Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Of Binding, Loosing, and the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven

I have posted before on the question of whether the church is visible or invisible, so suffice it to say that the “church” that Jesus promised to build in Matthew 16:13-19 is only as apparent or transparent as its foundation. Whether that foundation is Peter’s confession or Peter himself will determine the visibility or invisibility of the church.

But what’s the deal with those keys?

Jesus tells Peter in v. 19:
“I will give to 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.”
The Old Testament background to this statement, according to both Catholic and Protestant commentators, is Isaiah 22. Here Shebna, who had been King Hezekiah’s prime minister, is being removed from his office and replaced by Eliakim. God says:

“I will thrust you from your office, and you will be pulled down from your station. In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your sash on him, and will commit your authority to his hand. And he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. 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” (vv. 19-22).
Though the metaphor is a bit muddled, virtually all commentators—whether Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant—agree that the keys and their function of binding and loosing refer to the power to make authoritative judicial pronouncements.

Some questions worth asking include: (1) Is it significant that Jesus used the singular pronoun when he said to Peter, “I will give to you the keys…”? (2) Is the seeming uniqueness of Peter’s role made less so by Jesus giving all the apostles the power to bind and loose two chapters later? (3) Why did Jesus not give a set of keys to all of them? (4) Does the fact that Eliakim’s is an “authoritative office” mean that the same is true of Peter’s role? (5) Was that office intended to outlive its first occupant, or did it die with Peter?

And perhaps the most challenging question of all: How could Jesus promise to ratify in heaven the fallible decrees of his earthly church?