Jesus. This chapter is frustratingly brief considering how much Revelation says about Jesus. Dunn comments briefly on the initial vision of Jesus in chapter 1 and the letters to the seven churches before tracing the Lamb of God theme through the book. Much more could be said about how the end of the book presents Jesus as a conquering king who returns to restore God’s kingdom to the world.

Dunn hints this book could be extended into the early church (so, “Jesus according to Ignatius”), but also to any reader of the book (“Jesus according to Me”). Since everything we know about Jesus is due to the personal testimony of his followers, why not call on contemporary readers of the New Testament to continue to bear witness to the story of Jesus? This short book succeeds in laying a foundation for this contemporary reflection on Jesus.



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


Acts 5 – The Death of Ananias and Sapphira

Luke gives an ideal example: Joseph the Levite, also known as Barnabas (4:36) Barnabas is a significant figure in the book of Acts, introduced here as a member of the community at Jerusalem. Barnabas sold some property and turns the proceeds over to the apostles. This stands in contrast to Ananias in the next paragraph, who claims to do the same thing but is not telling the truth. Ananias also participated in communal living, but not fully (5:1-2) Taking the end of chapter four together with the beginning of chapter 5, it looks as though Barnabas and Ananias are intentionally place in contrast with each other.

Since the sale of property is voluntary, there is no reason for Ananias to lie about the price of the property – what is his motivation? Possibly he is simply motivated by greed, he did not want to give as much as the price of the property but when others gave the whole amount, he claimed a larger amount that he actually gave. Since Peter describes him as “filled with Satan” many scholars see him as parallel to Judas, another man who was filled with Satan, whose sin also include money (eventually) used to buy some land.

Ananias “held back” some of the money from the sale. The word Luke uses here (νοσφίζω) refers to financial fraud, such as embezzlement or “a type of skimming operation” (BDAG). The word is used for people who hold back some of their crops which are to be used for the public good (Diodorus Scourus, 5, 34, 3). A more surprising use of this word is in LXX Joshua 7:1, 19-26 to describe the sin of Aachen. In that text, Aachen holds back some property which was supposed to be devoted to the Lord. His theft is therefore described as stealing from the Lord.

Peter confronts Ananias and his judgment is immediate (5:3-6) Peter tells Ananias that Satan has filled his heart. How is this possible, if the Jerusalem community is was filled with the Holy Spirit? Was Ananias possessed, or does this language simply describe temptation? This must be parallel to the experience of Judas, who was the only other person in the gospels described as “filled by Satan.” Peter makes it clear that Ananias’ sin is against the Holy Spirit – his lie is not told to the apostles or the apostolic community, but to the Holy Spirit. His wife Sapphira also lies, and is likewise judged (5:7-11) Luke tells us about three hours have passed since Ananias died before Sapphira came to Peter. We know that Ananias acted with the full support of his wife. Just as the apostolic community is of “one mind and heart,” so too this couple was of one mind in heart.

The community in Jerusalem was like a new Israel. Like the original Israel, there is no room for the double-minded. Ananias is a negative example of someone not fully committed to the new community. Barnabas is fully committed, and will be a significant player in the missionary efforts of the earliest church.

The problem is how we “apply” this story to a present day church situation. I doubt very many churches use this text to prod people to “catch up” on their tithe or faith promise, but what reasons do we have for ignoring that aspect of the story? Usually we have to add a great deal to the story in order to make the story more applicable. Go watch this well done video on YouTube. The application is fine, but is this application what Luke intended?

Does God “strike people down” who lie/steal from the Church? (At least in my experience this does not happen, some televangelists would be in big trouble!)

What principles should we draw from the story?