Matthew 18:18 has put a question into the minds of our church group. Can you help us understand this verse?
As with any passage of Scripture, we must note the context in order to understand it. If you read verses 15–20, you will notice that our Lord was referring to the procedure of discipline and dispute-settling among believers. Jesus was looking ahead to the institution of the local church in particular and also to the apostles (12 eyewitnesses of the Lord who were commissioned by Him as leaders of the New Testament church until they passed away, the church gained a proper foothold, and the canon of Scripture was complete). Verse 18 reads,
Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Verse 15 and the following verses tell us what to do when another believer sins. As Christians we are to go to the sinning brother in private and tell him his sin. The apostle Paul taught that we must have a spirit of meekness for this encounter (Galatians 6:1). If the sinning believer brushes off the contact, then at least two believers are to speak to him of the matter. If the sinning believer refuses to listen to those two, he is to be brought before the entire congregation. If he refuses, the congregation is to regard him as a heathen and a despised tax collector.
Now let me ask you a question. By what authority can believers follow this disciplinary procedure? The verse you ask about is the answer. The verse indicates that when a church operates Biblically, God permits and honors its decisions and actions; in fact in essence He is the One ultimately performing those actions and decisions. The church belongs to Him, and He uses human instruments to take action.
To understand the words “binding” and loosing” in Matthew 18:18, we have an excellent example in 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul told the Corinthian church to put away (“bind”) a man who was guilty of gross immorality until he repented. In 2 Corinthians 2:5–11, Paul instructed the congregation to forgive the man upon his repentance. In so doing, the congregation was in the “loosing” business, and this binding and loosing “on earth” has the approval of Heaven.
Matthew 18:18 reads much like Matthew 16:19, where we find Christ referring to the disciples in their upcoming apostolic role. They did not have the power to forgive sins; only God has that power. Further the church was not built upon Peter, as some have erroneously concluded by this passage (see 1 Corinthians 3:11 and Ephesians 2:20). Jesus was speaking to all the apostles in verse 19 and on the occasion mentioned in John 20:22 and 23. Let’s look at the apostles. Peter was an instrument at Pentecost (Acts 2) and to the Gentiles at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10). But the apostle Paul was the missionary to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15), and the others had work to do. These events were in keeping with the advance of the Great Commission.
The word “keys” in Matthew 16:19 speaks of access, and possessing these keys could bind and loose people. In one sense, believers hold the keys to the kingdom. While the apostles may have had special power that we do not today, as Christ’s representatives we continue to do His binding and loosing business through the Word of God (2 Corinthians 5:19, 20). But in reality, it is Heaven that does the binding and loosing, both then and now. We are merely God’s instruments.
Incidentally, verses 19 and 20 of Matthew 18 are frequently used as an encouragement to those who gather for prayer though they be few in number. This is true, but we must not forget that the context of Matthew 18 deals with prayer concerning discipline and forgiveness in the body of believers. The next two verses (21 and 22) also indicate this emphasis.
Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send to email@example.com or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.