This past July 4th weekend, I and a dozen other men stood helplessly outside our local church, unable to get in for our weekly Saturday morning prayer meeting. Each of us had ten or so keys on our respective key rings, but not one available key did us any good. For only a specific key would open the church doors, and only a specific security code would turn off the alarm, should we once get entrance – and none of the appointed church “gatekeepers” were among those of us in attendance. For one reason or another, each was either out of town, or couldn’t make the meeting this week.
Not to be dissuaded by the circumstances, we began our meeting standing outside the doors in the open air. We had a good time of sharing, until, about 45 minutes later someone showed up with the proper key and security code. Interestingly, it brought to mind the words of Jesus to His disciples concerning the keys of the Kingdom.
Jesus had been ministering on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. After He healed many and fed the multitudes, the Jewish leaders came by and began to demand a sign that what He was doing was of God. He refused to give them a sign “except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus and His disciples left their antagonists and crossed over to the other side of the Sea. When they arrived Jesus warned His disciples about the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” and then asked them about their personal belief concerning Him. “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:13-19
These latter words are very similar to those spoken in Isaiah 22:15-25. In that earlier instance, Shebna, the “treasurer over the house” (meaning comptroller or governor of the palace) in the reign of king Hezekiah of Judah was removed by God because of his reliance on Egypt to protect Israel from an Assyria invasion, rather than the Lord. He was replaced by Eliakim. “Then it shall be in that day, that I will call My servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe and strengthen him with your belt; I will commit your responsibility into his hand. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. 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. I will fasten him as a peg in a secure place, and he will become a glorious throne to his father’s house.”
The original “gatekeepers” in charge of watching over and protecting the physical and the spiritual treasures of God, as well as the hearts of His people, had once been personally selected by King David and the prophet Samuel. And their charges were specific: … they and their children were in charge of the gates of the house of the Lord, the house of the tabernacle, by assignment. The gatekeepers were assigned to the four directions: the east, west, north, and south. And their brethren in their villages had to come with them from time to time for seven days. For in this trusted office were four chief gatekeepers; they were Levites. And they had charge over the chambers and treasuries of the house of God. And they lodged all around the house of God because they had the responsibility, and they were in charge of opening it every morning. (1 Chronicles 9) Yet, these “gatekeepers” had failed in their duties and were replaced by others who recognized to Whom they were truly accountable.
I began to wonder about locks and keys in ancient Israel. Did these have the same function and meaning that they do today? Are binding and loosing and shutting and opening synonymous Biblical terms? They apparently both are accomplished using spiritual keys. But why would the Bible refer to laying the key on the new treasurer’s shoulder? This terminology all seemed very strange.
My research turned up that in ancient Israel (as in most areas of the Middle East), the doors of palaces, temples, granaries and domestic dwellings were secured with a wooden bolt and tumbler lock mounted on the inside of the door. The prophet Isaiah alluded to a large wooden key when he said, “I will place the key of the house of David on his shoulder.” I found out that these large keys are still used in tumbler locks in the Middle East, where they are known as “Egyptian locks.” And the keys are actually carried over the shoulder, because of the weight of the iron or brass. Some are 9 to 18 inches long and are bent near the end where the teeth are fixed. They look like large toothbrushes. A wooden box containing loose pins was attached to the inside of the door above the wooden bolt, or lock case, in which the pins dropped when the bar was moved to lock position. When the key was withdrawn the bolt could be secured by sliding it horizontally into a position in which the pins dropped from the box into the slots of the bolt. To make the tumbler locks more difficult to pick, they were mounted on the inside of the door and reached by passing one’s hand and key through a hole in the door.
The imagery of this type of lock and key system is much more vivid than that of our modern day mechanisms. The reference material indicated that as key systems became more intricate, in the Middle Ages and beyond, wealthy people would often carry their keys on a chain around their necks, as a sign of the treasures they controlled. But in ancient Israel, the burden of lugging a key on the shoulder was more akin to a duty performed by a servant – and would be a constant reminder of the humble task the “gatekeeper” performed for his Lord.
Even the requirement to have to reach through the door slot to insert the key seemed to me much more clarifying of the active participation required of the one delegated to open and shut, to bind and loose Kingdom treasures. While the treasures are readily available from the Throne room of God, we have to actively reach out and seek them ourselves – before we can open them up to others.
Under the New Covenant, every follower of Christ is a “gatekeeper” with access to the treasures of the Kingdom. And those treasures are many: the souls of the people to whom the Lord is sending us to preach the Gospel; the revelation knowledge of the Word of God; the gifts and ministries of the Holy Spirit; the multitude of blessings that overflow from God to His people; and many more.
This simple research on ancient locks and keys demonstrates how rich the Word of God is. But often we need to put ourselves into the sandals of the writers in order to get the most out of each passage. It takes extra effort – but the reward is great.