Binding and Loosing

Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 record the words of Jesus giving the disciples the authority to “bind” and “loose.” Does this mean the church has the power to initiate action on earth which heaven is obligated to endorse? Or do these promises indicate the church will, under specific circumstances, make pronouncements which echo the sentiments of heaven?

Some view the “binding and loosing” as having to do with spiritual warfare. It is not uncommon to hear of “binding” evil spirits and “loosing” the Holy Spirit. Some take their authority to include the “binding” of undesirable circumstances like poverty and the “loosing” of desirable conditions like wealth.

The Book of Matthew is written by a Jewish author to a Jewish audience, and it is rich in contrasts of the Old Covenant with the New. In it Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of all the Messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. Just prior to the passage under consideration, Jesus is seen rebuking the unbelieving Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:1-5) and warning his disciples against the teaching of these religious leaders (Matthew 16:6-12). Now, in Gentile territory (Caesarea Philippi), Jesus asks his disciples what others are saying about his identity. They inform him that some think he is John the Baptist, others Elijah or Jeremiah or another of the prophets. Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Christ [i.e., the Messiah], the Son of the living God.”

This response of Peter was a confession of Jesus as the fulfillment of all the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures concerning a coming Messiah and that, as such, Jesus was the Son of the “living” God, as opposed to the false deities of the Gentiles in whose territory Jesus and the disciples were at the time of this encounter.

Jesus responded to Peter’s confession by pronouncing him the blessed recipient of divine revelation. Then he addressed the building of his church and the inability of the gates of Hades to prevail against it.

This contextual background serves to provide the framework of meaning for verse 19. Because of Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, he qualifies to be a recipient of the keys to the kingdom of heaven. This does not imply that Peter alone had access to these keys. Since the immediate consequence of receiving the keys is the ability to bind and loose, and since in Matthew 18:18 this ability is possessed by the collective church, it is reasonable to see the actions of the church in chapter 18 as an authoritative use of the keys to the kingdom.

When Peter made use of the keys on the Day of Pentecost, he concluded his address to the Jewish multitude with these words: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ [Messiah]” (Acts 2:36, NKJV). The news that Jesus was both Lord and Messiah cut his hearers to the heart and prompted them to cry out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Peter’s answer is an obvious use of the keys to the kingdom.

To the Gentiles at the house of Cornelius, Peter’s message was the same. After confessing that God shows no partiality but accepts those of every nation who fear Him and work righteousness, Peter said, “The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ—He is Lord of all—that word you know … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power ….” (Acts 10:36-38).      For a Jew to say “Jesus Christ” was to say “Jesus the Messiah.” So, to the Gentiles, as well as to the Jews, Peter declared Jesus of Nazareth to be both Lord and Messiah. Peter’s claim that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit” was a Messianic claim. The acceptance of this message by Cornelius and his Gentile peers resulted in the door of the kingdom swinging open wide to them. Peter had again used the keys given him by Jesus.

Peter’s use of the keys in a negative way which resulted in the barring of unbelievers from the kingdom is seen in Acts 3 and 4. As he explained the healing of the lame man, he identified Jesus as “the Holy One and the Just,” “the Prince of life,” and “the Christ [Messiah]” (Acts 3:14-18). Peter’s use of Moses’ prophecy of a coming prophet seems a foreboding recognition of the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish leaders:

For Moses truly said to the fathers, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren, Him you shall hear in all things, whatever He says to you. And it shall be that every soul who will not hear that Prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people” (Acts 3:22-23).

Later in his discourse, Peter declares Jesus to be the “Servant” of God (Acts 3:26). The “Servant” theme is another Messianic motif from the Hebrew Scriptures. (See Isaiah 52:13.)

The Jewish religious leaders who rejected Jesus as the Messiah demanded of Peter, “By what power or by what name have you done this?” (Acts 4:8). Peter, apparently recognizing the unbelief of his questioners, came quickly to the point by again identifying Jesus as the Messiah apart from whom there is no salvation (Acts 4:9-12). The door to the kingdom was accordingly closed to these Jewish leaders because of their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

The historical narratives of Acts thus serve to inform the meaning of Matthew 16:19. The “keys of the kingdom of heaven” are used to admit or bar entrance pending one’s confession or rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. The genitive case of tes basileias  implies that the keys belong to the kingdom in the same sense that keys belong to a house. If we say, “These are the keys of the house,” it is understood that the keys are to the house and that they allow entry. This use of the genitive is the closest to its basic meaning, the genitive of description. The point is that the keys are described by the “building” they open: the kingdom of heaven.

The use of these keys by Peter will apparently result in some kind of binding and loosing on earth. Although “binding and loosing” are rabbinical terms, their meaning here must be discovered in the immediate context. We cannot legitimately leap from Jesus’ instructions about the kingdom of Heaven to the arguments of Shammai and Hillel purely because of similarity of phrasing. Words are defined by their contexts. Jesus is discussing the matter of access to or prohibition from the kingdom itself.

Perhaps the most significant issue to be addressed in the passage is the translation of the perfect passive participles dedemenon and lelumenon. The English perfect tense is not an adequate translation of the Greek perfect. The idea of the Greek perfect is that the action began at some point in the past and continued to a point of completion, with results that continue on into the future. (See H.E. Dana and J.R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament [New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1955], 200-205.) The closest literal translation, though awkward in English, of the phrases estai dedemenon and estai lelumenon would be “shall be having been bound” and “shall be having been loosed.” A smoother translation would be “shall have been bound” and “shall have been loosed.”

When a translator of New Testament Greek sees a perfect tense, he asks himself why the perfect is used instead of the aorist. Everything about the past can be said by the aorist tense. But the perfect means that the results of some past action continue into the present. If the point of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 is that some future action by the disciples would result in something being bound or loosed in the future, it would be appropriate to ask why the simple Greek future tense was not used. Since we believe in the inspiration of the very words of Scripture, even to their tenses, we must believe there is some reason Matthew was inspired by the Holy Spirit to construct a phrase using the future tense estai (“shall be”) with the perfect passive participles dedemenon (“having been bound”) and lelumenon (“having been loosed”). There is no legitimate grammatical reason why these perfects should lose their perfect force in this context.

The awkwardness of translation of this Greek tense into a receptor language must not be allowed to dull the force of the original language. Grammatically, Jesus’ point is that in the future, Peter will bind and loose on earth that which has already been, and remains, bound and loosed in heaven.

Matthew 18:15-22, a passage knit tightly with Matthew 16:19 by the use of the terms “having been bound” and “having been loosed,” provides an example of Jesus’ meaning in the previous passage. The context is that of the discipline of sinning brothers. In the larger context, Jesus shows concern for “little ones” who are caused to sin (Matthew 18:1-6) and for the one sheep who goes astray (Matthew 18:7-14). Only against this backdrop of tender care for even the most “insignificant” does Jesus give direction for the discipline of erring brethren which could result in their excommunication from the fellowship of believers.

The instructions given by Jesus seem intended to safeguard against the possibility of false accusations and hasty judgements. First, the sinning brother is to be confronted personally and privately by the one against whom he has sinned. If there is no resolution to the problem, the offended brother is to seek a second audience with the offender, but this time in the company of one or two more persons. Jesus supports this step by the Mosaic requirement of a minimum of two witnesses, and preferably three, before any accusation is heard. That is, the word of one witness is not sufficient to condemn a man.

If there was no resolution of the problem at this point, the case was to be presented to the collective church. If there was still no resolution, the last effort to gain the sinning brother’s attention was apparently to bar him from the privileges and      benefits of Christian fellowship.

It is in this context that Jesus says, “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18, NKJV). Clearly, the point is church discipline.

This is the background of v. 19, where the promise is the assurance that the believing community, however small, will be led by the Holy Spirit as they are conscientiously faithful to the teachings of Jesus in matters of church discipline. Where the church agrees in matters of the discipline of professing believers, heaven’s support will be found. But it would do violence to the context to suggest that heaven counts the sinning brother as faithful as long as he remains undisciplined, or even that heaven would support an erroneous decision by the church, whether in retaining or excommunicating a member. A member of the church could be practicing secret sin and never be discovered by the church at large. In this case, heaven has already taken note and acted accordingly. God does not wait on men to make his decisions as to the state of the souls of other men. Since the church is made up of fallible human beings, it is always possible that the church could judge an innocent man guilty and thus excommunicate him. This does not mean God concurs. The teaching of Jesus has to do with general principles and results which can be expected to be forthcoming when those principles are followed, but it does not impart infallibility to any human being or assembly of men.

The phrase “in My name” in Matthew 18:20 is significant. It does not imply mere repetition of a magical formula. To gather in Jesus’ name requires more than simply to say, “We gather in Jesus’ name.” The significance of  “name” in Scripture far surpasses a mere appellation; one’s name was essentially identical with one’s person or being. To believe on Jesus’ name was to believe on Jesus (John 3:18). Thus, to pray or gather in Jesus’ name requires more than the vocalization of words; it requires prayer or assembly in accordance with Jesus’ character, mind and purpose. When Jesus assures his disciples, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them,” he does not give them carte blanche. Instead, he limits his approving presence to those gatherings which convene in full accordance with his character, mind and purpose. In the context of Matthew 18, such gatherings are those which result from careful adherence to the disciplinary procedures outlined by him. It is another way of saying, “When church discipline has been exercised according to my will, it has my approval.” The meaning of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 is the same, though Jesus’ remarks    to Peter relate to the initial admission to or rejection of people from the kingdom of Heaven, while his remarks to all the disciples have to do with the reinstatement or excommunication of sinning brethren from fellowship. In both passages, the initiative is not with men, but with God. That is, God does not await the decision of a man or group of men before He permits a person to enter His kingdom; nor does He await human decisions before banning unbelievers or ejecting unrepentant sinners. The privilege given to men is not that of initiating action heaven is bound to endorse, but of being led by the Holy Spirit to act on earth in harmony with the prior decisions of heaven.