As Rebecca J just noted, the theme for youth instruction for the month of June is priesthood and priesthood keys. In the revelations of Joseph Smith, the Biblical leitmotifs of opening and closing, of binding and unbinding, and of sealing and unsealing all come to be associated in deeply significant ways with the priesthood orders of the Church. In this post, I will focus on the theme of opening and closing as it connects to the imagery of keys.
The earliest reference to a symbolic key in the scriptures is in Isaiah 22:20–22. Here, Jehovah announces his intention to replace Shebna, an unfaithful servant, with Eliakim, and give him charge of the royal quarters (the house of David). The imagery of a key being laid upon his shoulder may be more literal than we might at first surmise, since keys in the ancient world could be quite large and were often worn by their guardians on a cord around the neck or slung conspicuously over the shoulder as an indicator of one’s status.
Significant, too, in this passage is the language that “he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” Some interpreters discern a connection between this saying and Jesus’s words to Peter in Matthew 16:18–19: “And 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 [tie up] on earth shall be bound [tied up] in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose [untie] on earth shall be loosed [untied] in heaven.” In Jesus’s saying, the gates of hell (Hades) are in contrast to the what are assumed to be the gates of the kingdom of heaven that the keys given to Peter fit, which is why we have imagery in popular culture to this day of Peter serving as the guardian of “the pearly gates,” sometimes with a big ring of keys hanging from his sash.
Another implicit contrast to Peter and his keys may also be discerned in Jesus’s rebuke of the lawyers in Luke 11:52: “You have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.” Similar language in Matthew 23:13 about the elites of Jesus’s day hindering others and not going in themselves, while omitting reference to any key, nevertheless clearly refers to “the kingdom of heaven” to which Peter is given the keys in Matthew 16. Taken together, then, these passages suggest that Jesus had committed to Peter a stewardship (represented by keys) over Jesus’s community, his teachings, and the teaching of sacred things (the key of knowledge) generally.
Finally, in Revelation 3:7, we hear a clear echo from Isaiah 22:22 as reference is made to “he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth.”
Moving to the scriptures of the Restoration, it is curious to note that though there are some striking usages of allied imagery of entering in at the gate (of baptism), the keeper of the gate, and of opening and shutting the heavens, no explicit reference to keys of authority is made in the Book of Mormon. However, it was in the process of translating the Book of Mormon that Joseph’s revelations began to mention keys, the first reference coming in April, 1829, shortly after the arrival of Oliver Cowdery and his beginning to act as scribe.
According a revelation now recorded in Section 6, Joseph and Oliver were both given “the keys of this gift” of “bringing to light… those parts of my scriptures which have been hidden because of iniquity.” This is usually assumed to be a reference to the translation of the Book of Mormon, though the language is somewhat plastic. It indicates, I would argue, that the earliest understanding of the Book of Mormon was that it was a recovery of lost portions of what were properly to be regarded as Israelite scriptures, and that further recovery would be undertaken with Joseph Smith’s inspired version of the Bible. As a side note, Joseph’s inspired version of Luke 3 would be a tour de force of multi-layered revision. It alters not only Luke, but Isaiah, whom Luke is quoting and who, according to Joseph’s revision, is in turn quoting a lost scripture called “the book of the prophets,” which reads:
For behold, and lo, he shall come, as it is written in the book of the prophets, to take away the sins of the world, and to bring salvation unto the heathen nations, to gather together those who are lost, who are of the sheepfold of Israel;
Yea, even the dispersed and afflicted; and also to prepare the way, and make possible the preaching of the gospel unto the Gentiles;
And to be a light unto all who sit in darkness, unto the uttermost parts of the earth; to bring to pass the resurrection from the dead, and to ascend up on high, to dwell on the right hand of the Father,
Until the fullness of time, and the law and the testimony shall be sealed, and the keys of the kingdom shall be delivered up again unto the Father…
I find it interesting that there are latter-day keys mentioned in various latter-day revelations or pronouncements to nearly every specific action mentioned in that pericope—preparation, gathering, preaching the gospel, and even resurrection.
Returning to the Book of Mormon in search of the development of the latter-day understanding of keys, it may well have been Nephi’s pointed teachings about baptism as “the gate by which ye must enter” that prompted Joseph and Oliver to take a break from translating on May 15, 1839, to pray in the woods about how to approach that gate. Joseph Smith’s 1835 history records that John the Baptist appeared and conferred upon him and Oliver “the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins….” (See JS-H 1:68–69). This revelation represents the first explicit connection of keys to priesthood in any of the scriptures and is plausibly associated with the imagery of opening that harkens, via the Book of Mormon, all the way back to Peter and Isaiah.
As Joseph continued to receive revelations, there came a proliferation of keys, which has been summarized elsewhere. I have a sense, though, that there is more work to be done on the subject of keys within the revealed religion of the Latter-day Saints. Some questions I have:
- How early, using the scriptures, can one make the case for keys being associated with priesthood and/or with priesthood office?
- Can keys be connected to temple functions in the ancient world?
- What about the keys of the ministry of Peter, James, and John mentioned in another revelation by Joseph Smith dating from the same early period of the translation process, when he and Oliver Cowdery were learning about keys?
- Were keys such as those mentioned in Joseph’s revelations being talked about in other denominations at the time?
- Are there keys that are not tied to priesthood office or authority?
- What is the significance of Joseph Smith’s language to the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo in 1842, when he said:
This Society is to get instruction thro’ the order which God has established— thro’ the medium of those appointed to lead— and I now turn the key to you in the name of God.
- Do keys expire?
- If they are conferred at the beginning of one’s service in an office, when that service is ended, are the keys revoked, returned, or made inactive?—or do such questions reveal an overly literal approach to the notion of keys?
NOTE: This post is the sixth in a series based on the monthly themes from “Come, Follow Me,” the new youth curriculum for the Church. Here are the previous posts for January, February, March, April, and May.