What is the context of “Binding and Loosing”?

Did Jesus say that believers have the right to bind and loose things on earth like money, and power, as well as spiritual beings like demons, and angels? In context, it seems more likely the “binding and losing” statement in Matt 16 and 18 was about following the holy spirit and agreeing with the removal of certain people from the church community over behavioral issues.

Some have taught that Jesus said that Christians are supposed to bind and loose things on earth and in heaven. Especially financial power, praying for political victories, and demons. This teaching is based on Matt 16:19 and Matt 18:18. What does this mean and more importantly what does it mean in context?

Matt 16:19 (KJV) 19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Matt 18:18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

The NLT says it this way:
“And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.”

In Matt 16, Jesus tells his disciples not to follow the bad examples of the Pharisees and Sadducees but instead follow the holy spirit. The holy spirit demonstrates his revealing power to Peter when he reveals through Peter to the disciples that Jesus is the Messiah. From that point, Jesus declares that to Peter he will be the rock or foundation of the church and that whatever he binds and loses on earth will be bound and loosed in heaven. All of Matt 18 is about sin and how to deal with an unrepentant church member who has done harm to others. They must be put out if they refuse to repent. Of course, the church must still treat them right and forgive them.

Matt 16:19 & 18:18 in context seem to be more about dealing with defining sin in the body of Christ and allowing for the ex-communication of people who refuse to repent for harming others. We must note that ex-communication is not permanent, but only to stand until the person repents and apologizes. This authority to bind and lose was initially given to Peter as the “rock” (Matt 16:19) who functions as the foundation of the church after the resurrection (he takes this role in the book of Acts). Meanwhile, in Matt 18:18 Jesus uses this same phrase to all of his disciples.

In Matt 16:13-20 Jesus asks the disciples who the world thinks he is, and they respond that some say he is Elijah, Jeremiah John the Baptist, or another Prophet. When he asks who they think he is, Simon (Peter) says, “You are the Christ (Messiah), son of the living God.” Jesus confirms this and reveals that this information was revealed to Simon by the holy spirit and is not his own knowledge. He then gives Simon a new name, Kefa, which means “little” rock in Aramaic, translated as Πέτρος or Petros (Peter) which is a rock in Greek. He then declares that on this “large” rock (πέτρα/Petra) I will build my church and the gates of Sheol or the grave, shall not overcome it. He then says I will give you the keys to the Kingdom. This indicates he is making Peter the leader of the apostles on earth. He then says, “Whatever you bind (prohibit) on earth will be bound (prohibited) in heaven, and whatever you loose (permit) on earth will be loosed (permitted) in heaven.” This is a statement of authority to manage in Jesus’ absence. The next section of this chapter is when Jesus tells his disciples about his coming death and resurrection Peter rejects it, and Jesus scolds him because these things must happen. The actual office of the leader doesn’t get applied to Peter until the new covenant which begins in Acts 2:14-41. In Acts 2, Peter is the one that ministers to the Jews about the fulfillment of the prophecy from Joel 2:28-32, which foretells the coming of the holy spirit, then he confirms the Samaritans (Acts 8:14-25) and the Gentiles (Acts 10:34-48) get access to God’s spirit as well.

In the full scope, this “binding and loosing” points to Peter’s role in opening the door to the Gentiles like Cornelius (Acts ch. 10) without requiring conversion to Judaism and adherence to the ritual purity laws of the old covenant. This is because God’s presence (the holy spirit) could now inhabit Gentiles as well as the Jews despite the fact that Gentiles were now relatives of Abraham or circumcised and did things that weren’t ritually pure like eating unclean foods. Peter gets this revelation in Acts ch. 10 and explains it to his fellow apostles in Acts ch. 11.  In Acts ch. 15, Peter, Paul, and James told the church that Gentiles didn’t have to observe ritual purity laws like circumcision or eat kosher foods restrictions but did have to adhere to moral purity rules by abstaining from idolatry, sexual immorality, and blood drinking. While Gentiles didn’t know about these ritual impurities they did have their own laws against moral sins like adultery, stealing, lying, and murder, so these are not necessary to mention. So we could say he “loosened” the restrictions on entering God’s covenant. In addition, he “bound” the Gentiles under the moral purity laws that they previously weren’t aware of because they didn’t know the Torah, this means they forsake idols, blood drinking, and abstain from sexual immorality. This is because they are now “married” to Christ so they are “bound” to God in this new covenant.

This power of binding and losing is guided by the holy spirit and not something Peter gets to use exclusively since it is mentioned again in Matt 18:18 to a broader audience. Notice that in the moment of Matt 16:19, Peter was filled with the holy spirit when he answered Jesus’ question about the messiah’s identity. This explains why every believer gets access to this power in Matt 18:18 because everyone who is filled with the holy spirit can do the will of heaven in a specific situation by following the holy spirit.

In Matthew 18, Jesus talks about having humility like a child and says that condemnation will happen to those who lead children towards sin (Matt 18:1-11). Children are humble, ignorant of the knowledge of sin, and often quick to forgive, so we are to be humble, free from thoughts of sinful schemes, and quick to forgive others like children. Jesus says that when we are like children then we can are counted as the greatest in the kingdom. Then Jesus talks about the parable of the lost sheep, which is about a shepherd who leaves behind 99 sheep to find the one that wanders away (Matt 18:12-14). This is like the prodigal son parable (Luke 15:11-32), which is about a man who runs away and steals his inheritance to live in sin but then returns to his father in repentance. Jesus makes it clear that God wants to bring people that are led astray back. In Matt 18:15-20 Jesus then explains a scenario about a person in the body of Christ (the church) who refuses to repent for their sin. The victim must confront the perpetrator in private about this issue. If they refuse to repent, then they must bring two or three witnesses, and if they still refuse to repent, then the church leaders will reason with them. If they refuse then they are to be excommunicated before the whole congregation. Then in verse 18 of Matthew 18, Jesus repeats Matt 16:19 which says “Whatever you bind (prohibit) on earth will be bound (prohibited) in heaven, and whatever you lose (permit) on earth will be loosed (permitted) in heaven.” Then he says in verses 19-20, “I tell you that if two of you here on earth agree about anything people ask, it will be for them from my Father in heaven. For wherever two or three are assembled in my name, I am there with them.” In Matt 18:21-35 Peter asks how many times the church community should forgive someone, should it be seven times? Jesus replies, no and says “70×7”. This was not meant to be a statement that suggested counting up to 490 times but rather a means to continuously forgive. In Hebraic cultural numerology, the number seven means completion, so 70×7 is a way of saying be complete an infinite number of times. Jesus then gives a parable about a King forgiving a servant’s debt but reneges on that forgiveness when he finds out the servant refused to forgive another person of their debt. This indicates that forgiveness is separate from ex-communication and that we have to be merciful if we want God to be merciful to us, this idea has been taught before in Matt 5:7 and Matt 6:14-15.

In 1 Timothy 5:19-20, Paul instructs Timothy on the issue of sin in the church and says he is to reprimand people if they are proven guilty. Paul reminds Timothy that guilty verdicts require two to three witnesses according to Deut 17:6 and Deut 19:15. The process Jesus describes in Matt 18 follows the same Old Testament process of executing someone. A person must be caught in the act of a crime punishable by death by two or three witnesses and then they are taken to the elders to confirm what happened and then taken outside the city and put to death (Lev 24:10-16, Num 15:32-36). The difference of course is that in the new covenant, Christ’s death atones for that person so they don’t need to die. There are examples of this being put into action in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 when Paul talks about the removal of sexual immorality among the church body. A man sleeping with his stepmother, who refused to repent was to be removed until he came to his senses and repented. This shows that the ex-communication rules don’t just apply to people who directly sin against others but also to people who are sinning with other members like gossiping or sexual promiscuity. In this particular case, there was an incestuous relationship going on because this woman was his father’s wife or ex-wife and that is forbidden intercourse (Deut 22:30). In 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 Paul references “a man” that hurt the Corinthian church which implies it was someone that was removed. This could be the same person from 1 Corinthians. On the other hand, it could be a different person because it seems to me like he is talking about a false teacher. Either way, Paul made it clear that when dealing with people who are removed, we are to always be open to forgiving them and receiving them back. This lines up with everything Jesus taught in Matt 18.

2 Cor 2:5 I am not overstating it when I say that the man who caused all the trouble hurt all of you more than he hurt me. 6 Most of you opposed him, and that was punishment enough. 7 Now, however, it is time to forgive and comfort him. Otherwise, he may be overcome by discouragement. 8 So I urge you now to reaffirm your love for him. 9 I wrote to you as I did to test you and see if you would fully comply with my instructions. 10 When you forgive this man, I forgive him, too. And when I forgive whatever needs to be forgiven, I do so with Christ’s authority for your benefit, 11 so that Satan will not outsmart us. For we are familiar with his evil schemes.

This phrase about “binding and losing” has nothing to do with getting rich, praying for political victories, or exorcising demons, it is all about ex-communication. Spiritual warfare exists but this verse isn’t about that, and there are other places in scripture that talk about faith to move mountains (Mark 11:12-24), spiritual warfare (Ep 6:10-18, 1 John 4:1-6, Col 2:6-10), etc so we can ask things according to the will of God and trust him to operate through the holy spirit to move supernaturally. This scripture in large context shows the church how to deal with violators of moral laws in the new covenant. They are no longer to be stoned to death (because Christ died for them) but simply excommunicated until they repent. However, as mentioned in Paul’s letters this is not permanent nor is it to be a spiteful rejection. If we are to treat this person as an unbeliever then the question is how are we supposed to treat unbelievers? Jesus said that those who are not with him (unbelievers) are against him (Matt 12:30, Luke 11:23, Luke 12:51-52) making them enemies of God (John 5:23). Since Jesus told us to love, give to, and pray for our enemies (Matt 5:43-48) we are to continue doing that for this person, the ex-communication is simply a means of preventing them from harming others in the church community. This protects church members from continuous perpetrators of heinous crimes like sexual assault or theft and prevents the church from being associated with scandal. It also removes people from the church body who gossip, spread anti-Christ ideas, or simply try to usurp authority or incite rebellion. Ex-communication is allowed biblically in the new covenant, as long as the person is dealt with in private first before they are publicly called out, and forgiveness must be a part of the process whether they return or not.

On a side note, Matt 18:19-20 is often used out of context as well. Usually, people claim that when we pray in larger numbers it is more likely to get answered.

Matt 18:19 “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”

In the larger context of the chapter, this is about Jesus being with the “two or three witnesses” when dealing with someone causing problems in the community. It is not about prayer and the power of friendship. Let’s take a look at James 5:16-18, it says the prayers of the righteous are very effective and gives the example of Elijah from 1 Kings 17:1 who prayed for no rain because God was angry with the sins of the Israelites, and it there was no rain for three years. Elijah didn’t need two or three other people for his prayer to be answered. We don’t need multiple people to get prayers answered we just need faith and to be counted as righteous which is based on our desires to follow God’s ways and not live in sin and to trust God’s word. The earnest prayer of the righteous avails much and it’s the faith of the believer that qualifies them as righteous and gets their prayers answered because the just shall live by faith (Hab 2:4, Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:38).

James 5:16 Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. 17 Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! 18 Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops.

Having a multitude of believers can be beneficial for another reason. Faith means to trust God and have confidence in him and his word. Hebrews 11:6 says without faith it is impossible to please God, and James 5:16 says that it’s the prayers of the righteous that are the most effective, and Hab 2:4, Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:38 all say the just (righteous) shall live by faith. Sometimes we all can struggle in our faith and are worn down by trials and tribulations however, having other believers pray for us can be the solution because God can respond to their faith where we may lack. Prov 27:17 says “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend”. Believers need each other to lean on because we don’t have perfect faith. So while the prayers of one righteous person are more than enough (Abraham, Moses, Elijah, etc), it’s beneficial to have other believers agree with us when praying but wavering in faith. The faith of the four guys led them to break up a roof to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus and he was healed (Mark 2:1-5). Faithless prayers are not effective according to James 1:5-8 which says we can ask God for wisdom but we must not waver in faith. So having friends stand in the gap and intercede for us is beneficial and God will respond to their faith when we lack it. This is the benefit of community prayers for one another. Matt 18:19-20 is not about power in numbers in a literal sense, it is about witnesses calling out wickedness but instead of stoning people, they are just ex-communicated. The power in numbers comes from the idea that we can lift each other up when we are weak in faith, it is not a requirement for a 2 to 3-person minimum for God to hear and answer our prayers.

James 1:5 If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. 6 But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. 7 Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.