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Power of the Keys

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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POWER OF THE KEYS . In ecclesiastical history the phrase is associated primarily with the so-called ‘Privilege of Peter,’ upon which the dogma of papal supremacy has been built, but also with the delegated authority of an official priesthood to pronounce sentence of the absolution or the retention of sins.

1. The fundamental passage is Matthew 16:18 . When St. Peter at Cæsarea Philippi had made his great confession of Jesus as the Christ, Jesus blessed him and announced that upon this rock He would build His Church. Then He added,’ I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall he bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ That this double promise, like the one in the preceding verse, was made to St. Peter personally can hardly be doubted. The question is as to what it means. Evidently Jesus is carrying out the figure He has already used of a building founded upon a rock the rock, viz., of belleving confession, of which the Apostle was the splendid type; and He now declares that as the reward of a confession which stamped him as the first true Christian, the bottom stone of the great edifice that was about to rise, he should have the privilege of wielding the keys of that Church of Christ which was to be realized in the Kingdom of heaven. There are some who think that by this gift of the keys St. Peter was appointed to the position of a steward in charge of his Lord’s treasuries, entrusted with the duty of feeding the household ( Luke 12:42 , cf. Matthew 13:52 ). But from the use of the word ‘key’ by Jesus Himself in Luke 11:52 , and from the analogy of Isaiah 22:22 , Revelation 3:7 , it is probable that the keys are those not of the storehouse but of the mansion itself, and that the gift of them points to the privilege of admitting others into the Kingdom. The promise was fulfilled, accordingly, on the day of Pentecost, when St. Peter opened the doors of the Christian Church to the Jewish world ( Acts 2:41 ); and again at Cæsarea, when he, first of the Apostles, opened that same door to the Gentiles ( Acts 10:34-38; Acts 15:7 ). But, as the two incidents show, there was nothing arbitrary, official, or mysterious about St. Peter’s exercise of the power of the keys on these occasions. It was his believing confession of Christ that had gained him the privilege, and both in Jerusalem and at Cæsarea it was by a renewed confession of Christ, accompanied by a testimony to the truth regarding Him as that had been made known in the experience of faith ( Acts 2:32-36; Acts 10:36-48 ), that he opened the doors of the Kingdom alike to Jews and to Gentiles.

With regard to the second part of the verse, ‘Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,’ some scholars have regarded it as merely explaining what is meant by the keys of the Kingdom, while others bold that it confers a privilege. The latter view is the more probable. And as we know that in the Rabbinic language of the time, to ‘ bind ’ and to ‘ loose ’ were the regular terms for forbidding and permitting, these words confer upon the Apostle a power of legislation in the Christian Church a power which we see him exercising by and by, along with the other Apostles and the elders, at the Jerusalem Conference ( Acts 15:6-11; Acts 15:22-28 ).

But now comes the question, Was this twofold promise, which was given to St. Peter personally, given him in any exclusive sense? As regards the second part of it, clearly not; for on a later occasion in this same Gospel we find Jesus bestowing precisely the same privilege on His disciples generally (Acts 18:18; cf. Acts 18:1 and also Acts 18:19-20 ). Moreover, the later NT history shows that St. Peter had no supreme position as a legislator in the Church (see Acts 15:13; Acts 15:19 , Galatians 2:11 ff.). And if the power of binding and loosing was not given to him exclusively, the presumption is that the same thing holds of the parallel power of the keys. As a matter of fact, we find it to be so. Though St. Peter had the privilege of first opening the doors of the Kingdom to both Jews and Gentiles, the same privilege was soon exercised by others ( Acts 8:4; Acts 11:19 ff; Acts 13:2 ff.). By and by Peter falls into the background, and we find Paul and Barnabas rehearsing to the Church how God through their preaching had ‘opened a door of faith unto the Gentiles’ ( Acts 14:27 ). But this does not mean that the privilege was withdrawn from St. Peter; It means only that it was extended to others on their fulfilment of those same conditions of faith and testimony on which Peter had first received it.

2 . In Matthew 18:18 there appears to be no reference whatever to the remission and retention of sins. As in Matthew 16:18 , ‘whatsoever’ not ‘whomsoever’ is the word employed, and here as there the binding and loosing must be taken to refer to the enactment of ordinances for regulating the affairs of the Church, not to the discharge of such a purely spiritual function as the forgiveness of sins. In any case, the promise is made not to the Apostles, much less to an official priesthood deriving authority from them by an Apostolic succession, but to the Church’ ( Matthew 16:17 ).

3. In John 20:23 we find the assurance definitely given of a power to remit or retain sins . But the gift is bestowed upon the whole company present (cf. Luke 24:35 ) as representing the Christian society generally. That society, through its possession of the Holy Spirit ( Luke 24:22 ), is thus empowered to declare the forgiveness or the retention of sins (cf. 1 John 2:20 , Galatians 6:1; and see F. W. Robertson, Serm ., 2nd ser. xi.).

J. C. Lambert.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Power of the Keys'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​p/power-of-the-keys.html. 1909.
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