This post is an extension of a previous article I’ve written called “The Royal Steward,” and is heavily inspired by Michael Barber’s paper “Jesus as the Davidic Temple Builder and Peter’s Priestly Role in Matthew 16:16-19.”
St. Matthew’s primary concern in his Gospel is the Davidic aspect of Jesus’ messianic identity. This is why Matthew introduces Jesus as “the Son of David” (1:1), tells us that He was born “in the city of David” (2:4), consistently refers to Jesus as “the Son of God” (3:16, below it will be demonstrated why this is linked to messianic prophecies regarding David’s seed), and likens Jesus’ authority over demons through exorcism to David’s (15:22 cf. 1 Samuel 16:14-23).
This is very important to keep in mind when attempting to understand the promise that our Lord made to blessed Peter in Matthew 16:
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall 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 16:16-19)
St. Peter says that Jesus is “the Son of the living God,” after which point Jesus declares Peter to be the rock on which He will build His church. To understand how these two events are connected, it’s important to remember that one of the central prophetic hopes of Israel was that the Messiah would come from the line of David, and once he came, he would build the Lord’s house (Temple), reign as king of Israel for all eternity, and he would be able to do this because he would not only be the son of David, but also the son of God. We see this, for example, in 2 Samuel 7:12-13 when God promises to “raise up” David’s seed as the eternal king of Israel, who will then “build [the Lord’s] house,” and importantly God says “I will be his father, and he shall be my son.” This same pattern of the son of David being the eternal king, who builds the Lord’s house, and is then taken as the son of God, is also repeated in 1 Chronicles 17:7-10, and several other prophecies.
Thus, that the Old Testament prophesied a coming “son of God” from the line of David who would reign over an everlasting kingdom, and “build a house” for the Lord, maps directly onto Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Son of the Living God,” and the subsequent response of the Son that He would “build [His] church” on the rock of St. Peter, who himself has the “keys of the kingdom” (that the Church is the New House/Temple of God is confirmed by Her identification as “the Body of Christ” per Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 12:12–27, etc., taken together with the identification Jesus’ Body as the Temple that He would rebuild through His death and resurrection per John 2:19-21). This is further confirmed by Matthew 16’s striking resemblance to Matthew 7:24, where Jesus speaks of a “wise man” who “builds his house on a rock,” clearly alluding to the wise King Solomon (the literal son of David) who built the Lord’s House (the First Temple) on a rock in Jerusalem as he reigned over the kingdom of Israel. The allusion seems clear: Jesus is the new Solomon who builds His House on a new rock.
Once it’s understood that Matthew 16 is about Jesus as the new Davidic Temple-builder, this greatly illumines the meaning of Jesus’ promise to St. Peter. Peter is given the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” and told that he can “bind” and “loose” in heaven and on earth. As many scholars have noted, this is a clear allusion to a text that directly discusses the authoritative structure of the Davidic kingdom, namely Isaiah 22:
In that day I will call my steward Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your tunic (כְּתֹנֶת), and will bind your sash (אַבנֵט) on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house. And they will hang on him the whole weight of his father’s house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons. (Isaiah 22:20-24)
First, Eliakim is given the “key to the house of David” just as Peter is given the “key to the kingdom of heaven.” Remember that everything about Matthew 16 is Davidic in nature, and so the “key to the house of/kingdom of David/heaven” are conceptually identical given they’re both connected to Davidic Kingdoms. Next, Eliakim receives the “authority” to “open and shut” just as Peter is told he will “bind and loose.” This refers to teaching authority, which we know because Second Temple literature consistently identifies both “opening and shutting” and “binding and loosing” as the authoritative teachings of the priests (see Barber’s paper for citations on that), and when Jesus Himself commands the Apostles to obey the Pharisees’ teachings because they “sit on the seat of Moses,” He refers to their teaching authority as them “binding” heavy burdens (Matthew 23:2-4). And finally, “the weight of his father’s house” rests on Eliakim just as Jesus’ church is built “upon” St. Peter. Thus, that Matthew 16 is a near quotation of Isaiah 22 is beyond dispute.
Once this is understood, it’s important to note that Eliakim isn’t just being established as the chief steward in the house of David, but he’s also being described as a High Priest. We know this because he is given a “tunic” and a “sash,” two iconic vestments of the High Priest from Exodus 28:4, and he is also given charge over “every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons,” which is imagery tied to the liturgical ministry of priests, especially in connection with the table for the bread of presence (Exodus 37:16, Numbers 4:7-15, 1 Kings 7:50, etc.). This is further confirmed by 1 Chronicles 9, which tells us about Levites (who were also called “the principal gatekeepers”) who had the “key” to “open the house of God,” and some of them had as their foremost duty “the responsibility for baking the offering bread,” i.e. preparing the bread of presence.
What does all of this tell us about the promise to Peter? It should be obvious: Peter is being established as the chief steward in the Lord’s new Davidic Kingdom, which means he is the new High Priest, who is being given both teaching authority over the Church and liturgical authority over the new bread of presence, which the New Testament consistently identifies as the Eucharist (see Brant Pitre’s “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist” for a detailed explanation of this). This is why, as I’ve discussed before, in Luke 22 Jesus tells the Apostles at the Last Supper “I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel,” after which point He singles out St. Peter and prays that his “faith may not fail” so that he may “strengthen [his] brethren,” with both of these statements clearly alluding to infallible teaching authority.
Importantly, Jesus’ speak of the twelve Apostles judging the twelve tribes of Israel calls our minds back to the prophets, all of whom spoke of the Messiah’s coming to bring about the end of Israel’s exile, thereby re-gathering all twelve of her tribes. And in one of the most famous of these prophecies, we learn the following:
“For I know their works and their thoughts, and I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations… they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their cereal offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord. (Isaiah 66:18-21)
Prophet Isaiah tells us that in the Messianic Age, Israel’s exile will be ended by the Gentile nations who themselves convert and carry the twelve tribes back to Zion (see here for more detail), and as this happens, there will be some from among the nations who are made “priests and Levites.” Thus, that Jesus reconstitutes the twelve tribes of Israel around the twelve Apostles in the context of the Last Supper, the priestly offering of the true bread of presence (which itself takes place on Mt. Zion), tells us with certainty that this was the Apostles’ ordination to the New Covenant priesthood, and that this new priesthood will be what gathers the nations of the world together in liturgical worship. This is further confirmed by other prophetic texts such as Malachi 1-3, which speaks of the Messianic Age as one in which a pure sacrificial offering is made to the Lord in all nations because “the sons of Levi” (i.e. priests) have been purified, and early Christians all identified the fulfillment of this prophecy as taking place through the Eucharistic offering of the Church through Her priests and Bishops (see St. Augustine of Hippo, City of God 18.35, pp. 139-40).
One more interesting piece of evidence that identifies St. Peter as the new High Priest is found in the book of Revelation. Revelation 3:7 explicitly quotes Isaiah 22:22 by telling us that Jesus has the “key to the house of David, who opens and none shut, who shuts and none open.” The next time we see this key show up is in Revelation 20, where we’re told the following:
And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be loosed for a short time. (Revelation 20:1-3)
As Seraphim Hamilton has documented in great detail, the entire book of Revelation is principally about Jesus enacting the Day of Atonement as the true High Priest. By the time we get to Revelation 20, Jesus is ascending to the Lord’s altar as the High Priest, and He’s bringing the whole congregation of saints with Him to the heavenly throne-room. And right before this happens, we’re told that Jesus uses the “key to the Abyss” to “bind” the serpent under a “lock and seal,” after which point he will be “loosed” for a little while. All of this imagery directly maps onto Matthew 16 when St. Peter is given the “key” to the kingdom of heaven in the context of the “gates of Hell” not prevailing over the Church, and is told he can “bind” and “loose.” That Matthew 16 is a clear allusion to Isaiah 22 (as shown above), and Revelation 3:7 directly identifies Jesus’ “key” as the “key to the house of David” from Isaiah 22 cements this point beyond any reasonable doubt: Peter is the new High Priest who acts in the place of Christ.
Moreover, remember that 1 Chronicles 9 speaks of the priests with the “key” who prepare the bread of presence as “gatekeepers.” Consider how this is connected to St. Peter being made royal steward in the context of the “gates of Hell” not prevailing against the Church, and Revelation 20’s “key to the Abyss” that “locks and seals” what is by implication the very gates of Hell that are warring against the Church. This all seems to suggest that, through the Eucharistic ministry of the priesthood, the Church participates in Jesus’ work of binding and loosing the serpent, a point that seems to be confirmed by the fact that the entire Divine Liturgy follows the same sequence as the book of Revelation, with the Bishop/priest assuming all of the roles of Jesus (see here for a detailed proof of that).
And so once we see that St. Peter is established as the New Covenant’s High Priest who offers the new bread of presence (the Eucharist), it makes perfect sense of why the Fathers of the Church unanimously identified the Bishops as the “successors of Peter,” by virtue of their binding teaching and liturgical authority, which finds its culmination at the Eucharistic liturgy through which the Bishops “feed [the Lord’s] sheep,” as Jesus commanded St. Peter to do in John 21:15-17. This also explains the New Covenant liturgical order’s typological fulfillment of the Old Covenant’s: High Priest—Priest—Levite maps onto the three orders we find in the New Testament, Bishop—Presbyter—Deacon, an order that has been recognized since the very beginning of the Church’s history (see Maximos of Sardes’ “The Oecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church,” ch. 1-2). This connection between New Covenant Bishops and Old Covenant High Priests also seems to be attested to by the Church’s conciliar tradition, with session I of the Seventh Ecumenical Council recording the words of “John, the most reverend bishop and legate of the Eastern high priests,” and later in canon II of the same Council, the episcopate is referred to as “our high priesthood.” Thanks for reading!