Do we have God-given authority?
Jesus said to Peter, one of his disciples,
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will be released in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)
When you have keys to something it gives you access, for example, a janitor, having in their possession keys to a school, means he or she has access to every room and corridor, however, Peter was to be more than a custodian of God’s kingdom, he was to be given authority. We know this because Peter, hearing Jesus’ words, would have realised they echoed words written in scripture, and he would have called to mind a story found in the prophet Isaiah.
In Old Testament times, the keys of a royal establishment were entrusted to the chief steward who carried them on his shoulder where they served as a badge of authority, and in about 700 B.C. God announced that authority in the royal palace in Jerusalem was to be conferred on a man called Eliakim. Listen to these words from the prophet Isaiah and spot how the first sentence is similar to the one used by Jesus.
“I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” (Isaiah 22:22)
Remember that Jesus was a direct descendent of David and even called the Son of David, Israel’s greatest king. Isaiah goes on:
“I will drive Eliakim like a peg into a firm place; he will become a throne of honour for the house of his father. All the glory of his family will hang on him: its offspring and offshoots…” (Isaiah 22:23-24a)
Note how the glory of the family will hang on Eliakim, its offspring and its shoots. This means that the authority of Eliakim is passed down from generation to generation, and as we will see, this is an important part of Jesus’ message because Peter was going to be the rock or foundation on which the church would be built. The good news of Jesus would be passed down from generation to generation, and the seal or sign of this authority — the proverbial keys on the shoulder — would be the Holy Spirit.
Peter was given authority over the Kingdom of God, and God’s kingdom encompasses both heaven and earth, and although Jesus was physically leaving the earth, to die, be resurrected, and finally ascend, Peter, remaining on earth, was given the keys to the whole Kingdom. This meant that whatever he had authority over on earth, had heavenly consequences, however, before we move on, it is worth pausing and reflecting on this remarkable event.
The creator of the universe, the Lord of all creation, the Son of God, passed the baton to a frail and weak human being, and it is extraordinary that Peter — an often impetuous and failing follower of Jesus — should be bestowed with such great authority. I wonder if Jesus gave Simon (meaning listen or hear) the new name of Peter (meaning rock) because Peter needed to be reminded, not of what he thought about himself, but of what God thought about him? I wonder how it would feel if each of us was given a name that reflected how we are seen by God, for example, being called Precious, Beloved, or Faithful. How would it impact us in our day-to-day lives?
Zipping forward to what happened to Peter, we can read in the Book of Acts, Chapters 10-11, that he was given authority to introduce and oversee the church’s admission of Gentile (non Jewish) believers. Peter had a vision in which he was reminded,
“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15)
Peter responded with these words,
“I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34)
Under guidance from God, it was Peter’s choice or decision to open the door or shut the door to the Gentile believers, and he literally held in his hands the keys to God’s kingdom. Thank goodness he let them in or we would not be here today!
When Peter saw that Gentile believers had received the same Holy Spirit, it was a sign or seal that God’s authority was being passed to others. Peter was the rock on which Jesus built his church and that rock was the foundation for generations and generations of believers, including us today. The baton of authority was passed down to us.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is that all are welcome, yet that ‘all’ is subject to the will of Christians — us, the church. God wants us to partner and participate with him/her in the redemption, restoration, and renewal of all things and we have an important part to play. We are not merely pawns on the chessboard of God’s world, but active players with the ability to make choices and decisions, and those choices and decisions may be aligned with God’s will or against it. This is why it is so important to stay connected to Jesus, and Peter himself was reminded of this when Jesus asked him to walk with him on the water. Peter began to sink, not because he did not have enough faith, but because he needed to remember to cling to Jesus. In the same way, we need to remain connected to Christ so that our choices and decisions align with God’s will.
It sounds like a paradox. In one sense, God has made it clear that all are welcome into God’s kingdom, no matter what race, gender, sexuality, age, mental capacity, or physical ability, yet, we are the gatekeepers or the keyholders. We can either extend that welcome or deny it. We can either open doors to others or shut them out. We have the privilege and authority to be gatekeepers for God, and sometimes our choices are difficult and even distasteful to others.
When Peter made the decision to allow Gentile believers to be admitted into the church, it would not have been a popular decision with some of his contemporaries, for scripture made it clear that the inheritance of God’s kingdom was only for the descendents of Abraham. How could Jesus be saying something contrary to scripture? Bible scholar Walter Breuggemann reminds us that,
“The Gospel (or good news) of Jesus Christ is not to be confused with or identified with The Bible. The Gospel, unlike the Bible, is unambiguous about God’s deep love for all peoples.” (Breuggemann, 2023)
In the same way, we may look at scripture and think that a people group are excluded from God’s kingdom, yet Jesus, as with Peter, reminds us to not call unholy that which God has made holy. We have authority. We are the keyholders. We know that the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ is that all are welcome and no-one is excluded, therefore, the question is, will we unlock and open the doors for others to enter, or leave them closed, locked, and shut out? The decision is ours.