The Keys to Our Authority

Week of Sunday August 21: Pentecost 10
Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

27 ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

In the gospel of Mark, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah (8:29) is a turning point in the gospel. Finally people have understood! From that point Jesus begins to teach people what Messiah actually means.

Matthew uses the story of Peter’s confession in a different way. In Matthew people have already named Jesus as Son of God (14:33). Peter is affirming what has already been said, rather than making the insight. Bill Loader says

...instead of the passage celebrating a turning point in recognising who Jesus is, as in Mark, it has become in Matthew a celebration of what the church is.

The lectionary divides Matthew 16:13-28 into two weeks, which is quite reasonable; the material in each section (13-20, and 21-28) is substantial! However, we must read what Matthew is saying about Peter and the Church in the light of next week’s reading. There we see that to be Messiah is to suffer, and most importantly, that

... If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it....

The verses set for next week act as an enormous corrective to any misplaced pride and glory we may feel as a church. Matthew is sketching out a critical balance of power and authority which will not be properly appreciated without the later verses.

Power and Allegiance
The reading begins with one of those sly references our culture so easily misses. The district of Caesarea Philippi seems an incidental, throw away phrase; incidental colour. We were taught to add colour to our school essays almost for the sake of colour; for entertainment. It’s how we do things. In Matthew’s culture, the “colour” of the narrative always has a purpose.

The reading is a confrontation between Jesus and the power of the world.

The city of Caesarea Philippi was named for two people; Tiberius Caesar, and Herod’s son Phillip. It means something like The City of Caesar and his loyal servant Phillip. It is the seat of power; the ultimate political power of Rome, and the city of the local ruler. Both of these forces claimed political and religious power. Under their collective nose, Jesus makes his own claim to power.

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” is not only a question of revelation and insight, as it is in Mark. It is also a serious question of allegiance for the church. With whom will you side?

All the answers to Jesus’ question are, in some sense, correct! He is a prophet in the spirit of John the Baptist. As such, he comes in the spirit of Elijah. (Matthew 11:14) And as Bill Loader says,

To these Matthew adds Jeremiah, the suffering prophet. How appropriate!....  At least such people are identifying a divine initiative in Jesus such as was promised for the climax of history.

There is more, of course. Who do you say that I am, Jesus asks? What will your allegiance be?

Peter’s confession will later be echoed by Caiaphas as a non-confession and an accusation; a competing claim to who holds the power and the keys. (26:63) Matthew is also challenging Caiaphas, and through him, the theology and authority of the temple traditions and their successors.

Peter’s confession is not a one of intellectual assessment. It is not an isolated personal spiritual insight. It is a statement of allegiance against other power systems, and claims to power.

The Humanity and Authority of the Church
There is a very clear contrast made between Simon and Jesus. This is to manage the profound and difficult issue of how authority is managed in the absence of Jesus.

Jesus is called “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Simon, although blessed by Jesus, is very clearly put in a subordinate place by Jesus himself; he is simply “Simon son of Jonah.” Everything else that will be said about Simon is said after his humanity is starkly contrasted with Jesus’ greater status as the Son of the Living God. Peter is only human, and thus, fallible. And yet... “Blessed are you...” He is anointed. [Note the following from John Petty: More likely, in my view, is the use of "Jonah" as an image of resurrection.  As Jonah was three days in the whale, so Jesus would be three days in the earth.  To call Simon Peter the "son of Jonah" was another way of calling him a "son of the resurrection."  It is with eyes informed by the resurrection that Peter is able to make his confession.  Jesus says as much when he says that "flesh and blood" has not informed Peter, but rather direct revelation from God].

Jesus names Simon as the rock ( the cephas/petros pun) on which the church will be built. Peter the Rock is the foundation of Christ’s church. Immediately my heart rebels; this cannot be correct. Surely Jesus is the foundation of the church!

Here is the great tension of the church. What is the balance we are to make between the authority of the traditions and the freedom of the Spirit?  Matthew understands that we are “dealing with holy things.” We are talking about power and authority over life. In Jesus’ absence it is we who will have the power to bind and loose, to lock out and let in, to imprison and to free.

My personal tradition ‘sits light’ with the church. We scorned the Catholics and Anglicans with their pretentious buildings built up on the hills. And yet, to my shame, I have seen people wilt at my words during worship. And, sometimes, I see people blossom. Even I have power and authority over life. I need the church to restrain me and give me wisdom; the same church which I have seen abuse people and lock them out.

As the traditions of the early church were developing, it is clear that a Petrine tradition was given primacy in the traditions of Matthew’s people. And the authority of this church, they believed, was such that even the gates of Hades could not prevail against it. Death, and the place of the dead, was no barrier to the authority of this church.

The Keys to the Kingdom
Brian Stoffregen notes that Hades is means the place of the dead. There is no overtone of suffering or punishment here.

I think this is important to remember, because there are two gateways implied here; the gates of Hades and the gates to the Kingdom. Peter is given the keys to the gates of the Kingdom.

Both Stoffregen and Loader say this giving of the keys is about authority to teach and interpret. The apposition of the gates may tempt us to wonder if the church has authority to lock the “dead” out of the kingdom. I think that is not intended. Jesus specifically condemns such behaviour in 23:13

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

Whatever binding and loosing means, it cannot mean binding or locking people out of the kingdom.

Loader says

The focus on the church's role is continued in the word about the keys of the kingdom (16:19). There were traditionally in the hands of interpreters of the tradition. 23:13 accosts the scribes and Pharisees for using them to shut people out of the kingdom. Now there is to be a new body of scribes, who are to be inclusive. Binding and loosing reflects technical language and refers both to binding and releasing interpretations of law (scripture) and their consequences. We see how it might apply in particular cases in 18:15-18, where the local congregation is invested with the authority to deal with cases of discipline in the community.   .... Clearly 18:18 implies the same power is be taken and exercised by the congregation

In this verse (18:18) Jesus is talking to more than Peter alone:

18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

Binding and loosing and keys of the kingdom are difficult concepts for us. We have a recent history in Australia, of denominational competition and discrimination which makes the whole imagery uncomfortable. I can feel a surprising level of inherited anger and scorn within me, even after decades of wonderful and fruitful friendship and support from Roman Catholic clergy. Despite having had Catholic sisters as spiritual directors, the verses about the keys of the kingdom remain emotionally loaded!

The concept of keys is also alien, or at least, watered down. We give the keys of the city to sportspeople who win at football or cricket!

I’m imagining the text like this:

I once worked as a consultant technician. My decisions about computer networks had the ability to enhance large businesses. If I made the wrong decision, I could put 500 people out of work almost at a keystroke. On my direction offices from Perth to Auckland would come to a halt until I was ready for them to proceed.

My boss gave me the keys to the business. I could get in after hours. I could even drive the Mercedes! I could make critical decisions affecting clients; she would sometimes be out of the country for several weeks, and I was in charge. I had access to all the critical databases. But all of this was under her authority, and within strict boundaries. On my own I was nothing.

The church has even greater authority than this, and is yet even less authoritative on its own. And the service of people is rather less simple than the management of machines and money.

Near the end of his commentary this week, Brian Stoffregen quotes some verses from Isaiah.

The keys of the kingdom of heaven given to Peter represent teaching authority. A similar image is given in Isaiah 22:20-23:

On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.

The opening and shutting in Isaiah become binding and losing in Matthew. Those are rabbinic terms for authoritative teaching, the authority to interpret Torah and apply it to particular cases, the authority to declare what is permitted and not permitted. This authority is given to the ekklesia in 18:18.

I was fascinated to read further about Eliakim. He was at the centre of power. In 2 Kings 18, Eliakim and Shebna are the emissaries who go out to Sennacherib on behalf of Hezekiah the King.

What would one of Matthew’s congregation have thought if they had seen the parallel between this week’s reading, and the oracles about Shebna and Eliakim that are in Isaiah 22?

Thus says the Lord God of hosts: Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is master of the household, and say to him.... The Lord is about to hurl you away violently, my man. He will seize firm hold of you, 18whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into a wide land; there you shall die, and there your splendid chariots shall lie, O you disgrace to your master’s house! 19I will thrust you from your office, and you will be pulled down from your post.

20 On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, 21and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. 22I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.

It would be so easy to see a reflection of Peter and the church in Eliakim, and the reflection of the old Jewish authority in Shebna. Easy, unless one continued to read on about Eliakim:

23I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honour to his ancestral house. 24And they will hang on him the whole weight of his ancestral house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons. 25On that day, says the Lord of hosts, the peg that was fastened in a secure place will give way; it will be cut down and fall, and the load that was on it will perish, for the Lord has spoken.

From Otto Kaiser’s Isaiah 13-39 commentary, I conclude that the family of Eliakim weighed him down with demands for special consideration. He too, became corrupt.  If we depart from the proper authority and compassion given us as a church, then we too will come crashing down. This is why it is imperative that we read on into next week’s text, which lays down the “strict boundaries” which govern our authority.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



This functionality requires the FormBuilder module