Binding and loosing (Matthew 16:19)

What did Jesus mean by giving us keys to bind and loose?

Attend a Pentecostal prayer meeting, and you may hear someone using the language of binding and loosing. They’re talking about believers taking authority over the devil. Some churches have a prayer team on this task when they meet, to bind evil spirits from interfering.

The language comes from Jesus’ statement:
Matthew 16 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. (NIV)

Catholics think Jesus meant forgiving sins or excommunicating people. Charismatics think Jesus was talking about binding and loosing demons. The Reformers thought it was the gospel message that looses people or leaves them bound. What do you think?

To find out what the words bind (deō) and loose (luō) mean, let’s see how they’re used in the New Testament.

Binding/loosing demons

There’s one reference to being loosed from sins (Revelation 1:5).

Jewish exorcists spoke of binding demons and loosing demoniacs, so this turns up in two of Jesus’ conversations:

  • In Matthew 12:29, Jesus spoke of binding the strong man to plunder his house. This metaphor was in response to Pharisees accusing him of keeping people enslaved as the devil’s agent (12:27), not freeing them as the Son of David (12:23).
  • In Luke 13:16, Jesus spoke of loosing a woman whom Satan had bound for years. This example involves a wordplay regarding the Law.

Binding/loosing Torah

For Pharisees, the Law was binding. Treat it as anything less than they did, and they’d accuse you of loosing the Law. In Matthew 5:19, Jesus defends against the accusation of “loosing (luō) the least of these commands and teaching others accordingly.”

He was accused of “loosing the Sabbath” (John 5:18). He discussed what could be done without “the Law being loosed” (John 7:23), insisting “Scripture cannot be loosed” (John 10:35). Paul describes marriage as legally binding while the partner lives (deō in Romans 7:2; 1 Corinthians 7:27, 39).

This background is the wordplay in Luke 13. The Pharisees loose (luō) their animal so it doesn’t go a day without water (13:15), but they don’t care about loosing a daughter of Abraham who’d been bound for 18 years. They’re pedantic about not loosing the commands, but they care nothing about loosing God’s people.

Binding/loosing as authority

In most verses where the NT speaks of binding (deō) and loosing (luō), it’s about the operation of governmental authority.

In the Gospels, Herod bound John (Matthew 13:4), the temple leaders bound Jesus (Matthew 27:2), and Roman authorities bound and released (apoluō) Barabbas (Mark 15:9, 11).

In Acts, Saul was authorized to bind followers of Jesus (Acts 9:2, 12, 21; 22:5), Herod bound Peter (12:6), and Agabus prophetically enacted the binding of Paul (21:11-13).

Clearly, what earthly authorities do with their binding and loosing does not match what our heavenly sovereign intends. Paul highlights this incongruence: bound in prison, he asks for “an open door” for the message (Colossians 4:3). He might be locked up like a criminal, God’s decrees are not bound (2 Timothy 2:9).

So, binding and loosing was about opening and closing doors or shackles, especially where a key was involved. Which one you got depended who had the keys.

Jesus bound and loosed

The cross was Jesus’ confrontation with the powers that rejected his kingship: “They bound Jesus … and handed him over to Pilate” (Mark 15:1; John 18:12, 24).

The resurrection was the intervention of heavenly sovereign: “But God raised him from the dead, loosing him from the agony of death” (Acts 2:24).

Earthly authorities attempted to depose God’s anointed by binding and executing him. The heavenly sovereign loosed him from death, lifting him up to sit on David’s throne (Acts 2:30), at God’s right hand (2:33), until all his enemies come under his authority (2:35). This constitutes a change of government for the earth.

A change of government often means opening doors for some and closing doors for others. When Nelson Mandela was loosed after being bound for many years, other political prisoners were also loosed, while corrupt officials were bound. The cross was the last gasp of rebellion against God and his anointed. Raising him up brought the earth back under God’s authority, transforming everything — effectively establishing a new creation.

The authority of the resurrected Christ is the key to restoring all creation, for no one can countermand him. As with David of old, the key of God’s governmental authority over the earth is in the hand of God’s anointed, so what he opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open (Revelation 3:7, echoing Isaiah 22:22). He holds unchallengeable authority because his enemies have already done their worst and failed: “I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18).

That’s what Jesus was saying to Peter.

Jesus delegates his authority

A single follower says, “You are the anointed king, the Son with the authority of the living God.”

You might expect the king to respond:

That’s what I wanted to hear. You finally understand I have the keys to unlock my Father’s reign here on earth for you all! That’s the authority I hold: any door I close stays closed; any door I open stays open. What I decree in the earthly realm has the authority of something decreed by Heaven.

But what the king says is something like this:

At last! One human recognizes me to be what my Father in heaven has decreed! Now you understand the authority I hold, I trust you with my authority. I give you my keys, the keys that unlock Heaven’s reign on earth. When you lock or unlock a door in this realm, you’re acting with Heaven’s authority, as agents of God’s government. What you limit or liberate here will stand as something that has been limited or liberated by God’s government.

Conclusion

Jesus was not speaking specifically of sins (Catholic view) or demons (Charismatic view). His vision was not a community cowering under guilt or in fear of what the devil might do to us.

Binding and loosing demons doesn’t even work as a metaphor: why loose them? We aren’t fighting off the gates of Hell, as if the gates come charging down the road to attack us. In popular imagination, Hell might be a under Satan’s control, but Jesus wasn’t speaking of Gehenna. What he said was that the gates of Hades (the realm of the dead) would not prevent him building the community around his kingship. He meant his own death — the ultimate attempt to block his kingship (explained in verse 21).

Forget the fear of evil. Focus on the one to whom God has given the kingship. This text was never about ranting at the devil.

Jesus authorized us to enact his kingship in his earthly realm. Earth’s government changed when the keys were placed in Jesus’ hands. The Bible gives many accounts where dictators were free (loosed) while God’s people were locked up (bound): Joseph, Jeremiah, Daniel, Israel, Jesus, Peter, Paul, … But the kingship has been entrusted to Jesus, and Jesus entrusts it to all who (like Peter) acknowledge him as God’s anointed ruler (Christ).

So, if Jesus gave us his keys to open and close doors here on earth, how do we use them? We open and close doors that make a difference on earth because we carry heaven’s authority.

Peter said, “You are the Anointed,” and the Anointed king shared his anointing with his people. The calling of the Anointed therefore becomes the calling of the community he anointed to enact his government. The mission of the Anointed ruler is therefore the mission of his anointed people, so we can repurpose Luke 4:18-19 like this:

The Spirit of the Lord is on us,
for his Anointed has anointed us with his authority.
This means a fair go for disadvantaged people,
freeing those imprisoned for power,
restoring vision to those who live in the dark,
liberating those caught in the cycle of injustice.

We’re enacting the change of government — the year when divine benevolence came to earth in the reign of his Anointed.

Time to turn some keys where you live?

 

What others are saying

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 625–626:

Taking up the imagery of Isa 22:20–22, Jesus declares Peter to be the steward (the chief administrative officer) in the kingdom of heaven, who will hold the keys, so that, like Eliakim, the new steward (cf. Isa 22:15) in the kingdom of David, “he will open, and no one shall shut; he will shut and no one shall open.” …

The heavenly “endorsement” of Peter’s decisions is expressed (both here and in 18:18, twice in each verse) in the unusual syntax of future perfect passive verbs, “will have been tied up,” “will have been untied.” The construction is sufficiently unusual and indeed awkward in Greek to draw attention.

Note: What France called an “awkward” Greek construction makes such clear sense as a statement about how authority works that you may not have noticed we used that precise construction in the final sentence before the “Conclusion.”

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview College Dean

2 thoughts on “Binding and loosing (Matthew 16:19)”

  1. Matthew 16 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. (NIV)

    Jesus DID NOT say this but the Father in Heaven did.

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    1. Hi Daniel. So the way you’re reading this is:
      • Simon (Peter) makes his declaration (verse 16).
      • Jesus (Yeshua) responds by describing it as “revealed by my Father” (verse 17).
      • Verses 18-19 contain the content of the revelation Peter received, so the “I” in these verses is the Father. This makes it a quote within a quote — Jesus delivering the Father’s words like a prophet. (It’s unlikely that Matthew would report the Father’s words in the first person.)

      I think I can see how you can read it like that, but I’m not convinced. We’re told that what the Father revealed to Simon was Jesus’ identity. Verses 18-19 are not a revelation of Jesus’ identity but Peter’s identity, so it doesn’t really match as an unfolding what verse 16 said.

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