To Bind or Not to Bind?

Yes of course, that is the wrong question isn’t it. I just couldn’t resist! Let us start by asking the correct question.

 

Question: Do the terms “binding” and “loosing” that Jesus referred to in Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18, refer to binding and loosing demons, spirits, or the human mind, will, and emotions?

 

In order to best answer this question let us look back and see if there are any Hebraic roots we may uncover in order to shed some light on the subject. If we are able to find some ancient Hebraic roots connected to these phrases then we may begin to lay a sure foundation from which to build.

 

Not surprisingly, the phrase “to bind and to loose” is recorded as one of the most common phrases found in Judaism (Pharisees) the time of Jesus. This phrase is not a new phrase but a very old phrase that can be found recorded in the Jewish Talmud.

 

Bind and Loose are common Jewish phrases that meant a declaration of what is/was lawful or unlawful. A Rabbi would use it to forbid or permit an activity  according to their interpretation of the law. This was a rabbinic way of establishing “halakah” or rules of conduct.

 

The Jewish Encyclopedia states:

 

“BINDING AND LOOSING (Hebrew, asar ve-hittir) . . . Rabbinical term for ‘forbidding and permitting.’ . . . “The power of binding and loosing as always  claimed by the Pharisees. Under Queen Alexandra the Pharisees, says Josephus (Wars of the Jews 1:5:2), ‘became the administrators of all public affairs so as to be empowered to banish and readmit whom they pleased, as well as to loose and to bind.’ . . . The various schools had the power ‘to bind and to loose’; that is, to forbid and to permit (Talmud: Chagigah 3b); and they could also bind any day by declaring it a fast-day ( . . . Talmud: Ta’anit  12a . . .). This power and authority, vested in the rabbinical body of each age of the Sanhedrin, received its ratification and final sanction from the  celestial court of justice (Sifra, Emor, 9; Talmud: Makkot 23b).”

 

A. T. Robertson, wrote about binding and loosing: “To ‘bind’ (dêsêis) in rabbinical language is to forbid; to ‘loose’ (lusêis) is to permit” [emphasis ours].

 

 [1] Adam Clarke, agrees with Robertson, and writes:

It is as plain as the sun, by what occurs in numberless places dispersed throughout the Mishna, and from thence commonly used by the later rabbins [rabbis]

when they treat of ritual subjects, that binding signified, and was commonly understood by the Jews at that time to be, a declaration that any thing was

unlawful to be done; and loosing signified, on the contrary, a declaration that any thing may be lawfully done. Our Savior spoke to his disciples in a

 language which they understood…. [2]

 

The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament adds: “‘Bind’ and ‘loose’ are technical terms in Judaism…with respect to teaching, the phrase is used for  authoritative exposition of the law by an authorized, ordained rabbi, who has authority ‘to forbid and to permit.’ ” [3]

 

John Lightfoot wrote five pages on binding and loosing in his New Testament commentary on Matthew. He writes:

to bind and loose, a very usual phrase in the Jewish schools, was spoken of things, not of persons…. One might produce thousands of examples out of their writings….the reader sees abundantly enough both the frequency and common use of this phrase, and the sense of it also; namely, first, that it is used  in doctrine, and in judgments, concerning things allowed or not allowed in the law. Secondly, that ‘to bind” is the same with to forbid, or to declare forbidden.

To think that Christ, when he used the common phrase was not understood by his hearers in the common and vulgar sense, shall I call it a matter of laughter or of madness? …Hence they [the Apostles] bound, that is, forbade, circumcision to the believers… They loosed, that is, allowed, purification to Paul and to four other brethren for the shunning of a scandal, (Acts 21:24). [4]

 

“Binding” and “loosing” were commonplace phrases in the Jewish schools and referred to things and not persons. In order to familiarize the reader with the idiom of Christ’s day, a number of specific expressions from the Talmud are here quoted:

 

The school of Shammai saith: “They do not steep ink, colors and vetches  (on the eve of the Sabbath) unless they be steeped before the day be ended.” 

But the school of Hillel looseth it.

 

In respect of the Sabbath: “. . . once the fuel has been extinguished, the school of Shammai bindeth putting (foods) back on the stove, the school of

Hillel looseth it . . .”

 

“Rabbi Juda looseth the moving of a new candelabrum and bindeth placement of an old one (which has already been used).”

 

From a Hebraic standpoint the use of the phrase “to bind and to loose” pertained to doctrine and judgments concerning things allowed or prohibited by law.

 

From the many examples of “bind” and “loose” in the Jewish writings, we can see that they referred to “forbidding” or “permitting” something, and they were used of things, such as rules and regulations, not of people, devils, or geographic princes.

 

“Binding” (forbidding) and “loosing” (permitting) were necessary because the Law of Moses could not contain all the regulations necessary to govern a congregation. Therefore, the Rabbis were required to “bind” and “loose” activities in the congregation that were not specifically included in the Law of Moses. This was true in Jesus’ day, and is still true today.

 

For example, God forbid work on the Sabbath. However, there were not a lot of details given by God as to exactly what ‘work’ entailed. The Rabbis were called upon to declare what an individual was and was not permitted to do on the Sabbath. The Rabbis in fact “bound” (prohibited) certain activities, while “loosing” (permitting) other activities.

 

Most churches have rules and regulations, things forbidden and things allowed, that are not specifically written or detailed in the Bible. However, principles are taken from the Bible and applied. Godly leaders set leadership standards in such a manner. Leaders “bind,” forbid, specific immodest clothing to be worn by their leaders based on the general Law of Scripture that people dress modestly. Or, alcohol might be “bound,” forbidden, on church property and in the lives its leaders based on the general Biblical rule to be sober.

 

The Jewish faith in Jesus’ time was no different than our modern churches, and the leaders imposed many rules and regulations that were not specifically written in the Torah,  which is the first five books of the Old Testament [Genesis through Deuteronomy]. I suppose one difference is that our modern churches rarely if ever, look to the Torah for guidance as most view it as nothing more than a good source of sermon material.

 

Although the Hebrew word “torah” has been translated into English as “law,” that is not its actual meaning. What it really means is “instruction” or “teaching”.  

 

As a side note the Hebrew root word from which the word Torah comes from is Yarah which means “to flow as water (that is, to rain)”. Does that sound like something Jesus came to set us free from?   

 

The Brown-driver Briggs Hebrew Lexicon [5] gives the first definition of torah as “instruction,” and the second definition as “law (properly, direction).” The point of the Torah (Instruction) is to give specific rules and examples that can then be used as the basis for general instruction about life.

 

One example of this is when it comes to building buildings, the Torah states that a person who builds a house has to put a railing around the flat roof so the  people do not fall off (Deuteronomy. 22:8). The Torah cannot list every possible building regulation, but it can show by a clear example that houses should  be built in a manner that is safe for the occupants and visitors. Thus, the “Book of Instruction” (Torah)  teaches the general principle that people must build safe buildings by using a specific example.

 

Some of the Rabbinic interpretations seem correct, while others seem incorrect. For example, the Torah said not to work on the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8-11), but it never defined which activities are work, so the rabbis had to make judgments about it.

 

For example, the rabbis decided that healing on the Sabbath was “work,” and they “bound,” that too. Thus, when Jesus healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said, “…There are six days for work, so come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath” (Luke 13:14). Even though the Mishnah is explicit on this regard, "Any case in which there is a possibility that life is in danger, thrust aside the Sabbath law." [6]   Jesus ignored that interpretation of the Torah, and called the religious leaders “hypocrites.” Notice that Jesus did not say that the leaders were wrong for trying to apply general teaching of the Torah to specific situations not mentioned by Moses; he said their interpretation about healing was wrong.

 

Once we realize that “binding” and “loosing” were common terms for “forbidding” and “permitting,” it becomes clear that there are many things every leader must forbid or allow. And for that matter every parent must navigate the waters of forbidding and allowing.

 

We find the Rabbinical writings full of many examples of binding and loosing. After all, the Rabbis bound and loosed all sorts of things that are mentioned  in the Gospels, including “binding” people from eating with unwashed hands (Mark 7:3), or from picking grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1 and 2). Meanwhile, they “loosed” a person from having to support his parents (Matthew 15:3-6), and “loosed” the greedy gain going on in the Temple. (John 2:13-16).

 

Surprisingly we see very little reference to binding and loosing in the New Testament writings. The fact that “bind” and “loose” were common terms for  “forbid” and “permit” explains why Jesus used them in different contexts. In Matthew 16:19, Jesus spoke of binding and loosing in the context of being a spiritual leader over people, because leaders constantly have to make decisions that affect people’s lives. In Matthew 18:18, Jesus spoke of binding and loosing in the context of forgiving someone who has sinned against you but will not admit it.

 

Today the terms “bind” and “loose” have been associated with spiritual warfare, the binding of demons and the loosing of a host of other spiritual matters. Some even bind and loose their mind, will, and emotions.

 

While we clearly have been delegated the authority over demons, (casting them out) at no time in the New Testament (and the Old Testament for that matter) does Jesus or any of the other Apostles “bind” or loose” a demon.  

 

We must remember the cultural context of binding and loosing and that it was never used on people or demons but rather referred to things. “whatsoever”

 

 

1. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1930), p. 134; comment on Matthew 16:19.

2. Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary (Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, New York), Vol. 5, p. 184, note on Matthew 18:18.

3. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1990), p. 293.

4. John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica: Vol. 2, Matthew -1 Corinthians (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, originally 1859,

    reprinted 1979), pp. 236-241; notes on Matthew 16:19.

5. Brown, Francis, with the cooperation of S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, Sixth

    Reprinting 2001).

6. Mishnah, Yoma 8, 6; Tosefta, Shabbat 15, 16; I. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 1967,  p. 129f., argues that Christ's view of the Sabbath is basically similar to that of the Pharisees, especially on respect for life. C.G. Montefiore, Rabbinical Literature and Gospel Teachings, 1930, p. 243, rightly retorts that "the words of Jesus go further than the saving of life...in Matthew we find nothing but to do good. that would have been much too wide an extension or application of the Rabbinic principle for the Rabbis to have accepted."

HEBREW ROOTS