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).
This language reappears in the book of Revelation. But in this case, the key holder is not a man but the Resurrected Lord—“he that is holy, he that is true”—who holds “the key of David.” He is the one who “openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth” (Revelation 3:7). Here, the Risen Jesus has responsibility for access into and out of the abode of God, or alternatively, into and out of the new city of David, the New Jerusalem. By extension, this responsibility also has to do with access to heaven at the endtime when access means everything (see 2 Nephi 9:41).
In the passage that we are examining, Jesus says to Peter, “I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18–19).
When Jesus promises to entrust keys to Peter, part of the promise is that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it [the church].” (The grammar of this sentence tells us that “it” means “the church” because “the church” is the closest referent and the Greek pronoun translated “it” and the Greek noun “church” are both feminine in gender.) The term translated “hell” in this passage is the word hadēs, Hades in English. In the Septuagint, the Greek word hadēs generally means a permanent, dark underworld where departed spirits are confined (see LXX Job 7:9–10; 10:21–22). The New Testament adjusts this view. Here, hadēs is a temporary abode where the spirits of the dead await the resurrection and judgment (see Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 20:13; also Alma 40:14) and where Jesus preaches during the time his body lies in the tomb (see 1 Peter 3:19–20; 4:6).
But Hades has another more personal meaning. In some passages, Hades is a name or title held by an individual in the underworld who is in charge of the spirit prison. The Risen Savior hints at this meaning when he affirms: “I am he that liveth, and was dead . . . and have the keys of hell and death” (Revelation 1:18). By implication, he has taken possession of those keys and now holds them in his hand. How so? The notion is that, when Jesus descends into the world of spirits after his death on the cross, he faces closed gates that keep the departed spirits inside a prison. Meeting resistance from those who hold the keys, who are death and hell (see Revelation 6:8; 20:13–14; 2 Nephi 9:12), he takes control of the keys from them and opens the closed gates. In the language of Isaiah, after this confrontation, he opens “the prison to them that are bound” and proclaims “liberty to the captives” (Isaiah 61:1; also Luke 4:18, where Jesus applies Isaiah’s words to his ministry without distinguishing between his mortal and postmortal work).
These words from Isaiah are both metaphorical and real. Metaphorically, Jesus offers liberty to those held captive by their sins and opens doors to them to escape the prison of their worst selves (see 3 Nephi 20:26). Physically, in coming to earth, Jesus invades the domain of Satan and engages in a contest for souls (see Isaiah 49:25; 53:12; 2 Nephi 2:29). This contest persists into the afterlife because there he deals with those who have fallen under the sway of Satan’s powers. He gains access to these individuals by taking control of “the gates of hell” by holding the keys. As we are reminded when we sing LDS hymn number 182, “We’ll Sing All Hail to Jesus’ Name,”
He seized the keys of death and hell
And bruised the serpent’s head;
He bid the prison doors unfold,
The grave yield up her dead.
At the end, of course, the triumphant Christ will ensure that the twin evils “death and hell [are] cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14; see also Acts 2:24; Romans 6:9). This set of observations leads to gates.
The idea of gates points directly at the keys required to open them. Jesus holds the keys of “the gates of hell,” not Peter. Instead, to Peter are entrusted “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Interest in the next world, of course, is plainly present in this latter expression. In addition, possession of these keys does not mean that the holder is a mere doorkeeper, a person who checks the identity of those entering and leaving. By being entrusted with keys, Peter stands as Jesus’ fully authorized representative. This dimension appears in the expression “I will give.” Moreover, these keys establish Peter’s authority over earthly church matters, a fact firmly present in Jesus’ words “bind on earth” and “loose on earth.” In a word, Jesus is handing to Peter the chief responsibility for leading his Church. But Peter does not carry this duty by himself. The keys will be held jointly among the Twelve, as Jesus later indicates: “Verily I say unto you [Twelve], Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). In a revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith in January 1841, the Lord confirms this observation: “[the] Twelve hold the keys to open up the authority of my kingdom upon the four corners of the earth” (Doctrine and Covenants 124:128; also John 20:23; Doctrine and Covenants 90:6; 112:16).
Two further dimensions adhere to Peter’s authority. First, certain earthly church matters now come under Peter’s authority. Jesus’ words about keys and their associated authority carry a the broad sense that, from now on, Peter will carry the same powers over followers that Jesus does. These powers include remitting sins (see 1 John 3:5; Doctrine and Covenants 132:46), withholding remission of sins (see John 20:23), establishing doctrine (see Luke 11:52; Doctrine and Covenants 84:19), excommunicating and reinstating to full membership (see Doctrine and Covenants 132:46–48), and overseeing ordinances and keeping them pure (see Doctrine and Covenants 124:33–36; 132:7).
Next, concerning the celestial realm, what Peter does on earth carries with full effect into heaven and into the next life. This is where the true power of the keys lies. What Peter and the members of the Twelve offer is a link to God’s kingdom and a bright future beyond death. This link is underlined by the passive voice “shall be bound in heaven” and “shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Almost consistently in scripture, passive verbs without a subject point directly to the actions of God. The binding and loosing in heaven are not done by Peter and the Twelve but by the Father. Hence, the earthly actions taken in the Church such as baptizing, remitting sins, and reinstating to full church membership are fully effective in heaven and in the next life. As the Lord reminds Joseph Smith, who possessed the keys of the kingdom in modern times, “whatsoever you seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven; and whatsoever you bind on earth, in my name and by my word, saith the Lord, it shall be eternally bound in the heavens; and whosesoever sins you remit on earth shall be remitted eternally in the heavens” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:46).
We last come to the key of knowledge. In fact, the “keys of the kingdom” also tie into “the key of knowledge,” specifically, the knowledge of God (Doctrine and Covenants 128:14; also 84:19). In the first appearance of this expression in the New Testament, this key allows celestial entry. On an occasion when Jesus confronts his opponents and, in a strong rebuke of the scribes, we hear him say, “Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered” (Luke 11:52). Jesus’ words indicate that “the key of knowledge” permits access or entry, exactly what the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” permit. The Joseph Smith Translation of these words of Jesus support this observation: “ye enter not in yourselves into the kingdom; and those who were entering in, ye hindered” (JST Luke 11:53). Furthermore, on the edge of this condemning statement, Jesus seems to hold up not only the knowledge of scripture but also knowledge of the sacred rites that the scribes fence off as too holy to share with common people. The Joseph Smith Translation buttresses this observation too by calling “the key of knowledge, the fullness of the scriptures” (JST Luke 11:53). Such a key, of course, opens a door to heavenly knowledge (see Luke 24:31–32 where, implicitly by a key, scriptures and eyes are “opened” by the Resurrected Lord).
In modern scripture, the key of knowledge is equivalent to “key of the mysteries of the kingdom” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:19). In a broad sense, these mysteries include “obtaining a knowledge of facts in relation to the salvation of the children of men, both as well for the dead as for the living” (Doctrine and Covenants 128:11). Thus, the key of knowledge has to do with gaining a full and correct grasp of salvation and all of its parts. That knowledge, then, allows us to enter both into the Church and into the kingdom of heaven with a full understanding.
—Based on The Testimony of Luke by S. Kent Brown, an e-volume in the BYU New Testament Commentary Series (see byuntc.com), and on Brown’s article “Peter’s Keys,” in The Ministry of Peter the Chief Apostle, Frank F. Judd Jr., Eric D. Huntsman, and Shon D. Hopkin, eds. (Provo and Salt Lake City, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2014), 91–102.