Having the key to something denotes power and authority. You have the right to enter in and the right to refuse entry to others. In the ancient world, keys were given to the steward, a servant whom the master of the house trusted to care for the household. The long, large keys of the day were often carried on a person’s shoulder.
KEYS OF THE KINGDOM
Isaiah capitalized on the symbolism of the keys of authority and trustworthiness when he prophesied of a day when the false steward of Jerusalem (Shebna) would be unseated and a true steward (Eliakim) entrusted with the card of the city. He said that Eliakim would replace the corrupt leaders and “I will give him your authority . . . . I will place the key of the house of David around his neck. When he opens no one will shut. What he shuts no one will open” (Isa. 22:21-22). This new leader would be trusted with the responsibility to care for Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day, the experts in the law had also proved themselves unworthy to hold the keys. He said to them, “How horrible it will be for you experts in Moses’ Teachings! You have taken away the key that unlocks knowledge. You haven’t gained entrance into knowledge yourselves, and you’ve kept out those who wanted to enter” (Luke 11:52). These men had access to gain knowledge and share it with others-they knew how to read and interpret the law-but they did not fulfill their responsibility, so Jesus took they key away. This is similar to when Jesus said he had blinded those who refused to see. At some point disobedience leads to a hardened heart that is unable to be turned back to God, and in this case Jesus removed their authority, as symbolized by the key.
Jesus not only took the keys away from who were unworthy; he also gave them to worthy men. After Peter’s confession of Christ’s identity, Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you imprison, God will imprison. And whatever you set free, God will set free” (Matt 16:19). Peter had unlocked the knowledge of who Christ was, so he could be trusted with the authority to bind and loose in a spiritual sense. He was given the authority to explain gospel truth to others, thereby opening the kingdom to them. This same authority rests with the church today. We bear a responsibility to unlock the knowledge of the kingdom of heaven for others.
Of course, the true steward of the kingdom of heaven is Christ himself, as we see in Revelation. Jesus is the one who holds “the keys of death and hell” (1:8). He is the one entrusted with the authority to give access to heaven or to cast into hell: “The one who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens a door that no one can shut, and who shuts a door that no one can open, says: I know what you have done. See, I have opened a door in front of you that no one can shut” (3:7-8).
The symbol of the key reminds us of the interworking of human agency with divine authority. We have been given the keys to help others, but the ultimate locking or unlocking of hearts rests with God alone. Any authority we have is given by him, and the final authority is his.