Christ established His Church on earth to exercise authority in His absence, saying “…whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18) Each individual must submit to this moral authority of the Church or else find himself cut off from the body of believers: “…if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17) The Church draws this authority from Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit breathed into her at Pentecost. “…He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’” (John 20:22-23) It is a power that is binding on every Christian soul.
Since this is true, since we must obey the Church or else be cut off from the Body of Christ, then we must ask: Which church is the true Church? To which body do I owe my allegiance? There are many competing denominations and sects within Christianity, each claiming to be the true Church that Christ founded in the First Century. How can we know which is in actual fact the very same Church granted authority over all believers? If we can discover this, then we have no alternative than to obey.
Twice Jesus stated that His Church would have this power to “loose and bind.” One of these passages has been cited above in Matthew 18:18. The other occurs two chapters earlier in the same Gospel. And to this passage we now turn, for in this verse we see, quite literally, the “key” to the Church’s authority: "I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. 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.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
These words were spoken by Jesus to Simon, whom Jesus gave the name Peter (which means “rock”). Peter was to be the “rock” on which Jesus would build His Church. And to Peter was given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” While the other Apostles were later addressed (in chapter 18) as sharing this same power to loose and bind, it was Peter alone who was given the “keys.” But what are these “keys”?
In our day the meaning of the “keys” may be lost or obscured, but Scripture provides the answer. For the Jews of Jesus’ time the image of the “key” would immediately conjure up the royal household and the power given to the steward of the kingdom. Isaiah 22:20-23 speaks of this authority: “On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open. I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family…”
The power of the key, the authority to “shut and open” (or “loose and bind”) is the authority given to the chief steward of the kingdom of Israel - the “steward” being second in command to the king. In the king’s absence, the steward exercised decision-making authority until the king’s return. Jesus is King of kings, and Lord of lords. Peter was given power to exercise authority over the Church until Jesus’ return in glory. Now we must ask, how does this authority continue until our present time? Where do we find the keys of the kingdom of heaven?