The meaning of “binding and loosing” in Matthew 16:19 has caused many students of the Bible to scratch their heads:
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. (Emphasis added)
Do those words of authority refer to binding Satan? Loosing someone from demonic bondage? Peter’s authority to admit people into heaven? Or something else?
In this excerpt adapted from Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament, Murray J. Harris offers an explanation.
As the first confessor of the messiahship of Jesus (Matt 16:16), Peter was entrusted with “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 16:19a)—that is, the privilege and responsibility of “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” (Matt 4:23). In fulfilling this role, he was to use these “keys” to unlock the kingdom for certain people (“loosing”) and shut it up against others (“binding”).
What does ‘binding and loosing’ mean?
Among the Jewish rabbis, “binding” and “loosing” were idiomatic terms to denote certain types of conduct that were either prohibited (“bound”) or permitted (“loosed”), forbidden or authorized. Jesus used these two categories when he explained to Peter what was involved in using the “keys.”
“Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:19 (HCSB; similarly CSB). The same guarantee is repeated in Matthew 18:18 in reference to all Jesus’ disciples (see Matt 18:1), for the singular “you” in 16:19 (three times) becomes the plural “you” in 18:18 (three times).
Whenever evangelists affirm that all those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ have their sins forgiven, they are declaring that such people are “loosed” and have entered the kingdom. In this declaration, they are dramatizing on earth the standing verdict that heaven (= God) has already made. Similarly, those who remain unrepentant unbelievers are “bound,” and the kingdom is shut against them. Heaven has already affirmed this truth, for “salvation is found in no one else” than Jesus the Cornerstone (Acts 4:11–12).
If this interpretation seems to stumble over the “whatever” (the neuter relatives ho ean in 16:19 and hosa ean in 18:18), it should be noted that the neuter often refers to a class of people, not things or in this case earthly declarations.
It is strong motivation to know that when we assure people that all who surrender themselves to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord gain eternal life, that assurance already has divine approval. We are declaring on earth a fixed heavenly decree.
However, it is certainly possible that both these verses should be rendered “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (NIV, NRSV; similarly KJV, NASB, GNT, NAB, ESV)—that is, God will confirm or ratify the earthly “binding” and “loosing.”
There are two clear examples of this divine ratification in the New Testament. When Peter recognized the carefully planned deception of Ananias and Sapphira in pretending that their gift was the whole of the proceeds of the sale of their property, he accused them of lying to God under the influence of Satan (Acts 5:1–4). Their sudden deaths amounted to God’s dramatic confirmation of Peter’s rebuke (Acts 5:5–10). With news of sexual immorality in the Corinthian church, Paul directed the assembled congregation to hand the man guilty of incest over to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor 5:1–5). In this case, God’s ratification of Paul’s and the church’s judgment would come through the agency of Satan.
But it is not the case that all decisions made by church leaders, whatever their nature, will automatically gain divine approval. The direction of the Holy Spirit must be sought and received. For example, the verdict of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem concerning the conditions under which gentile believers could be received as fellow believers was issued as a decision that “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 5:4, “When you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present . . .”
This post about the phrase “binding and loosing” in Matthew 16:19 is adapted from Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament by Murray J. Harris, available now from Lexham Press.
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