The One who holds the Key
How do we find encouragement when upheavals disrupt our lives and close doors? An ancient title for Jesus points the way to hope.
Over the last few weeks where I live in Auckland, we have begun to see various parts of society opening up again after a lockdown lasting a quarter of the year: shops, libraries, the museum and schools. But before that, one of our dominant experiences of lockdown was the sense in which many buildings were closed and locked up. As citizens we were locked out of many of the places we would normally have been free to enter. Of course there are still some places that we are locked out of. But most Aucklanders are now rejoicing that hairdressers have just re-opened. I can’t speak for everyone, but being locked out of the barbers has been becoming quite an issue for me lately!
Being locked out of public venues in a lockdown is of course quite different to being locked out of your own car or home. It’s quite a worrying experience to realise you can’t get into the very place you call home.
In our modern society, we take it for granted that anything of value will be guarded by lock and key. This is not only because of the prevalence of theft in our society, but also because it’s not that expensive to fit at least a simple lock to something. Of course, there are different levels of security, but for instance you can buy a lock for a bike and it doesn’t have to break the bank. So for us, the concept of the lock and key is a very common one.
But this wasn’t the case in the biblical world. 2,000 years ago, a lock and key would have been very expensive and only the richest people could afford to protect their valuables in this way. An interesting Bible verse gives us a hint of the context as regards keeping valuables safe for ordinary people. In 2 Corinthians 4, the Apostle Paul writes about the wonderful way in which God places the great treasure of the gospel into the lives of ordinary people. He explains it like this:
“We have this treasure in jars of clay.” 2 Corinthians 4:7
Paul was actually drawing on the practice of ordinary people who couldn’t afford a lock and key to keep their valuables safe. Ordinary people had to hide their valuables. That was the only way without a lock and key that you could protect them from theft. Many people thought that the best way to hide your valuables was to conceal them in something that looked very ordinary. A clay jar was a very simple and ordinary object in homes, so people reasoned that a thief would never look for treasure inside so ordinary an object.
If locks and keys were so rare in the biblical world, this affects the way people at that time understood the image of a key. In our day, because everyone can lock things up, we tend to see keys as symbolising our ability to keep things safe. But in the biblical world, when so few people had keys, a key was understood to symbolise the power to unlock and give access to something. When so few people had keys, those who did really possessed the power to access certain things that the majority of people couldn’t.
Now all that background is really important to understand a title for Jesus which features in the Bible and in the ancient Advent hymn, O Come O Come Emmanuel. Jesus is declared to hold the Key of David (Revelation 3:7). We must be careful to understand this image of a key, not as we do in our day, but as they did in the biblical world. If Jesus holds the Key of David, this is not about Jesus locking things up; it’s primarily about His authority and power to open things up and give access. This is a hopeful message for anyone experiencing life upheaval which closes doors to us. So what does it mean for Jesus to hold the Key of David and how can this help us when we face times when doors are closed to us?
In the Bible the term Key of David first features in the book of Isaiah. It occurs in an interesting context that at first glance seems to have nothing to do with a possible prophecy about Jesus. The title is applied to a senior servant in the royal household at the time of Isaiah the prophet.
“In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the people of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” Isaiah 22:20-22
This description of Eliakim functions as a contrast with another royal steward who features in the verses just before the ones quoted. The king also had a steward called Shebna, but Shebna was a bad servant because he acted by trying to gain glory for himself. He was a self-serving person, which is the complete opposite kind of character for a servant to have.
So in contrast to the bad steward, Eliakim is held up to be the perfect servant.
He is given a robe and a sash which was the sign of the king’s authority being conferred on him. And he is given the key of the house of David. This would have been both a literal and a metaphorical key. As the chief steward, Eliakim would have had the power to admit or to deny people access to the royal household. A visitor to the royal house would only have been allowed in if Eliakim said so. He held the key of access to the king. This links with the idea mentioned earlier that in the biblical world a key carried the notion of power of access. For Eliakim to be given the key to the royal house of David inferred that he carried power and authority to decide who could enter the king’s house.
Jesus describes this kind of a steward when He taught about being ready for His return. Jesus said:
“It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.” Mark 13:34
When Jesus mentions the servant at the door, He is describing the role of the chief steward, the one who has the key of the door, the one with the power to admit entry or to keep people out. This role is highlighted in the Isaiah passage when it says of Eliakim: “What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.”
The book of Revelation picks up on this precise verse when it applies the title of Key of David to Jesus. Here’s the key verse from Revelation 3:7, when the Risen Jesus is speaking a message to the early Christians in the city of Philadelphia:
“These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.”
By linking with the story of Eliakim, the faithful steward in Isaiah’s time, the book of Revelation now depicts Jesus as the ultimate example of a faithful steward. The words “holy and true” are applied to Jesus in our reading from Revelation.
And across the book of Revelation as a whole, Jesus is often described with the word “faithful”.
But, to use an intended pun, the key idea here about Jesus is to understand the authority that Jesus has to permit access. But Revelation does not have in mind Jesus giving access to a single individual earthly home, like it was for Eliakim in Isaiah’s day. What Revelation has in mind is Jesus as the only One with rightful authority to permit access into God’s future Kingdom. In His message to the Christians in Philadelphia, Jesus as the Key of David, says this to His people:
“The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God.” Revelation 3:12
Jesus is depicted as the One who holds the key to people entering the Holy City of God’s New Creation. The Holy City is the image used in Revelation to symbolise the way in which God and His people will live together in perfect relationship in a renewed heaven and earth following the return of Jesus and the final victory of God. As holder of the key, Jesus grants access to the Holy City.
As the lyrics of the Advent hymn, O Come O Come Emmanuel say, “O come Thou Key of David, come and open wide our heavenly home.”
But the image of Jesus with the key is also about Jesus granting security and safety to know that we will belong in our eternal home for ever. That’s what is meant by verse 12 which says, “Never again will they leave it.” This would have been a very powerful phrase to the Christians in the city of Philadelphia who first heard Jesus say those words. Located on the edge of a volcanic plain, Philadelphia was always vulnerable to seismic activity. A great earthquake in AD17 reduced Philadelphia to ruins. But then the city was subject to aftershocks, so much so, that the Greek geographer and historian Strabo, described Philadelphia as the “city full of earthquakes.” Because of the dangers of living in the city in the midst of the aftershocks, the majority of the population fled the city and chose to live in farms outside.
So when Jesus says to the Christians in Philadelphia, “Never will you have to leave again,” that would have such an encouragement to them so that they would know security in their future eternal home. When they had been forced to leave the city of their earthly home, it would have been such a hope to know that that would never happen to them in their eternal home.
If Jesus is the ultimate faithful steward, holding the Key of David, in what ways can this be hopeful for us when we face life upheaval that closes doors to us?
There is hope that as we keep trusting Jesus, so He will keep the door open for us to enter our eternal home
Our experience in Auckland of lockdown has been one of multiple closed doors. Closed venues, closed doors of opportunities and closed doors to gathered relationships. But there is one door that will never be closed to those who keep trusting Jesus, and that’s the door to our eternal home. As the true key-holder, Jesus alone has the authority to grant access.
Some years ago I ran some conferences within the grounds of Windsor Castle, the royal residence. One of my most memorable experiences was driving up to the security gates at the Castle and the barrier just opening automatically and I was waved in without any questions being asked. This wasn’t bad security, this was the outworking of very high security, because my passport and car details had all gone through security checks beforehand. The reason I was let in so easily is because those security guards knew everything about me and a higher authority had said I could come in.
That’s a great picture of what Jesus does for us. As Key of David, He’s the authority who lets us into the eternal royal residence of God. And because He holds for the door for us, no one and nothing can close it to us. We just need to keep trusting Him. The words of the old hymn There is a Green Hill Far Away are very fitting here:
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven and let us in
O dearly, dearly has He loved
And we must love Him too
And trust in His redeeming blood
And try His works to do
Jesus as the Key of David offers perspective on what is true security in the midst of our life upheavals
As we have seen, it was Christians in the earthquake city of Philadelphia who heard Jesus say He was the Key of David and His promise to them was that they would never have to leave the security of their eternal home. Those early Christians had suffered the literal upheaval of their lives. Many of them had lost their homes and they no longer felt a sense of security to live in the city because of the threat of aftershocks. Jesus’ words gave hopeful perspective to those Christians. They were not promised that they would never experience upheavals, but they were pointed towards the source of what constituted ultimate security for the future.
The legend is told of a young man who thought he should join a monastery. So he joined a community of monks as a novice and worked hard for a whole year. Then he went to the abbot and asked if he could take his vows and become a full monk. The abbot asked him to wait another year. The young man was very disappointed, but he returned to his duties. The same thing happened after 2 years. The young man asked to take his vows and the abbot said wait. A few more years down the line, the abbot asked the novice master about the young man. “Is he no longer interested in making his vows?” The novice master said, “He doesn’t mention it any more. But he seems content. He goes about his duties in the garden, he consoles the old monks in the infirmary and he encourages the new novices.” “Bring him to me,” said the abbot.
When the young man came before the abbot, his face had the freshness and peace of someone who has nothing to defend. The abbot asked him, “Have you gone off the idea of making your vows and fully joining the order?”
The young man replied, “Jesus Christ is my monastery.” The abbot smiled and said, “You have learned well.”
The young man learned the difference between making a monastery your security and realising Jesus is your security. Those early Christians in Philadelphia had lived enough earthquakes to teach them that material things cannot be a sure source of hope or security. The true source of hope is Jesus, the One who holds the key to eternal security, the Key of David.
Many around the world have experienced disruption and life upheaval as a result of Covid or other circumstances. We are not to deny or minimise the pain of these experiences, but we can view them through the lens of hope when we remember that our ultimate security is in Jesus. When we view things with that perspective, we can know the inner peace that we are eternally secure with Him, even when we experience insecurities in aspects of our earthly lives.
When we think of Jesus as the Key of David, we remember that He has the authority to open to us the most important door of all – the door of entry to our eternal home. We will walk through many doors in the course of our life. There will be doors of opportunity and doors leading to new chapters. It’s right to trust Jesus for guidance when we encounter a door in life. But all these times of guidance need to be held against the backdrop that Jesus holds the key to the most important door of all.
No one wants to be left outside of this most important door. Sadly some people will choose to step through every door they can in life, but fail to trust the One who can let them step through that most important door.
Jesus is the Key of David. He stands by the door to our eternal home and He will open that door for all who place their trust in Him.
It’s a door only He can open and no one else has the power to shut it in our faces. If He has opened it for us, then it is truly open and we can know the peace and security of that hope, even in the midst of our current life upheavals, where other doors can seem closed.
Jesus is the Key of David. If we trust Him, there’s one door that will never be closed to us – the door to our eternal home with Him.