What Did Jesus Mean by ‘Binding & Loosing’?
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In Matthew 16:19 Jesus made an interesting, and somewhat confusing, promise to one of his disciples, 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?
The Roman Catholic tradition attaches it to the spiritual power of the papacy to issue edicts, which may be closer to the original meaning than what is common in evangelicalism. The contemporary Church tends to apply binding and loosing to spiritual warfare. While spiritual warfare is vitally important, there is no biblical basis for taking Jesus’ words to Peter to refer to the binding and loosing of evil spirits.
Binding and loosing refer to the action of permitting or not permitting various activities/behaviours for followers of Jesus.
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 generally 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 for the higher purpose of being spared from an enemy that wanted to destroy them.
We see this same principle at work 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 requirement, “you shall not lie,” for the higher purpose of saving human life.
Rahab, the prostitute, also lied 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 incredible 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 lied 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 for the higher purpose of saving human life.
Another example in the Hebrew Scriptures is King David and his men eating in the Temple (see 1 Sam 21:6). Jesus referred to this story when the Pharisees condemned Jesus and his followers for picking 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 time. They are unbending and inflexible and love the law more than they love people.
Jesus put it this way, “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).
A Rabbi’s Yoke was his interpretation of the Scriptures that he taught to others. A Rabbi would determine from the Scriptures what was permissible and what was not (binding and loosing), and how to best apply the Scriptures in his particular time and culture.
If a Rabbi wanted to preach a new “yoke,” (a different interpretation of the Scriptures) he had to be approved by two other rabbis who had smicha (authority). If he received approval, he was deemed to have smicha in his own right. He would then begin teaching his new “yoke” by saying, “You have heard that it was said…but I tell you…”
In Matthew 16, Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter, thus imbuing him with smicha to lock/unlock (authorise/forbid; bind/loose) in the Church.
No evidence in Scripture shows these “keys” were 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.
Not surprisingly, the first significant conflict faced by the first-century Church was a confrontation with legalistic Christians (see Acts 15:1-35). According to them, simply trusting in Jesus’ work of death and resurrection was not enough for salvation. 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) the Gentile followers of Jesus from circumcision saying, “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
Then James, the head of the Jerusalem Church, issued a decree to bind believing Gentiles to abstain from four pagan practices (Acts 15:13-20). Refraining from these practices were also 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 the teaching of the 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. In the same way, a judge has the power to lock up (bind) or release (loose) a person in jail.
We find this same binding and loosing principle operating in Paul’s letters. For example, in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, Paul temporarily restricted (bound) women from speaking or teaching in the Church. 1 Timothy was written to prevent the spread of heresy in the Church. It appears that women were the main culprits of spreading the false teaching and so Paul temporarily prohibited them from teaching until they had been instructed in the Word, thus correcting the error that was being taught. This was never meant to be binding on women in ministry for all time and, if it were, it would contradict other parts of the New Testament that endorse the teaching ministry of women.
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. An excellent example of this is when people who are in de-facto (common law) relationships 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 standard of marriage, a higher law comes into play – that is, the maintaining of a family unit. This level of grace should be given to all people who genuinely desire to follow Jesus, and space should be given to the Holy Spirit to achieve what he wants to in his time and his way!
I love the wisdom of James in Acts 15:19, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” What if every Christian had this Bible verse engraved on their heart? If we lived this truth, we wouldn’t build walls to keep people out, we would build bridges that let people come in.
We should not make it difficult for people who are turning to God!