The Keys and the Church: Thoughts on the Authority of Christ

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The Keys and the Church: Thoughts on the Authority of Christ

This past October marks exactly 500 years since Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church building, challenging the authority of the established Church of his day. The famous words of Johann Tetzel were well-known in the area at the time: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” However, Luther had come to believe that the practice of indulgences was an affront to God, and thus he was compelled to speak out.

Within four years, Luther had been put on trial, excommunicated, and condemned: by the Church. But where did he stand in his relationship to Christ? Was he justified in his claims against the Church? After all, the Church was the authority of the day. They held the keys.

Have You Ever Felt Condemned by the Church?

The apostle John—the last living apostle who walked with Jesus—surely knew what it felt like to be condemned—not by the Church, but by the state. In his day, the Church has not yet taken on the role of condemnation and persecution, so John could not have imagined what Martin Luther later experienced. Nevertheless, he experienced severe condemnation. However, when he began writing the book of Revelation, notice where he starts—with Christ:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Revelation 1:4-8, NRSV)


Notice how he begins: “Grace and peace.” John may have been sent into exile, but he still knows for a certainty that Christ still offers grace and peace. He begins his letter, not with a recitation of his own trials and difficulties, but with Christ—the one “who is who was and who is to come.” What John does here is similar to the way in which he introduces his gospel. He begins with a description of who Christ is. In the verses that follow, he uses this pattern to elaborate on what he has just announced:

  • Who Jesus is: He is alive. He is faithful. He is resurrected and He is King. He has authority.
  • What Jesus has done: He loves us. He set us free, and He did this by dying on the cross. This is how He demonstrates His authority.
  • What Jesus will do: He will return. He will be back. And we will all see Him, even those who do not want to. This is a message of judgment. But remember, it is better to be judged by Christ, than to be condemned by the Church.

Finally, he ends where he began and reiterates his opening statement, although this time the words come directly from Jesus—“I am the Alpha and the Omega”—as if to say, “If there was any doubt after what I just described, let me tell you how Jesus says it.” In addition, anyone listening from the churches in Asia would have immediately recognized the phrase, “I am,” from how John had used it in his gospel as well.

Numerous times, John quoted Jesus using the term “Ἐγώ εἰμι,” which does not simply mean “I am.” What He is saying is “I, and only I, and nobody else but I am.” Thus, when you hear the words about the One “who is, who was and who is to come,” John’s claim is that nobody else can say this. Only Christ.

Let the words of Christ sink in for a moment: “The one who is, who was and who is to come.” No matter who you are, what you have done, or what will happen in your life, there is a God who is right there with you. He is with you now. He was there before, even when you did not realize it, and He will always be there. “I am the Alpha and the Omega” means that He is the beginning and the end. In the Hellenistic world of the time, this was also a radical statement, because it described a God who acts in time—an idea which was very contrary to what was believed.

I am a father of two boys—almost 2 and 4—and I will never forget when they were born. It is an incredible feeling to hold a little human being in your hands, and to think that just 9 months earlier, he or she did not exist. I remember a time before my sons were born; I remember what life was like before they were born, and I would not trade my current situation for the world.

On the other hand, think of my boys. There has never been a time when I was not there, when my wife was not there. As far as they are concerned, we have always been there. We are their point of reference. Could it be that this is what it is like for God, that He remembers a time when we were not here, but yet He loves us so much that He would not want to go back? 

Have You Ever Let God Love You Like That?

In Revelation 1:9, John states, “Oh, by the way, in case you did not realize, I am writing this from Patmos, a small Greek island, where I’ve been sent because of persecution.” This statement almost comes as an interlude. It is important for historical context, and again it resembles what John does in his gospel when he writes about John the Baptist. It is only relevant to John because it is on this island that Jesus visits him and gives him this vision.

He mentions why he has been persecuted—“the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” And what is he doing on this island? He is writing the last book of Scripture—pointing people to the Scriptures. In addition, he is talking about Jesus—telling the churches what Christ has told him.

In vs. 12-16, he goes on to describe who it is that has met with him, and while through the first description he has most likely captured the attention of the Greeks in the churches, in these next verses, he captures the attention of the Jews as well. He builds on the theme of authority by deploying the term “Son of Man,” referencing Daniel 7 with the image of one who approaches the Ancient of Days and who now has authority.

The hair that is “white as snow” and the “feet like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace” also take us back to the book of Daniel, where three young Hebrews were thrown into a fiery furnace because they would not acknowledge the authority of the king as being greater than that of God.

In that fiery furnace, we read that the king of Babylon looked into the furnace and saw a fourth man, One who “looks like a son of the gods,” the very same One who later is referred to as the “Son of Man”—a title that Jesus uses to refer to Himself in the Gospels. It is clear that the Son of Man has authority.

The passage also states that “His face was like the sun shining,” much like Moses when he came down from Mount Sinai after having spoken with God in Exodus 34. The passage contains so many images because John is finding it difficult to describe just how amazing this Person is; he even writes that “when I saw him” (verse 17), “I fell at his feet as though dead.” However, he then hears the most comforting words you can ever imagine: “Do not be afraid.”

Have you ever felt condemned by the Church? If you have, I want you to know that Christ has those same words for you: “Do not be afraid.”

After Christ says “Do not be afraid,” He then proceeds to state, “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever, and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” The word “keys” in the plural is only used twice in the Bible—in this passage and in Matthew 16, where Jesus, in conversation with Peter, says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Here Jesus says “I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” According to Ranko Stefanovic in his commentary on the book of Revelation, “keys” represent “power and authority,” so who has this authority? And for what purpose?

The word “key” in the singular is found a few more times throughout the New Testament, and once in Isaiah 22. Three of these times are in the book of Revelation. Firstly, in Revelation 3:7, it is the “key of David” (see Isaiah 22), where the words that follow bear a striking resemblance to those of Matthew 16, expounding, in my opinion, that “the keys” in Matthew 16 are not given to the Church. The authority belongs to Christ alone.

In Rev 9:1, a key “is given” to a “star that had fallen from heaven,” referring to Satan, and there is authority connected with this as well, but it is temporary, because in Rev 20:1 another angel now has a key to the same place: “the bottomless pit.” Thus, whatever authority Satan has, it is temporary.

In Luke 11:52, there is a “key of knowledge” which is also very interesting, because it is part of Jesus’ accusation against the scribes and Pharisees that they have taken this key away. Put another way, they were making it harder for people to come to God, which is exactly what happened historically in the Church as well.

Only 150 years after Christ says, “I have the keys,” Cyprian, one of the Church fathers, will write that there is “no salvation outside of the Church,” and only 100 years after that, Augustine will baptize the Greek concept of a timeless God into Christianity. 250 years is all it takes for the established Church to completely destroy the main thrust of Revelation 1. The Church has taken possession of the keys, and God is no longer active or interested in the lives of people.

This is what Luther objected to in 1517. If “Christ has the keys,” if we are justified by faith, then indulgences are an evil and have nothing to do with God. In fact, they are separating people from God and completely misrepresenting how salvation works. We do not need to pay to get people out of purgatory.

Christ has said that He has the keys of “Death and of Hades,” and in the Greek world of John, this emphasizes the theology of the One “who is and was and is to come,” because not only does Christ have authority over death, but in addition, death is not the joyous end to a miserable life. Rather, death is what separates us from God, and through the resurrection of Christ, we know that He was the first, but not the last, to be resurrected. My grandfather, who died before I was born, will be resurrected, and I will get to meet him, as will my children, because “all will see Him.”

This struggle over authority is not only something that happened in the early Church of the 3rd and 4th century. It is also a struggle in our Church today.

Who Has Authority? Who Has the Keys?

The battles over authority in the Christian Church, and yes, in the Adventist Church as well, are symptomatic of the fact that we have completely forgotten where authority in spiritual and religious matters comes from. We have forgotten what Christ said in Rev 1: “I have the keys.”

Christ has the keys. Not us.

Christ has the authority. Not us.

Christ gets to decide who’s in and who’s out. Not us.

If you have ever felt condemned by the Church, I’m sorry.

500 years ago, Luther pinned his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. He objected. He simply could not stomach the errors of the Church anymore. He did what he thought was right, without knowing what it might cost. The repercussions of what he did that day changed the Church forever. It changed the world. He acknowledged that the keys are rightfully Christ’s, not ours. He argued that the authority of life and death—of salvation—is Christ’s, not ours.

We have a responsibility to do what John did, and that is to tell the story of the One “who is, who was, and who is to come.”

He is the One who will judge me, not the Church.

He is the One, who died for me, not the Church.

He is the One who sets me free, not the Church.

I love my Church, but I am saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus alone. And so are you. If you have ever felt condemned by the Church, remember that Christ is the one with the keys of authority over your salvation.

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About the author

Thomas Rasmussen

Thomas Rasmussen served as youth director for the Danish Union of Churches Conference from 2009-2016, and is currently studying an MDiv at the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University.