Before Jesus left His disciples and went to heaven, He gave them some special authority that has confused many people. We see this authority in the following two passages:
Matthew 16:19 - "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."
John 20:23 - "Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained."
These two passages are referring to the same general power. In both cases, something done by the disciples on earth is confirmed in heaven by God. However, there are some differences as well. Matthew 16:19 deals with binding and loosing things and is given as a power specifically to Peter ("thee" and "thou" are singular pronouns and therefore refer directly to Peter alone). John 20:23 deals with sins being remitted (that is, forgiven) or retained and this authority is given to the apostles in general ("ye" is plural and would refer to all the apostles). Because of these differences, we need to look at the verses separately.
In Matthew 16:19, Peter is given power over the keys of heaven. This power is demonstrated in the binding or loosing of things on earth that need to be bound or loosed in heaven. Certainly, the other disciples knew that Peter had this authority and had to respect this authority that was given to him. There are two incidents which illustrate this authority in the later ministry of Peter. The first incident is in Acts 1:15-26 where Peter stands up in the midst of the disciples and authorizes the choosing of a disciple to replace Judas. He bound Mathias on earth and he was evidently bound in heaven. The second incident is in Acts 10-11 where God uses Peter to open the door of faith to the Gentiles. The door was loosed on earth and in heaven at the same time.
The special apostolic authority referred to in John 20:23 concerns the remitting and retaining of sins and is given to the apostles. To remit means to refrain from exacting or requiring payment for a debt. That is, the apostles were given the authority to determine which sins are remitted (that is, forgiven and not paid for immediately) and to determine which sins are retained (that is, held to the person’s account and paid for immediately). Again, there are two examples of this authority in the ministry of Peter. In the case of Ananias (Acts 5:1-5), Peter retained his sins and Ananias and his wife paid for them immediately with their lives. However, in the case of Simon (Acts 8:17-24), the sins were remitted and Simon was given another chance to get things straight.
This authority given to the apostles was a special authority. No scriptures indicate that it passed on to anyone else of New Testament times or to anyone of later times. It was part of the authority and power of the apostles to confirm the preaching of a new message to Jews and then to Gentiles as well. In that sense, it worked like the sign gifts of the apostolic age (see Mark 16:17-20). With the completion of the New Testament and the establishment of a people known as Christians, these sign gifts were no longer part of God's plan for reaching the world. And, since it was not passed on, it has nothing to do with Peter being the first pope as claimed by the Roman Catholics.