There are times when we read a passage of Scripture and just scratch our heads. What does that even mean, we wonder. A friend and I had this struggle when looking at Matthew 16:19. Yet as I prayed and dug into the verses, the Lord brought the meaning into focus.
In the verse, Jesus is responding to Peter’s profession of belief. He tells him, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). There are a variety of interpretations of this verse, but keeping a few interpretive principles in mind will help us see the true intent.
One of the key things to remember when studying Scripture is to view the passage in context. This includes both the larger Biblical context as well as the immediate context of the surrounding verses. As we apply this to Matthew 16, we see that Jesus is speaking of spiritual warfare. He tells Peter that he )Peter) had received an understanding of who Jesus was because God had revealed this truth (v. 17). This happened on the spiritual level. He further tells Peter that upon his confession, He would “build [His] church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (v. 18). Then Jesus explains about His coming crucifixion, and when Peter confronts Him, Jesus rebukes him and calls him “Satan” (v. 23). The pattern continues.
So we see that verse 19 is situated in this particular context of spiritual warfare. Now let’s dig into the various parts. Jesus tells Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (v. 19). Was He giving Peter the authority to determine who gets into heaven and who doesn’t? In a way, yes, but not in the sense that Peter had that authority in himself. Rather, “the key” of verse 19 is the gospel message. Jesus would later say, “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). There is no reference to Peter there, and Jesus wasn’t even speaking directly to Peter. He was laying out the gospel truth that only through faith in Him can we receive eternal life.
And so here in Matthew, Jesus is saying that “the key” He would “give” to Peter was this gospel message (v. 19). Peter had just made an amazing profession of faith in verse 16, and Jesus was saying he would carry that message to the world. Peter could choose to share that message and point to the entrance into the Kingdom, or he could keep silent and prevent people from entering. The same is true for us. We have the same “key;” it was not something unique to Peter (v. 19).
This is insightful, but we still have not dealt with the main issue: the binding and loosing. What does this refer to, and who can do it? We need to really pay attention to the tenses in this verse. Jesus told Peter, “whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven,” past tense (v. 19). Same thing with the loosing. Some translations obscure this tense, but this is what we must understand. Whatever the binding and loosing refers to, it is continuing something that has already been done in the heavenly realm.
But this still doesn’t give us the full answer. Another step in the process of interpretation is finding cross-references. For this text, there are two main related passages: Matthew 18 and John 20. Let’s look at John 20 first.
Jesus has risen from the dead, and He has appeared to ten of the disciples (Judas had already killed himself and Thomas was not present). He tells them to “receive the Holy Spirit,” and then says, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you forgive the sins of any, they have been retained” (John 20:22, 23). Again, pay attention to the tense: the forgiveness is in the past tense. So in other words, Jesus was not giving the disciples themselves authority to forgive, but the authority to proclaim the message of forgiveness. His work upon the cross is why we can have forgiveness, but only by believing in Him will that forgiveness be extended to us. So if we withhold that message, we are keeping people from receiving forgiveness at that time. Now, God will save all those He has chosen, to be sure, but that’s another topic. Here, Jesus is speaking of the responsibility given to believers to share the message of His forgiveness.
This lines up with the past tenses in Matthew 16:19. Let’s turn to Matthew 18 to see about the binding and loosing. Jesus is in private, speaking with His disciples and giving them instructions for the coming time of the Church. Beginning in verse 15, He begins outlining the steps of church discipline for those who stubbornly persist in sin. Immediately after the final step, He says, “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” (Matthew 18:18). The exact same words as Matthew 16, and once again, the context is spiritual warfare.
Now we might be thinking, “Spiritual warfare? Really?” Yes, for when a person is outside of the church, they have lost some of the spiritual protection they had, and the enemy is more free to attack them*. For instance, see Paul’s words about Satan’s dealing with certain people in 1 Corinthians 5:5 and 1 Timothy 1:20. Dealing with sin and spiritual authority is indeed spiritual warfare.
And that’s the main part of spiritual warfare that is in view back in Matthew 16. Jesus was not giving Peter and those seen as his successors authority to dictate rules for the Church. He was not giving them authority to control other believers. Instead, He was saying we are to do warfare in the spiritual realm when it comes to authority. As the church moves on and battles against Satanic forces, we will find times where we need to bind demons that oppose Christ’s work. They need to be restricted in their jurisdictional authority. There are also times where we need to pray for a loosing of a good spirit, such as a spirit of unity among a congregation.
Now I admit, we don’t have a whole lot of details about demonic and angelic activity in Scripture, but they are indeed present. There is a war going on, and we are involved in it. Paul said, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Did you catch that last part? Paul says we fight “against the spiritual forces of wickedness” (v. 12). We fight against them in the power of the Holy Spirit, and it is by the authority of Jesus Christ that we engage in warfare. We ourselves do not have that authority, but we can claim it as children of the Most High. We can rebuke a spirit of depravity “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” We must fight in His strength and under His authority.
So that is what the binding and loosing refer to: binding and loosing of spiritual authority in the context of spiritual warfare. Do I know all the details of how this works? No, but I am convinced that this is the correct interpretation of the passage. I trust the Holy Spirit to guide me as I seek to interpret and apply this further.
So I hope that this example has helped to demonstrate a process of looking at a difficult passage of Scripture. We won’t fully know all the answers in this life, but we can do our due diligence to seek to understand. While we can use these methods, we must always be guided by the Holy Spirit. As with the warfare itself, we cannot rely upon our own strength. So then, let us go forward in His strength, “stand firm against the” enemy, and seek to know the Lord and His Word more and more each day (Ephesians 6:11).
*I was introduced to the idea of spiritual protection by my pastor, Joe Kress.