Did you ever notice how the papacy is associated with keys? The Vatican flag has keys on it. Statues of St. Peter have him holding a set of keys. What is this association with St. Peter and the keys? Is it biblical? What does it tell us about Peter and the papacy?
The image comes from a very important passage in the New Testament, Matthew 16:18-19, where Jesus gives Simon the name Peter (meaning “rock”) and says to Peter “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Jesus promised that he will give Simon Peter the “keys of the kingdom.” What are the keys of the kingdom?
To us today, the keys of the kingdom reference would be easy to miss. After all, there aren’t many functioning kingdoms in the world and those that do may not use this symbol. However, the “keys of the kingdom” was something well known in Jesus’ day since all ancient middle-eastern monarchies shared a similar structure.
The king was the head of the kingdom, the highest authority for the state. Underneath the king were various offices of ministry. For example, the Kingdom of David’s cabinet ministers included the head of the army, chief of the commissaries, superintendent of the labor force, etc. (see 1 Kings 4:1-6). Over these offices was the office of prime minister (sometimes call the master of the palace or the major domo). The prime minister’s job was to oversee the other ministers and to look after the day-to-day operation of the kingdom. A king could not be bothered with micromanaging the kingdom’s daily affairs, his concern was the macromanagment of the kingdom, such as long and short term planning, treatises and alliances, etc.. The micromanagement of the kingdom was given to the prime minister, whose authority was second only to the king.
We catch a glimpse of this office in the Isaiah 22 when a wicked prime minister, Shebna, was removed and replaced more worthy servant named Eliakim. God says to Shebna through Isaiah:
“On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.”
Among the signs of the prime minister’s office (a robe, a sash, the title “father”) was the “key of the House of David,” that is to say the keys of the kingdom. The prime minister wore this large key on his shoulder and used it to open and shut the gates of the kingdom.
Therefore, when Christ promised Simon Peter the “keys of the Kingdom,” the Apostles must have realized two things by this action: First, they must have realized that by doing this Christ was acting as the son of David, the King of Messiah king, whose kingdom extends to both heaven and earth. Second, Jesus promised to install Simon Peter as the prime minister of this kingdom. His job, therefore, would be to oversee the other ministers in the kingdom (i.e., the Apostles) in their ministry. And just as the office of prime minister in the Davidic kingdom didn’t end when someone died or was removed from office, neither did Peter’s office end when St. Peter died in Rome sometime around AD 68. Rather, the office continued and the authority of the keys continues through St. Peter’s successors, the Pope, with Pope Francis being the 267th person to occupy this office and exercise the power of the keys.