Gerald S. Taylor
In Matthew 16:13-20, the Lord instructs his disciples regarding some crucial aspects of his kingdom. Whenever we speak of the "kingdom of God" or the "kingdom of heaven," we must remember several things. First, Jesus is the king of that kingdom (indeed, the King of all kings). Second, his kingdom will ultimately be populated by all his chosen people who have ever lived in this God-created world. Third, the kingdom of Jesus has rules of operation and conduct, which our Lord gave us in order that we might increasingly glorify him. Finally, the kingdom of Jesus is the ultimate power in the universe.
His kingdom is ever expanding. Like the tiny mustard seed that grows into a large plant (Matt. 13:31-32), the kingdom of God will continue to intrude upon this world. One day it will exercise total control over all God's creation, thereby giving consummate glory to the triune God. We who live at the dawn of the second millennium after the death and resurrection of Christ are somewhere in the growing phase of Christ's kingdom. We patiently serve our King, awaiting his kingdom's final consummation.
The disciples of Christ in Matthew 16 lived at the time when his kingdom was being established on earth. He had already declared that individual repentance and belief were necessary for entrance into his kingdom: "Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel' " (Mark 1:14-15). Notice that in Jesus' first exhortation recorded in Mark, the idea of God's kingdom appears.
Also, note the relationship between the kingdom of God and other biblical concepts related to our salvation. This kingdom is near (close at hand). Jesus beckons his listeners to enter the kingdom, which requires them to exercise personal repentance and faith. The kingdom involves the gospelthe good news regarding Christ. And Jesus acquaints people with his kingdom through preaching"preaching the gospel of the kingdom."
The gospel, the kingdom of God, repentance, belief, and preaching all interact in Mark 1:14-15. Repentance and faith are indispensable to enter the kingdom of our Lord. Without the preaching of the gospel, there cannot be repentance and faith, and without those two gifts being imparted to our soul, we cannot enter the kingdom.
Paul also affirmed that preaching is important in order for people to be saved (that is, for them to enter the kingdom of God). He wrote, "For 'whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.' How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:13-14).
So preaching the gospel of the kingdom is a key aspect of kingdom activity. It is the mode that God uses to reveal information about his kingdom of eternal life and glory to all repentant sinners.
At this point, let me suggest that preaching is one of the keys of the kingdom referred to in Matthew 16:13-20. Let's focus more attention on those verses in order to make concrete the idea that preaching the gospel is a key that enables people to enter the kingdom of God.
Of course, there are important related issues pertaining to this passage. These issues have been brought to us by the Roman Catholic Church, which declares that only Peter received Christ's gift of the keys of the kingdom. For now, let me declare my belief that the words "on this rock I will build My church" (vs. 18) refer not to the person of Peter, but to his divinely inspired confession of faith, that is, that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (vs. 16).
Furthermore, the keys of the kingdom which Jesus gives to Peter are not given to him individually as a reward for his confession of faith, but are given to him and the disciples together as those who form the foundation of the church of Christ (Eph. 2:20). This difference of interpretation is not minor, as we can see from what Christ says next to Peter and the disciples regarding the exercise of these keys: "And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:19). There can be no doubt that this promise applies to all his disciples, for he repeats it in Matthew 18:18, where "you" is plural. The keys of the kingdom have the divinely sanctioned capacity to either admit people to, or exclude them from, Christ's kingdom.
In Matthew 16, Jesus is further instructing his disciples about the nature of his kingdom, which he has already declared to be near (Mark 1:15). Since Jesus in Matthew 16:19 tells his disciples that he will give them the keys of the kingdom, that leads us to try to find out when Christ actually gave his disciples those keys of the kingdom.
John 20:19-23 greatly aids us in trying to answer the question of when the keys of the kingdom were given by Christ to his disciples. In these verses we read that at evening, on the day of his resurrection, Jesus appeared in the midst of his disciples and said to them, "Peace to you! As the father has sent Me, I also send you." Then he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." After that, Jesus went on to say, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." The authority conveyed to the apostles on this occasion is practically the same as the power of the keys (binding and loosing) previously promised to the disciples.
Notice that Jesus conveyed to his disciples the authority to declare the sins of others forgiven. This authority is one aspect of the second key of the kingdom, namely, church discipline. Notice also that every act of apostolic forgiveness implies another act of forgiveness. The words "they are forgiven them; ... they are retained" probably refer to God's forgiveness in heaven.
It is my conviction that the power to preach the gospel of the kingdom with the unction of the Holy Spirit is a key of the kingdom that was given at the same time (see also Matt. 10:7ff.). In both Matthew 16 and John 20 there is the same result: what is done by the disciples on earth in terms of binding and loosing is also done by the Father in heaven.
This power to exercise the keys is conveyed in conjunction with the giving of the Holy Spirit. This means that for anyone to use the power of the keys properly, he has to have the Holy Spirit. The power of the keys of the kingdom is spiritual power. It is effective for salvation, for making us spiritually alive (Eph. 2:5; 1 Cor. 15:45). Ministers do many worthwhile things in the power of the Spiritfeed the hungry, support just laws, tend to the sick, etc. But those entrusted with the power of the keys should never forget that God has also called them to do all their spiritual work, including saving souls, by preaching. Ministers must not elevate one aspect of their calling to such a degree that they ignore or even downplay the preaching of the gospel. Preaching the gospel for the salvation of the elect is their callingtheir highest calling!
Focusing on the spiritual power of preaching leads us to some questions: How are the disciples/we to exercise the keys? What model were they/are we to follow? Jesus said to his disciples, "As the Father has sent Me, I also send you" (John 20:21). How did the Father send Christ? The Father sent the Son to give life: "The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).
The abundant life that Jesus gives to people can only come by abiding in, and teaching and preaching, the Word. The Scriptures "testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life" (John 5:38-40). The disciples were to exercise the keys of kingdom by preaching the Word, as Christ did. So are Christ's ministers today. They are to wield the sword of the Spirit, which is his Word (Eph. 6:17).
Before his death, Christ told his disciples that he would send them "another Helper" (John 14:16), and this Helper would "teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you" (vs. 26). Christ's promises, centered on the work of the Holy Spirit, encouraged the apostles. Enabled by that Spirit, they preached the gospel to reveal the path to life through Christ.
In order for the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom to be effective (opening the kingdom of heaven to some, closing it to others), it must have as its content, broadly speaking, the Word of God. If one looks at Psalm 119, one can easily see that the Word of God is absolutely essential to our salvation. The Word of God revives us (vs. 25). It is "a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (vs. 105). The mercies of God for salvation come "according to Your word" (vs. 41), and we hide that message in our heart so that we might not sin against him (vs. 11).
If preaching is to lead to repentance and faith, which are indispensable for entrance into God's kingdom, then preaching must be full of truths from God's Word. And, just as critically, preaching must show us the person and work of our Savior, Jesus Christ, all the while calling us to repent and believe in his name. Preaching the gospel about Jesus is the vehicle that God uses to bring his elect into his glory, giving them a knowledge of the Scriptures in order that they might enter into a living relationship with God's King, who is installed on Zion, God's holy hill.
Scripture affirms that the Word of God (and therefore the preaching of it) has the ability to enlighten peopleor blind them to the truth. The gospel, when faithfully taught, opens or closes the kingdom of heaven to men. The central figure and act of the gospelChrist crucifiedis "foolishness" to unregenerate people (1 Cor. 2:14). Those who "preach Christ's gospel" are to God "the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death ..., and to the other the aroma of life.... As from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ" (2 Cor. 2:12, 15-17). As the good news is preached by God's appointed messengers, one of two things occurs: souls are either permitted to enter the kingdom (by declaring them loosed from their sins) or forbidden to enter it (by declaring them still bound to their sins).
Ministers are called to proclaim the ministry of reconciliation in Christ to those who are enslaved by sin (2 Cor. 5:18-21). Mercy, grace, election, free pardon, sin, the wrath of God, hell, the substitutionary atonement, redemption, salvation by the death of the divine Son, etc., are not merely abstract theological termsthey are words in the constellation of eternal life and hope! Ministers, remember that the sermons you proclaim from the pulpit every Sunday are not an exercise in rhetoric, but are words of life in Christ! Everyone enslaved by sin and death experiences spiritual liberation (loosing) in Christ when they repent. They are "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:24). But if sinners refuse Christ's liberty after hearing the gospel, they remain in chains (bound by their sin) and cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven.
By now it should be apparentbut in case it is not, let me affirmthat the power of the keys does not reside in the men who wield them, but in the sword of the Spirit of God, the Word of life, which God has called his ministers to preach. Apostles and all other leaders of the church are the stewards of that miraculous power.
Let me conclude by restating the practical usefulness of preaching the gospel of Jesus, this wonderful key of the kingdom. I don't think I can emphasize the importance of preaching enough in light of its current disfavor within a large segment of the "Christian church" today. It always amazes me that our holy, wrathful God warns men through preaching to repent and live. Remember 2 Peter 3:9, "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance." However, not all will embrace his grace and repent.
Yet no one who hears the gospel and rejects it can justly say that he was never given a chance, that he was never warned, that he never had an opportunity to receive life in the kingdom. Every time a minister faithfully preaches about Christ, redemption, repentance, faith, etc., one key of the kingdom is being employed and all who hear are encouraged to choose life in Christ! As God told his people long ago, "I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, ... for He is your life" (Deut. 30:19-20).
Herein lies the seriousness of preaching the gospel today. Eternal life or death is at stake. What a tremendous joy it is for sinners when they truly repent and believe, for the gospel frees them from the devil's bondage and gives them eternal life in union with Christ.
You believe in Christ? Hallelujah! Your sins are forgiven; go and sin no more; come with me and worship God's Christ and fellowship with his people! Thank God for the Savior Jesus Christ! Thank God for giving us life in him! Thank God for giving his ministers a key to open his kingdom to us sinnersthe preaching of the gospel!
Mr. Taylor is the pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Bowie, Md. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 1997.