In Matthew 16:19 Jesus made an interesting, and somewhat confusing, promise to one of his apprentices, Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be [or have been] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be [or have been] loosed in heaven.” What did Jesus mean by binding and loosing?
Traditional Catholicism attaches it to the spiritual power of the papacy to issue edicts. This is closer to the original meaning than what is common in evangelicalism, where the tendency is to apply it to the binding of evil spirits. I’ve been in countless prayer meetings and church services where satan and demons are bound or loosed, no doubt by well-meaning people, but there is no biblical basis for this.
Binding and loosing refers to the action of locking and unlocking (keys to the kingdom) and is reserved for those with spiritual authority like Peter. There is no evidence in Scripture that shows the “keys” are given to anyone else but those in church leadership. We may infer, therefore, that binding and loosing is done by authoritative figures in church roles of leadership who are called to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. These leaders make spiritual decisions in applying God’s truth to daily life for the benefit and good of all God’s people.
First, let’s see how this worked in Old Testament times. For example; in Israel’s attack on the city of Jericho, some commandments were suspended. The Levites (priests) who were usually exempt from military duties, led the procession. In other words, the Levites, who were usually bound by a law that prohibited their involvement in battle, were now loosed. Likewise, the people of Israel who were to do no work on the Sabbath marched around Jericho once a day for six days, and then seven times on the Sabbath day. They were loosed from the Sabbath law that usually bound them. This was for a higher purpose so they would be spared from an enemy that wanted to destroy them.
We see the same loosing with the midwives in Exodus chapter one where Pharaoh gave them this instruction: “When you help the Hebrew women give birth, observe them as they deliver. If the child is a son, kill him.” The midwives were bound by law to obey Pharaoh but they were loosed from that law. They also lied to cover up their disobedience and God blessed them for it. They were loosed from the law that said, “you shall not lie,” for the higher purpose of saving human life.
Rehab the prostitute also lied in order to protect the Hebrew spies (Joshua 2). She told the soldiers the men had already left even though they were still hiding in her house. James 2:25 says she was justified by her good works and Hebrews 11:31 says her faith saved her life.
In the amazing book, “The Hiding Place,” Corrie Ten Boom tells the story of how her family hid Jewish people whose lives were threatened during World War II. The Ten Boom family would lie to the Nazi’s about having Jewish people in the house. The Ten Boom’s, along with the midwives and Rahab, were loosed from the law against lying that normally binds for the higher purpose of saving human life.
Another example in the Hebrew Scriptures is King David and his men eating in the consecrated (holy) Temple (see 1 Sam 21:6). Jesus referred to this story when the Pharisees (the religious legalists of His day) condemned Jesus and his followers forpicking and eating grains of wheat on the Sabbath Day (Mark 2:23-28). Jesus reminded them that the Sabbath day of rest was made for the good of people and not the other way around and that people were not bound from feeding themselves when they were hungry on the Sabbath.
The religious legalists of Jesus’ day are just the same as their counterparts in our day. They are unbending and inflexible and love the Law more than they love people. Spend a few minutes and read Matthew chapter 23 and see what Jesus thought about inflexible, legalistic, religious people.
The apostle Paul said, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). Legalism is a binding by man’s rules whereas safeguards to protect and guide bind by God’s rules. The difference between the two is a wide chasm. Jesus didn’t come to bind people in condemnation but rather to loose them into freedom. Our mission needs to be the same.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Not surprisingly, the first challenge faced by the first century church was a confrontation with legalists (see Acts 15:1-35). Simply trusting in Jesus’ work of death and resurrection was not enough for salvation according to these people. Even non-Jews were expected to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses. To face this challenge, the apostles and other disciples met in Jerusalem. After much discussion Peter used the keys Jesus gave him and loosed (unlocked) both Jews and Gentiles, affirming that all people were saved by faith, since circumcision was only a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (Acts 15:9). Then James, the head of the Jerusalem fellowship, issued a decree to bind believing Gentiles to abstain from four practices of the pagans (Acts 15:13-20). These practices were identical to the initial requirements of the Sanhedrin for admitting Gentiles into Judaism. The result of these decisions was freedom, rejoicing and encouragement – things that always accompany teaching of the true gospel.
We see this same principle of binding and loosing in our society today. We are usually bound from going through a red light, but an ambulance, fire truck or police car is loosed from this law when a higher law (saving human life, property or catching a lawbreaker) comes into play.
It is the role of parents to bind their children’s freedom temporarily to loose them later to a better, safer way of life. The command to Johnny, “Don’t cross the road,” binds him to a rule until he is old enough to be loosed to enjoy the roadway in safety. In the same way a judge has the power to lock up (bind) or release (loose) a person in jail. In my last blog I wrote about how the apostle Paul temporarily restricted (bound) women from speaking or teaching in the church because of certain factors. This was never meant to be binding on women in ministry for all time.
The principle of binding and loosing is still to be operated in church life by church leaders today for the welfare of God’s people. A good example of this is when people who are in a de-facto (common law) relationship come into the church. This has happened many times over the years at Bayside Church. Invariably these people have been together for many years and have children. They are a family unit and, even though we uphold the principle of marriage, a higher principle comes into play – that is, the maintaining of a family unit. I find that, over the process of time, the Holy Spirit will speak to these people and they come and ask us to marry them – something that we are very happy to do.
I love the wisdom of James in Acts 15:19 when he said, we should not make it difficult for people who want to come to God. Religious legalists are still building walls that keep people out. I believe Jesus came to build a bridge to let people come in. The true church of Jesus is still doing the same.