Our brother Jim asked a fascinating question at church a couple weeks ago: “What are keys for?” He went on to observe that we frequently think of locking doors for “protection” of ourselves or our property, and seldom of using a key to open a door. That made me curious: his suggestion that in contrast, the New Testament descriptions of the Kingdom say more about opening doors than about locking them sounded right – so I decided to check. It’s not unusual for Jim to be much more perceptive than most folks – but this is over the top! It is beautiful!
Keys – kleis – interestingly, only occurs six times in the New Testament. “Lock” never appears at all; “to shut” (four different words) about 20 times, and “to open” (anoigo) more than 70 times!
In fact, the only place where Jesus speaks of keys locking anyone out (Mt.23:13 uses the verb form and Lk.11:52 the noun), is in criticism of the scribes and Pharisees for their attempts to prevent “ordinary folks” from entering the Kingdom! (Luke uses gnoseos – knowledge – instead of “kingdom”; this is sometimes, I think spuriously, attributed to Gnostic influence, but “knowledge” of the Law was very important to first century Judaism as well.) In the Revelation, one messenger uses a key (20:1) to confine the dragon in the “bottomless pit”, but another uses it (9:1) to let locusts out. Jesus himself almost seems to display the “keys of death and hades” (1:18) as trophies of his resurrection, and reassures his struggling followers (3:7,8) that when he opens a door for them, no one can slam it in their faces! Jesus’ keys, in harmony with all the rest of his life and ministry, are all about setting people free!
Digging around further yielded more nuggets. Many of the references to “shut” are rather ordinary: a door is shut when the family retires for the night (Lk.11:7); when the disciples fear a raid by the authorities (Jn.20:19,26); in situations of imprisonment (Ac.5:23, Lk.3:20, Ac.26:10). A period of drought is described as “heaven [the sky] being shut” (Lk.4:25, Rv.11:6). Persistent refusal of the Lord’s message “shuts up” people away from faithfulness (Rom.11:32, Gal.3:22,23).
But how much more numerous – and more glorious – are all the things that are “opened”!
The eyes of the blind – Mt.9:30, 20:33, Jn.9:10,14,17,21,26,30,33; 10:21; 11:37; and even the eyes of Tabitha [Dorcas] when she was raised from death!
There are visions of heaven [the sky] being opened – at Jesus’ baptism (Mt.3:16, Lk.3:21, Jn.1:51,52), to welcome Stephen as he was stoned (Ac.7:56), to give Peter needed instructions (Ac.10:11), and to show the elderly disciple, John, the wonders revealed throughout the account of Revelation.
Graves were opened at the time of Jesus’ resurrection.
Prison doors yielded to messengers of God (Ac.5:19, 23; 12:10), and to jailed apostles (Ac.16:26,27).
Repeatedly, doors are flung open to let people in (Mt.25:11, Lk.12:36, 13:25; Ac.12:14,16), and to admit the true Shepherd to the sheepfold (Jn.10:3).
This term is also frequently used figuratively, of opportunities, as the Lord enabled the spreading of his message (I Cor.16:9, II Cor.2:12, Ac.14:27, Col.4:3), and also of Jesus’ gracious promise that the “door” will be opened to his faithful people who persist in “knocking” and seeking his ways (Mt.7:7,8; Lk.11:9,10). A prefixed form (dianoigo) is needed to convey the divine intervention involved (Lk.24:31,32) in order for the eyes of the grieving disciples at Emmaus to be “opened” to recognize the risen Lord as he “opened” the scriptures for them to understand.
Most of these, of course, required/employed no “keys”. But there is one more situation that does: the much-discussed “binding and loosing” conversation in Mt.16:18-19 and its related passage in Mt.18:18. These common words, deo and luo, are most commonly used of imprisonment and release, of healings, and of legal obligations. Much of the “theological” controversy about these two exceptional references, I believe, results from failure to (1) look at both passages together, and (2)pay careful attention to the grammatical constructions which are carefully (and, I believe, deliberately) parallel. Both the vocabulary and the grammar are nearly identical. It is true that the ch.16 statement is addressed to Peter personally: the verbs, and the pronoun, are singular, whereas the one in ch.18 is addressed to the entire brotherhood, since all terms are cast in the plural. However, the rebuke that Jesus addressed to Peter immediately afterward (v.21-23) should make it abundantly clear that he had not been thereby elevated to some sort of exalted status or authority. People who see either or both statements as conferring judicial privilege or prerogative, upon either an individual or the disciple group as a whole, have failed to notice that both statements employ perfect passive participles. Unfortunately, both passages are traditionally (incorrectly) read as if they were future active verbs. Correct attention to the actual grammatical structure reveals that the situation described is one of responsibility to discern and communicate accurately the action/decision that has already taken place “in heaven” – NOT the power to dictate that decision!
Whether the issue is admission to the Kingdom (note: the keys are to “the Kingdom”, not to “heaven”) as in chapter 16, or the forgiveness of an erring brother as in chapter 18, the “binding” or “loosing” “will be” – a future tense, that may sometimes carry the force of an imperative – “what has already been done (perfect passive) in heaven”. This is a very common use of a participle, called “circumstantial”, and is frequently translated as a dependent clause. The tense of the participle represents its “time” in relation to the primary clause of the sentence. A perfect tense, remember, describes a past action that continues, at least in effect, into the present, or beyond. The passive voice indicates that the subject is acted upon; it is not the actor.
Clearly, in neither case is anyone entrusted with a signed, blank check. In both, the person or group is cautioned only to mediate what has already occurred. This calls for careful discernment, not an executive decision.
Paul was probably following these – or similar – instructions when he dealt (II Cor.2:1-11) with the restoration of the person disciplined by the brotherhood in I Cor.5. Notice especially I Cor.5:4 and II Cor.2:10. Although his vocabulary is different, the idea is the same: “incarnating” the gift of restoration already provided by the Lord.
So perhaps the whole idea of “keys” in the Kingdom is somewhat parallel to the training “yoke” Jesus offered in Mt.11:28-30 (W.S.#77); or to the parent who, not without trepidation, tosses his car keys to his teenager! They are still Dad’s keys! But part of growing up requires learning to use them responsibly. And that learning involves serious risk.
It is the one who owns the keys (Rev.1:18), who opens doors for his people that no one can shut (3:7), who nevertheless is willing, himself, to “stand at the door and knock” (3:20), waiting for it to be thrown open in welcome by disciples willing to learn.
May we recognize – and heed – his voice!