Trustees of the Keys
By Rick Owen
What are "the keys of the kingdom of heaven"? How should they be used? Who should use them?
SCRIPTURE READING [from the English Standard Version or ESV]
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.
Translation Notes for Matthew 16:19:
 16:19 Or shall have been bound . . . shall have been loosed
Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed  in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
Translation Notes for Matthew 18:18:
 18:18 Or shall have been bound . . . shall have been loosed
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.
And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.
and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: "The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens."
COMMENTARY [from the ESV Study Bible]
Matt. 16:19 "keys of the kingdom of heaven."
Peter is given the authority to admit entrance into the kingdom through preaching the gospel, an authority that is subsequently granted to all who are called to proclaim the gospel. (Note the contrast with the scribes and Pharisees, who shut the kingdom in people's faces, neither entering themselves nor allowing others to enter; see 23:13.)
In Acts, Peter is the apostle who first preaches the message of the kingdom to the Jews at Pentecost (Acts 2), to the Samaritans (Acts 8), and to the Gentiles (Acts 10).
"whatever you bind . . . whatever you loose."
Peter also has authority to exercise discipline concerning right and wrong conduct for those in the kingdom, an authority that is not exclusive to Peter but is extended to the church as a whole in Matt. 18:18; cf. John 20:23. Jesus delegates authority to human leaders in the church who are called to govern his church on earth, under his ultimate authority, through the application of his Word.
Matt. 18:18 "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven."
Peter's foundational authority is extended to the entire community of disciples, giving them the authority to declare the terms under which God forgives or refuses to forgive the sin of wayward disciples (see note on 16:19).
Matt. 18:20 "there am I among them."
Jesus affirms that he will be divinely present among his disciples as they seek unity in rendering decisions, which is rightly understood also as an affirmation of omnipresence and therefore of deity.
The expressions they are forgiven and it is withheld both represent perfect-tense verbs in Greek and could also be translated, “they have been forgiven” and “it has been withheld,” since the perfect gives the sense of completed past action with continuing results in the present. The idea is not that individual Christians or churches have authority on their own to forgive or not forgive people, but rather that as the church proclaims the gospel message of forgiveness of sins in the power of the Holy Spirit (see v. 22), it proclaims that those who believe in Jesus have their sins forgiven, and that those who do not believe in him do not have their sins forgiven—which simply reflects what God in heaven has already done (cf. note on Matt. 16:19).
Isaiah 22:22 "the key."
The authority of the steward to make binding decisions in the interests of the king (cf. Matt. 16:19; Rev. 3:7–8).
Revelation 1:18 "I died . . . I am alive forevermore."
Paradoxically, this ever-living One died to redeem believers and now lives forever as “the firstborn of the dead” (v. 5). Because Jesus died and rose again, John must “fear not” (v. 17), and the churches should not fear death, because Jesus has conquered it forever. On Christ's resurrection, see 1 Cor. 15:42–57.
Jesus holds the key of David, meaning that his authority to admit to or exclude from God's kingdom cannot be reversed (cf. Isa. 22:22; Matt. 16:19).
SOME PERSONAL REFLECTIONS
The keys of the kingdom of heaven symbolize the incomparable treasure of God's truth about Jesus contained in the gospel and related to the eternal life He deposits by His Spirit into sinful, undeserving, feeble and decaying jars of clay (2 Cor. 4:7). Believers have the great privilege and responsibility of making disciples and maintaining fellowship in full-orbed sacrificial love. The keys of the kingdom of heaven give every believer power and permission to fulfill the great commission.
As people enter the kingdom through faith in Christ "the Door" (John 10:9), the gospel keys of the kingdom announce and assure them of God's divine mercy, forgiveness and everlasting love. The new believer is loosed from sin and bound to heaven and Christ. His or her life will now and forever include every spiritual blessing as a redeemed and rescued subject of Christ's royal realm.
But when people refuse to enter the kingdom, the same gospel keys authoritatively warn them of God's judgment and their impending doom of being locked out of the kingdom of heaven, where they will be bound to their sin and sorrow in isolation and agonizing darkness forever (Matt. 22:13).
Confusion reigns concerning who carries and should "turn the keys" in the church. The collective witness of Scripture is that every believer holds the keys of the kingdom; every Christian bears responsibility for using them in evangelism and discipleship, and maintaining the peace and purity of the church.
This is not something to be relegated to or assumed through default by church leaders only. Expecting church leaders to be the primary or only ones who seek the lost sheep or repair relationships among estranged brethren is not a biblical standard. Each believer must accept personal responsibility for turning the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
The plural form of "you" in the Greek confirms the inclusion of all disciples in binding and loosing (Matt. 18:18) and extending forgiveness (John 20:23).
New Testament exhortations related to discipleship, discernment and discipline are directed to the whole church (Rom. 15:8-14; 1 Cor. 5:1ff; 14:29; Gal. 6:1; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15; Heb. 10:24-25; Jude 3; 1 John 4:1).
Church leaders ("elders" or "pastors" or "bishops," used interchangeably for the same office) help the flock follow Christ's commands and submit to His authority. The flock voluntarily submits to its leaders insofar as they, by their sound instruction and godly example, faithfully lead the flock to submit to and joyfully serve Christ the chief Shepherd.
Only Jesus Christ possesses absolute authority as His will is found in His word and revealed by His Spirit. Church leaders do not possess absolute authority. They are stewards and servants. Only Christ is King. He alone is our supreme Lord, Master, Teacher, Comforter, Counselor, Advocate, Propitiation, Passover, Priest, Savior, Shepherd and Almighty God. Jesus is "the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens" (Rev. 3:7).
Matthew 18:15ff has less to do with wielding authority in the church and more to do with repentance and forgiveness. Verses 15-17 deal with the one who refuses to repent. Verses 21-35 deal with the one who refuses to forgive. In each case it is a one-on-one matter of brother-to-brother reconciliation even when the church gets involved.
In the first instance, it is the individual believer who is to finally regard the unrepentant person as an unresponsive unbeliever ("a Gentile and a tax collector," v. 17). Even though the believer appeals to the church to persuade the unrepentant person, this passage does not say he surrenders the matter to the church. It is still an individual-to-individual matter even though the church's compelling witness and collective exhortation may be sought out and appealed to when seeking to restore the estranged party.
The "you" in "let him be to you" (v. 17) is in the singular form in the Greek and reinforces the idea of pursuing individual reconciliation. True and personal reconciliation – heart-to-heart restoration between individuals – is the goal. The relationship between specific individuals who are involved must be restored in humility and grace.
In the second instance, it is the individual believer who is to make sure he practices unfailing forgiveness toward the one who repents even many times – maybe concerning the same besetting sin. A failure to show forgiveness is very serious. It might mean that we have not been forgiven by God because we do not possess His Spirit or true saving faith which enables us to forgive. As the ESV Study Bible commentary on Matthew 18:35 states, "Someone who does not grant forgiveness to others shows that his own heart has not experienced God's forgiveness."
Each Christian has been entrusted with and carries the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Are we using them? Are we consistently and compassionately compelling people to enter the kingdom of God? Are we humbly seeking to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace in our relationships with Christian brethren everywhere and within the local church?
May God help us to be faithful trustees of the keys in the days ahead for His glory and our good. Amen.