By S. Kent Brown
Somewhere near the Gentile town of Caesarea Philippi, close to the base of Mount Hermon, Jesus speaks words to Peter, his chief apostle, that find no correspondence in ancient scripture: “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19). (Outside of scripture, Michael the Archangel appears as keyholder; see 3 Baruch 11:2 and 4 Baruch 9:5). The question arises, What is Jesus promising to Peter? What are these keys? Latter-day Saints usually think of keys as the divinely bestowed, authorizing powers that allow a priesthood holder to exercise priesthood authority when performing an ordinance such as a setting apart, or a baptism, or a sealing in a temple. Resting beside this LDS understanding of such priesthood and temple keys are patterns that illuminate how people in the New Testament world may have understood the nature of Peter’s keys. It will become clear that the promised keys bear links to “the gates of hell,” to the next world, and to a greater knowledge of God.
To begin, we first turn to Isaiah’s record that offers the one instance of an Old Testament person receiving keys. A man named Eliakim, son of Hilkiah, is called by the Lord through Isaiah his prophet to serve as the royal treasurer. In intriguing language, the Lord hands the duty to Eliakim with the words, “the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isaiah 22:22). It appears that, among his duties, this man is to hold the key to the main door of the palace, part of his responsibility “over the [royal] house” (Isaiah 22:15). Continue reading