Misquoting Jesus (part 1)
We Christians get into habits rather easily, especially when it comes to how we pray. How many of these common phrases or requests do you recognize?
· “Binding” the Devil, “binding” poverty, or “loosing” a person from demonic oppression
· “Agreeing” with one another in prayer
· Reminding God that “where two or three are gathered,” He’s supposed to show up
When we look up the individual Scripture references supporting all three of these common prayer statements…would it surprise you to learn they all originate from just one of Christ’s teachings?
Reading those verses in context, we find that we’re not quoting Scripture like we thought we were, either.
Jesus was instructing His disciples on God’s desire to seek those who have wandered from their relationship with God, and how they should also desire to see reconciliation. The next part of his teaching focused on how they were to handle when a fellow disciple sins against them. Jesus then finished by explaining to the disciples the importance of forgiveness in their relationships with each other. The verses we are interested in come from the middle section – what to do when another follower of Christ wrongs you.
Matthew 18:15-17 “If you brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you.
The aim throughout this process is reconciliation, just like God the Father is seeking reconciliation with those who have wronged Him. Jesus is giving His disciples a plan to follow so the offense can be appropriately handled and, hopefully, corrected. However, when a fellow believer obstinately refuses to listen to correction, there are specific steps that Jesus says are to be taken.
The disciples would have been familiar with the Old Testament concept of two or three witnesses being required to verify an accusation in legal setting. Jesus now brings this practice into civil matters between believers. These steps, however, would not be easy ones. In fact, going through with the discipline Jesus prescribes would potentially be very messy.
Sensing the disciples’ rising anxiety, Jesus calmed their fears by telling them:
Matthew 18:18 I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.
So in the context of this discipline, what is Jesus referring to with the terms binding and loosing?
Our first observation is that whatever binding and loosing refer to, it is clearly something that has more than just a local impact – whichever one happens on earth, it also happens in heaven.
Our second observation is that Jesus is giving this direction to His disciples, those who would one day be leaders in the church. These are the leaders that would have been presented with the situation of the offending brother after the two or three witnesses were unable to convince him of his error. At this point, reconciliation has not been achieved, and the matter is now up for the church leaders to consider and hand out a verdict. According to Jesus, this verdict could go as far as the excommunication of the offender.
With these two observations, the idea behind binding and loosing becomes much clearer. What the disciples decide to permit or reject in this setting has consequences greater than their immediate assembly. Jesus is assuring them that if and when they hand out punishment against the offender, God himself will back them up by permitting or rejecting the believer’s fellowship with Him.
Breathe for moment – I’m not suggesting that the offending brother can lose their salvation. From the Scriptures (e.g. – John 10:27-30), we know that’s not possible to lose eternal salvation because our salvation relies entirely on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and not anything we do or don’t do.
However, a constant theme of all New Testament writers is that our choices have eternal significance and consequences. If I create such a great offense against my fellow believer, and I obstinately refuse to acknowledge my error and repent, and the situation escalates all the way to a congregational-level problem where the church leaders deem it necessary to remove me from the congregation…if that situation occurs, wouldn’t you expect that God also has a strong opinion about my chosen course of action as well?
Binding and loosing, then, is the authority given to church leaders to decide matters of fellowship among their flock. This is a huge deal and a large responsibility within a difficult situation, and Jesus is promising them that God will support them in their decision.
So a proper application of Matthew 18:15-18 would be to pray for reconciliation with your brother or sister in Christ. We should also pray for our church leaders to use their God-given authority carefully and wisely.
But let’s not misquote Jesus. Based on verse 18, we – as individuals – have no authority to bind or loose anything.