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Binding and Loosing (Mat 18:18): A Call to Forgiveness and Unity in the Body

Matthew 18:18 states, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” The NASB is one of the only modern English versions to render and reflect in the English the “bound in heaven” element of this verse in its future perfect passive tense.

What do I mean by this? And why is it important?

First let us look at a couple other popular versions. The ESV and NIV render this verse as follows:

Matthew 18:18 (ESV) — 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.”

Matthew 18:18 (NIV) — 18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Note the significant change of meaning that occurs between these English versions based on the translator’s choice of English expression (in bold above). In the NASB version, it appears that the decision or verdict rendered allows the reality on earth to come in line with the reality already established in heaven. Whereas, in the ESV and NIV it appears that the verdict rendered on earth can result or even “cause” a similar verdict in heaven. While this may seem like a slight nuance, it is an important one.

Many have argued about the meaning and intent of this passage. Some have argued, for example, that the Lord in these (and related verses) was trying to “establish the authority” of Peter and the Apostles specifically “over” the “church” to make halachic (legal) decisions concerning Torah application within the community. Some even assert that Peter and the Apostles were in this passage given authority to determine who was to be considered “saved” and who was not to be considered “saved,’ and what commandments would “apply” and “not apply” to various believers going forward. But is that really what is being taught by our Lord in these passages?

There are some commentators who further assume that the Lord in Matt. 18 is removing the authority of the Pharisees to render legal decisions and giving it to His Apostles. Yet, these commentators appear to have completely missed the greater context and point of this passage because their focus is fixed on determining who has “authority to rule” rather than the main point of the teaching given in this text.

In Matt. 18, Messiah is, on the one hand, discussing authority that is given to the believing community, particularly the leadership and members within the community of faith, but on the other hand, He is teaching the disciples a greater significance of this responsibility in light of the forgiveness they also have received and the expectation the Lord has with regard to their treatment of fellow members of the faith, or we could say fellow “debtors” of Messiah.

To illustrate this confusion about the meaning of Matt.18, we will look at a typical explanation of this text found in the World Biblical Commentary, vol 33b, pages 473-474. I will interject and make a few comments along the way. Then, after reading the selection from the commentary, we will analyze this commentary’s perspective in light of what the actual biblical text itself states. Although some of what the commentators say is true, notice their focus is less about the nature and importance of forgiveness (the main point of the teaching) and more about who has “authority” to make the rules over other men.

This tendency of men to focus on who gets to “make decisions about the rules” is typical of all men. Rather than focusing on the central message to be learned in the passage, people use passages like Matt 18 to justify or try and take authority over others. Rather than recognizing the importance and responsibility believers have to forgive debts (because of sin) owed them by fellow believers, because as believers they have had their debts forgiven by God and such forgiveness is necessary to exercise true love and unity with the body, the emphasis of most commentators tends to be placed on “who’s right” or “who’s wrong” and who gets to decide who’s right or who’s wrong. Even worse, some commentators and Bible teachers use this “authority” argument to justify “changes to God’s Law” made by men in positions of “authority” in the “church.” The World Biblical Commentary states:

In its primary meaning, the phrase “binding and loosing” refers to the allowing and disallowing of certain conduct, based on an interpretation of the commandments of the Torah, and thus it concerns the issue of whether or not one is in proper relationship to the will of God (contrast the reference to the Pharisees’ misuse of their authority [note implied keys!] in 23:13). In Matthew, Jesus is the true interpreter of Torah. His disciples will pass on that interpretation and extend it. Thus Matthew may have in mind the teaching office of Peter and the apostles (for whom the power of binding and loosing is also assumed in the plural verbs of 18:18 in the discourse on “church discipline”). Peter is in this sense the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven (13:52). This would be a more Matthean description (cf. 23:8) than the reference to Peter as “chief rabbi” by B. P. Robinson (98) and Davies-Allison (2:639). He is the primary custodian and guarantor of the tradition of the teaching of JesusThis means the words of Jesus and would, of course, include the ethical teaching of Jesus—his authoritative exposition of the law.

Note here how the commentators make a convenient but illogical distinction between Jesus’ words and that of the Law, as if Jesus’ words are different than the Father’s in the Law or Instructions of God. Or, as if Jesus is then not God or His Words are not one with the Father’s Words, or that Jesus and the Father would somehow think or teach different things. Thus, we are to believe that “only” the so called “moral laws” in the Father’s Laws “still apply,” as if they can be logically identified and pulled apart out of various random contexts, and as if they were different from Jesus’ Laws, and as if every law did not contain a moral element or is not moral in nature even though it may also have real, tangible, physical aspects in its application in the real world.

The commentary continues saying: “But it also includes the kerygmatic utterances of Jesus concerning the coming of the kingdom of God as well as those that point to his own unique position in the mediation of salvation (e.g., 10:32–33, 39; 11:27). Thus, despite the rabbinic idiom, more is in view than halachic renderings (although Matthew and his community would have relished this aspect). In construing the meaning here more widely so as to include gospel with law,”

[As if these (law and gospel) were opposites which they are not]

we may appeal to the closely related saying in John 20:23 (indeed, probably a variant of the present logion [thus Emerton on the basis of underlying Aramaic]): “If you [plural] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you [plural] retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The Matthean logion has an extended meaning quite like this, which refers to the declaration of the forgiveness of sins, i.e., of salvation itself (cf. 18:18; Fornberg thus likens Peter to the high priest of the new covenant). The authority spoken of, then, is in effect that of being able to declare whether a person becomes fully a part of the community of salvation or not, no longer simply on the basis of obedience to Torah but on the basis of response or lack of response to the good news of the kingdom (cf. the practice of the disciples in 10:13–15). It is the conveying of “the word of grace and judgment” (Jeremias, TDNT 3:752). Thus it is not wrong to say, as Knight does, that ultimately the power of the keys is given to the people of God as a whole (178). Marcus (453) regards this as an apocalyptic change that alters the cosmos (including the law), involving the transfer of authority from the scribes and Pharisees to Peter.

To indicate the final authority of this “binding and loosing,” the unusual Greek construction of the future tense and the perfect participle is employed (ἔσται δεδεμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, “shall have been bound in heaven”; ἔσται λελυμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, “shall have been loosed in heaven”). The meaning of these tenses is not altogether clear…Many take them as referring to decisions already taken in heaven, thus giving a predestinarian sense to the statement (e.g., Gundry, Carson, Mantey, Marcus). That Matthew has a doctrine of election is clear from 11:25–27, as we have seen, and thus this interpretation of the tenses must be taken seriously. At the same time, the thrust of the present passage (like that of 18:18) has more to do with the establishment of the authority of Peter (the apostles and the church) in his mission to the world.

 Is the establishment of the authority of Peter and the apostles really the “thrust of the present passage?” We will see that it is not. It is only secondary to the thrust of the message. The commentary continues saying:

 The judgment of Peter, and by implication that of the church, reflects what is in accord with what is settled in heaven as the fully determined will of God (see Mantey, Porter). Whether this is already decreed in the will of God or subsequently ratified as the will of God is not the issue here. Peter’s authority, in short, is such that he speaks on behalf of heaven (i.e., God).[1]

 As you can see the commentators are distracted by their own ideas of men judging men, but I propose that Messiah had a greater point and lesson in mind that is less about rendering a guilty or not guilty verdict based on an analysis of the Law of God, but rather, the nature, importance, and responsibility of forgiveness toward all who are repentant within the body of believers. In this way believers will not judge guilty those whom God has judged innocent, and the believing community will render forgiveness toward brothers and sisters in the Lord in the manner God has rendered it toward us, thus allowing the world to know we are His people: a great and merciful people who serve a great and merciful God. This primary message is not only demonstrated in the grammar of the text but also in the greater context and parable that follows.

 Matt. 18 is not about giving Peter and “the Church” (Catholic in particular) the “authority” to make legal rulings and change the Torah’s laws itself (binding or obligating some things and loosing or rendering obsolete others) if they so please, as they have often determined in the past to do. Rather, Matt. 18 is a demonstration of how believers, and particularly leaders among the believing community, are to treat those members of the faith who have wronged us, or are engaged in sin toward us in order that peace and unity may abound in the community.

 Let’s look at a few key words throughout this section of Scripture to see the passage and its message more clearly.

 First, it is helpful to use the future perfect passive tense in the English that, as was previously mentioned, conveys the idea that we on earth should render decisions that line up with that of heaven (as discerned through God’s Word) rather than the other way around. In other words, we do not “decide” and heaven is obliged to agree with us; rather, we agree with God via knowledge of His Word, and in so doing we are able to manifest the reality of the Lord’s prayer that says “on earth as it is in heaven” in very tangible terms. We both determine or discern if a sin has been committed against us based on the predetermined Word of God found in the Torah, and we offer mercy or forgiveness whenever the believer who sinned against us repents and seeks our forgiveness.

 The decision then ultimately centers on whether we will “bind” or “loose” something. When applied in the greater context, we see that the decision centers on binding (i.e. upholding) or loosing (i.e. forgiving) a debt someone owes us because of sin against us (18:15). The verse further implies that the offender may be ignorant of the offense and needs to have an opportunity to understand their offense in order to repent.

 The text states that if you go to your brother/sister in the Lord privately, reveal the sin he/she has committed against you, and your borther/sister “listens” to you, you have won your brother/sister. The word translated “listens” ἀκούω (Matt 18:15) is the same word translated “hear” ἀκούωin Mark 12:29 (which is the Shema or foremost commandment). Thus, if your brother/sister “hears” you with the intent of repenting, then you’ve won your brother. If he does not “hear” you (i.e. does not repent and ask your forgiveness), then you take other members with you and perhaps your brother will “hear” them and repent (turn from the sin and seek your forgiveness). Finally, if the brother/sister will not listen or “hear” them, nor “hear” the voice of the community and continues in the sin with knowledge, you and the community are to treat him or her like a pagan or a traitor as these idioms, “gentile” and “tax collector” imply (18:17) in this context. In other words, the community may exercise excommunication in the sense that they treat the person as one who is outside the framework of the believing community. In which case, from a legal standpoint, an individual could take the person to court if the situation warranted it because of the person’s refusal to repent (see footnote for further details on this point).[2]

 The initial idea here is that if the person who sinned repents and asks your forgiveness, even if it took the pressure of the whole community to get them to “hear” that they were wrong, and you and the community “loose” the obligation or debt, i.e. forgives the person, this aligns with what heaven also has done for all those who repent before God. However, if the person refuses to repent, and the community must exercise excommunication or treat them like a pagan or traitor to the kingdom, then such a verdict stands already in heaven and is now simply evidenced to all.

 However, the greater point of the lesson is yet to come. Peter asks how often should he “forgive” a brother who sins against him. The Greek word “forgive” ἀφίημι comes from the root ιημι that means to “loosen, unfasten”. This verbal connection is easily lost in the English. Thus, the Lord’s answer ’70 x 7′, implies an infinite amount of times, but the parable lays home the greater point and responsibility to forgive believers within our midst (provided they are willing to repent and ask our forgiveness), because we ourselves have sinned against God and He has forgiven all of our debts.

 Thus, the point of the “loosing” and “binding” in this context in Matt 18 has to do with halachic (or legal judgment) only secondarily to the greater point. This is because such halachic “judgment” is only necessary if the person requires the community’s assistance. However, this authority to judge is clearly universal because it begins with the individual’s assessment of the situation. Only if necessary are others brought in and required to render their judgment which must agree. A last resort is to bring in the entire community to place a greater weight of opinion against the person who has sinned, in the hope that they will hear the collective voice of the group and repent. The only qualification to judge appears to be that one is part of the community of faith and operates within one’s local community, although the extent of the excommunication could go outside the local community if the situation warranted it.

 Note that in all cases there are multiple witnesses making judgment and these must be in agreement according to Matt 18:19 (the assumption being that the Holy Spirit is bearing witness with all the witnesses). In the case of the individual, if the person repents, then these two believers (the one who was wronged and the one who asked forgiveness) are “in agreement” on the matter and the Lord is with them. The rest of the community need never know a sin occurred, thus “love” may cover a multitude of sins.

 If the person initially does not “hear” his brother, then other witnesses are brought in. It is at this point that the “elders” of a local community (who are often the ones called in such matters) must render their halachic decision as to whether they agree that the person acted in sin or not. If the elders agree that the person acted in sin, then they come in agreement with each other and the one who was wronged, and the Lord says He is with them all in this decision. (This of course assumes that all involved have no evil intent or are not conspiring against someone falsely as was the case that was made against our Lord). The same process applies when the entire community is brought into the situation, in which case, if the person persists in his sin, he is excommunicated and the Lord is with the community in the decision.

 Sadly, religious men have long used these verses to justify taking control of other men and manipulating the Scriptures. For example, the Lord accuses the Pharisees of doing just such a thing in Matt 23:13. But in reality, this teaching in Matt 18 is not meant to be used as a method of gaining authority to “forgive sin” or “declare who is saved or not saved” or anything of the sort (as some Catholic and other teachings imply). Rather, the primary teaching and principle taught here is clearly seen for what it is through the parable. 

 Matthew 18:32–35 (NASB95) — 32 “Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 ‘Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34 “And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.

 These are powerful words. Notice the connection with a lack of a heart to forgive and the fact that God is then willing to “hand them over,” not forever, but only until one’s debt is repaid. In practical terms, the only way to have one’s debt forgiven or paid is in or through Messiah’s sacrifice, which requires repentance. But if a person won’t “Shema” or “Listen” to the Word of the Lord, then not only will he not repent himself, but this reality will be manifest in his behavior toward or lack of forgiveness of his brothers and sisters in the Lord when they sin against him.  Thus we learn that not only do we ourselves have to repent from sin personally, BUT we also have to be willing to forgive those who sin against us. Those unwilling to forgive those who sin against them “in their heart” (18:35) demonstrate that their debt to the Lord remains, and the Lord will hand them over to the “torturers” (jailers or enemy you might say) to be sifted until such a time as they repent and their debt is paid the only way it can be paid, in Messiah.

 This almost seems like circular logic, but it shows the dynamic of salvation and forgiveness. While God is willing to forgive us our debts, no matter how great or small, He requires that we must be willing to do the same for others. Why? Because when we act the way He acts toward us, we reveal who He is to the world. When we are not willing to forgive others, not only do we misrepresent God to the world, but we prove that we do not understand the nature of our own forgiveness and we stand condemned until such time as we truly learn the nature of repentance which requires forgiveness not only from God toward us, but by us toward our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

 When a brother sins against us, we should seek reconciliation, and we should be willing to forgive to the degree that we ourselves have been and continue to be forgiven. This is a heavy price to pay because we know that we have and continue to fall short, thus how can we exact payment from our brother when we ourselves have had our debt forgiven? If we miss this important point then we miss the most valuable lesson and critical tool that will keep our communities together, unified, and healthy.

 When the Bible says that the world will know us by our love for each other,[3] the only way this can happen is when we learn how to truly love (i.e. loose and forgive) our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

 But so also, this type of situation requires humility by all, because all of us have hurt our brother and all of us have been hurt by our brother. In other words, we must both be willing to humble ourselves when we wrong our brother, and we must forgive our brother when he sins against us and asks our forgiveness. Only when we operate in such a manner will the world truly see our love for each other. Only then will we be able to truly impact the world for Kingdom of God.

TDNT G. Kittel and G. Friedrich, eds., tr. G. W. Bromiley Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols., ET (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964–76)

[1]Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28, vol. 33B, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 473–474.

[2] “Can a Christian ever scripturally sue anyone, and if so, whom can he sue and whom can he not sue? Scripture states directly that lawsuits should not take place between or among Christians, even in a clear case of fraud and wrongdoing. If a defendant is not a Christian, however, then Paul’s admonition not to sue should not necessarily apply. Thus a lawsuit against a corporation would probably be unaffected by 1 Corinthians 6:7.4 Also, in the event of proper church discipline, a person may be dealt with as an unbeliever (Matt. 18:17, 18). This may well render such a person outside the scope of 1 Corinthians 6:6, 7. There is no specific scriptural admonition not to sue other persons or entities, such as governments. In determining to sue or not to sue, however, the Christian should keep in mind that just because a defendant is scripturally open to suit doesn’t mean that the Christian plaintiff is not at the same time called to forgive the defendant.” H. Wayne House, Christian Ministries and the Law, ed. Revised edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1999), 179

[3] John 13:35 (NASB95) — 35 “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

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