“Fear not, I am the First and the Last, and the Living One. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
In our First Reading, an angel of the Lord opens the doors of the prison that hold all the apostles, not with the guards’ keys, but miraculously. In fact, the guards aren’t even disturbed. When the religious officials arrive, they find the jail fully secure, but completely empty. The Gospel has free course in spite of prison doors. God’s saving purposes are not frustrated by locks.
In our Gospel, the apostles are gathered behind locked doors for fear of the Jews and what they might do to them. But there is one whom the locked doors did not keep out—the resurrected Jesus. We don’t know much about Jesus’ resurrected body, but we do know He left a sealed tomb with even the grave clothes still intact and that He appeared inside a locked room without use of door or key.
But as miraculous and supernatural as these incidents are, they are not the most astounding actions or miraculous openings in our readings for today.
In our Second Reading, John tells us of one Lord’s day during the time he was on the island of Patmos. He was in the Spirit when he heard a loud voice speak to him. Turning around, he saw some amazing sights: seven golden lampstands and one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around His chest. The hairs of His head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, from His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in full strength.
When John saw the risen and ascended Christ in all His glory, he fell down before Him as dead. John could no more stand before the heavenly Christ than he could touch the sun. Indeed, he could no more stand before the glorified Christ than Moses could stand before God and see His face at Mt. Sinai—unless given special grace and permission. No sinful mortal can stand before the exalted Son of Man because of the corruption of sin and God’s own holiness and glory.
John’s falling down as dead is like the action of every faithful proclaimer of the Word as he falls down in repentance before the Word that comes to him. Something good for us pastors to remember: Every ministry of the Word should begin with the repentance of the minister and Christ’s forgiveness of his sin.
Jesus gave John the grace and permission to stand up before Him. Placing His right hand on John, Jesus told John, “Stop being afraid.” This Word of gracious comfort empowered Christ’s servant to stand up in His presence.
The Lord Christ identified Himself as “the First and Last.” Like “the Alpha and Omega,” “the First and the Last” also denotes the eternalness of God and Christ, an eternalness of Christ in relationship to His Bride, the Church. In using this title, Jesus assured John that, as the Eternal One, He is his Savior; therefore, John should not be afraid.
Furthermore, Jesus identified Himself as “the Living One,” a title used in the Old Testament to contrast the true God with all the idols, which are dead and thus have no existence. Jesus Christ was dead but now lives forever. Because of His death and resurrection, Jesus says, “I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Some translations say, “death and the grave,” but “death and Hades” more accurately renders the Greek. In Roman culture, Hades was commonly thought of as the realm of the dead. Having “the keys of Death and Hades” is nothing less than holding the power to release people from the realm of the dead. Christ alone, who has conquered death, has this authority.
Jesus has the keys. He has the keys of Death and Hades. In Matthew 16:19, He declared to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). This is big stuff. Jesus has the keys—the keys to heaven and death and Hades: you couldn’t escape the prison of your gracv, but Jesus unlocks the door and delivers you from your cell—and there is no power that can stop Him. Furthermore, He has unlocked the gates of heaven for you. You are delivered from death and hell to life and heaven.
Where does this take place? This is what ties it to our Gospel lesson for the day, where the risen Jesus suddenly appears to the disciples who are gathered in the locked room for fear of the Jews. Jesus hails the disciples with the typical Hebrew greeting: “Peace be with you!” But on the lips of the risen Savior, it is much more than a casual wish. He brings them the peace that the world cannot give, the peace that will sustain them through all earthly troubles.
The disciples react in their fear as if they are seeing a ghost. But Jesus’ resurrected body still bears the marks of the crucifixion, to which Jesus points to erase their last doubts. The disciples rejoice! It is the Lord Jesus, alive!
Jesus again speaks peace to them and commissions them to carry on His work: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you. And when He says this, He breathes on them, and repeats the gift of the keys to the disciples gathered in the locked room: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Where does this great unlocking of doors happen? The keys are turned with the forgiveness of sins. This is what we call the “Office of the Keys.”
“The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent” (Small Catechism).
Repentance is really a two-step process: first, recognizing the reality of our sin; and second, turning to God in faith for His mercy.
Someone who does not believe he is a sinner cannot be repentant—what’s to repent of if you are not doing something wrong? So, the first step to repentance can only happen after the Law does its accusing work. People have to hear what God’s Word says so they can recognize themselves and experience contrition over sin. The flesh, the world, and the devil spend all their time whispering, “What you are doing isn’t that bad. In fact, it’s not bad at all!” Our consciences are assaulted and dulled every day by our own sinful desires. Only the Law of God can cut us to our hearts, bring us to our knees, and show us where we are wrong (usually, that is almost everywhere). Once that message gets through and we know we are slaves to sin, the first part of repentance is accomplished.
But it is not enough just to know and believe we are sinners. If we stop there, we despair, knowing that our sin separates us from God. And trying to get out of sin by our own power will also lead us to despair, because we cannot stop sinning no matter how much we want to.
So, the second part of repentance is faith: believing God’s promise that in Christ we are forgiven and have new life, namely at turning away from sin rather than to it. In particular, it means that we turn with God’s help from the specific sins of which the Law convicted us. That turning goes beyond inward resolve and really wanting to do better. Repentance includes mortifying our flesh and physically, mentally, and spiritually laboring to leave the sins that plague us.
“Repent!” sounds like a harsh message, and it is harsh. Hearing what God’s Word has to say about our favorite vices makes us angry, ashamed, and afraid. But it also makes us see that there is only one way out: Jesus. That’s why the call to repentance is one of love. It is the call God put in the mouths of His prophets and apostles so that His people could be saved. It is the call of Jesus Himself, whose love for us was so great that He took on our flesh and lived among us. He did not come to give us the message we wanted to hear (you know, the one about how you are really pretty good, especially compared to that other person). He told us the truth that we needed to hear: we are perverse, we are lost, we are dead, we must be made new, and He is the one who makes all things new.
Repentance is not some theological abstraction. For Lutherans, repentance occurs in the very concrete practice of Confession and Absolution. Our pastors do not leave us hanging. The second part of repentance is also theirs to administer. They show us our sins from the Law, and they show us our Savior in the Gospel.
Our pastors convict us with God’s Word and then forgive our sins in Christ’s place and by His command. They may do this corporately in the Divine Service, and they particularly do it in private Confession and Absolution. There is no real comfort in going home and crying into our pillows about how sorry we are. Our pastors are there to restart our crushed hearts with Jesus’ words of ultimate love: I forgive you all your sins. Those words do not just comfort us, but they effectively change us, so that even in our daily lives we grow more into the likeness of Jesus.
You can fake an apology, but you cannot fake repentance. Repentance is not just devout-sounding moaning about what rotten sinners we are, but it is leaving the life of sin we love so much. It means the slanderer keeping her zingers to herself, the lecher cancelling his Internet, the glutton by-passing the buffet, and the impious spending Sunday morning at church instead of the lake. It is change, and it hurts. Only the Holy Spirit could accomplish this work in us, because if there is one thing sinners do not like, it is giving up sin.
Sin dies hard, so hard that it took the Son of God with it to the grave (albeit briefly). And the sin in us kills us day after day. This why the Christian life is one of repentance. Repentance is not a one-time thing, because sin is not a one-time thing. We sin daily and hourly. Everything we do is tainted by sin. So every day in a Christian’s life is also characterized by repentance. In our personal prayers; in our worship together; in our private confession and receiving Absolution; and in our thoughts, words, and deeds, we are repenting constantly. We are always seeing our sin and throwing ourselves at God’s mercy, who spared not His Son to save us. With His help, we turn away from sin again and again and again.
To all who hear, we declare God’s Law and Gospel. We speak truth that we’re born in sin, that the wages of sin is death; and we declare the Good News that Christ has died for our sins and Christ is risen. When someone says, “I like my sin, so I’m not going to repent,” we tell them what the Word says: as long as they hold onto that sin, they still have it. That sin is retained, bound to them—the gates of heaven are shut, the gates of hell wide open. And when someone repents and trusts in Christ for forgiveness, we tell them what the Word says then, too: that Jesus has taken away that sin, that they are set free for eternal life. The gates of hell are shut for them, the gates of heaven wide open.
It’s all about the forgiveness Jesus has won by His death and resurrection and gives to you. In fact, forgiveness takes His death and resurrection and gives it to you. That is also why we always return to speak of Christ and His forgiveness here, for only forgiveness locks hell and opens heaven for you—for only Christ and His forgiveness give life. Rejoice in Jesus’ forgiveness for your well-being. That’s what He told the disciples to proclaim in our Gospel lesson, and that is what prepares you for His return in glory on the Last Day.
Of this you can be sure. You will see that glory on the Last Day, and on that day you will rejoice. Your Savior holds the keys to death and Hades, eternal life and heaven. He has shut hell for you and flung wide the gates of heaven by His death and resurrection. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.