Peter and the keys of the kingdom of heaven

Peter with the keys of the kingdom of heaven

Mosaic of St. Peter in Basilica Saint Peter Vatican Rome Italy

Have you ever wondered about what Jesus meant when he gave Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven? It can be confusing.

Somehow, the phrase has been turned into “keys to the kingdom,” which incorrectly suggests that Peter somehow had authority to decide whom to allow into the kingdom. God, not Peter is the ultimate judge.

Use of the wrong preposition isn’t the only way Christians have interpreted the passage in Matthew 16:19 in ways Jesus probably didn’t intend.

First, let’s consider what keys are for, using an office building as a metaphor for the kingdom.

An office building has many rooms and many locks. Opening the locks requires a key, which is given only to people who have authority to unlock a room, use supplies from a cabinet, or otherwise use the building. So the keys Jesus gave Peter carry comparable authority.

If you work in an office building, you have keys to your office, certain other rooms, and certain cabinets or equipment—and only those locks. Of all the people who work in the building, who has the most keys? Probably not you. Probably not the highest ranking official in the company. Probably not the owner of the building.

The custodial staff, maintenance staff, and security staff probably have more keys than anyone else. These people don’t have much prestige. They are low ranking employees who are given access to the entire building so they can serve the other people who work there.

Not to take anything away from Peter’s standing as the leader among apostles and one of the greatest men in the history of the church, but let’s remember that when Jesus granted Peter the keys, he was an obscure fisherman who had left his nets to follow Jesus.

In the immediate context, Jesus had asked the disciples who they said he was, and Peter answered, “You and the Christ, the Son of the living God.” He could make such a statement only by receiving revelation knowledge from the Holy Spirit, because Jesus had not yet declared himself openly.

Although Peter certainly preached the sermon that launched the church, he is not personally the foundation of the church. Jesus said, “You are Peter (little rock in Greek), and upon this rock (big rock in Greek) I will build my church. The foundation, therefore, is the same revelation knowledge and faith Peter demonstrated as he answered Jesus’ question.

I suggest that the Holy Spirit spoke to Peter and Jesus granted him the keys of the kingdom of heaven because he was obscure and unimportant, not because he was such a great leader. It’s all of a piece with the way God operates throughout Scripture.

  • God made Adam not from precious materials, but the dirt in the garden.
  • God singled out a landless nomad to inherit the Promised Land.
  • God chose a nation of slaves to represent his values and character to the rest of the world.
  • God chose as that nation’s greatest king a shepherd boy not valued enough by his father to be invited to supper.
  • When God became a man, he chose peasants in an obscure village to be his human parents.
  • Instead of a palace, or even a nice house, he chose a stable for his birthplace, and the first witnesses wouldn’t have been allowed to testify in a legal case.
  • The first witnesses to his resurrection were women and therefore not counted as credible.

The pattern shows up in Scripture so often we dare not miss it: If God consistently chooses to work through the weak and insignificant, then we should understand that he would choose Peter to be his spokesman because of his weakness and insignificance.

God never chose anyone who was already important! Peter and all the other heroes of the faith became important because God chose to elevate someone out of obscurity. He chose to overcome their sin and incompetence. After all, who else can he work with besides incompetent sinners? He can even accomplish great things with you, even with me, provided we receive the same revelation Peter did.

Again, not taking anything away from Peter and his unique role, there is a sense in which Jesus grants all believers the keys of the kingdom of heaven. God will issue you and me exactly the keys we need to serve him in the capacity he chooses. However many or few keys we have at our disposal, we remain his menial servants, even if somehow we become exalted in the eyes of some of the rest of the church.


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