Bible Study Cross-Centered Life Ministry Theology

Binding and Loosing, Part 2 (Matthew 16:15-19)

In my previous post, I sketched out an interpretation of Matthew 16:15-19 that hopefully helps to show that “binding and loosing” is not referring to “warfare prayer.”  According to some, Matthew 16:19 allows us to personally “bind” Satan and his demons in specific situations and places.

I argued that “binding and loosing” refers to God’s people declaring with authority the truth about Jesus. Here in verse 16, Peter is the first to make this proclamation when he enthusiastically responds to the Lord’s question with the glorious words, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” When the truth about Jesus (the gospel message) is declared by God’s people, this proclamation frees some–“looses” them–to enter into eternal life.  It is the key to the kingdom.  For others, that same proclamation “binds” them, shutting them out of the kingdom as they choose to reject the truth.

Now that I have offered this as an interpretation, here is more detail why I think this is the correct way to understand binding and loosing.  I also want to include in this post some thoughts on the implications of this interpretation for our efforts to complete the Great Commission and see Christ’s church advance to the ends of the earth.

“shall be bound” or “shall have been bound”

First, we have to consider the meaning of the words, “shall be bound” and “shall be loosed.”  Even if you are not a greek scholar (the original language of the New Testament), if you are an English speaker, you have a tremendous Bible study tool available to you in the various English translations.  Usually when there is a question of the correct way to interpret the original text, it will come up through a comparison of some of the major translations (you can do this using E-sword (which is free), or Logos, which I use–not free).  In this case, we discover that the ESV, which I usually use here on the blog, and the NASB have translated this phrase differently.  Here is the comparison:

ESV:  …whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

NASB:  …whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.

There is a long-standing debate among biblical scholars over which of these is the better translation and I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say that the NASB translation fits very naturally with what we have seen so far in the rest of the passage.  Let me explain how.

When we proclaim the gospel message, we are directly impacting people’s lives in that when they receive the message, they are loosed and brought into the kingdom.  When they reject the message (and only God knows when that final rejection occurs) they are bound over to eternal punishment.

But even though, as proclaimers of the truth, we are the agents through which this occurs, it is not as though we are the ones deciding peoples’ eternal destinies.  As the NASB translation makes clear, what we bind or loose on earth, God has already bound or loosed in heaven.  D.A. Carson (to whom I am greatly indebted for everything I am presenting in this post), put it this way in his commentary on Matthew:  “He (Peter) has no direct pipeline to heaven, still less do his decisions force heaven to comply; but he may be authoritative in binding and loosing because heaven has acted first.” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew)

When we boldly and authoritatively declare the truth that it is only through Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, that man can be reconciled with his Creator, God’s eternal purposes are fulfilled.  His authority to save sinners is manifested in our authoritative proclamation of the means by which he saves sinners.  We are, in the language of Matthew 16:19, “binding and loosing.”

Binding and loosing put into practice…

The significance then of Jesus’ words here is immense.  God’s eternal purpose to call out for himself a people who will be saved by the redeeming work of Jesus Christ is placed into our hands!  Consider the implications for our efforts to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.  I believe Jesus’ words should embolden us to preach the gospel with courage and authority.  Isn’t this exactly what we see Peter doing in Acts, and then all the other apostles as well, who were then followed by their Timothys and Tituses?

Jesus has given us authority to preach the gospel!  And in our increasingly pluralistic and relativistic world, we need strong assurances of that authority in order to continue to be faithful to our calling as witnesses (Acts 1:8).  This verse was given to us not to emboldent us to speak to Satan, but to embolden us to speak to sinners.

I get worked up by this because I believe that many in the “bind Satan” camp, while they are well-meaning, are forgetting that the commission we received from Jesus’ lips was to “make disciples” and not to “bind Satan”.  And one of the very passages that provides us with the authority we need to make those disciples has been misconstrued and used to distract us from that original commission.  Yes, we must pray!  Absolutely we must pray, but let me be so bold as to say that when we say, “Satan, I bind you in the name of Jesus” we are not praying.  That is not prayer.  Prayer is talking to God, not talking to Satan, (note:  I am not saying that we are never to address demons directly, there is biblical precedent for a verbal rebuke of demons.  I am only saying that there is no biblical precedent for “binding Satan”.)

Another reason why applying these verses correctly is so important is that the very thing that Satan fears more than anything else is the proclamation of the glorious gospel of the blood of Christ that will wrench his captives away from him.  If we really want to wage spiritual warfare, let us do it with the most powerful weapon we have which is the gospel.  It is the gospel that declares that Satan was defeated at the cross.

What does it matter if we have courage to address Satan in prayer, but don’t have courage to address his subjects with the gospel.   Let me say it yet again, it is not for us to bind Satan.  At the appropriate time, he will be bound and cast into the bottomless pit (Revelation 20:1-3), and according to Scripture it will not be we who do it.

Still not convinced?  A final argument

Binding and loosing in Matthew 18:18

If what I and commentators like D.A. Carson and Craig Blomberg (New American Commentary: Matthew) are saying is correct, then a good way to test this interpretation is to see if it fits with Matthew 18:18, which is almost identical to Matthew 16:19, but in a very different context.

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Mattthew 18:15-20)

In neither Matthew 18 nor 16 is there any mention at all of Satan and his demons.  To read them into the binding and loosing verses totally ignores the context of the passage.

Here, the context is one of church discipline.  Notice that in verse 17, the brother who has been confronted with his sin “refuses to listen even to the church”.  He is therefore an example of one who is “bound on earth” in the sense that the church says to this brother, “if you are unwilling to live by the truth of the gospel that we as Christ’s body confess, then you are no longer a part of that body.”  It is not the church that is excommunicating the individual, but God, acting through the church as his agent on earth (NASB, here also:  shall have been bound). And just as in Matthew 16, the church does this through a proclamation of the truth, never acting arbitrarily outside of that truth but only serving as the agent by which God exercises his authority.

Here again, there is a tremendous application to our obedience to Jesus’ command to preach the gospel to all creation.  The growth of the kingdom of God is not accomplished simply by filling our churches with large numbers of people, doing everything in our power to keep people happy and not rock the boat.  We must exercise the authority that God has given us to hold people to the high standard of a life, “worthy of the calling that we have received” (Eph. 4:1).  When we fail to discipline believers who are not living that worthy life, then we are failing to “bind and loose” as Jesus gave us the authority to do.

If you’ve made it this far into a long post (I have trouble writing short ones), let me conclude by saying that I would love to hear your comments on this.  I have just put a new comment subscription plug-in on the blog.  If you care to leave a comment, you can also subscribe to the comments on that post by email and get an email whenever anyone else adds a comment.  Just look for the e-mail sign up at the bottom of the comments section.

Bible Study Cross-Centered Life

How to Build Your House on the Rock (Matthew 7:24-27)

Perhaps, like me, as a child you often sang the cute little song based on Matthew 7:24-27

The wise man built his house upon the rock

The wise man built his house upon the rock

The wise man built his house upon the rock

And the rains came a tumblin’ down…

But when Jesus tells us at the end of the Sermon on the Mount to “build our house on the rock,” what is he referring to?  How do we actually do this?

Here is the whole passage…

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

I’m not sure where my early understanding came from, but for a long time, I thought that the rain and the floods and the wind that beat on the house were the storms of life–the trials  and struggles that all of us go through.  But if you look closely at the context here at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking about the final judgment.  The beating storm that the house must endure is nothing less than the judgment that Christ himself will render when he evaluates our lives on judgment day.  The question at hand, then, is whether or not we will “enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 21), or hear the awful words, “I never knew you, depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (v. 23).

In order to enter the eternal kingdom and live forever with Jesus, we must be like the man who built his house on the rock.  And Jesus states very, very clearly what that means in verse 24.  “Everyone then who hears these words of mind and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

Although it is very true that we must obey everything that Jesus says, when he speaks of “these words” he is referring to what he has just taught in the Sermon on the Mount.  And it is not enough just to hear those words and appreciate them.  We must do them (remember James 1:22-25 and the man who looks at his face in the mirror).

So what does “doing” the things that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount entail?  Well, to be honest, it entails a lot more than you and I are capable of.  What makes Matthew 5-7 so stunning (in the sense of feeling numb like you’ve been hit on the head with a crowbar) is that Jesus doesn’t only endorse what God had already revealed in the Old Testament, he deepens it and makes it a matter of the heart.  So it isn’t enough to just “not murder”, we must also make sure our hearts aren’t harboring bitter and angry thoughts.  It isn’t enough to just “not commit adultery,” our thoughts have to be pure.  We can’t just “claim our rights,” but we must be willing to suffer injustice at the hands of others.  Religious duties like fasting, prayer and giving must be done with a right heart… This is only a partial list of some of the words that we have just heard from Jesus in the sermon on the mount.  Jesus has shown us that a true keeping of the law is so much deeper than just external behavior, it is the description of a life that springs from a pure heart.

Now, depending at what stage you are at in life, you will probably respond to this in one of two ways.  1)  “Well, I guess I better buckle down and get started.  Let’s see, what part of the sermon on the mount will I work on today?”  or 2) “Can I just go back to bed?”

You see, when Jesus says that the one who builds his house on the rock, “hears my words and does them,” it is like being told that you need to build the Biltmore House (click if you’ve never seen the Biltmore House) on your $20,000 a year salary in order to get into heaven.  There’s no way you can do it!

The problem is that the gospel of Matthew is filled with such passages.  Matthew presents the “gospel of the kingdom” that Jesus came preaching: a description of what life under King Jesus is like.  And as glorious as that picture is, and as much as we would like to live it, it can seem unattainable when we look only at this Biltmore House of a life that Jesus talks about and realize that we can’t begin to measure up.

But the gospel of Matthew doesn’t consist only of the “gospel of the Kingdom,” it ends with the King himself dying on a cross and then rising from the dead.  So what is the connection between the message of the King about the life that he wants us to live, and the death and resurrection of the King?

Although there are some clues scattered throughout Matthew, it isn’t until after Jesus ascends to heaven and the apostles, through the Holy Spirit, explain to us in their writings the significance of Jesus’ death that we begin to see how Jesus’ death and resurrection make it possible for us to build our house on the rock.

The only way possible for us to “hear Jesus’ words and do them” is to be united with Jesus in his death and resurrection.  His death becomes our death, and his life becomes our life, and the house on the rock that stands against the storm of God’s judgment is nothing less than the exquisite mansion of Christ’s own life that he builds for us through the Holy Spirit who indwells us.

So, summarizing, how do you build your house on the Rock?

Admit to Jesus your helplessness to build anything that stands a chance of surviving his end-time judgment.  Every day look to his death on the cross, and see there the death of all your attempts to make yourself acceptable to God.  See at the cross as well the forgiveness for all your failed attempts to do what Jesus says.  Receive by faith the resurrected Jesus into your life and ask him to fill you with the Holy Spirit.  And then go out and in the power of his indwelling Spirit, listen to his words and do what he says.

Bible Study Theology

1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:5-6 Is Hell really eternal unending punishment?

I don’t plan on answering that question definitively in this post, but I chose it as the post title because it is something that many sincere Christians ask, and I hope that those who are asking it will read this post and be helped along in their search of answers.

I clearly remember a time in my life when eternal conscious torment in hell was a doctrine that I was finding harder and harder to accept.  I believe that many people today are in that place and I hope that by sharing just a little bit here of what God taught me, they may be spared from the grievous error into which I very nearly fell.

First of all, I want to challenge anyone who is questioning the historic orthodox doctrine of eternal conscious torment in hell to ask himself…

“Why am I questioning the reality of eternal punishment?”

If you are honest, I think you would have to admit, as I had to, that the starting point of my thinking was not what God has revealed to us in his inspired Word about his justice, hell and eternal punishment, but rather it was my own philosophical stumbling blocks.  In other words, it is very hard for us to come to grips with eternal punishment, so we go to the Scriptures trying to find a reason why this can’t be true.  Perhaps we were taught about hell in our childhood without ever understanding the biblical basis for the doctrine.  So as adults we begin to question what we were taught because it just doesn’t seem fair that some sinners would be saved and others would be lost.  It doesn’t seem to accord with our concept of love that God would allow a person to suffer an infinite, eternal punishment.

Are you willing to make what God has revealed your starting point, rather than starting with your questions?  Are you willing to study what God has revealed with an open mind?  When we start with our questions, we are putting God on trial and trying to fit his character and being into our human understanding rather than starting with what is greater and infinite and letting it shape our limited, finite understanding.

Try to come with grips with the large portions of Scripture where God’s pure and holy hatred of sin is undiluted.  This is the value of reading the Old Testament prophets.  They break us and show us our wickedness so that we are then in a position to read a chapter like Isaiah 53 and begin to grasp the magnitude of what Jesus did for us when we understand that the wrath in the cup that Jeremiah was told to take to the nations (Jer. 25:15) was drunk for us by God the Son himself (Luke 22:42).  To say that Jesus did not suffer God’s wrath for us is a convenient route to take philosophically, but it is not what God reveals to us in his Word (see my review of The Shack for some of the biblical teaching on God’s just and holy judgment of sin).

God also showed me my pride in questioning his revelation concerning eternal punishment in hell.  Not only was I stubbornly refusing to come to grips with what he was saying to me in his word, I was also claiming that it was unjust for him to condemn me to hell for my sins.

Of course, my concern wasn’t for myself, so I thought.  I was concerned for others who hadn’t yet come to Christ.  What about them?  How could God send them to hell and not me?  Doesn’t that sound noble?  Doesn’t it sound merciful and loving to question how God could condemn poor, lost sinners to eternal punishment.

But what I was missing was the important scriptural doctrine of the unity of the human race.  The problem is not my sin over against your sin.  The problem is our sin.  In Adam, we are all sinners together.  We bear our guilt together as well as individually (Romans 5:12-21).

So when I say, “God, how can you justly punish that poor sinner with eternal punishment”, I am really saying, “God, how can you justly punish me with eternal punishment.” If I am not willing to accept that I deserve eternal punishment then how can I accept what Jesus did for me at the cross?  Do I think that he is saving me because there is something in me that is worth saving?  If so, then I am clinging to my own filthy rags of self-righteousness rather than casting my self wholly on him.  And if I deserve eternal punishment, then so does every other sinner.  That is why I should pray for those who have not believed with humility, recognizing that it is our sin of unbelief and rebellion that needs to be covered with Jesus’ blood.

This is already a huge post, but I want to treat at least one Bible passage that is sometimes appealed to as an argument that hell is not eternal punishment.  Actually, there are many other more important passages to deal with, but this one happened to be the one that motivated me to write this post in the first place, so I’ll just deal with it.

1 Peter 3:18-19

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.

Many people believe that these verses teach that those who have died without accepting Jesus will eventually be released from hell as they are “brought to their senses” and come to trust in Christ.  Hell, in this way of thinking, is like the “hell” that the prodigal son went through and that brought him to his senses and caused him to come back to Christ (this is only one of several possible interpretations that have been offered). But is Peter really saying here that Jesus, after his resurrection, went and proclaimed the gospel to people from Noah’s day who had died and were in a spiritual prison awaiting judgment day?

1 Peter 4:5-6 seems to refer to the same thing…

5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

Is this verse also teaching that the good news of salvation in Jesus is preached to people after they have died?

I don’t believe it is, and here is why…

In the context of these verses, Peter is talking about suffering as believers when we take a stand for Jesus and proclaim his gospel (3:13-17).  Immediately before the verses in question, he says, (v. 17) “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” Verse 17 is crucial to understand.  If it is better to suffer for doing good, than for doing evil, then there is a suffering for evil that is possible to fall into.  Is Peter here only referring to suffering in this world?  We shall see…

To continue his argument, in v. 18, Peter reminds his readers that Jesus suffered for their sin on the cross so that they would not have to suffer God’s judgment “for doing evil” (end of v. 17).  Jumping ahead to v. 21, Peter reminds them that through their water baptism, which was an outward demonstration of their faith in what Jesus did for them in his death and resurrection, they were saved from having to suffer “for doing evil” (remember v. 17 again).

Now let’s look at the verses in between v. 18 and v. 21.  Here Peter uses the example of the sinners who were judged in Noah’s day to draw a contrast between those who do not have to suffer for doing evil (because they were united with Christ through faith demonstrated in water baptism), and those who do have to suffer for doing evil (because they did not believe).  Those who survived the flood of water represent those who are saved through the water of baptism.  But the water that saved some was also judgment for others who did not believe.

The sinners of Noah’s day had opportunity to repent of their sins and find salvation in Noah’s ark.  But how did they have this opportunity?  Most people assume that the Genesis account says that Noah, during the entire time he was building the ark, was also warning people of the coming flood, but if you look again in Genesis, it never says that Noah preached.  The only references to Noah preaching are in the New Testament.  One is in 2 Peter 2:5, where Noah is called a “herald of righteousness.” The other is right here in 1 Peter 3.  Notice that it says that God was “patiently waiting” in the days of Noah.  Waiting for what?  Peter himself answers that question in his second book (2 Peter 3:5-9).  He says that just as God patiently waited for people to repent in Noah’s day, he is also patiently waiting for them to repent now, before he again comes to bring judgement on the earth.

So what does all of this have to do with Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison?  The answer is that Peter is referring to the fact that Jesus, in the Spirit, was patiently preaching through Noah, in Noah’s day, to the people that were in danger of coming under the judgment of the flood.

Let’s say that my brother gives me a Macbook Pro for my 30th birthday because I am moving to Indonesia to live.  Ten years later, it can be said of my brother, “yeah, he gave a Macbook Pro to his brother in Indonesia.”  It doesn’t mean that I was in Indonesia when he gave it to me, but that in contrast to the brother that lives in Ecuador, it was the brother who now lives in Indonesia that got the new laptop.

So we should understand Peter’s words in v. 19 this way: “…in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits who are (now) in prison.” The spirits of those people who were warned by Jesus, who in the Spirit used Noah as an instrument to warn them, are now in prison.  They are facing eternal judgment because they did not respond in faith to what the Spirit of Jesus was revealing to them by offering them an ark of salvation to get into before the judgment of the flood fell.

Summarizing, these verses in 1 Peter 3 do not teach that people can have the good news preached to them after they die and before the judgment, rather they teach that Jesus suffered for evil, and that if we will put our faith in him, we will not have to suffer for our evil deeds, even though we may have to suffer for doing good.

As Peter continues on talking about Christian suffering, we come to the second reference that seems to imply that the gospel will be preached to people after they die…

1 Peter 4:5-6

5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

Chapter 4 begins with this reasoning:  If Jesus suffered the death penalty for the evil deeds that we were guilty of, then we no longer have to live enslaved to evil human passions.  He doesn’t state it explicitly, but I think his implicit reason for this is that we are united with Christ in his death so that we, with Christ, died to our sins.

He goes on to say that those who are not in Christ do live enslaved to evil human passions, and that they will have to, “give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (v. 5).  In other words, even though those who are not believers think it is pointless, even ridiculous that we do not join them in doing “what feels right,” they will eventually discover that they are going to have to account for their actions.

Then Peter says, This is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead…” Here again, just as he did in chapter 3, Peter is not talking about preaching that occurs after the person has died, but rather preaching that brought people to repentance before they died (see my previous illustration of the Macbook Pro).  These people who “are (now) dead,” had the gospel preached to them SO THAT (this is why…) they would be able to stand in the coming judgment.

Even though these believers seemed to come under the judgment of physical death (this is the meaning of, “… though judged in the flesh the way people are” )  they will live spiritually eternally because Jesus suffered their penalty in their place (“…they might live in the spirit the way God does.”)

So again, the teaching here is not that there will be opportunity for people to be saved after death, but rather that there is a judgment that is coming and for those who have sought refuge in Christ, there is hope that the suffering we experience now is not the portent of eternal judgment.

But for those who have not sought refuge in Christ, the suffering of believers is a sign to them that if they do not repent, they will be judged.  This is why Peter closes chapter 4 with these words:

“15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And…

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,

what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

To conclude my post, I want to lovingly and humbly plead with anyone who may be contemplating the possibility that God will not judge sinners eternally with an infinite punishment.  Seek God in his word.  Spend more time there than alone with your human doubts.  Don’t be content to latch on to a few scriptures that may seem to teach what you want to hear, but ask God to show himself to you, in all of his infinite justice and love that was displayed at the cross of Jesus.  It is my prayerful confidence that he will.