According to Matthew 16:19, what are the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and when did Peter receive them?
The key is used here as a symbol and represents power or authority. Jesus used a lot of word pictures to help His listeners understand truths. Without a key, one cannot enter a locked building. But he who has the key has authority over the house; he can let people enter and shut them out. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).
Since heaven is a spiritual place, this must relate to spiritual power. We know the church of God of the new covenant has no earthly power at all, only spiritual power. And on what is this power based? We can answer with great certainty and firm conviction: it exists in the preaching of the living Word of God entrusted to it. Therein lies the power of the keys, which the apostle Peter also received on the day of Pentecost.
But not only Peter, as some think, received the keys to the kingdom of heaven. From Matthew 18:18, we see clearly that all the disciples received this power: “Assuredly, I say to you: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Jesus spoke even more clearly to the eleven disciples after His resurrection, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). This is the same power that He figuratively called the keys to the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 16:19.
Now let us take a closer look at the nature of this power, this key, and first ask ourselves: Does the preaching of the living Word of God really possess a binding and freeing power, a sin-forgiving and sin-retaining power?
Even Noah, the aged man of God, preached the living word of the Almighty, and we know his message was absolutely valid (see 2 Peter 2:5). Obeying the message guaranteed the people salvation. Despising it, however, resulted in their destruction. At first glance, it seems to us that Noah was powerless, but he stood before the people with a word of divine authority. It didn’t matter if his contemporaries acknowledged it at that moment or not. He faithfully exercised the power entrusted to him by God and was able to call the people to take a stand. He did not force them to convert. He did not force them to harden their hearts. He did not compel them to enter the ark, nor did he force them to remain outside. But he compelled them, by virtue of the message of the Living Word, to make a personal decision. No one whose heart and conscience has heard the spiritually-empowered message of the Word of God can avoid making this inevitable decision. A person can only do one thing when faced with this: either he closes himself off, or he opens his heart.
When the prophet Nathan told David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7) it was a word of unsurpassed authority that confronted the king of Israel who had fallen into sin. He had only two options, to either harden his heart, or repent. The power of the divine word forced him to decide, and he thankfully chose the latter.
The Apostle Paul describes the consequences of the power of the Word which forces people to make a decision: “To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:16-17).
The Spirit-empowered preaching of the Gospel is truly the key to the kingdom of heaven. This is what unlocks the kingdom of heaven for people by clearly showing the way has been opened, that the ruler of this world has been judged, and that life and immortality have been revealed. But it is also the message that locks the door by clearly and definitively stating “that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21), namely what is listed in verses 19-21.
The key to the kingdom of heaven, the living Word of God, first unlocks the door of man’s heart. Now, divine light streams in. This is an entirely personal experience. This shows God whether someone loves darkness more than light, or if he flees from the light. This is the first turning of the key. The second will be either an opening or a locking of the door. It is wonderful when the Word of God welcomes a penitent person into the Church of the Lord. The person knows this, and it is also known in heaven, where there is joy among the angels over a sinner who repents (Luke 15:10).
The Word of God itself is the master key that keeps out all those named in Revelation 22:15, for “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9).
The actual key holder is Christ Himself (Revelation 3:7). But He has placed His work entirely in the hands of the apostles and in the hands of those working in the same Spirit and mind who do not abuse its power.
The words of Jesus show His keyholding power. He unlocked, and He locked. His disciples gained entry into the kingdom of God by His word: “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). To the paralytic, He said, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you” (Matthew 9:2). He stated this in full accordance with the principles of the word of His Father in heaven. “The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority” (John 14:10). He closed the kingdom of heaven to hypocrites. In a powerful and decisive manner, He declared, “You will not enter!”
The present-day servants of Christ, who deliver the message according to Christ’s commission, also exercise the power of the Word because God’s Word is the power. This is neither a personal power, nor a power vested by a church, but it is Christ in the Word. He Himself is the Living Word. Paul says, “Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Only the true Church of the Lord is in possession of the key, according to Matthew 16:19. Yes, the power that radiates from true servants of Christ demands a personal decision from the individual. This has a genuine, spiritual foundation and leads to either freedom or fetters, to forgiveness or retention of sins. Whoever makes a decision for Christ based on the Word will be made righteous and sanctified by the promise and power of that Word. But for everyone who closes his heart to God’s message, the very power of that Word maintains his sins and binds him based on his wicked decision or his avoidance and indecision. This is how the keys to the kingdom of heaven work.