Friday, May 13, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: Two Promises

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

In Matthew 16, upon Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus responds with two promises, which we may briefly restate as: (i) “On this rock I will build my church”, and (ii) “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven …”

Tom: There’s more to these promises, obviously, but I wanted to consider a couple of issues. First, whether these are two separate promises, or if the second is merely some kind of amplification of the first, and second, when can we anticipate the realization of these promises.

On This Rock

Before we get to that, I am assuming you agree with me that the “rock” in question is Peter’s confession, as opposed to Peter personally?

Immanuel Can: Absolutely. There are confirmations that confessing Christ issues in salvation throughout scripture: there is not one that Peter himself became head of the church on the basis of this moment. So that seems quite clear to me.

Tom: You would not dispute, I’m sure, that Peter’s vision while staying in Joppa and his subsequent baptism of the household of Cornelius were significant moments for the early church?

IC: No, of course not. It’s interesting, though, that the Spirit’s inclusion of the Gentiles, though effected through Peter, was not simply accepted by those in Jerusalem.

Tom: In fact, they directly challenged him.

IC: It’s very clear he had no special authority beyond that held by all the disciples in common. He wasn’t infallible, as Paul’s Galatian rebuke of him shows; and manifestly, nobody accorded to him any head-of-the-church status. Nobody present in the Matthew 16 incident, and nobody afterward, thought Christ had bestowed any unique status on Peter.

Tom: Yes, that came much later, after he was dead and couldn’t dispute it. So the “rock” is Peter’s confession.

The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven

How about the “keys of the kingdom”? Let’s get you on the record about that …

IC: Are you asking if I believe somebody’s got literal keys to some actual, physical gates in heaven, Tom?

Tom: Well, or at least standing there in person giving the thumbs-up/thumbs-down to would-be entrants …

IC: Last time I looked, all judgment was committed into the hands of the Son of God exclusively.

Tom: Sure, though that wouldn’t preclude the Lord Jesus delegating to others certain judgment-related responsibilities, which other passages confirm. Saying someone has been made CEO tells you he is the final word so far as that company is concerned. It doesn’t mean he does all the work or makes all the decisions.

IC: No, but there is a difference between things like contemporary judgment of one’s own sins or others’ sins, both of which are at least partially delegated, and judgment of eternal salvation, which cannot be delegated, since it is determined solely by one’s response to Christ. I understand Matthew 16 to be speaking of the latter.

Tom: Fair enough. Okay, so that pretty much sets up where you and I are coming from then. Let me ask you one last thing here before we explore our original topic: Do you think the Lord Jesus was giving the “keys of the kingdom” into the hands of Peter personally, or into the hands of his disciples generally?

IC: Both generally and secondarily or derivatively, I would say. Generally, because it was not to Peter exclusively but to all those who hold to Peter’s confession; but secondarily because the primary holder of the right of judgment is the One to whom that faith confession refers, the Lord Jesus himself.

The Only Keys There Are

Or derivatively, because if you know the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, then you hold the only “keys” to the kingdom that there are.

Tom: Now I’m curious. I mean, I agree, insofar as each person’s access to the kingdom turns on belief in Peter’s confession, which is indeed the message of the gospel. But if the “keys” the Lord Jesus refers to here are the knowledge of the gospel, how then would you interpret the words that follow: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”?

IC: Well, my thought would be to put the problem this way: are we to think that is an arbitrary thing, a capricious power to save and condemn on a whim? Or are we to think that it refers to the responsibility of conveying the gospel itself — to the eternal consequences of the actions regarding it that we take here and now? Or do you have a theory about it you believe I have missed?

Tom: No, that’s an interesting take. I’d never thought of it that way.

So you would say the “binding” relates to discharging the Christian responsibility to preach the gospel, and thereby making the individual newly possessed of that knowledge directly responsible to God? Am I being fair there?

So what would the “loosing” be then?

IC: Oh, I wasn’t quite thinking of it that way. I was thinking of “binding and loosing” as being the two possible outcomes of the preaching of the gospel — those who respond with reception would be “loosed” from the fetters of enslavement to sin and impending judgment, and those rejecting the faith confession articulated by Peter would be “bound” and judged by their response. Both ways, what happened on Earth would be determinative of the judgment of heaven.

Tom: Oh, okay. Thanks for clarifying.

Another Angle

I’ve always seen it a little differently. Probably the easiest way to explain my way of looking at it is to quote from one of my earlier posts:

“[I]n the book of Acts … we see not just Peter but all the apostles ‘binding’ on earth, with the immediate ratification of heaven, over and over again. Demons were bound and driven out, poisonous snakes failed to poison, death and disease were bound, as people were raised from the dead and healed of diseases. Heaven confirmed the apostles repeatedly, as they ‘bound’ various things in the advancement of the kingdom on earth.

The ratification of heaven distinguished the true church from impersonators. In Acts 19, others tried to ‘bind on earth’, and this was the result:

‘Some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled.’

Notice that the evil spirit said ‘Paul I recognize’. Because Paul, like Peter and other believers, had the keys. The sons of Sceva didn’t.”

IC: I see. Yes. Your assumption would be that “binding” is really a technical term, and thus linkable with other such technical usages throughout the New Testament.

Binding and Loosing Examined

In contrast, my assumption was that it’s a more general-use verb, not necessarily a technical term. I would be less inclined to rely on the verb alone to make links with other scriptures in this case, perhaps. So maybe I should ask, do you have a good reason to think “binding” has a particular technical usage in this context? And if it does, would you say the same of “loosing,” and what scriptures would you connect to exposit that term?

Tom: Well, I’m not sure I’d call my way of looking at it “technical” exactly. I’m just observing that the same term, “binding”, is used of Satan in Revelation. The meaning is clear there: he is prevented from acting. Now, throughout the book of Acts, we see Paul and others acting personally and unilaterally to restrain the effect of Satan’s work in the world, through demons or sickness or whatever. I have always viewed that as “binding” him. I have never found it surprising to consider that Peter and the other apostles might act that way, and I cannot imagine what authority they’d do it under apart from these verses. Perhaps the tail end of the gospel of Mark, but the legitimacy of those verses is often disputed, and in any case, they are really descriptive of what the servants of Christ will do, rather than making specific promises, as these verses do.

IC: This word “bound” [deō] is a very general one, and sometimes even positive. For example, it’s used of a woman being “bound” to a husband, and of Paul himself being “bound” by the Spirit. I don’t feel clear about the idea of narrowing the usage to the negative sense of incarceration of limitation of movement. Likewise, to “loose” is a very general term of release. I’m not sure we can get any more precise than that.

Tom: Well, let’s leave it there then. That’s why we call these takes “hot”, right?

First and Second Promises

So, given the way you interpret the “keys”, how do you see the relationship between the first and second promises of Matthew 16? How do they connect? Do you see the second promise as a sort of amplification of the first promise?

IC: Not an amplification, but a different aspect or consequence. That a people can be called out to fellowship with God on the basis of nothing more complex than a genuine confession of faith is one kind of surprise; that the Lord will then entrust the message of salvation into their hands is another.

Tom: Okay, so then how would you paraphrase verses 18 and 19? I’d like to get a sense of how your way of looking at it hangs together …

IC: For “this rock” read “what you [Peter] have just said.” For “give” read “commit to your charge.” For “keys” read “message” perhaps, or “terms of entrance”: certainly they’re metaphorical in some way. And for the “bind” and “loose” phrases, read “what you do with it will have definite eternal consequences of two opposite kinds — salvation to some, condemnation to others”.

Though I’m not certain enough to be dogmatic about it, that has seemed to me the most plausible reading. Of course, I’m prepared to hear that there’s something I’ve missed there, if it can be demonstrated compellingly from scripture.

Tom: How about the gates of hell?

IC: Hyperbole? “Gates” is clearly a metaphor, standing for properties of strength like authority and security.

Tom: Cool. I’m just going to leave it like that, I think.


  1. Oh my. My interpration of "you are the rock ...", for simple but obvious technical reasons, is different. You cannot refer to what a person says as being a rock but obviously to the person (whose name is Rock (Peter)) to whom this is addressed. Furthermore, building a church implies effort, strategy, tenacity, brains, courage, etc., everything that Peter, the person, has and not the air that came out of his mouth. So I propose that having to shoehorn this into a Protestant framework forces you to ignore the obvious, namely that Peter was exactly then and there appointed as the chief executive officer of the church building business and endeavor. Whether or not that should eventually result in a succession of Catholic Popes might be worth discussing but at the moment obviously is something you want to steer away from.

    Also, it is pretty clear that it is irrelevant as to whether or not we get the impression by our research today whether or not there was clear concordance in the early communuty with Christ's mission for Peter. As a matter of fact nonconcordance should also be expected because that is implicit in the process of building something. Christ did not imply that there would be no indifference or disagreement as church building progressed. Again, that is simply an argument that has suited Protestant philosophy at a time when the chief executive was perceived as corrupt and in need of impeachment. It was then and is now a fallacy to assume that that fact justifies the abolishment of the office.

    Also, your assumption that Peter himself would have disputed people's assumptions about his mission would he have been alive is in itself a very unlikely assumption since one can assume that his hearing was OK when Christ talked to him.

  2. I'm sure Peter's hearing was ok. Peter is not the CEO, else the phrase would have been "upon this rock YOU will build YOUR church". You may have noticed the explanation provided to Peter was subtly different. It was Christ, not Peter, who promised to build HIS church. Colossians 1:18 is abundantly clear on that point.

    Christ clearly retains possession of, responsibility for, and empowerment of, the universal church. Not Peter, not an heir of Peter's title. We are not building something in human strength and wisdom that will eventually be handed over to Christ. Instead, we are what Christ is building right now; something he's been doing for the last 2,000 years or so (give or take). Peter was not the founder, nor the builder, nor is he - or his heirs - the guarantor. A key player? Sure. He's an apostle - arguably the foremost apostle. But the "CEO" (to use your term)? - well, just no. Decidedly no.

    1. Hi Bernie. I read this all the time in the paper - someone has won the huge lottery jackpot or is wealthy from the get-go. So what do they do? Well they want to start their own company. So, the first thing they do is they higher a CEO who is entrusted to follow up, get it all started and become the stone of the endeavor. So I don't agree with your sequence and interpretation thinking that mine is the most accepted one. The rest is history, the structure has to be put in place, management and workers hired, a lot of time and effort invested, decisions are made, risks are taken, etc., all resulting in eventually a functioning business with it's own mores and traditions. Those do not have to be wrong at all just because there is a dress code, or a corporate culture of one type or another. True, you don't have to work there if you don't like that business environment, but that's your decision.

  3. I appreciate the analogy Q - however it's not a biblical analogy and is not grounded in any kind of connection to the passage in view. There is no manner in which the church is compared to a business or Peter to a CEO.

    Further, given that Christ expressly reserves headship of the church to himself and expressly claims responsibility for building it, if we WERE to compare the church to a business, Christ would be the CEO. Colossians 1 is also clear on this.

    Further, Peter is not recognized as CEO by anyone in his peer group. Paul opposes him to his face, James is the lead voice in Jerusalem (where you would THINK Peter - if CEO - would be "the man"). Peter, if given the opportunity, would have misled the nascent church into Judaism once more - something made clear by Galatians 2).

    Only Christ spans time and thus can build an organization that spans more than 2000 years at this point; no man could do that. Only Christ has the wisdom to lead it correctly through multiple challenges over those years. Only Christ has the grace, the patience, the power and the insight to lead such an organization. ANY man (including Peter) who assumes headship over the church universal is bound to fail in that leadership.

  4. Not to beat a dead horse but my analogy implied that Christ is the owner, not the CEO. And, to push the analogy a little further family businesses certainly survive even through centuries with multiple CEOS (Popes, ;-). Nevertheless, it is what it is.