“Satan, we bind you in the name of Jesus!”
What should we think of this prayer? Does God teach us in his Word to “bind Satan”? That is the question I want to take up in this post, based primarily on Matthew 16:19.
“Binding satan” has become a very common practice in certain circles of the evangelical church. Some Christian leaders are presenting this as the fundamental need in evangelizing the remaining unreached peoples of the world. Satan and his demons must be “bound,” they say, through prayer, so that people can be “loosed” from their captivity and come to Christ.
One thing is certain, more dependance upon God expressed in prayer is a very good thing, and I am convinced that without prayer my own work among an unreached people is going nowhere. But just as with anything else in our Christian faith, our prayer practices need to be grounded in what God himself has taught us about prayer.
I cannot say everything in this post that needs to be said about spiritual warfare nor treat all of the Bible passages relevant to this particular practice, but I want to show that Matthew 16:19 does not support the practice of “binding Satan.” To the contrary, I think that this brief study will show that such praying distracts us from what we should be doing, which is to declare the gospel, calling people to repent of their sins and turn to Jesus Christ in faith, all the time clinging to God in prayer and asking him to do what only he can do, which is change sinners into saints.
Here are the verses I want to study…
15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
In order to understand v. 19, which is our goal, we first have to wrestle with the following question:
What is the “rock” that Jesus says he will build his church on?
Several different answers have been offered, but the most obvious reading of the text is that the rock is Peter. D.A. Carson says, “…if it were not for Protestant reactions against extremes of Roman Catholic interpretation, it is doubtful whether many would have taken “rock” to be anything or anyone other than Peter.” This doesn’t mean, however, that Peter was the first pope. Carson goes on to say, “The text says nothing about Peter’s successors, infallibility, or exclusive authority. These late interpretations entail insuperable exegetical and historical problems.” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Gospel of Matthew).
All Jesus is saying is that Peter especially, but the other apostles as well, are those upon and through whom he is going to begin building his spiritual temple. Compare with Ephesians 2:19-20 where Christ’s church is called, “…the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” Yes, Jesus is the rock, the cornerstone, the foundation, but it is also true to Scripture to say that the apostles are the foundation upon which the church is built.
What, you might say, does this have to do with the question of binding Satan? Hang with me, and I think you’ll begin to see how this whole passage hangs together (like that neat pun?). The next important question is…
What is meant by, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”?
Those in the “binding Satan” camp interpret this phrase to mean that Satan is on the defensive. “After all,” they say, “gates are for the purpose of defending a city.” They understand Jesus to be saying that Satan will not be able to resist the attacks that the church brings as it “storms hell’s gates” and plunders Satan’s kingdom.
But the phrase, “gates of hell” is used several times in the Old Testament, and it always refers to death (see Job 17:16; 38:17; Psalm 9:13; 107:18; Isaiah 38:10). This is probably why the RSV translates the phrase, “The powers of death shall not prevail against it.”
So what Jesus appears to be saying is that the Church he is building, starting with Peter and the other apostles, is indestructible. Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God, is the one building this spiritual temple, and nothing, not even death, can destroy it, because this spiritual house is built of living stones (1 Peter 2:5).
Another argument against reading spiritual warfare into this phrase is that no matter what the understanding of “gates” should be, the verb “prevail” or “overcome” is not a defensive word, but an offensive word. Jesus is saying that his church will not be defeated. He is not saying anything about whom the church will defeat.
What are “the keys of the kingdom”?
First of all, this phrase is another reason why it makes sense to understand that Jesus was referring to Peter himself when he said, “on this rock I will build my church”. Peter is the rock, so Peter is the one who gets the keys. But what are the keys? Two important things can be said to answer that.
1. First, the keys speak of entrance into the kingdom. The only other places that Jesus mentioned keys are Luke 11:52 and Revelation 1:18.
In Luke 11:52, he says, “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” In the context, the lawyers, who should have been the ones to show that the Old Testament prophets testified to Christ, were too busy loading God’s people with heavy legalistic burdens (v. 46). As a result they cheated the people of the “knowledge” of what the prophets said about Christ, with which they could have entered the kingdom.
Also in Revelation 1:18, Jesus says, “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Apart from what Jesus did on the cross, we are condemned to eternal death, but he has the keys of death, and he can deliver us from that destination and bring us into eternal life.
Second, the keys and the binding and loosing phrase explain each other.
Think about what binding and loosing have in common with keys. A key either unlocks a door, so that one can enter, or it locks a door, making it impossible to enter. In the same way, binding keeps someone from doing something while loosing frees them to do something. If you tie someone up, or take away a key, they are helpless. But if you loose them, or give them a key, they can go do something. In this context, people are either being enabled to enter the Kingdom, or prevented from entering the kingdom. But by what?
Here is where the whole passage starts to hang together and all the parts illuminate the whole. When Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus told him that he confessed this because the Father had revealed it to him. Jesus then said that Peter was the rock upon which the Church would be built, and that he, Jesus, will give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven. In other words, the proclamation of the truth about Jesus is the key to heaven. As Peter proclaims the truth about Jesus, which the Father has revealed to him (and will continue to reveal as Peter grows in his understanding of who Jesus is and what he came to do), he is opening the door for many to enter the kingdom.
We see Peter using these keys in the first half of the book of Acts as he preaches and thousands come to faith in Christ.
And that same proclamation that opens the door to some, closes it to others. For the thousands that believed in Acts, there were others who were hardened. I personally have experienced this with many people with whom I have shared the gospel. It is a scary thing to see someone say no to Jesus and to know that it was because of my sharing the gospel with them that they came to that point of rejection. Peter is not “binding” in the sense of keeping people from responding to Christ, but when he proclaims the gospel in Acts, he is the agent through whom people are brought to a point of decision and either bound or loosed.
When we are sharing Christ with someone and they say, “but I think I will find my way to God by some other way than Christ. I’ll follow my own prophet,” it is our duty to say, “no, you cannot go by any other way, there is no other name under heaven given among men, by which we must be saved.” We must bind them and deny them entrance by any other way except by the one who said, “I am the way… no one comes to the Father except through me.” When we declare to those unwilling to follow Christ that salvation is only through him, we are binding. “No, you cannot enter… not on those terms.”
One more observation, there is no reason to understand Matthew 16:19-20 as applying only to Peter and not to us. In the same way that the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 was given to us through Jesus’ words to the apostles, so this commission to bind and to loose as well is given to us through Jesus’ words to Peter.
Back to our starting point. What about “binding Satan” in prayer? It is true that every human being who does not belong to Christ is a captive of Satan, but the biblical teaching is that freedom and salvation do not come from binding Satan, but from declaring the gospel message, calling sinners to repent and turn to Christ. This is what we need to be doing. And all the while, we should be talking to God about those people, not to Satan.