Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Keys of the Kingdom

Posted by foryourfaith on April 8, 2010

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The moment arrived when Jesus needed to reveal to his disciples the darker side of his ministry – the suffering and rejection that lay at its end. They were traveling in the north of Israel, near the source of the Jordan, at the city of Caesarea Philippi. There Jesus probed the disciples grasp of who and what he was.

As Mark recounted the story, he focused on the crisis of that moment. Jesus began indirectly: “Who do men say that I am?” Opinions included a list of identities from the past: John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. But then Jesus’ probe became more pointed: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responded for the group simply, “You are the Christ.”

Those words were a vital step for the disciples, but Mark made it clear that the probe was by no means over. Jesus’ only response was sternly to command the disciples “to tell no one about him.” They must first understand what that confession meant. Jesus immediately began to turn their image of a glorious Christ or Messiah (God’s anointed king) on its head by teaching that he must “suffer” and “be killed” and “rise again.” The crisis came to a climax as Peter, the confessor, began to rebuke Jesus for saying such things.

Jesus reply was scorching: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.” The crisis made clear that even an ancient title like Messiah or Christ, the meaning of which seemed clear, had to be transformed into something new and unexpected before Jesus would accept it.

Matthew’s narrative built on Mark’s but intensified the paradox of Peter’s actions by stressing the greatness of his confession before Jesus’ devastating rebuke (Matthew 16:13-23). When Simon Peter confessed, Jesus pronounced an exultant blessing on him, not because he had figured out Jesus’ identity himself, but because God had revealed it to him. Then Jesus spoke of Simon’s identity by using a play on words. “You are Peter (Greek, petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church and the powers of death will not prevail against it.”

Simon had been called Peter since he was first introduced in Matthew, but now the meaning of that name was revealed. He was the one through whom God revealed Jesus’ identity, and thus, strengthened by that confession, he had become the rock on which Jesus would build his community. Further, Jesus promised to him “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and whatever he bound or loosed on earth would be bound or loosed in heaven.

The words seem consciously enigmatic. Some Christians have taken them to mean that Peter was given authority over the Church as a whole; other Christians find this too broad an interpretation. In any event, Jesus’ words seem to foreshadow Peter’s role as a principal leader of the early church.


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