Back in June I walked into St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican unprepared for what I was about to see.
St. Peter’s Basilica is no ordinary church. It is one of the largest buildings in the world and certainly the largest church, able to hold up to 60,000 worshippers at one time. Christians have made pilgrimages there since the original Basilica was constructed in 329…almost 1700 years! In the 1500s a new basilica, the one that still stands today, was constructed on the same site.
Walking in, I was stunned by the size and grandeur and beauty of the place. If the ancient architects of this place intended to inspire worshipful awe, they succeeded with me. The scale of the place is enormous, like the world’s most ornate airplane hangar, but bigger. Then there’s the opulence. Even those who feel slightly queasy about the accumulated wealth of the church might find themselves inspired by the architecture, the priceless art, the gold, the stained glass, the icons. The beauty and history of the place come together to inspire awe.
But there is an obvious tension for a Protestant in a place like this. You simply cannot escape the asserted authority of the Catholic church, underlying and hovering over everything. I felt it most with the emphasis on Peter (it’s his basilica, after all). To Catholics, Peter is the first Pope, his authority received directly from Jesus Himself. This same authority has stretched through the centuries and been held by every Pope of the Catholic church. Under the magnificent dome of St. Peter’s, at the intersection of the cross-shaped building, there is an enormous bronze canopy to mark the widely accepted location of St. Peter’s tomb, below the floor.
As I looked up at this canopy representing Peter’s unique place of honor in the church, I was still thinking about a painting I’d just seen in the Sistine Chapel. There, a famous masterpiece by Perugino depicts the moment when Peter received his divine authority: Jesus giving him the keys of the kingdom. Why did Jesus do this? Matthew tells us that when Jesus asked His disciples who they say that He is, Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). Peter’s answer revealed an understanding of Jesus as the One God sent to save people. The physical embodiment of deity. The fulfillment of ancient promises now standing right in front of them.
Peter’s answer was divinely inspired. Peter’s answer was pure worship.
Jesus’s response: “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 [Petros, or “little rock”], and on this rock [petra, or “bedrock”], I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:17-18).
As I stood above the tomb of Peter, my neck aching from gazing upward at the dome of the basilica named in his honor, my heart thanked God that He did not choose Peter alone to hold all authority in Jesus’s name. Peter was one of a kind, for sure. He was blessed by God with understanding. He was greatly favored by Jesus, and given the great honor of leading the early church.
However, as others have often pointed out, the meaning of the Greek words “Petros” and “petra,” along with an understanding of the context of Jesus’s words, reveal that Jesus’s wordplay both honors Peter and points to a larger foundation. Peter was a rock, but not the bedrock. The truth in Peter’s words is the bedrock. I like John Piper’s succinct explanation of the rock and the keys here. I was also reminded of the same truth in this recent podcast with Pastor Jim White. We Protestants understand Peter not as the first pope, but as the honored representative of the apostles, and of every witness to the power of Christ.
So what about those keys? What are they, if not a unique symbol of Peter’s authority? The literal depictions of Peter holding these keys are a beautiful symbol of something far greater: the ability every believer has to profess the truth Peter first proclaimed—the truth of Jesus as Savior and Lord. Like Peter, we are all empowered to proclaim the saving grace of Jesus. Jesus is the builder of the church, and the cornerstone. Peter and the other apostles are its foundation (Ephesians 2:19-20). You and I stand on that foundation today.
Jesus goes on to explain that the bedrock of faith in Him as Savior and Lord opens the door to the flourishing of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19-20 and 18:18). When everything in our lives is centered on our faith in Jesus, we “bind” and “loose” things on earth in the same way as they are in heaven. Honoring Jesus as the source and ruler of all unlocks the door to the kingdom of heaven. At the very center of the basilica of our hearts we won’t find a canopy honoring precious Peter; we will find Jesus and only Him.
Two weeks after I visited the Vatican, I found myself at the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina. Hanging in the house are three 500-year old tapestries, and one of them includes a depiction of Peter holding his key. Except in this case, he appears to be handing the keys to the other apostles.
I’m not sure if this is the correct interpretation of this image, but I like to think it is. It’s a picture of a simple truth: Jesus has given all of His followers the power to unlock the door to heaven, simply by proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and Savior!
We all hold the keys.