In Matthew 16:19, Jesus addresses the disciple Peter and says, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven." Widespread, common Christian belief suggests that this means St. Peter stands guard at the entrance to heaven. However, Biblical scholars suggest that the statement should be interpreted symbolically.
The Symbolism of the Keys
The context for understanding the "keys" begins in verse 15. Jesus asks them, “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” and Peter replies, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus responds by stating that Peter learned this through faith, not through books and learning. Verses 18 and 19 are vital to understanding the significance of the keys. In verse 18, Jesus then says "and you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church..." Early Bible scholars suggest that "the rock" is neither Peter nor Jesus, but Peter's confession of faith. However, some scholars believe Jesus is referring to himself as "the rock." Contemporary interpretations suggest that the keys to the kingdom of heaven, which Jesus talks about in verse 19, represent knowledge, faith and the means to help others find salvation once Jesus is not around. It also suggests that Jesus is not just addressing Peter, but includes all the disciples, using "you" in the plural.
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