The symbolism of keys as authority is an ancient one. Keys unlock wealth, knowledge, property, and more. We use the symbol in a number of ways. A key man is a central person, a man of authority. A keyboard controls a piano’s music; a keystone is the uppermost and last-set stone in an arch which locks all the stones together; a key-note is a musical concept which has been transferred to other realms, such as a key-note speaker, and so on. The Phi Beta Kappa key is an example of the symbolism of the key in our time.
Our Lord uses this symbolism in speaking of “the keys of the kingdom” in Matthew 16:19. He refers to the keys again, without using the word, in speaking of the key-holders of his day in Matthew 23:13, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.” The image is of irresponsible key-holders who lock people out by misusing their authority. The purpose of a key is to unlock doors; these false authorities use their keys to lock everyone out.
According to Sherman E. Johnson, these false authorities “have taken away the key of knowledge.” They have done this by making the knowledge of God’s law too “difficult and abstruse” for believers, and by forming exclusive brotherhoods of experts to lock out all except themselves.
We have seen that there is an important distinction between elitism and hierarchy. Granted that the idea of hierarchy has gained a bad connotation by its misuse in the hands of some hierarchs and many enemies, the difference still remains. Hierarchy means literally sacred rule, rule by God’s law-word, the canon of truth. Elitism is rule by men who believe themselves to be superior. Plato’s Republic is the classic document of elitist rule and theory.
With this in mind, our Lord’s comment becomes clearer. A key unlocks, and the keys of the kingdom unlock the doors to the knowledge of, membership in, and service under God in His Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is God’s law and government. The great Governor is Jesus Christ (Isa. 9:6-7). We are called to be priest-kings in Christ (I Peter 2:5; Rev. 1:6; 20:6, etc.). This means that the call of all Christians is to authority, each in his appointed place. The keys of the Kingdom given to the church are thus the keys to knowledge of God’s law-word and calling, so that we may all become a royal priesthood. Our calling is thus in part to be under authority and to exercise authority and government.
As we have seen previously, there are many forms of government. The basic areas are the self-government of the Christian man; the family; the church; the school; our vocation; our society; and the state or civil government, one form of government among many. To equate government with the state is an error, a sin, and an invitation to totalitarianism.
Under these various spheres of government, there are many varieties of government. Tithe agencies can and do establish a variety of governmental agencies dealing with health, education, welfare, and missions.
Godly, hierarchical authority and government works to bring others into their rightful and God-ordained authority and government. Elitism, on the other hand, excludes all but the elite from these spheres.
Our Lord attacked and condemned all who used their authority to shut the door of knowledge and to trivialize God’s law. For example, the Pharisees had made it unlawful to kill a flea on the Sabbath, because it meant taking life (Shabb 107b). God’s law is very simple: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8). Was a man more holy getting flea bites all day long on the Sabbath instead of killing the flea or fleas? Again, it was unlawful to eat an egg laid on the Sabbath unless it was laid, not by a laying hen but one kept for fattening (Beza, 2b). What relationship is there between this requirement and the Sabbath law of holiness? During the Middle Ages, people who had a baby born on the Sabbath were required to do penance, because it was assumed that child was born on the same day of the week that conception had taken place. Marital sex on the Sabbath constituted unlawful labor. Some Puritans adopted this idea also. One New England pastor, who had punished several couples was mortified when his wife gave birth to twins on the Sabbath. He then confessed publicly that his idea had been erroneous, i.e., the idea that birth and conception took place on the same day of the week. It is unlikely that he changed his definition of laboring on the Sabbath.
These illustrations suffice to show one kind of misuse of the keys. Another is an elitist interpretation of the Bible to make it a closed book to believers. Symbolic theology and speculative theology are alike guilty of this. They see meanings in texts which are not there and which no ordinary reader can see, because they are imported meanings. Of all such, our Lord’s sentence stands: “Ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.” Let us remember that this sentence is a part of a long curse pronounced by our Lord on all “blind guides” (Matt. 23:13-39). It is also a judgment pronounced on all who follow them (Matt. 23:36-39).
According to our Lord, the purpose of keys is to unlock doors. The keys of God’s Kingdom must be used to unlock the doors of knowledge, vocation, and service for God’s people, to make them a royal priesthood, priests and kings. The purpose of authority under God is to develop the authority and governmental powers of all those to whom we minister. The question thus is not merely, How do we govern those under our authority?, but also, How do they govern themselves? Something is wrong with us if we must continually support and finance our own children. Mutual assistance is one thing, continuing dependence is another.
Something is wrong with us if our church members are kept in close subjection and dare not grow on their own. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, aptly described most church members as “mummy Christians.” Immediately after conversion, they are mummified to sit lifelessly on a church pew. Apart from that, they have little use. A church with “mummy Christians” is a dead church, and its leaders are Pharisees who shut up the Kingdom of God against men; they neither go in, nor do they allow others to enter. They are elitists.
1. Sherman E. Johnson, “Matthew,” in The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII. (New York, N.Y.: Abingdon Press, 1951). p. 533.
2. R. H. Charles: The Decalogue (Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark, 1923). p. 129.