Givers of the Keys

By Chuck Alley

Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, 16:13-20

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I 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.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.


The image of a silver-bearded, white-robed, and austere-looking St. Peter sitting like a judge at the gates of heaven is a familiar one to us all. In folklore, Peter is the gate keeper and the one who will determine our eternal destiny. But this is only a caricature, based on a false interpretation of Jesus’ words.

Throughout the gospels and the first half of the book of Acts, St. Peter is portrayed as the first-among-equals in the community of disciples. As such, he becomes the exemplar of Jesus’ disciples throughout time. He is both the rock upon which the Church is built and the pattern of discipleship. The keys to the kingdom are given to all of Jesus’ disciples in that they are given both the Word of truth and the Spirit of truth to share with the nations. If Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6), then the gospel message is the key to reconciliation with God and citizenship in the kingdom. Having the keys is not a matter of exercising judgment as to who can and cannot enter, but rather being in possession of the means of entry and sharing it with those who will receive it and enter in.

The Incarnation, Scriptures, and experience of the Church are available to the general human population, but it is the answer to the question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” that differentiates those in the kingdom from everyone else. By faith in Jesus in response to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, people receive the good news of reconciliation with God and become children of God and citizens of his kingdom — forever.

Chuck Alley is a retired Episcopal priest and an adjunct associate professor of anatomy on the medical faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University. He and his wife, Scottie, have three children and nine grandchildren.

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