What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?

What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?

If you ever see a painting or sculpture of a Pope, past or present, you will notice something that is always there somewhere. They are always holding a set of keys. These represent the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Roman Catholic theology states that the Pope, as the descendant of Peter the apostle, holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven. This is taken to mean that to be in the kingdom of heaven, you need to be part of the Roman Catholic Church, in fellowship with the Pope.

Where does this idea come from? The main text is Matthew 16:18-19, but to get some context, I am going to include v13-17 too:

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 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.” (Matt. 16:13-19 ESV)

To understand v18-19, we need to understand the context. After performing many signs of his authority, Jesus asked the disciples directly who they had concluded he was. He asked all of them, plural, in v15; the “you” is clearly plural in Greek. Peter answered for all of them, as he was prone to do. His answer was correct and a turning point in Matthew. As Peter spoke as a representative of the disciples, it seems reasonable to conclude that the direction given to Peter would also apply to the disciples.

The focus throughout is on Jesus, not on Peter. Jesus will build his church. The reason the gates of hell won’t prevail against the church is because of Jesus’ work. The keys of the kingdom, whatever they are, are given by Jesus. We must note all this, for otherwise we can get confused and give Peter too much authority here.

Whatever the keys are, they cannot mean Peter gets to make up the rules that decide who gets into heaven and who is out. That contradicts other parts of the Bible and would make Peter in charge instead of God! To conclude this is speaking of a Pope or any human who decides who gets into heaven is going further than the verse will let us.

There are two pieces of evidence that help us a great deal:

  1. How did the other apostles view Peter after this?

If these verses set Peter up as the chief apostle the others needed to follow, it seems the other apostles didn’t walk away with that idea. Matthew the gospel writer also doesn’t let us draw that conclusion. A few verses later on in v22, in the same conversation, Peter dramatically misunderstands Jesus’ mission. If this person with all his misunderstanding gets to make rules about who gets in and who doesn’t, that is a scary thought. All humans are sinful and surely access to heaven isn’t due to our whims or ideas.

If we read further in the Bible, into the book of Acts, yes Peter is prominent. He preaches at Pentecost. He is involved in the gospel moving to the Samaritans and Gentiles. Yet Peter has to answer for his actions to the wider church after going to Cornelius. He doesn’t rule the gathering at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. We cannot conclude Peter became the boss of the apostles based on Biblical evidence.

In fact, the rise of the Bishop of Rome to become some first among equals had a lot more to do with politics in the first few centuries of the church than any Biblical basis.

  1. How does the immediate context help?

Context is one of the key things we should look to in order to make sense of hard passages. In this case, it helps a lot. Peter has just confessed who Jesus is, a truth that was revealed to him by God (v17). And now he is told he is the foundation of the church and receives the keys of the kingdom. These things are connected.

I think that the keys of the kingdom is speaking about the gospel message. This makes sense of the context. Peter has confessed the gospel, and now he is entrusted with the message to pass on to other people. This gospel message is the only way to enter heaven, just like a key is the only way to enter a locked door. People might try to get to heaven some other way, but God has decreed that only the gospel, only trusting in Jesus, will get us in.

This interpretation also puts the power of entry into heaven into the hands of God and not Peter. Peter, like all followers of Jesus, only holds the keys. He can show people how to get into the kingdom. However, just like with Peter himself, anyone who would enter must have God reveal who Jesus is to them. They only enter based on God’s choice, not Peter’s choice.


So what can we conclude then? There is, of course, more that could be said about these verses. They are complicated and have been argued over for centuries. I think they are encouraging and challenging for us. They are encouraging because Jesus promises to sustain the church, and because it is not up to us or some church leader to decide who gets into heaven. They are challenging because we are all tasked with holding out the keys, with telling others the gospel and how they can be saved. It is a great responsibility to share the gospel. The task is unfinished; let’s make every effort to show people the only way to enter the door to eternal life.