Last weekend I preached a passage that I have preached as frequently as any I have preached in my ministry, Matthew 16:13-19. It is very familiar, and my guess is that anyone who has attended church for any length of time at all has heard a sermon from this text.
The great thing about the passage is that it is unusually rich in language and word play, giving the preacher multiple exegetical options and angles. One that I discovered in my study last week, thanks to Ben Witherington III, is the Semitism found in verse 19. The verse reads as follows,
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19, HCSB).
Typically, this is taken as Jesus’ authorization to declare his word of forgiveness to those who repent and enter into the Kingdom of God. In other words, when someone responds to the grace of Christ, we can authoritatively declare them as members of God’s kingdom, and if someone rejects the grace of Christ, we can declare them as outside of the Kingdom. That alone is pretty heady stuff. That’s the common take.
Witherington broadens this a bit, citing for his case the Semitism of “binding and loosing.” This would have been in reference to the Rabbinical teachers of the first century, who were viewed as having authority to bind law and loose law upon adherents to Judaism. If one broadens the length of the view, “binding and loosing” can extend beyond merely the ability to pronounce grace and forgiveness.
What I did with this, ultimately, was to juxtapose the Semitism over and against Jesus’ declaration that he “will build his Church,” and that it would prevail against ultimate evil, specifically death, the grave, and hell. One can take Jesus’ words and be confidently optimistic about the future impact of the church.
The limitation is in our willingness to bind and loose, or in more contemporary language, forbid and permit. Jesus set forth his plan and promise, unveiling the redemptive mission of the church. However, it would seem that heaven itself will not override our own disobedience to the mission, and the obstacles we place in the path of the mission, not least of which is our fallen insistence that the people who come into church must become like those in the church.
So I concluded by asking rhetorically, “What are you binding? What are you loosing? What are you forbidding? What are you permitting?” Anyone with access to Google can quickly discern that the state of the church in America is not trending positively. Mainline denominations and conservative evangelical denominations alike are routinely reporting declining numbers. If you take out the anomaly of the big box mega-churches, those numbers are even more grave.
How can that be, given Jesus’ optimistic outlook? Is the problem heaven? Shall we continue to blame the culture and the communities we serve? Or do we need to look in the mirror, and ask ourselves what we are “binding and loosing?”