This is truly a powerful passage and as such, it deserves another look.
After Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus praises him, saying,
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (17-19)
That’s a mouthful. But what does it all mean? What can we get from all of this?
First, salvation comes as God reveals himself to people. Because God is invisible, we can only come to know him if he reveals himself and his truth to us. As such, salvation truly is by grace from first to last.
Lots is made by the Catholics of Peter’s name and how he is the rock on which Jesus would build his church. But that’s not what Jesus is saying here. The word “Peter” basically means “little stone,” while the “rock” on which Jesus would build his church is a word for “bedrock.”
Peter himself refers to this in one of his letters as he said,
As you come to him, the living Stone — rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him — you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.
According to Peter, who was the stone on which all stands? It was and is Jesus. What are we? We are living stones built into the church that God is creating. And through Christ, we have been made his priests. We don’t need other people to be our priests. We are priests who have direct access to God.
And because this church is built on Christ, all of Hades cannot stand against it. Though Satan has sought to wipe out the church from the very beginning, it still stands and will stand until the end of time when Jesus returns.
Was Jesus giving Peter any special authority in this passage? To some degree, I believe so, although I doubt the disciples, and even Peter truly understood it at the time. It was Peter who first opened up the gospel to the Jews by preaching to them in Acts 2. And it was Peter again who first opened up the gospel to the Gentiles by preaching to them in Acts 10-11. In so doing, he used the keys of the kingdom to open the way to salvation for all people, both Jews and Gentiles.
It was also Peter that helped set the Gentiles free from following the law of Moses, loosing the requirements of the ceremonial and dietary laws, while still binding Christians to the moral laws as well as a few other things for the sake of peace between the Jewish and Gentile believers at the time. (Acts 15)
That said, I think it goes too far to say that he was the first pope and that this authority was to be passed on to his successors. Jesus never, ever said that.
To some degree, though, these things Jesus said to Peter apply to all Christians. As his priests, we have been given the keys to the kingdom, and by preaching the gospel to those around us, we open the way of salvation to all those who will listen and believe.
And we have been given authority to declare the forgiveness of sins through Jesus by grace, setting people free from trying to earn their salvation through their works.
So let us use the keys and authority we have been given by Jesus so that those around us may find the salvation we have been given.