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In Matthew 16 Jesus tells Peter that, as the rock on which his church will be built, he’d bind or loose things on earth.

Matthew 16:18-19 (KJV)

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

What would Peter bind or loose on earth? (And how would Peter do that?)

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Although it starts with a different passage, the answer given to this question offers quite a bit relevant to yours. –  Susan Jun 30 at 5:20
    
@Susan Thanks. Mike's answer you note does address a good amount of this; it includes some large differences with interpretations. –  John Martin Jun 30 at 22:44
    
@Susan I can see from within Mike's answer that some may say this gives Peter authority to forgive sins. At the same time, these 2 verses alone show he can keep some things bound; my thought is that he couldn't really keep sins "bound". Thanks. –  John Martin Jul 2 at 7:30

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Short answer: Jesus was referring to the authority Peter would have as an elder in making judgments regarding church discipline; he would be an emissary of the divine court, delivering verdicts that had already been determined in heaven.


Matthew 16:19 is an excellent example of why it is crucial to read the text in the original language prior to drawing doctrinal conclusions. This text uses a "future perfect tense" (periphrastic construction), which only occurs six times in the New Testament.1 At this point it would probably be helpful to explain a bit about "tenses" in Greek, and especially the "perfect" tense.

Primer on Greek Tenses

In English "tense" signifies time of action, like "present tense" or "past tense". Greek is very different. In Greek, tense primarily signifies aspect, which basically means kind of action. Now, in the indicative mood (which Matt. 16:19 uses) tense does also signify time, but aspect is always primary.2 (Bear with me.)

There are three aspects used in the Greek tense system: "undefined" / "punctiliar", "continuous", and "perfective."3 Leaving aside the question of time for a moment, let us consider each of these.

  • "I eat" would be considered "undefined" / "punctiliar" according to the Greek aspect system, as it is unclear whether you are saying something generic, noting reality at a single point in time, describing something continuous, etc.

  • "I am eating" would be considered "continuous", as it is clear that you are describing an ongoing reality

  • "You cannot speak to my dog, because I have eaten my dog" would be considered "perfective", because you are doing two things simultaneously: (A) noting something which occurred in the past (you ate your dog), and (B) emphasizing the important present impact of that past action (my dog is presently in the state of having been previously eaten, and thus at present he cannot be consulted.)

To restate this in a slightly different way, the perfective aspect is used to describe something that occurred in the past, but has important implications for the present reality -- relative to the time in focus. You might say "I had an encounter with God" (undefined), "I am being sanctified" (continuous) ... but you might use the perfective aspect to say something like "I have been saved by God Himself!" This would note a past experience, but emphasize your present reality in light of that past experience.

Adding Time: "Future Perfect Tense"

You might have caught my caviot in the prior paragraph that the perfective aspect emphasizes present implications relative to the time in focus. This is where it gets slightly complicated, but it's not impossible to understand if you take your time with it. You can describe a perfective action in the past, present, or future time (in the indicative), which plays out as follows:

  • "Pluperfect Tense" (Past Perfective): This would be like saying "When my friend visited me this time last year (in the past) I had already eaten my dog, so my friend could not speak to him."

  • "Perfect Tense" (Present Perfective): This would be like saying "I have eaten my dog, so you cannot (presently) speak to him."

  • "Future Perfect" Tense (Future Perfective): This would be like saying "If you come to my house this time next year, you will not be able to speak with my dog, because by that (future) time I will have already eaten him."

Grammatical Meaning of Matt. 16:19

What Jesus is saying to Peter is essentially that whatever Peter should "bind" or "loose" (future) will have already been bound / loosed in heaven.

Interpretation of Matthew 16:19

So is Jesus saying that Peter will have "special priest powers"? Not exactly. What He is saying is that Peter will be an effective emissary of heaven in judging cases. To say it another way, what has already been decreed in heaven will be what Peter will subsequently decree.

This is the language of the law court. . . . Jewish people believed that the authority of Heaven stood behind the earthly judges [elders] when they decided cases based on a correct understanding of God's law. . . . by obeying God's law, the earthly court simply ratified the decrees of the heavenly court. In Matthew 18:15-20, Christians who follow the careful procedures of verses 15-17 may be assured that they will act on the authority of God's court when they decide cases. . . . the church by disciplining the person simply recognizes the spiritual reality that is already true in God's sight. -Craig Keener4

Jesus' intention was to give Peter the kind of confidence in deciding cases within the Church that the Jewish elders had in deciding cases in Israel.


1. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek, p.235

2. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics, p.496

3. Mounce, 126-127, 223

4. Mounce, 122

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Help me understand. Are you saying this includes a priest's authority with Jesus present to forgive sins, counsel, etc. at confessions during the sacrament of Reconciliation? Thanks. –  John Martin Jul 2 at 7:26
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@Jas3.1 I am in agreement with this answer, I do believe that in can include the context of the forgiveness of sins(see John 20:23). In any case, he is doing what has been 'done'(in the eternal now) in heaven. –  user2479 Jul 2 at 13:05
    
@JohnMartin It is not the priest's authority that is in focus here, but rather, the assurance that Peter can have that he is going to be a faithful representative of God's (prior) decisions when judging matters within the church. It is intended to bolster his confidence. (Extend that how you will, to popes, priests, elders, or Christians... I was just focusing on the exegesis, not theology.) –  Jas 3.1 Jul 2 at 16:54
    
@Jas3.1 Ok. Thanks. –  John Martin Jul 2 at 19:01

What would Peter bind and loose?

Peter being an Apostle of the Lord, was endowed with the Priesthood of Jesus Christ. This Priesthood authority is not just Earthly, but it is Eternal. Acting by the direction of the Holy Spirit, blessings, ordinances, and other actions done in Earth were by the power of the Priesthood authoritative in "Heavens" as well.

In the administration of the Church and in It's ordinances, there is binding, such as covenants or Church law, and there is loosing such as reversal of those actions, or even the loosing of the bounds of death (baptism) if you like.

How?

By authority of the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, and in his name, by the direction of the Spirit.

Yes this answer is through a specific doctrinal lens, but I think that I have left it generic enough to be suitable, and to be representative of Christianity as a whole.

" Signets and seals have been used from early antiquity to certify authority. The word "seal" appears many times in the scriptures. Jesus Christ was "sealed" by God the Father (John 6:27), and Paul reminded ancient Saints that God had anointed and sealed them (2 Cor. 1:21-22) and told others they "were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest [assurance] of our inheritance until the redemption" (Eph. 1:13-14). John spoke of the servants of God being sealed in their foreheads (Rev. 7:3). In the apocryphal Acts of Thomas (verse 131), Thomas prayed that he and his wife and daughter "May receive the seal" and "become servants of the true God." Even today licenses, diplomas, legal documents, and the like bear seals that officially attest to their authenticity.1" -YARN, DAVID H., JR.

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Help me understand. Are you saying this includes a priest's authority with Jesus present to forgive sins, counsel, etc. at confessions during the sacrament of Reconciliation? Thanks. –  John Martin Jul 2 at 7:24
    
I can answer that binding and loosing with proper Priesthood authority on earth, includes the repentance process and other official Church functions. That process itself depends on denominational differences, in Catholic tradition that would include Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the tradition of my faith, it would be a different process, but one that requires 1. Priesthood Authority 2. The Priesthood Keys for this responsibility 3. Confession 4. Correctional action 5. Complete forsaking of the sin. –  lasersauce Jul 3 at 0:17

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