Updated: Jan 2
By Luke Lancaster
When we go to Rome or look at Christian artwork, we will often see that famous statue of Peter holding the keys. The Catholic Church seems to suggest that the keys have something to do with the papacy, where Jesus said, “I will give you [Peter] the Keys of the Kingdom” (Mt. 16:19). But, as an unbiased reader of Matt. 16:19, why don’t we just listen to what scholars have to say about this verse?
One interpretation that some scholars hold about Matthew 16:19 is that Peter is given the keys, “because he was the first that opened the door of faith to the Gentiles [non-Jews]” (See Matthew Henry). The reason this is significant is because the Church had initially only gone out to Jews, for Jesus had told the Church to, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles” (Mt. 10:5), which in effect meant that only the Jews could enter the Kingdom. But in Acts 10, Peter suddenly starts reaching out to the Gentiles and inviting them into the gates.
Peter goes to a house of a Gentile man named Cornelius, which is a total novum in Christianity. This was because Jews alone were the chosen people - everybody else was unclean and possibly even given the title, “Gentile-sinner” (Gal. 2:15).
Yet, Peter goes to Cornelius’s house to preach the Gospel to him anyways, and those listening in his house who believe in Jesus then have the Holy Spirit fall upon them (Ac. 10:44). These were the first Gentiles to enter Christianity. From here, the early Church starts making converts from non-Jews regularly.
Later in Acts it says that Peter “had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Ac. 14:27). He was the one that spear-headed the effort to bring Gentiles into the Church.
This idea is continued in the next chapter of Acts, where it is affirmed that Peter was the one to open the Church to the Gentiles at the council of Jerusalem. Peter said that it had been “by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe” (Ac. 15:7). Protestant commentator Adam Clarke said of this verse, “he [Peter] refers to that time when Christ gave him the keys of the kingdom of heaven, that he might open the door of faith to the Gentiles” (p. 760).
Some will hold to this interpretation of Matthew 16:19, saying that Peter was only given the keys of the kingdom for the initial incident with Cornelius and the Gentiles. The keys opened the gates of Heaven to non-Jews, which is no small matter. Now, this interpretation seems to work, but is it the best?
The other interpretation states that Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom of Heaven to Peter because He is making Peter the chief steward of the Church. This means that, when Jesus uses the image of the keys, He is drawing from the old Davidic kingdom’s office of chief steward.
The chief steward or prime minister was a man in the kingdom who was second only to the king, and he held the key to open the palace gates. Scripture scholar F.F. Bruce states, “The keys of a royal or noble establishment were entrusted to the chief steward or majordomo; he carried them on his shoulder in earlier times, and there they served as a badge of the authority entrusted to him…(Isaiah 22:22)” (pgs. 143-144).
In Isaiah 22, there is a good definition of the role of the “chief steward”: he was recognized with a “robe” and “sash” as he walked through the streets (Is. 22:21); he was known with the “key” that he carried (Is. 22:22); and he had authority above others, with a specific “office” (Is. 22:19).
Such a man acted like a “chief of staff” does for the president of the United States. He oversaw the kingdom, and would act as the king’s representative (vicar) if he left the palace to fight a war. The chief steward held a dynastic office that included successors, as seen in Is. 22:15-25, where it describes the handing on of the key and replacement of one chief steward with another chief steward.
In Isaiah 22:22, it says, “And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David.” If the understanding of the keys given to Peter was that he would be like the chief steward from the Davidic kingdom, then Jesus would be making Peter His chief steward of the kingdom of Heaven.
This is, in fact, what many Scripture scholars say Jesus is doing. The Anchor Bible says that Jesus’s promise that Peter would receive the keys of the kingdom “undoubtedly” referred to Isaiah 22’s description on the key of the chief steward (p. 196).
According to Davies and Allison, this is the “major opinion of modern exegetes”: That Is. 22 and the key of the kingdom of David is what Peter’s keys stand for (2:638-39).
The first interpretation we looked at certainly appeared convincing at first, but it does not take into account the office implied by somebody receiving “keys” for a “kingdom.” The “door of faith” (Ac. 14:27) being opened by Peter does not really connect all that well with the much deeper understanding coming from the Davidic kingdom.
There are numerous other passages detailing the existence of this role of chief steward in the Davidic kingdom (1 Kg. 4:6, Is. 36:22, etc), and if Jesus is the new Davidic king, who inherits the “throne of His father David” (Lk. 1:32), then it seems highly likely that Peter is holding keys like the chief steward back in David’s kingdom had.
The question we need to ask, then, is this: if this second interpretation of Mt. 16:19 is correct, then would that substantiate the claims of the papacy?
Well, does the papacy claim to be the king’s representative as the chief steward of the Davidic kingdom did? Yes. Does the papacy claim to be the chief steward among all of the other stewards (bishops) within the Church, as the chief steward of the Davidic kingdom did? Yes. Does the papacy claim to have successors like the chief steward of the Davidic kingdom did? Yes again.