Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Keys of the Kingdom

"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." (Matthew 16:19)

In the last post, I looked at Jesus' promise in verse 18 to build his church (see here). Here I want to focus on his words in verse 19 where he goes on to give the "keys of the kingdom." 

This verse does not teach the idea that Peter is sitting at the gates of heaven. First, this confuses the kingdom of heaven with heaven (we pray his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven). Second, the exercise of these keys is for the earth, corresponding to what God does in heaven. Jesus is the one who receives his people at death and welcomes them into the consummated kingdom of heaven at the last judgment. Third, as we saw last time, the rest of the apostles share the same office as Peter. Peter is being treated as the model apostle and their spokesmen. The binding and loosing power of the keys is ascribed to all the apostles in Matthew 18:18 and John 20:21-23.

So what are the "keys of the kingdom"? Keys are symbols of delegated authority and management. The steward of a household would be entrusted with the keys. So the keys of the kingdom refer to authority and stewardship over the church, the household of God. Jesus gives the keys - he is the head of the church - but he entrusts them to men. Jesus appoints a government for his church. 

Is this unique to the apostles? No, while the apostles have a unique role as we saw in the last post, we also find that they ordained men to carry on this delegated authority over the church. Matthew 18:15-20 makes it clear that their exercise is an ongoing part of church life. The church and its officers continue to be entrusted with the keys. Elders are described as mangers of God’s household in 1 Timothy 3. They are stewards, entrusted with the keys to the house. Elders work as overseers of the church, although they are bound to govern and order the church according to apostolic doctrine and pattens in Scripture. The apostles were unique as those who set up the structure of the NT church. But elders are overseers of the church, shepherds of the flock, leaders who keep watch over your souls (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-4, Heb. 13:17). 

As the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “The Lord Jesus, as king and head of his Church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate” (30.1). Thus, no other authority should usurp this authority. No father, magistrate, city council, or individual may assume to himself the exercise of church authority. For example, they should not administer the sacraments or interfere with or take over the church discipline. The civil magistrate has some authority over what happens in the four walls of a church building - if you murder someone there he will still call you to account - but he has no authority in sacred things. In fact, he is responsible to protect the church and maintain its liberty to do its sacred work. 

Another point to make with the symbol of keys is what they do. What do keys do? They open and close. In this case they open and close the kingdom of heaven. This is done through the preaching of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline, all in accord with Scripture. That brings us to what this verse says about the exercise of church authority: binding and loosing. 

Church officers exercise the keys by binding and loosing people’s sins, by retaining and remitting sins  (Jn. 20:21-23, Matt. 18:18). In this way they close the kingdom to some and to open it to others. In other words, on the basis of God’s word, they declare God’s word, his condemnation of sinners on the basis of his law, and his forgiveness to repentant believers on the basis of Christ.

This binding and loosing is done in two basic ways: by the ministry of the word and the exercise of church discipline.

1. The ministry of the word includes the reading, preaching, and teaching of Scripture, including the instruction and proclamation given by the pastor throughout the worship service and the personal instruction, counsel, and admonition which he and the elders give.

2. Church discipline, which is done by the council of elders (the session), includes receiving to the sacraments and membership, as well as correction and rebuke, suspension from the Supper, or excommunication from membership, as well as receiving again those who repent after being disciplined.

The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes the exercise of the keys in this way,
“To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power respectively to retain and remit sins, to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel, and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.” (30.2)

Jesus has promised to protect and build his church. He fulfills this promise in a couple ways, but an important one is by the means he has appointed in the church. He makes these ordinances effective. He has appointed the ministry of word and sacrament. He has taught us to pray. He has given diverse gifts to his church for its mutual edification. He has appointed a government in his church. Through these means, he gathers his elect into the kingdom, holds his church together amid opposition, and disciples its members in his ways. 

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