A gracEmail subscriber in Maine writes, “We had considerable discussion in my Sunday School class on the text which says, ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ What do we ‘bind’ or ‘loose?’ Isn’t this passage used to establish the Roman Catholic priesthood and papal system?”
* * *
Jesus first gives power to “bind” and “loose” to Peter (Matt. 16:19) and later to the believing community (Matt. 18:18). In the first passage, he also gives Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” a figure not mentioned in the second text. Elsewhere in Scripture, “keys” are a symbol of leadership authority, whether delegated to men (Isa. 22:20-22) or claimed by Jesus himself (Rev. 1:18; 3:7).
In the literature of the ancient Jewish rabbis, “binding” and “loosing” has two meanings. Sometimes these terms mean to forbid and to permit, as when a great rabbi pronounces a decision either prohibiting a particular practice or allowing it. If this is Jesus’ meaning, he gives Peter and other believers authority to speak authoritatively as teachers, interpreting general principles to specific situations. However, the New Testament does not indicate that Jesus envisioned or commissioned a school of Christian scribes.
The rabbis also used “bind” and “loose” to mean “condemn” or “forgive.” This meaning seems more appropriate to the Christian ministry, since believers go out as Jesus’ emissaries, with a message of forgiveness, but ready also to withdraw that forgiveness to those who reject it (Matt. 10:12-14; Acts 13:46). Such forgiveness or lack of it seems also the point in Matthew 18:18. Jesus explicitly empowers the apostles to forgive or retain sins in John 20:22-23 (sometimes called the Johannine Pentecost).
Peter was privileged to be the first of the apostles to confess Jesus’ messiahship by divine revelation (Matt. 16:16-17) and the first to see the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 15:5; Lk. 24:34). However, the New Testament never equates this privilege with superiority, nor does it suggest that Peter’s privileged position would be passed on to anyone after him.