What are the Keys to the Kingdom? What is Binding and Loosing?

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What are the keys?

First, the keys. Surely, they’re not physical keys. Right? Keys lock and unlock things… so the keys to the Kingdom, using Jesus’ analogy, would be used to lock or unlock the Kingdom. Keep this in mind, because we’ll come back to it after looking at binding and loosing.

Binding and Loosing

There’s a lot of confusion about this binding and loosing, and a lot of opinions. One reason for the many opinions is that Jesus didn’t explain exactly what He meant, in terms we can easily understand today. Let’s look at Matthew 16:19 to see what happened.

Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Here’s how Jesus responded:

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Now, there were plenty of times where Jesus said something that confused the disciples. He would explain again, to make sure they understood. Here’s a simple question: why didn’t Jesus explain what He meant? It seems that no explanation was needed, and that they knew what He meant. If that’s true, we should learn what binding and loosing meant to them, so it can mean the same to us. If we can understand what Jesus meant, we can lean on our knowledge, rather than wondering about conflicting opinions.

What is a POSEK?

Binding and loosing was a phrase that ancient Jews would be familiar with. It has to do with producing an authoritative interpretation. Think about a judge, in court. He needs to know the law, right? However: applying the law is more difficult than just reading the law. Judges need to interpret the law for each case. Most of the time things are pretty straight-forward, and the law can be easily applied. Some situations, in contrast, require some wise judgment. This is the context of binding and loosing! Most of the time, Jewish law could be easily applied. Sometimes, there would be a dispute about how to apply the law in specific situations. When wise judgment was required, they turned to a POSEK. The word means “decisor.” This was a legal scholar who would know the law and settle disputes by applying the law to each situation. A wise POSEK would ‘bind’ what the law already bound, and ‘loose’ what the law already loosed. Their judgment should never be contrary to the law, but a further explanation of how the law was to be applied.

Peter, a POSEK

Now, back to Simon Peter. Jesus said He would give him the keys to the Kingdom, and that he would bind and loose. A lot of people read this in English, thinking with their 21-century mind, and assume that Jesus was giving Peter the authority to make spiritual decisions on his own. That doesn’t fit the context. First, a POSEK applied the existing law. He didn’t make things up… he judged by what God had already established. Second, if we look at the Greek words that Jesus used, we see something interesting.

Some Bibles, like the NIV above, have Jesus saying that whatever Peter bound on earth will be bound in Heaven. That’s not quite it. When we look at the Greek, the translation is more precisely shall have been bound. It’s the verb ESTAI. This verb is in the ‘middle voice.’ That means that the subject is both an agent of an action, and is involved in the action. Peter would be involved, but the activity of binding and loosing would not be Peter’s. That activity would come from Heaven… that is, from what had already been decided. Remember that a POSEK only applied existing law to specific situations in order to settle a dispute about the law. When binding and loosing, Peter – being wise – would not invent new ideas, but only reflect the decisions God had already made.

Not only Peter

We see the same words spoken by Jesus in Matthew 18 as well. Jesus is talking to all of the disciples, and telling them about causing others to stumble, leaving the ninety-nine to find one lost sheep, and about forgiving others again and again. Right in the middle of this, we find Jesus talking about binding and loosing:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 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. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.

We should notice at least a couple of things in this passage. First, the context of the entire chapter relates to sin and forgiveness. Second, as we see in 18:1, Jesus is giving instructions to ALL of the disciples. We don’t know whether only the twelve were there, or whether Jesus was addressing everyone who traveled with Him… men and women, sometimes 120 or more.

As we see in this passage, ANY two or three of Jesus’ disciples were to bind and loose. This has nothing to do with Peter specifically, or with any one of them having a unique spiritual authority over the church. This certainly doesn’t establish a system of apostolic succession, either. Jesus told His followers that they should work together to address issues of sin and forgiveness among other believers.

Binding and loosing in action

It’s helpful to see an example. Where can we read about a dispute where Jesus’ disciples spoke authoritatively about how to apply the principles they learned from Jesus? The first that comes to mind is in Acts 15 and, not surprisingly, it’s exactly what Jesus described:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.

Here we have our dispute. Paul and Barnabas (and others) came to Jerusalem to have this dispute settled by people who 1) knew what Jesus taught, and 2) would be able to apply those teachings to their specific situation.

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Wow! Here we see binding and loosing in action. Peter is the POSEK, wisely applying what Jesus had already said. The keys to the Kingdom are the knowledge of Jesus’ words and intentions. With those keys, Peter was able to judge wisely and settle disputes so that the Kingdom was open to all. It’s important to keep in mind that Peter’s wise judgment didn’t settle the matter, though. James spoke as well, addressing the whole group… and then the matter was settled.

This is what Jesus meant by binding and loosing. As we see, this wasn’t uniquely Peter’s responsibility, but the responsibility of all disciples of Jesus. At Pentecost, Peter used the keys of the kingdom and ‘opened the door’ to the Jews by preaching the gospel to them. Philip opened the door in Acts 8 for the Ethiopian eunuch. Peter opened the door in Acts 10 for Cornelius and his household. In Acts 15 (the passage above), Peter was the primary speaker… but the council in Jerusalem included others – apostles and elders like James, who also spoke in judgment.

These men didn’t make decisions that Heaven would follow. The decisions had already been made in Heaven. Because of their knowledge of the gospel, they were able to apply the keys to the Kingdom to settle disputes. Their authority doesn’t appear to have come from having a special personality, or from being specially gifted in ways that you and I aren’t. Their authority came from knowing God’s Word, and understanding how Jesus’ teaching should be lived.

Is that it?

I don’t want to overstep, but I would suggest that anyone who understands the gospel might be in the same position of settling disputes by helping others apply the truths of the gospel in their own situations. This kind of advice – whether spoken in person or written on a blog like GodWords – should only be given carefully and prayerfully, using Scripture as our final authority.


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2 responses to “What are the Keys to the Kingdom? What is Binding and Loosing?”

  1. nora Nikkel says:

    A clear instructional article. So often when I need an answer, a scripture will pop into my mind, clearly giving me the answer. Thanks for your dedication to keeping truth at the top of all you teach!! I miss our conversations. My life will hopefully settle down soon so I can get back to normal.

  2. Stan Counsell says:

    It is so normal to see the English wordings and translate them without digging deeper or having a gifted servant of Christ open the Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic wordings for a clearer understanding, not to mention the culture or history of that era.
    This has made the Book of Revelation such a disaster for many. Far too many symbols are taken literally rather than understood in the Greek and biblical/historical context. We deeply need POSEK in that book, not “experts” who teach literally and are ignorant in culture and early biblical history.

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