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 Ministry Theology

Binding and Loosing (Matthew 16:15-19)

“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.


The Reproducibility Principle Reconsidered

This post may be more relevant to those who are involved in cross-cultural Christian ministry, but I think it can also apply to those who are seeking to reach those of their own culture with the gospel.

The principle of “reproducibility,” as it is usually presented, states that in missions, we should evangelize, disciple believers, and plant churches in such a way that the methods and practices we are using to do the work can be easily reproduced by those within the culture we are trying to reach.

Usually the focus falls on the methods and practices that we employ in ministry.  For example…

A mission is trying to reach a people group that is primarily poor, unskilled laborers, so they decide to build a first-class hospital where the people can come to get medical care that is not normally available to them.  The patients experience the love of Christ through the Christian doctors and nurses, hear the gospel proclaimed and become believers.  Discipleship classes are hosted at the hospital’s excellent facilities and hundreds if not thousands of people’s lives are touched every year.

Hospitals are a wonderful means of spreading the gospel and have been used by the Lord with great results through the years.  But this is not a reproducible method. In other words, the poor, unskilled laborers reached through the hospital are not able to take this same method and use it to reach others. They have no medical expertise.  They have no resources to build excellent facilities.  It is a good method, but it is not reproducible.

An example of a reproducible method, on the other hand, might be Evangelism Explosion.  I was trained in E.E. as a young pastor and was very impressed at the potential this method had to unleash an ever-increasing number of evangelists.  an E.E. trainer takes two others under his wing and teaches them a short, memorized presentation of the gospel that they can use to share with others.  Once they are trained, each of them can then train two others, who in turn then each train two others… and on it goes with a multiplication effect that essentially is limitless.  It doesn’t cost anything, it is simple, and within the North American culture it was designed for, it is very reproducible.

These are examples of the reproduciblity principle as it is normally understood by missiologists.  But here is the important “reconsideration” of reproducibility that I am proposing:

The power of reproducibility lies not in the ministry methods or practices used, but in the divine life that is at work in God’s people as the kingdom of God grows.

We cross-cultural workers who are seeking a reproducing movement that is constantly producing new believers and new churches must never forget this.  While it is certainly not wrong to apply the reproducibility principle to methods and practices, we must realize that methods and practices and strategies and tools in and of themselves are not capable of containing and generating divine life.

It is God’s divine life that reproduces itself in the lives of people and is spreading to fill the whole world with his glory.  This is why Paul so often refers to the Church as the Body of Christ that is growing and pulsing with Jesus’ divine life

Ephesians 4:15-16

“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

In Colossians 2:19 we are told to hold fast to…

“…the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.”

Could it be that in our attempt to discover and perfect reproducible methods we sometimes cut ourselves off from the power of this divine life that God has provided to give us fruit in our evangelistic, discipleship and church planting efforts?  By trying to find just the right reproducible method, we unintentionally blind ourselves to the need to seek the  life that is in Jesus himself and that is able to generate incredible growth and fruit as it flows through whatever method or practice God in his wisdom and sovereignty chooses to bless.

I realize that the reproducibility principle as it is applied to methods and practices does not exclude a dependance on the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through believers who are filled with him and living in the power of his life, but I think we need to remind ourselves that God is under no obligation to bless whatever methods and practices seem most reproducible to us.  He may very well choose to bypass them and to work in a way that is counter-intuitive to us just to show the greatness of the power of his life as it flows in his body.

1 Corinthians 1:27

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;

I have observed God’s power and divine life flowing through methods and practices that were very far from being “reproducible”, and I have also observed many excellent and reproducible methods and practices that just were not producing fruit.  The lesson to be learned is NOT that it is wrong to ask God to show us methods and practices that are able to be used by the people we are trying to reach, but to think that these in and of themselves are sufficient to bring about the multiplication that we desire to see.

As divine life is passed from those Christian doctors and nurses to the patients whose lives they touch, reproduction takes place and the Kingdom of God grows.  God can use a very un-reproducible method to grow his church.

On the other hand, if E.E. is seen as being “the answer” to reaching people with the gospel and is taught simply as words to be spoken and passed on to others, a very reproducible method will have no power at all to make any eternal difference in the life of a single person.

  • So is it wrong to get excited about promising new methods or practices?  Absolutely not!  They may very well be God’s good gifts to us to enable us to do his work in the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • Is it wrong to evaluate methods and practices on the basis of their capacity to be reproduced by the people we are trying to reach?  Absolutely not!  The desire to use reproducible methods springs from a desire that the power of God be glorified.  When God chooses to use a world-class hospital, it can be tempting to say that it was the hospital that brought about the conversions, but when God uses simple, reproducible practices, it is usually more apparent that it is his power that produced the fruit.
  • Is it wrong to use non-reproducible methods?  Not if we receive specific instructions from “the Head” to do so.  I would not stand in the way of any Christian worker or organization who is following what they believe to the clear leading of the Holy Spirit.  The trick is to make sure that we are hearing from him and not depending on fleshly resources to do spiritual work.

Zechariah 4:6

Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.