Matthew 16:19 MEANING

Matthew 16:19
(19) I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.--Two distinct trains of figurative thought are blended in the words that follow. (1.) The palace of a great king implied the presence of a chief officer, as treasurer or chamberlain, or to use the old Hebrew phrase, as "over the household." And of this, as in the case of Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah (Isaiah 22:22), the key of office, the key of the gates and of the treasure, was the recognised symbol. In the highest sense that key of the house of David belonged to Christ Himself as the King. It was He who opened and none could shut, who shut and none could open (Revelation 3:7). But that power was now delegated to the servant whose very name, as an Apostle, marked him out as his Lord's representative, and the after history of Peter's work, when through him God "opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles" (Acts 14:27; Acts 15:7), was the proof of his faithful discharge of the office thus assigned to him. (2.) With this there was another thought, which in the latter clause of the verse becomes the dominant one. The scribes of Israel were thought of as stewards of the treasures of divine wisdom (Matthew 13:52). When they were admitted to their office they received, as its symbol, the "key of knowledge" (Luke 11:52), which was to admit them to the treasure-chambers of the house of the interpreter, the Beth-Midrash of the Rabbis. For this work the Christ had been training His disciples, and Peter's confession had shown that the training had so far done its work. He was qualified to be a "scribe instructed unto the kingdom of heaven, and to bring forth out of its treasures things new and old" (Matthew 13:52); and now the "key" was given to him as the token of his admission to that office. It made him not a priest (that office lay altogether outside the range of the symbolism), but a teacher and interpreter. The words that follow as to "binding" and "loosing" were the formal confirmation in words of that symbolic act. For they, too, belong to the scribe's office and not the priest's, and express an entirely different thought from that of retaining and forgiving sins. That power was, it is true, afterwards bestowed on Peter and his brother-apostles (see Note on John 20:23), but it is not in question here. As interpreted by the language which was familiar to the Jews (see Lightfoot, Hor. Hebr., on this verse), the words pointed primarily to legislative or interpretative functions, not to the judicial treatment of individual men. The school of Shammai, e.g., bound when it declared this or that act to be a transgression of the Sabbath law, or forbade divorce on any but the one ground of adultery; the school of Hillel loosed when it set men free from the obligations thus imposed. Here, too, the after-work of Peter was an illustration of the meaning of the words. When he resisted the attempt of the Judaisers to "put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples" (Acts 15:10), he was loosing what was also loosed in heaven. When he proclaimed, as in his Epistle, the eternal laws of righteousness, and holiness, and love, he was binding those laws on the conscience of Christendom. It must be remembered, lastly, that the power thus bestowed on him was conferred afterward (Matthew 18:18) on the whole company of the Apostles, or, more probably, on the whole body of the disciples in their collective unity, and there with an implied extension to partially judicial functions (see Note on Matthew 18:18).

A few words will, it is believed, be sufficient to set the claims and the controversies which have had their starting point in these words on their right footing. It may be briefly noted (1) that it is at least doubtful (not to claim too much for the interpretation given above) whether the man Peter was the rock on which the Church was to be built; (2) that it is doubtful (though this is not the place to discuss the question) whether Peter was ever in any real sense Bishop of the Church of Rome, or in any way connected with its foundation; (3) that there is not a syllable pointing to the transmission of the power conferred on him to his successors in that supposed Episcopate; (4) as just stated, that the power was not given to him alone, but equally to all the disciples; (5) that the power of the keys, no less than that of "binding" and "loosing," was not sacerdotal, but belonged to the office of a scribe or teacher. As a matter of interpretation, the Romish argument from this verse stands on a level with that which sees the supremacy of the successors of St. Peter in the "two great lights" of Genesis 1:16, or the "two swords" of Luke 22:38. The claims of the Church of Rome rest, such as they are, on the greatness of her history, on her association with the imperial city, on the work done by her as the "light of the wide West" in ages of darkness, on the imposing aspect of her imagined unity; but to build them upon the promise to Peter is but the idlest of fantastic dreams, fit only to find its place in that Limbo of vanities which contains, among other abortive or morbid growths, the monstrosities of interpretation.

Verse 19. - I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The metaphor of a house or castle, with its gates that must be opened with keys, is still maintained; or else the idea is of the exercise of a stewardship in a household. But the latter seems unnecessarily to introduce a new notion, and to mar the concinnity of the passage. In Isaiah 22:22 we read, "The key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; and he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open" - where the figure is similar. The delivery of the keys of a city, etc., to a person, symbolizes the handing over of the authority to that person. "The kingdom of heaven" means here the visible Church of Christ in its most extended form. In this Church, hereafter to be constituted, Peter personally is promised a certain authority. This is a personal reward for his good confession, and a prediction of the way in which he was to exercise it. At the same time, there is a change in the figure used. He who was the foundation of the Church is now its overseer, and may open or shut its doors, may admit or exclude whomsoever he will, always following the guidance of the inspiring Spirit. This promise was fulfilled after the Day of Pentecost. It seems to have been at this time only promised, not conferred upon Peter. The actual gift of the power to him and his brother apostles took place after the Resurrection, as we read in John 20:22. The "power of the keys," as it is called, is considered to have two branches - a legislative power and an absolving power. The former Peter exercised when he took the lead after the effusion of the Spirit, and opened the door to the Jews. It was his action that admitted the Gentiles, without compliance with the distinctive rites of Judaism, to all the privileges of the gospel (see Acts 15:7). This most momentous precedent he established and made good for all time. These were legislative acts which he had the honour of introducing, and which, thus inaugurated, upheld, and defended by him, tended to advance that unity which the Lord held so dear. As an instance of his shutting the door of the kingdom in the face of an impious intruder, we may notice his rebuke to Simon Magus (Acts 8:21), "Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter." The absolving power, supposed to be contained in the gift of the keys, seems rather to belong to the terms of the succeeding promise. We conceive that this power was first given to St. Peter in acknowledgment of his good confession, and as an emblem of unity, and was afterwards bestowed on all the apostles. That the Fathers did not regard it as limited exclusively to Peter, may he seen by quotations gathered by Wordsworth and other commentators. Thus Tertullian, 'Scorpiac.,' 10, "Memento claves hic Dominum Petro, et per illum Ecclesiae reliquisse;" St. Cyprian, 'De Unit.,' p. 107, "Apostolis omnibus post resurrectionem suam parem potestatem tribuit;" St. Augustine, 'Serm.,' 295, "Has claves non homo unus, sed unitas accepit Ecclcsiae." Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, etc. "Binding" and "loosing" has been explained in various ways. Some say the terms mean admitting or debarring from the Church, which would make them identical with the power of the keys, and would give no additional privilege; whereas it is plain that further honour is intended to be bestowed. Others affirm that the expression is to be understood of absolution from sin. They take the metaphor to be derived from a prisoner and his chain. Sinners are tied and bound with the chain of their sins; they are released on repentance by the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18, 19); they are bound, when the means of grace are withheld from them, owing to the absence of tokens of' sincerity and faith. This is the view taken in the Anglican Ordinal, where to the priest it is solemnly said, "Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained." But this was no special gift to Peter; it was bestowed not long after upon all the apostolic body in the very same terms (Matthew 18:18), and was indeed inherent in the ministry. This interpretation also introduces a new element into the promise, which does not agree with the context. There is nothing to lead one to expect such an item, and to supply "sins" to the general term "whatsoever" twice repeated, is harsh and unnatural. A more reasonable explanation of the phrase is derived from the use of the terms among the Jews themselves. In their Talmudic glosses we find equivalent expressions. "To bind" is to forbid, to pronounce unlawful; "to loose" is to allow, to declare lawful. And the Lord here promises Peter a certain pre-eminence in the government and organization of the Church, and that the rules which he ordained and the sentences which he should pass in the due exercise of his apostolical authority, should be ratified and confirmed in heaven (Burgon). The phrase is found in Josephus, expressive of the possession, of unrestricted authority. Thus he speaks of the Pharisees as having power to loose and bind (λύειν τε καὶ δεῖν) whom they would ('Bell. Jud.,' 1:05. 2). And it is noted that an inscription upon a statue of Isis reads, "I am the queen of the country, and whatsoever I bind no man can loose" (Diod. Sic., 1:27). This is a personal distinction conferred on St. Peter in the exercise of an office common to all the apostles, it was needful, in the early Church, that one should be chosen, primus inter pares, to be the chief office bearer and leader of the body of believers. Not that he conceived himself to be, or was recognized by others as, infallible, or as an irresponsible despot; many events before and after Pentecost forbid such an assumption; but his faith, character, and zeal pointed him out as well constituted to regulate and order the infant community, and to take the first part in maintaining that unity which was essential to the new kingdom. This personal primacy may justly be conceded, even by those who are most inimical to the arrogant claims of the papacy; for it carries not with it the consequences which have been appended. Precedence in rank does not of necessity involve supreme or even superior authority. A duke has no authority over a baron, though he has precedence. The fuller consideration of this sphere of the subject belongs rather to the historian and the polemist than to the expositor, and to such we leave it, only adding that, in his peculiar privilege, Peter stands alone, and that in his extraordinary power he had, and was intended to have, no successors.

16:13-20 Peter, for himself and his brethren, said that they were assured of our Lord's being the promised Messiah, the Son of the living God. This showed that they believed Jesus to be more than man. Our Lord declared Peter to be blessed, as the teaching of God made him differ from his unbelieving countrymen. Christ added that he had named him Peter, in allusion to his stability or firmness in professing the truth. The word translated rock, is not the same word as Peter, but is of a similar meaning. Nothing can be more wrong than to suppose that Christ meant the person of Peter was the rock. Without doubt Christ himself is the Rock, the tried foundation of the church; and woe to him that attempts to lay any other! Peter's confession is this rock as to doctrine. If Jesus be not the Christ, those that own him are not of the church, but deceivers and deceived. Our Lord next declared the authority with which Peter would be invested. He spoke in the name of his brethren, and this related to them as well as to him. They had no certain knowledge of the characters of men, and were liable to mistakes and sins in their own conduct; but they were kept from error in stating the way of acceptance and salvation, the rule of obedience, the believer's character and experience, and the final doom of unbelievers and hypocrites. In such matters their decision was right, and it was confirmed in heaven. But all pretensions of any man, either to absolve or retain men's sins, are blasphemous and absurd. None can forgive sins but God only. And this binding and loosing, in the common language of the Jews, signified to forbid and to allow, or to teach what is lawful or unlawful.And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven,.... By the kingdom of heaven is meant the Gospel, which comes from heaven, declares the king Messiah to be come, speaks of things concerning his kingdom, is the means of setting it up, and enlarging it, displays the riches of his grace, and gives an account of the kingdom of heaven, and of persons' right unto it, and meetness for it. "The keys" of it are abilities to open and explain the Gospel truths, and a mission and commission from Christ to make use of them; and being said to be given to Peter particularly, denotes his after qualifications, commission, work, and usefulness in opening the door of faith, or preaching the Gospel first to the Jews, Acts 2:1 and then to the Gentiles, Acts 10:1 and who was the first that made use of the keys of evangelical knowledge with respect to both, after he, with the rest of the apostles, had received an enlarged commission to preach the Gospel to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. Otherwise these keys belonged to them all alike; for to the same persons the keys, and the use of them, appertained, on whom the power of binding and loosing was bestowed; and this latter all the disciples had, as is manifest from Matthew 18:18 wherefore this does not serve to establish the primacy and power of Peter over the rest of the apostles; nor do keys design any lordly domination or authority; nor did Christ allow of any such among his apostles; nor is it his will that the ministers of his word should lord it over his heritage: he only is king of saints, and head of his church; he has the key of David, with which he opens, and no man shuts, and shuts, and no man opens; and this he keeps in his own hand, and gives it to none. Peter is not the door-keeper of heaven to let in, nor keep out, whom he pleases; nor has his pretended successor the keys of hell and death; these also are only in Christ's hands: though it has been said of the pope of Rome, that if he sends millions of men to hell, none should say to him, what dost thou? but the keys here mentioned are the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or of the Gospel, which was shut up in the Jewish nation, through the ignorance, malice, and calumnies of the Scribes and Pharisees, who would neither embrace it, or enter into the kingdom of God themselves, nor suffer others that were going to enter into it; and through their taking away the key of knowledge, or the right interpretation of the word of God; and through a judicial blindness, which that nation in general was given up to: and this was shut up to the Gentiles through the natural darkness that was spread over them, and through want of a divine revelation, and persons sent of God to instruct them: but now Christ was about, and in a little time he would (for these words, with what follow, are in the future tense) give his apostles both a commission and gifts, qualifying them to open the sealed book of the Gospel, and unlock the mysteries of it, both to Jews and Gentiles, especially the latter. Keys are the ensigns of treasurers, and of stewards, and such the ministers of the Gospel are; they have the rich treasure of the word under their care, put into their earthen vessels to open and lay before others; and they are stewards of the mysteries and manifold grace of God, and of these things they have the keys. So that these words have nothing to do with church power and government in Peter, nor in the pope, nor in any other man, or set of men whatever; nor to be understood of church censures, excommunications, admissions, or exclusions of members: nor indeed are keys of any such similar use; they serve for locking and unlocking doors, and so for keeping out those that are without, and retaining those that are within, but not for the expulsion of any: but here they are used in a figurative sense, for the opening and explaining the truths of the Gospel, for which Peter had excellent gifts and abilities.

And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven. This also is not to be understood of binding, or loosing men's sins, by laying on, or taking off censures, and excommunications; but only of doctrines, or declarations of what is lawful and unlawful, free, or prohibited to be received, or practised; in which sense the words, , "bound and loosed", are used in the Talmudic writings, times without number, for that which is forbidden and declared to be unlawful, and for that which is free of use, and pronounced to be so: in multitudes of places we read of one Rabbi "binding", and of another "loosing"; thousands, and ten thousands of instances of this kind might be produced; a whole volume of extracts on this head might be compiled. Dr. Lightfoot has transcribed a great many, sufficient to satisfy any man, and give him the true sense of these phrases; and after him to mention any other is needless; yet give me leave to produce one, as it is short, and full, and explains these phrases, and points at the persons that had this power, explaining Ecclesiastes 12:11 and that clause in it, "masters of the assemblies".

"these (say they (t)) are the disciples of the wise men, who sit in different collections, and study in the law; these pronounce things or persons defiled, and these pronounce things or persons clean, "these bind, and these loose"; these reject, or pronounce persons or things profane, and these declare them right.''

And a little after,

"get thyself an heart to hear the words of them that pronounce unclean, and the words of them that pronounce clean; the words of them that "bind", and the words of them that "loose"; the words of them that reject, and the words of them that declare it right''

But Christ gave a greater power of binding and loosing, to his disciples, than these men had, and which they used to better purpose. The sense of the words is this, that Peter, and so the rest of the apostles, should be empowered with authority from him, and so directed by his Holy Spirit, that whatever they bound, that is, declared to be forbidden, and unlawful, should be so: and that whatever they loosed, that is, declared to be lawful, and free of use, should be so; and accordingly they bound some things which before were loosed, and loosed some things which before were bound; for instance, they bound, that is, prohibited, or declared unlawful, the use of circumcision, which before, and until the death of Christ, was enjoined the natural seed of Abraham; but that, and all ceremonies, being abolished by the death of Christ, they declared it to be nothing, and of no avail, yea, hurtful and pernicious; that whoever was circumcised, Christ profited him nothing, and that he was a debtor to do the whole law: they affirmed, that the believing Gentiles were not to be troubled with it; that it was a yoke not fit to be put upon their necks, which they, and their fathers, were not able to bear, Galatians 5:1. They bound, or forbid the observance of days, months, times, and years; the keeping holy days, new moons, and sabbaths, which had been used in the Jewish church for ages past; such as the first day of the new year, and of every month, the day of atonement, the feasts of the passover, pentecost, and tabernacles, the jubilee year, the sabbatical year, and seventh day sabbath, Galatians 4:9. They loosed, or declared lawful and free, both civil and religious conversation between Jews and Gentiles; whereas, before, the Jews had no dealings with the Gentiles, nor would not enter into their houses, nor keep company with them, would have no conversation with them; neither eat, nor drink with them; but now it was determined and declared, that no man should be called common, or unclean; and that in Christ Jesus, and in his church, there is no distinction of Jew and Gentile, Acts 10:28. They also loosed, or pronounced lawful, the eating of any sort of food, without distinction, even that which was before counted common and unclean, being persuaded by the Lord Jesus Christ, by the words he said, Matthew 15:11. They asserted, that there is nothing unclean of itself; and that the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; or that true religion does not lie in the observance of those things; that every creature of God is good, and fit for food, and nothing to be refused, or abstained from, on a religious account, provided it be received with thanksgiving, Romans 14:14. And these things now being by them bound or loosed, pronounced unlawful or lawful, are confirmed as such by the authority of God, and are so to be considered by us.

(t) T. Bab. Chagiga, fol. 3. 2.

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