Who’s on First, What’s on Second

As the U.S. capital, D.C. is full of embassies from other countries. I regularly pass by the Canadian embassy off Constitution Avenue. If someone were to ever wonder, “Who speaks for Canada in D.C.?”, there would be no ambiguity to the answer. You could go right to that embassy, arrayed in numerous Canadian flags, and find many men and women, gathered in the name of Canada, authorized by the government of Canada to speak on its behalf, who themselves are and live like Canadian citizens. If you have a Canada question, you should go there.

Now, while Canada is important (I dare you to read that without laughing), and her people do matter, Canada as a geo-political nation-state will prove insignificant when it’s all said and done. So what if we were talking about a kingdom of far greater power and importance? A kingdom whose eternal existence and thriving is divinely guaranteed? What then? Does not the question of who represents the kingdom of heaven on earth matter tremendously? If we were made by and for the God of heaven, is it not critical to know who speaks and lives in such a way that men and women can clearly see God’s character and revealed will?

With the billions of folks living on this earth, where can they turn to find an embassy of the kingdom of heaven? 

It’s that question that I hope to address clearly in this article.

Matthew 16:13-20

13 When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? 14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. 15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? 16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. 17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. 18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 20 Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ.

In the first half of the passage we see Jesus acting with representative authority. In the second half we see him giving representative authority.

13 When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?

Jesus asks his disciples who says what about him, “Who do people say that I am?”

And we see that most everyone had an opinion about Jesus. The answers that were being given to that question are many.

14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.

Observation 1: Knowing the true confession of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ depends on the grace of God. 

Notice how Scripturally informed all the answers being given are. These are conclusions about Jesus drawn by people who have familiarity with God’s very words. And every last word of the Old Testament with which they would have been familiar points to a coming Messiah who would be fully God and fully man, who would be King and yet would rescue God’s people from God’s wrath by dying on a cross as a Suffering Servant in their place for their sin. And they missed it. They missed him. Unless God teaches you the truth about his Son, you cannot know it. If today you know and believe the truth of Jesus, if you know him as your King and your Savior, then know that God has blessed you richly, with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.

Observation 2: The fact that there is much disagreement on a question, or that there are a wide variety of beliefs, does not mean that there is not one correct answer, or that we are helplessly left in ignorance. 

Jesus was not surprised by how much false belief was around. And he did not go through an identity crisis when so many were confused. There is one right confession. That is absolute and exclusive.

Having heard the wrong answers of others, Jesus turns his focus to the convictions of his disciples. In verse 15 we read, “But whom say ye that I am?”

Jesus asks his question to the entire group, and Simon Peter answers on behalf of the group, saying, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Peter has just articulated for us the Christian’s central confession about Jesus. John devoted his entire Gospel writing to persuading his readers of this very confession.

What comes next is too often missed as we are reading through the Bible, trying to keep up with a Bible-in-a-year plan.

Jesus speaks on behalf of heaven, making a judgement on a who and a what.

For an individual man to speak on behalf of heaven itself is an act of immense authority. And he does it legitimately, for he is the Christ, the King of heaven. Of the increase of his government there will be no end. Jesus, the King of heaven, has come down from heaven to represent his kingdom on earth—and he does so perfectly.

So what does the King do? He publicly affirms both a what and a who. Jesus affirms the truth of Peter’s confession, that he is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” “For flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.”

And Jesus affirms a who, Peter as a true confessor of the true confession. ““Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona!”

Jesus, having made a judicial declaration, then makes a promise. “18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

What does this not mean? This does not mean that Peter is the Pope, the Ruler over the church universal, the vicar of Christ and beginning of a succession of popes to be selected by cardinals. How do I know this? Because even if I accidentally ate hallucinogenic mushrooms from the woods behind my house, I still wouldn’t be able to find any of that silliness in this text or anywhere else in God’s Holy Writ. That said, Big Papa does get to wear a cool hat.

What does it mean?

  1. It is to Jesus, not us, that the church belongs.
  2. It is Jesus, not us, who builds the church.
  3. Jesus is building his church on right confessors with right confessions.
  4. Even the worst enemy will have no victory over the church.

19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Here Jesus gives Peter and the apostles the authority to with him represent heaven on earth, to speak on heaven’s account here and now.

“Keys of the kingdom”—What does that mean? Possessing the keys is the possessing of legitimate use of a particular authority.

“Binding and loosing”—the power of the keys is to, with heaven’s authorization, publicly declare and affirm right confessors and right confessions. The apostles are authorized to affirm a WHAT (this is the truth of the kingdom) and a WHO (this is a citizen of the kingdom, this is a true Christian).

“Shall be bound in heaven…shall be loosed in heaven”

This does not mean that the apostles can make someone a Christian or create the truth. It is representative language. They do on earth on behalf of the heavenly kingdom.

Jonathan Leeman, in his book Don’t Fire Your Church Members, sums up what has happened in this passage in this way:

“In light of these things, I believe it makes the most sense to say that Jesus gave Peter and the apostles both the authority to interpret the doctrines and laws of the faith as well as the authority to interpret their claim upon actual people in a judge-like fashion.

The keys are the authority to judge and declare on a what  (doctrines, laws, confessions, practices) as well as a who  (the people who speak those confessions) on behalf of heaven. They deputize their holder to pronounce a judgment concerning the who and the what of the gospel: What is the right confession and practice of the gospel, and who is a right confessor. To bind or loose is to render a judgment or verdict in heaven’s name.”

What question do we have left unanswered? Who today officially represents the kingdom of heaven on earth?

As the apostles were authorized to declare (not make) what is a right confession of truth and who right confessors of that truth are, to say publicly, “Here is the truth of the kingdom and here is a citizen of the kingdom”, so is the local church authorized to do the same.

The local church is the institution on earth today with this representative authority. Local churches are embassies of the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

Look at Matthew 18:15-20.

15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. 18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Here the church is instructed to publicly remove its affirmation of an unrepentant man, no longer calling him brother but instead considering him a heathen man and a publican, a non-Christian. They had formally publicly identified him as brother. Now the church removes that affirmation in excommunication, after following a highly personal and involved process seeking his repentance. And the church’s doing this is labeled by Jesus as the church binding and loosing, exercising the very same keys of the kingdom that Jesus granted to the apostles.

Jesus has given the keys of the kingdom not just to the apostles, but also to the local church.

How does the local church publicly affirm someone as a citizen of the kingdom?

Initially through Baptism.

Matthew 28:18-20

“And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”

Acts 2:36-41

“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ. Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. Then they that gladly received his word [i.e. not infants, sorry Presby brothers] were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.”

Repeatedly through the Lord’s Supper.

Matthew 26:26-29

“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

1 Corinthians 10:17

“For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.”

Can the local church ever remove its affirmation of someone as a Christian if their life is not marked by repentance?

Yes, through excommunication. We saw this already in Matthew 18:15-20, and we see it as well in 1 Corinthians 5.

Who is ultimately responsible for whether or not the true gospel is taught at a local church? 

The congregation itself is ultimately responsible.

Galatians 1:6-9

“I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any manpreach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”

What does all of this mean for the life of your particular local church?

Your church has the most important job in the world, to guard, display, and declare the one true gospel in what is taught and lived. 

For as long as your church exists, its job is to represent a heavenly kingdom in its locality.

This is why regenerate church membership matters.

This is why a right practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper matters.

This is why having a good Statement of Faith matters.

This is why choosing qualified men to teach you matters.

This is why helping each other fight sin matters.

This is why rebuking and encouraging one another matters.

This is why excommunication matters.

Your church has an important job. Where will the people around you turn to know what Christians believe and how Christians live? They will be turning to your church. I pray that your church is a faithful embassy of our great kingdom, filled with faithful ambassadors of our great King.

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