The Keys of the Kingdom

Matthew 16 includes a narrative involving Jesus and St. Peter that has been used since the early Church to explain a basic doctrine of Catholicism: the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome. It’s time to look at this text.

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that the Son of man is?" 14 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." 15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" 16 Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." 17 And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 16:13-17)

The narrative begins at a particular place: Caesarea Philippi. This is immediately meaningful; at this location is a large, natural rock formation that forms a mount. On the top of this rock the tetrarch Philip built a temple to honor Caesar, the Emperor of Rome – hence the name. Philip was a son of King Herod; after Herod died, his sons inherited his kingdom, Philip receiving this northern region. There are three considerations to this location for us.

First, at the time of Jesus, this hill included a shrine to the Greek god Pan; Pan was the god of shepherds. Here, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, established his “chief shepherd” of the church.

Second, the mount includes a spring which is the source of a stream that is one of the tributaries of the Jordan River from the north (currently called Banias). This is the river wherein St. John the Baptist baptized Jesus; it becomes, for the Christian, a symbol of all baptisms and therefore of all sacraments. Likewise, it is from the Apostles and the chief of the Apostles that our sacraments flow.

Third, the temple built by Philip represented his allegiance to the Roman emperor. Put another way, the son of the King of Judah admitted his subordination to the King of Rome. So would the Judean priesthood give way to the Christian priesthood, with the chief of the Apostles, the bishop of Rome replacing the high priest of the Jerusalem Temple in the new covenant.

The next thing to note from this text is the correlation between Peter’s confessed identity of Jesus, “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus’ response, “Simon, son of Jonah.” (The Hebrew bar means “son.”) We must note that Simon’s father’s name was not Jonah; it was John (cf Jn 1:42) – in Hebrew, the two names are very similar - hence this is a play on words. As noted elsewhere, Jesus is referring to the prophet Jonah, an OT type of Jesus. Therefore, Jesus is declaring Simon to be His own son – a covenantal act. As is typical of covenants, a name change follows, to represent the new family.

18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Mat 16:18)

Jesus gives Simon a new name: Peter. In St. Matthew’s Greek, the name is Petros, which means “stone.” Of course, Jesus spoke to his Apostles in Aramaic, not Greek. This new name in Aramaic was Kephas; we know this because this is the name used by St. Paul in his epistles when referring to Peter. His Greek epistles call him Cephas, which is the Greek transliteration for the Aramaic Kephas (Gal 2:7-11, 1 Cor 1:11-12, 1 Cor 3:21-22, 1 Cor 9:5 and 1 Cor 15:5). John’s Gospel also uses this word (John 1:42). The Aramaic word Kephas does not mean stone; it means rock. Therefore, we know this new, covenantal name the Lord gave Simon was “Rock.” And He did so at that meaningful (and large) rock at Caesarea Philippi.

I mention this name etymology in detail because it has been a common complaint of non-Catholic Christians that Simon’s new name, Petros, means “stone;” that is, Simon Peter was not a rock and, therefore, not “this rock [upon which] I will build my Church.” Simon’s new name is Petros, meaning stone, but Jesus builds His Church on this petras, meaning rock. Two different words, therefore the sentence refers to two different things. Such is the complaint. The Catholic response to this complaint is simply that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek, and we know from Scripture that Simon’s new name was Kephas, meaning rock. Simon Peter really is the rock on which Jesus builds His Church. The primacy of Peter is foundational to Christian ecclesiology. So why did St. Matthew use the word Petros instead of Petras for Simon Peter’s name? Because petras is a feminine noun; as the name of a man, it must be grammatically masculinized, which transforms it into Petros. No one had misunderstood this grammatical bit until the 16th century.

So Peter became the foundation of the Church, the thing on which the Church was built. In St. Matthew’s Greek, the word for church is ecclesia. This same word can mean either church or synagogue in Matthew’s Gospel. The foundation of the Church is Peter; it begs the question: was there some kind of known foundation of the synagogue to which Jesus is comparing? If we consider the Jerusalem Temple as the chief synagogue, then we have an answer. The foundation stone of the Temple was a huge rock called the eben’shetiyah. This rock has a long and fascinating history in Judaism. When King Solomon began work on the Temple, his engineers studied this rock and dug tunnels under it to confirm its stability. Those tunnels unleashed a torrent of demons, requiring the priests to exorcism them back into the holes from which they came, the engineers then filling in the tunnels. This great rock upon which the Temple, the old ecclesia, was built was apparently the gates of hell (sheol). In Matthew’s original Greek, Jesus declares that “the gates of Sheol” would not prevail against this new foundation upon which the new ecclesia would be built. Two ecclesias - the Church and the Temple; two rocks upon which they were built: one a man and one an actual rock blocking the passageway to hell. The actual rock had its flaw, but the man now has the promise of God.

A final note: Jesus does not say He will build the Church; He calls it my Church. It belongs to the Lord.

19 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. (Mat 16:19)

So, Peter became the foundation upon which the Church was built. What does this mean and how do we extrapolate that into the Petrine Office for all time? By this statement of our Lord, conferring the keys of the kingdom. Compare it with this text from Isaiah:

22 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. (Is 22:22)

Both refer to keys, keys that open and close definitively. It seems Jesus purposely referred to this Isaian prophecy. Let’s explore it further.

15 Thus says the Lord GOD of hosts, "Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is over the household, and say to him: 16 What have you to do here and whom have you here, that you have hewn here a tomb for yourself, you who hew a tomb on the height, and carve a habitation for yourself in the rock? 17 Behold, the LORD will hurl you away violently, O you strong man. He will seize firm hold on you, 18 and whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into a wide land; there you shall die, and there shall be your splendid chariots, you shame of your master's house. 19 I will thrust you from your office, and you will be cast down from your station. 20 In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, 21 and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle 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. 22 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. 23 And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father's house. 24 And they will hang on him the whole weight of his father's house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons. 25 In that day, says the LORD of hosts, the peg that was fastened in a sure place will give way; and it will be cut down and fall, and the burden that was upon it will be cut off, for the LORD has spoken." (Is 22:15-25)

In the context of Isaiah 22, Shebna was the chief steward of the royal household of the king of Judah (the Davidic dynasty). What was a chief steward? In a royal household, he was an essential assistant to the king, helping him carry out the royal tasks of running the kingdom, as well as caring for the royal family. He had a staff of servants – also stewards - who were tasked with such duties. Under the chief steward, they had access to the king’s wealth, food, finery, etc. and they distributed it to the wives and children (and the king). Chief steward was a rather powerful position and a sort of mini-dynasty in itself, handed down from father to son. In this text of Isaiah, the chief steward Shebna abused his position, so the position will be handed over to Eliakim. The symbol of stewardship was the key, the keys which allowed access to the treasures of the king, the house, the gates and all that was inside. The chief steward alone had power over the keys and no one else could interfere with his decisions to use them. He was, effectively, a subordinate co-king (cf the story of Joseph in Gen 41:38-46).

How very similar is this position of stewardship to the Apostolic office, and that of the chief steward to the Petrine Office! In our case, the king is Christ, the household/kingdom is the Church, the children of the king are the Christians, and the treasures of the household are the sources of grace: the Gospel and the sacraments. The old steward who abused his office was the Temple priest; the new steward is Peter. As the chief steward of the royal household was dynastic, so is the Petrine Office, handing the keys on to each new chief steward, each new bishop of Rome, the popes. From this, we understand the bishop of Rome to have a unique charism in the Church – he will guarantee the sources of grace, the Faith and the sacraments – for all ages. Regarding the Faith, this charism is called infallibility: religious doctrine taught by a pope is guaranteed to be true (NB: with respect to the clear teachings of Vatican I). This is not derived from any man who is pope, but by these words of our Lord; I trust Jesus, therefore I can trust the pope, because Jesus protects the pope’s teachings.

One more point of interest. Let’s compare this text with Mat 18:18.

15 If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 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. 19 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.20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Mt 18:15-20)

The entirety of chapter 18 is a discourse of Jesus addressed to “the disciples.” The text is almost universally understood to be an address to the Apostles; Jesus provided His vision for the life of the Church. In this particular text, the topic is when a brother (or sister) sins; Jesus provides a step-wise process for bringing that soul back into the Mystical Body. v18 repeats the “binding and loosing” phrase as was applied directly to Peter only a short time prior. It is therefore understood that the other Apostles (and all the bishops) also enjoy this charism. However, the phrase is within a specific context: how to deal with sinners. That is, the Apostles share in Peter’s charism in a specific way, not a general way. Furthermore, as v19 notes, this is not a charism for an individual, but for a group: “if two of you…” This direction has been historically applied in the Ecumenical Councils of the Church, where bishops gather together to resolve doctrinal disagreements. Many councils were convened due to a particular heretic, who was condemned by the bishops along with his heresy – he was “brought to the church” and, after refusing to give up his error, was excommunicated; he was put outside the Church, even as Gentiles were kept outside of Jewish homes due to purity laws.

Summary: Jesus created His Church, which is the communion of believers. He chose one of these believers, the bishop of Rome, for a unique role in the life of the Church. His role is to protect the doctrines of the Faith and the administration of the sacraments, those sources of grace that flow through the Mystical Body like blood through the veins. This role is protected, guaranteed even, by the Lord Himself, granting a miraculous charism to whoever holds this Petrine Office. Through our 2,000 year history, this Petrine Office has fended off all attacks of heresy and protected the Faith as handed on from Jesus Himself. Thanks be to God.