1. Beginning with the second of these pasages, which is first in order of time,
and appears to contain the larger promise, we are thrown back by it upon a still
earlier declaration closely akin to it., viz. Matt 16,19.
The promise to St. Peter turns upon two metaphors. As a faithful and
wise steward the Apostle is entrusted with the keys of the kingdom of
Heaven. It would be natural to expext that the gift of the keys would be followed
by such words as, Thou shalt open and none shall shut, and shut and none
shall open (cf. Isa 22,22; Apoc 3,7). But instead
of this Christ passes to antoher metaphor that of binding and loosing:
Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth. &c.
In Matt. 18,18, when the promise is given not to an individual officer of the
Church, but to its members generally, the gift of the key disappears, but the
power of binding and loosing is bestowed as before.
To bind and to loose is a well known Rabbinical formula, meaning prohibit and
to permit. It is used in connexion with the judgments pronounced upon questions
of religion and morality by individual Scribes or by great schools of Rabbinical
It is noteworthy that in both the contexts in St. Matthew's Gospel where the
phrase occurs, the Ecclesia is mentioned, and that these are the
only two contexts in the Gospels where the word occurs. Our Lord, it appears,
is committing to His Chuch, the new Israel, the office which was claimed by
the synagogue of acting as arbiter and judge in all questions of religious truth
and error, right and wrong. The Church is to exercise on earth a judicial authority
in spiritual things, which so far as she is true to Christ and guided by His
Spirit, will be ratified in Heaven. And the Church may exercise this authority
either in her corporate capacity or through duly qualified officers.
2. In John 22,22f it seems that we have a particular application of this power
specified, viz. that of passing judgment in reference to the sins of men. To
forgive sins is one form of loosing (Job 42,9 lxx <note
1> Apoc 1,5 <note 2>; to
retain them is one form of binding. Authority to remit and retain sins was delivered
by the risen Lord to the Eleven and those that were with them (Luke
24,33), when He appeared to them in the evening of the first Easter Day. At
the same time He endowed them with power to use this authority rightly, by the
gift of the Holy Spirit. That gift was of course presupposed in the earlier
promises of Matt 16 and 18: it could now be actually bestowed, since the Sacrifice
and the Resurrection were accomplished facts.
Thus the Lord ended His ministry by delegating to His Church the authority
which at the beginning of the ministry He had claimed for Himself as the Son
of Man (Mark 2,10). In the Old Testament to forgive sins
is reserved for God in Heaven (1 Kings 8,39). But since
the Incarnation it has been exercised on earth in the instance by our
Lord as Man, in virtue of authority committed to Him by the Father; and, after
His resurrection and ascension, by the men who are members of His Body and partake
of His Spirit.
Like the wider authority to bind and loose, the forgiveness of sins is committed
to the Church collectively. But presumably it may be exercised, like the larger
power, by individual members of the Church who by official position or character,
or both, are qualified to speak in the name of the Christian Society.
Note 1: ἔλυσεν
τὴν ἁμαρτίαν αὐτοῖς
Note 2: τῷ … λύσαντι
ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν