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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Learning Context, Part 2, by Craig S. Keener

25. Church Discipline in Matthew 18:18

I used to follow a popular misinterpretation of this verse. As a young Christian, I used to use Matthew 18:18 to “bind” and “loose” demons when I would pray. Fortunately, God is more concerned with our faith than with our formulas, and graciously answered my prayers whether or not I threw any “binding” in. But one day I read Matthew 18:18 in context, and I realized that I had been misinterpreting the passage. Because my prayers had “worked,” I decided to keep “binding” and “loosing”—but now that I knew better, it did not work anymore, because my heart could no longer be right while doing it! Happily, I found that God still answered my prayers prayed in Jesus’ name without “binding.” What do “binding” and “loosing” mean in this context?

In the context, Jesus indicates that if one’s fellow-Christian is living a sinful lifestyle, one must confront that Christian; if he or she refuses to listen, one should bring others so one will have two or three witnesses if one must bring the matter before the church. If that person refuses to repent, despite repeated loving confrontations, the church must put that person out of the church to teach the person repentance (Matt. 18:15-17). In this context, Jesus declares that whatever they “bind” or “loose” on earth will have already been “bound” or “loosed” in heaven—i.e., under these circumstances, they clearly act on God’s authority (18:18). Because the terms “binding” and “loosing” literally have to do with imprisoning or releasing people, and Jewish teachers used these terms to describe their legal authority, the terms make good sense in this context: the church must discipline its erring members, removing them from participation in the church if they continue in unapologetic sin.

The “two or three” who pray in this context (18:19) refer to the two or three witnesses (18:16). I used to read this passage and worry that my prayers would be less efficacious if I could not find someone to join me in prayer. I did wonder, however, why my own faith would be insufficient. But this verse does not imply that prayer is effective only for a minimum of two persons. It promises that even if only two witnesses are available, and even if the prayers or actions on earth involve something as serious as withdrawing a person from the church, God will back up His servants whom He has authorized. Perhaps the specific prayer in mind is a prayer that God will bring the disfellowshiped person to repentance and restoration. If so, Jesus deliberately contrasts the attitude required of His followers with the two or three witnesses in the Old Testament law, who were to be the first to stone those against whom they testified (Deut. 17:7). Probably alluding to a Jewish saying circulating in the early centuries of this era—“Wherever two or three gather to study God’s law, His presence is among them”—Jesus assures His followers (specifically the witnesses) of His presence even in the difficult situation of church discipline (Matt 18:20).

Although we cannot take space here to comment further on the matter, this particular passage offers no support for the common practice of “binding” demons as it is done today. Whereas “binding demons” in the way it is generally practiced today has no warrant in this text, however, it does appear in some ancient magical texts, which makes this practice even more suspect.

 

26. Jesus’ Postresurrection Coming in John 14:3

Jesus tells His disciples, “In my Father’s house are many ‘dwelling-places’” (14:2; “mansions” comes from the Latin translation—it is not in the original Greek text). Jesus promises that He is going to prepare a place for His disciples, but will return and take them to be with Him where He is (John 14:2-3). Usually readers today assume that Jesus here refers to his future coming to take us to heaven or the new earth. If we had these verses by themselves, that view would make as much sense as any other; after all, Jesus often spoke of His second coming. But the context indicates that Jesus is speaking of an earlier coming here.

Peter wants to follow Jesus wherever He goes, but Jesus tells him that if he wants to follow Jesus where He is going, he must follow Him to the death (John 13:31-38). Nevertheless, Peter and the other disciples should not be afraid; they should trust in Jesus the same way they trusted in the Father (14:1). He would prepare a dwelling-place for them in His Father’s house, and would come back afterwards to receive them to Himself (14:2-3). “You know where I’m going and how I will get there,” He told them (14:4). Perhaps like us, the disciples were confused, and Thomas spoke for all of them: “Lord, we don’t even know where You’re going; how can we know the way You’re getting there?” (14:5) So Jesus clarifies His point: He is going to the Father (14:6), and He is going there by dying on the Cross but would return afterward to give them the Spirit (14:18-19; 16:18-22). How would they get to the Father? By coming through Jesus, who is the way (14:6).

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2003

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. sites.google.com/site/drckeener

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