One of the most dramatic moments in Jesus’ life is recorded in Matthew 16:13–20. After asking his disciples who they thought he was, Peter rightly identifies him as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (16:16). Moments later Jesus says this to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (16:19). So what are the keys of the kingdom?
In both the Old and New Testaments, keys symbolize power and authority. The nature of that power and authority varies depending on the context. Isaiah 22:22 refers to “the key of the house of David,” which in the context refers to the authority of the steward who manages the household of the king. That same imagery is applied to the risen Christ (Rev 3:7), who also has “the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev 1:18). In Luke 11:52, Jesus claims that the experts in the Jewish Law “have taken away the key of knowledge.” In other words, through their hypocrisy they have not only failed to enter the kingdom of God themselves, but have prevented others from entering as well.
This reference to the key of knowledge sheds light on the expression “keys of the kingdom” here. Through Peter’s faithful proclamation of the gospel, Peter will open the door of the kingdom to those who respond in faith, while at the same time keeping it shut from those who do not. Because the gospel determines what is bound and what is loosed, Peter’s actions of binding and loosing here on earth express heaven’s verdict itself.
While the focus in this passage is Peter, this same authority is extended to the entire church in Matthew 18:18. Jesus uses the same language of binding and loosing in the context of how the church should handle unrepentant sinners. When the church follows Jesus’ teaching, they can be confident that their actions of binding and loosing are an extension of God’s actions in heaven.
Thus, when it comes to the authority and power of the keys of the kingdom, it is not something that rests in Peter as an individual or even in the church as an institution. That is because the final authority rests in the gospel itself. Galatians makes this point crystal clear. In 1:6–9 Paul stresses that if anyone—even he or an angel from heaven—preaches a gospel other than the one he preached, they are under God’s eternal curse. Later in the letter, Paul recounts a time where he publicly rebuked Peter because his “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14).
So, the keys of the kingdom are God’s gift to his people to state heaven’s verdict on who will and will not enter the kingdom based on their response to the gospel. As such, all who faithfully preach and teach the gospel are able to exercise them under the authority of Jesus Christ himself.