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The Keys to the Kingdom
by Dr. Johnny O. Trail, LMFT
The Apostle Peter is told that he would be given the “keys” to the kingdom in Matthew chapter sixteen. Jesus says, in verse nineteen, “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” What did it mean for Jesus to symbolically give the “keys” to Peter?  What does the Bible and secular history record about imparting keys to various individuals?

            The tradition of giving keys has roots in various Jewish practices.  A scribe was given a key as part of his “ordination” in the important job of studying and transcribing the law of God.[1]  The Talmud reveals that keys are symbolic of Rabbinical authority in teaching the Tanakh.[2] Thus, keys were significant in questions of religious instruction.

            Keys are also used figuratively in scripture to denote ones’ mandate and obligation over a particular area or work.[3]  An Old Testament example of this might be Isaiah 22:22.  It says, “The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder; So he shall open, and no one shall shut; And he shall shut, and no one shall open.”  Various other passages might be quoted to show the relevance of “keys” in scripture. 

            At points in His earthly ministry, Jesus had been critical of those not teaching in a manner consistent with scripture. Matthew 23:13 "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” Instead of using their ability to instruct from God’s word to draw people to Yahweh, they were locking them out of the kingdom because of their hypocrisy.    

Along these same lines, the scribes are criticized in the gospel of Luke for their refusal to impart God’s knowledge to others.  Luke 11:52 says, "Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered."  Sadly, there was a lack of truthful teaching that would impart God’s word to others in the religious hierarchy of the Jews.  This insufficient instruction from God’s holy writ constrained the lawyers and their proselytes from obeying the words of the prophets and Moses.

            Later, Peter would deliver the first gospel sermon to the people assembled on the day of Pentecost.  Peter used the “keys” to open the door to this new kingdom that Jesus was speaking of by correctly teaching God’s plan of salvation.  This audience in Jerusalem was Jewish in its composition.  Peter began this sermon with the words “Jesus of Nazareth...” (Acts 2.22) and concluded by telling the brokenhearted Jews (Acts 2.37) about God’s plan for the forgiveness of sins.  Acts 2:38 says, “Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  

            Some time later, Peter would deliver the first gospel message proclaimed to the Gentiles in the household of Cornelius.  Peter would take the same “keys” and open the door of the kingdom/church to the Gentile nation.  He started his message by preaching about Christ (Acts 10.36, 38), and concluded by teaching Cornelius and his household that they needed to be baptized.  Acts 10:47-48  "Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.” In each instance, the teaching was consistent (cf. I Corinthians 4.17), and the “keys” opened the exact same door to people in all races to God’s plan of saving the lost.

            The consistent message to each audience, Gentile and Jew, was to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.  Paul makes this abundantly apparent in Galatians 3:26-28 when he says, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  If the word of God is taught or proclaimed in its simplicity, without admixture, the message remains the same and the “keys” are used appropriately.

            The act of giving someone a key carries with it a de facto sense of responsibility.  When a parent gives a young driver the keys to a car, the parent expects the child to behave in a reasonable and safe manner with the car.  The mere fact that someone gives another person a key implies a degree of trust and accountability.  The same is true regarding the giving of a key to study, teach, and proclaim God’s word.

            Thus, Peter and all the Apostles are expected by Christ, in Matthew sixteen, to be faithful teachers and proclaimers of God’s word.  Jesus knew that these men, inspired by the Holy Spirit would be effective communicators and writers of inscripturated truth.  God expects this same commitment to the truth today.  1 Peter 4:11 says, “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

            Just like the Apostles, Christians are expected to teach God’s word to others (Matthew 28.19-20).  In a sense, we are taking the keys and using them to unlock God’s plan of salvation to those who are lost.  It is an immense responsibility, but the word of God equips His people with the ability to accomplish personal evangelism (II Timothy 3.16-17).     



[1] Wood, Authur Skevington (1986). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Rev. Ed. Bromiley,

Geoffery W, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.

[2] “The Jewish scriptures comprising the books of the law, the prophets, and collected writings.” Merriam-

[3] Crain, Sellars S. (2011).  Matthew 14-28 Truth for Today Commentary:  An Exegesis and Application of the Holy

Scriptures, Eddie Cloer, Gen. Ed. Resource Publications, Searcy, page 85.