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What does it mean to bind and loose?

What did Jesus mean when he said, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”?

Matthew 16:13-20 13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Some people think binding and loosing has something to do with spiritual warfare, or letting the devil know what’s what. It should be remembered however that Matthew, more than any other gospel, was writing both from a Jewish perspective and to a Jewish audience in the first century, who understood such idioms in a legal context.

The word “issar,” used in Numbers 30:3 et seq. means a pledge which prevents one from using a thing.[1] The root word is “asar” means to bind, tie or imprison.[2] There isn’t much else in the Bible that can illuminate what binding means apart from this.

Non-biblical use of this word implies “binding” is preventing the use of an object by a powerful spell. The Jewish Targum (an interpretive rendering of the Hebrew scriptures in Aramaic) implies in its rendering of Psalm 58:6 that such a pledge is as powerful as a spell from a sorcerer.[3] The Jewish Mishnaic tradition tells a story of two Rabbis, Rav Hisda and Rabba bar Rav Huna, who refused to allow a woman to sit with them on a boat. She uses an incantation of witchcraft which made the boat stop, but the Rabbis used the Holy Name to free it and protect them from her using witchcraft again to harm them.[4]

The root meaning of the word “to bind” therefore, is to prevent the use of an object by a powerful spell. “To loose” means to undo that spell. We could stop there, but to find out the true meaning of binding and loosing we need to press beyond the meaning of that root word to see how it was used in Jesus’ time.

The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote that under queen Alexandra of Jerusalem (76-67 BC.) the Pharisees “became the administrators of all public affairs, empowered to banish and readmit whom they pleased, as well as to loose and to bind”.[5] It was at this time (70 BC.) that Hillel became something like President of the Sanhedrin and was recognised as the highest authority among the Pharisees. He is most famous for his opposition to the Rabbi Shammai. A popular saying of Jesus’ time a century later was, “The school of Shammai binds; the school of Hillel looses.”[6]

This meant more than what they said goes because they were in charge. It meant that those rabbinical bodies had the power, by virtue of their divine authority, to forbid or permit things. For instance, they could bind any day by declaring it a day of fasting.[7] Importantly, they could say who was in and who was out of their community. If there were three decisions made by the Sanhedrin, ‘the lower house of judgment,’ then heaven, ‘the upper house of judgment,’ the celestial court of justice,[8] would give its supreme sanction and ratify their pronouncements.

For what its worth, it is reported that an inscription upon a statue of Isis in Egypt reads, “I am the queen of the country, and whatsoever I bind no man can loose.”[9]

These help to show that to “loose and to bind” was a technical legal expression in the ancient Jewish world, where “To bind” meant to restrict, confine, limit or forbid, and “to loose” meant to unbind, untie, free, release, or permit. The power of such determinations was extreme. So when Jesus says to the disciples they were given the keys to the kingdom, they were given the right to legislate; to make rules and norms, allowing and forbidding things in the community of believers.

Is there an example of loosing and binding in the New Testament?

One clear example is the Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15, where the apostles gathered to deal with the problem raised by a party of Pharisees. This party was insisting the newly converted gentile believers be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. The apostles discussed things, reflected on the teachings of Jesus during their time with him, and agreed in one accord.

Acts 15:24 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. 

The requirement of circumcision was loosened: a gentile man no longer needed to be circumcised to be saved or be a part of the community of believers. Four requirements were bound; three to do with what a believer shouldn’t eat and the other about sexual immorality. This would have caused the Pharisees much consternation. Not only did the apostles of Jesus disagreeing with their ruling. They were taking upon themselves, so it would have seemed to them at least, the authority to loose and to bind. To say what was expected of and who would be a part of the community of redeemed.

This was Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees of his time, who “bind heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matt. 23:2-4). They would not “loosen” their rules which extended to every relation of life, and to all details of religious practice, “binding one rule to another, enforcing useless and absurd minutiae, till the burden became insupportable. . . [T]hey take no trouble to lighten (κινῆσαι, ‘to move away’), to make these burdens easier by explanation or relaxation, or to proportion them to the strength of the disciple. They impose them with all their crushing weight and severity upon others, and uncompromisingly demand obedience to these unscriptural regulations.”[10]

Another example can be found later in the same gospel.
Matthew 18:15-18 15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Jesus is answering what the disciples should do if they find a brother or sister person sinning amongst them. First, you are to approach them privately. If they continue in their error, take two or three with you, for that is as if Christ himself is counselling them. It is also assurance that it is not you in the wrong and one refusing to listen. If they continue in their error even after that, make it a public matter for the church so that the grace and forgiveness of the entire body might entice them to repent. If they do not, then they have shown themselves to not truely be disciples of Christ, the bond of fellowship in-Christ between you is effectively resolved, the familial-like ties of brother or sister are broken, and they are, in Paul’s words, “given over to Satan” (1 Cor 5:5), outside the church family like any other pagan. That doesn’t mean you can be nasty to them, for they are still image-bearers in need of Christ and his salvation.

Jesus says, “Truely, I tell you…” This is a marker of his unique sense of authority he had to speak in God’s place. In expounding a new law, he adopted a mode of speaking of the time, saying “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Three successive councils; the individual, the small group, and the whole church congregation, make the same determination. If all three are the same, so shall it is in heaven: heaven agrees. The disciples become practical administrators of a new, transfigured law.[11] As in John 20:23, the power to forgive is not given to the disciple individually but collectively, and is not inherent to them as body, but only by merit of their being able to discern who is repentant[12] through their knowledge of the teachings of Christ and their continuing relationship with the Holy Spirit. By these words he virtually invested them with the same authority as that which he found belonging to the scribes. This was the power of loosing and binding.

Did the authority to loose and to bind stop with the original apostles?

In the second epistle of Clement to James II, Peter is represented as having appointed Clement as his successor, saying:

Wherefore I communicate to him the power of binding and loosing, so that with respect to everything which he shall ordain in the earth, it shall be decreed in the heavens. For he shall bind what ought to be bound, and loose what ought to be loosed, as knowing the role of the Church.”[13]

So the answer is No. The idea is that Clement knew the apostolic teachings, passed down from Jesus through the apostles, and so was able to rule on things that Jesus didn’t rule on. In a sense, this is what Paul did as an apostle in 1 Corinthians 7:12-14 for his gentile audience. In answering the Corinthian’s questions about marriage, he passes down what the Lord had said, saying “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord)…” (1 Cor. 7:10). Where he didn’t have anything from the Lord, he gives his best ruling with his apostolic authority, knowing the spirit of Jesus’ teachings and applying it in new, previously unthought of situations, saying “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord)…”

For Catholics, the answer is also No, but in a different sense. Catholics have taken Tertullian and other Church Fathers’ interpretation of John 20:23 as correct. This is that Christ invested the head of the church, Peter, the power to forgive sins. Thus, he held the “key’s to the kingdom.” He then passed this spiritual authority on to his successor, the head of the church of Rome, the Pope.

In this passage however, Jesus is speaking to all the disciples (John 20:19). In Matthew 16:19 Peter receives a promise, which is repeated in Matthew 18:18 to all the apostles, and fulfilled in John 20:22 when they all receive the Holy Spirit, and Acts 2:2 when the Holy Spirit comes upon them all with power at Pentecost. Perhaps the promise was given first and especially to Peter because Christ foresaw that he, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit would open the door to the gentiles; an unprecedented legislative act advancing the unity of the body of Christ (Acts 15:7). This was a loosing. An example of Peter binding was when he saw the heart of Simon Magnus was not right before God, and shut the door to the kingdom in his face (Acts 8:21).

Binding and loosing have little to do with prayer, and next to nothing to do with telling Satan or his demons what it happening. It has to do with the legislative power Christ passed on to his apostles; those who understand the teachings of Jesus and recognise the what the Spirit would permit and forbid in new situations. An authority we need very much today, in our rapidly changing world.

Footnotes:

  1. Numbers 30:3 “When a young woman still living in her father’s household makes a vow to the Lord or obligates herself by a pledge.”
  2. Thomas, R. L., New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek dictionaries : updated edition. (Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998).
  3. Psalms 58:5 “…so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or of the cunning enchanter.” cf. Targum rending of Psalm 58:6. “Lest it should accept the words of the wizards, the charmers of snakeshe is wiser than those who cast spells.“ Cited Online: 26 August 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20120826070332/http://targum.info/pss/ps2.htm
  4. Shabbat 81b, “The Gamara explains: It is as that which transpired when Rav His and Rabba bar Rav Huna were going on a boat. A certain matron [matronita] said to them: Let me sit with you, and the did not let her sit. She said something, and incantation of witchcraft, and stopped the boat. They said something, the hold Name, and freed it. She said tot hem: What will I do to you, to enable me to harm you with witchcraft.”
  5. Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 1:110
  6. Kaufmann Kohler, “Binding and Loosing,” Encyclopaedia Biblica, Cited online: 26 August 2019, http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3307-binding-and-loosing
  7. Meg. Ta’an. xxii.; Ta’an. 12a; Yer. Ned. i. 36c, d
  8. Sifra, Emor, ix.; Mak. 23b
  9. Diod. Sic., 1:27, See Pulpit Commentary, Cited Online: 26 August 2019, https://biblehub.com/matthew/16-19.htm. For a different translation, See “I am Isis, the queen of every land, she who was instructed of Hermes, and whatsoever laws I have established, these can no man make void.“ Cited Online: 26 August 2019, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/1A*.html
  10. Henry Spence-Jones, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 7, (Delmarva Publications, Inc., 2015), Cited Online: 26 August 2019, https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=s1VcCgAAQBAJ
  11. Ibid., Kaufmann Kohler.
  12. “This power did not exist at all in the apostles as a power to give judgment, but only as a power to declare the character of those whom God would accept or reject in the day of judgment.” Matthew Henry Commentary, John 20:19-25
  13. “Clementine Homilies,” Introduction. See Epistle of Peter to James, Cited Online 27 August 2019, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/080800.htm
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